How do you solve a problem like Han Solo? This week, one of cinema’s most iconic characters rode into the Cannes Film Festival with the world premiere of Solo: A Star Wars Story. A spin-off from George Lucas’ sci-fi phenomenon, telling the younger days of the saga’s cocky flyboy, it’s the first time the character has been played without Harrison Ford.

Slipping into the proverbial cockpit is Alden Ehrenreich, the 28 year-old actor who made his own debut in Cannes back in 2009 with Francis Ford Coppola’s Tetro.

Ford graciously handed the baton over to Ehrenreich. “Yeah, he put the belt on me,” the Los Angeles-born actor drawls, in reference to one of Solo’s most famous garments. The two had lunch together before the production began. “It didn’t feel right not to meet with him before we started,” he says. “He was super-supportive and really gracious.” Ford has since seen the movie and given his blessing, which thrills Ehrenreich. “There’s the box of the whole world to check and the box of Harrison Ford and they’re of equal importance.”

There’s a palpable relief in Ehrenreich’s voice, as he sits in Cannes’ Carlton Hotel, dressed in black jeans and a lumberjack check shirt. The Cannes Film Festival is no stranger to Star Wars; George Lucas’ Episode III - Revenge of the Sith played here in 2005. But that was the end of an era, the last time Lucas directed a Star Wars movie before Disney bought Lucasfilm for $4 billion and re-launched the franchise. Solo follows 2016’s Rogue One as the second spin-off “story” and the spotlight is well and truly trained on Ehrenreich.

“He knew what he was going into,” comments co-star Donald Glover, who also had a tricky task, playing Solo’s old smuggler buddie Lando Calrissian, who first appeared in 1980’s The Empire Strikes Back, when he was played by Billy Dee Williams. “I thought it was brave [of him]…it reminded me of Heath Ledger and The Joker [in Christopher Nolan’s Batman movie The Dark Knight]. He didn’t take the bait of ‘Let me try and beat that.’ He was ‘Let me do this.’”

Set a good decade before the character meets Luke Skywalker, Solo shows him as a would-be pilot on his home planet of Corellia. At the film’s beginning, he’s yet to meet Lando, pilot the Millennium Falcon or even encounter his hairy Wookie cohort Chewbacca. He’s still a rascal and a chancer, but he’s less cynical than when we find him in the original 1977 Star Wars. “He’s more of an idealist,” says Ehrenreich. But partly through a new mentor seen in Solo – Woody Harrelson’s thief Tobias Beckett – that optimism gets eroded.

As big as the problem of replacing Ford was, an even bigger replacement was needed halfway through the shoot. The original directors Phil Lord and Christopher Miller (famed for their irreverent The Lego Movie) were let go, when it was felt material just wasn’t working. In came Ron Howard (The Da Vinci Code, A Beautiful Mind), for a rescue mission every bit as daring as Luke and Han saving Princess Leia from the Death Star. It “ran the gamut”, Howard says, from doing small pick-up shots to “re-conceiving” whole scenes. “I had very little prep time.”

Fortunately, Howard has long-standing relationships with both two key players, dating back to Lucas’ 1973 film American Graffiti, in which he starred with Ford. “George mostly just said, ‘Trust your instincts, I know you will be working fast but you’ll be fine.’ He reminded me to check in with the inner 12-year-old. That’s the great litmus test for these movies in his mind.” Howard also checked in with the famously reticent Ford, who has been living with the character for the past 40 years.

“I probed Harrison a little bit. Alden said Harrison was very gracious but he didn't really tell him very much. I said [to Ford], ‘He’s in the middle of this and he’s feeling stress and anxiety. He mentioned you didn’t really offer a lot. And Harrison said, ‘He’s a really talented young actor. I didn’t want to hamstring him and tell him how he ought to play it, that would be so intimidating.’” At that point Howard probed some more, asking for Ford’s thoughts on what he calls “the paradox of Han Solo”.

So what did Ford reveal? Howard grins from underneath his baseball cap. “I don’t want to go into it because Harrison said, ‘Please don’t quote me on this.’ He anticipated this circumstance. But the paradox of the character. There is always a push and a pull. There’s his bravado and his ability and courage but there’s also a difficulty with lack of confidence sometimes. Han Solo is the closest to an Earthling of any of those characters. More than Luke or Leia. He seems more like us in the way he gets himself in trouble, makes mistakes and bluffs his way through life.”

As for Ehrenreich, as the countdown begins to the world seeing his take on Han Solo, isn’t he a little worried? “You want me to be a nervous wreck?” he chuckles, exuding some of that Solo-like confidence. After six months of auditions and two-and-a-half years in total with the project, “You become familiar with the various pressures,” he shrugs. “It can become fun to ride the rocket.” Like the gambler that is Solo, Ehrenreich was ready to spin the wheel. “It’s more satisfying to either have a win or a loss.”

Solo: A Star Wars Story opens on May 24.