Many years ago now, I spent some hours talking to ace reporter Kevin Stevens. He’d been asked by The Star Wars Insider Magazine to interview me. A tough assignment, as you will see! – AD
What would Anthony Daniels do if the phone in his London home rang and a voice at the other end said, “Anthony, we’re making the new Star Wars films and we want you to be involved”?
“Well, I’d have to think about losing some weight,” he says, looking concerned.
Talking with Daniels, the actor who has played the golden-burnished droid, C-3PO, throughout the Star Wars saga, one often gets the sense that his robotic doppelganger is in the room, listening silently in a corner but now and again bursting animatedly and enthusiastically into the conversation.
“Sometimes at a dinner party, ” Daniels laughs, “I’ll say something in Threepio’s voice – quite inadvertently – and everybody just falls about with laughter. It’s as though I’m momentarily possessed by him. But when people demand, ‘Do the voice. Do the voice.’ I usually refuse! I’m mean that way!”
For many fans Threepio and Daniels are indivisible, in spite of Lucasfilm’s original insistence that the character was all machine. They were concerned that if the facts were revealed, it might spoil the droid’s screen credibility. Eventually they discovered that the fans could still believe in and enjoy the character, in spite of knowing there was a very hot actor inside. “Audiences are just as good at pretending as the actors are,” says Daniels. ” They just don’t get paid for doing it!”
Daniels, whose career has moved in some interesting direction since Return of the Jedi, still has the most cordial relationship with his alter ego. But whereas Threepio’s egocentric personality is part of his character’s charm, Daniels’ self-effacement is part of his.
“I’ve done plenty of bit parts. Some big bits and some a bit bittier than others,” he says of his acting career since the Star Wars saga ended in 1983. “Recently I did a very tiny bit in one of The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles, called Return Of the Hawkmen. It’s such a small part that they could cut it out and no one would ever know. But I was there in Prague with Ben Burtt and the crew, and I had such a good time.”
In reality, his career has moved from only being in front of the camera to interesting roles behind it as well; and from film and television work to special-effects-laden, interactive, live entertainment events.
“I’ve always been fascinated by lighting techniques and special effects and I picked up quite a few ideas, locked in the suit (Threepio) with nowhere else to go, while the SFX engineers created magic around me. Of course, being Threepio at the time, I couldn’t resist adding helpful suggestions, which usually got politely ignored but sometimes were so untechnical they’d been overlooked and were actually quite useful.”
“Working with Tom Fizgerald and all the Imagineers at Disney, with the Star Tours attraction, was a tremendous privilege and a crash course in SFX,” Daniels says. “It’s been a great help with what I’m doing now.”
Daniels describes the most recent of his FX shows, produced for conventions, museums and other commercial events, as an experience based on the five senses.
“Small groups of people are computer-sequenced through five very dark, magic chambers. With a computerised master control time-code, each chamber has various mechanical gizmos combined with laser discs reproducing audio and video to create some rather interesting FX. Beautiful images seem to float around the audience and disappear as they try to touch them.”
“One chamber is a completely black box. As magic sounds move around the audience, 14,000 tiny fibre optics, embedded in all the surfaces, sweep over and under them in a programmed sequence that drove the team to near madness during planning and production,” he laughs.
“In another chamber, surround-sound, a motion base and wrap-around computer animation make it seem that you’re inside a drinks can. A giant ring-pull rips from the ceiling and suddenly you’re on your way up and being poured into a huge glass. Just when you think you’re safe, a giant mouth moves towards you and – I won’t tell you were it ends.”
Daniels’ work also appears in The Volcano Experience in Singapore and in The London Dungeon, one of the capital’s top tourist attractions, “But fairly gruesome,” he admits. Beyond these productions Daniels has continued to be involved with the Star Wars saga through recording audio adaptations including two of the novels in Timothy Zahn’s series.
“They’re recorded over two days. The stories are packed with plots and action and the sentences tend to be very long. You have to read the scripts several times to know what’s coming next. The prep time is pretty torturous. The number of characters seems huge. Aghh!”
Daniels must be able to voice not only Threepio but also all the other myriad humans, aliens and droids in the novels.
“There’ll be lines of dialogue like, ‘Come in and sit down.’ You say it in a normal voice. Then you read on and find the character has seven eyes on writhing tentacles and violet slime oozing from her third-mouth-on-the-left. You realise, she wouldn’t really sound quite that middle class!”
“Voicing Han and Luke and Leia are just as difficult. English people always seem to find the American accent hard to copy. I probably do Leia best,” laughs Daniels.
“What you don’t hear are all the mistakes. The magic of the audio books – and the movies – lies with the editor who pieces it all together. Hearing the finished product I’ll think, ‘Gosh I’m awfully good’ and then recall what I actually sounded like in the studio.”
The process of creating a world of pure sound in the Star Wars audio books and radio series is often disorienting. “The process is actually more intense and condensed than filming. It’s a bizarre experience, because of the depth of the alien worlds you have been creating.When you leave the studio the people outside look like aliens too. Of course that could just be the people. London is becoming more like Hollywood Boulevard every day”
He fondly remembers the two Star Wars radio dramas created for National Public Radio, written by Brian Daley. “I hope we can doThe Return of the Jedi, just to finish the trilogy.” says Daniels. “Brian did such a magnificent job adapting the material. He really expanded the films.”
Daniels may do lots of voice work in many of the Star Wars productions but since his face never appears in any of the trilogy, he rarely gets stopped in the street.
“Privacy is great,” he laughs. “But it can be a mixed blessing. I was a guest speaker at a German convention. Security stopped me as I went in to give my presentation. I didn’t have a pass. That show started a little late.”
“That’s nothing to what happened when I was a participant at the Academy Awards. I got lost back stage, without the bodyguard they’d insisted on giving me, and Security wouldn’t believe this red-faced guy in a tux was the one they’d just watched in a gold suit on their TVs. They actually tried to arrest me for trespass. That could have been scary.”
“But occasionally it’s the opposite,” he says. “I was walking down a corridor in the TV Centre in Tokyo and some teenage girls, coming towards me, started screaming. They were like bobby-soxed cheerleaders – and rapidly losing control. I turned to see what they were so excited about. The corridor behind me was empty. Now that could have been really scary!”
Although there are drawbacks as well as benefits to his relative anonymity, Daniels usually enjoys his discreet status.
“But then I’m not the sort of person who says to people, ‘Do you know who I am?’ I think I tried it once. They’d never seen Star Wars and had no idea what I was talking about.”
“People say, ‘Don’t you wish you could have taken the mask off in the movies?’ But I knew what the part was before I accepted it. He was a robot. I didn’t expect it to be any different.”
But on the question of questions, what is the question Daniels gets asked the most? “Apart from ‘The Bathroom Question’? he asks. “Definitely, ”was it hot in the costume?’ And the answer is, ‘Yes and no’. It really depended on the situation. I was sometimes frozen in the desert scenes. The hot sunlight would bounce off the shiny costume and just give Mark a better suntan than he’d already got. But under the trees on Endor, there was a chilly, damp microclimate, so the crew kindly rigged-up lights, just to keep me warm.”
” When we shot Star Wars 1976, it was the hottest summer in English history and studio shots that replicated desert sunlight with huge lamps were really bad. But when I thought my back was actually smouldering, Brian Lofthouse, my wonderfully kind and patient propsperson-dresser-technician-friend-assistant, found that the battery-pack for the eyes was shorting-out and cooking me,” he laughs.
“The suit was made of various materials and developed and improved over the movies. It was mostly fibreglass which made everyone itch during R&D. The arms were aluminium and the feet, hands and head were plastic. The black piece in the middle was rubber with wires overlaid. Wires at the knees and elbows were screen painted onto cloth patches and sewn on to my undergarments.”
“The manufacturing process began with a rather undignified bath in plaster as they took a mould of my body – rather like being buried alive. I enjoyed having my head done, though,” remembers Daniels. “I felt very safe and secure from the world as the plaster got thicker and the darkness, deeper. Thoughtfully, they’d given me a couple of straws to breathe through.”
“Using the resulting statue of me, the lovely and talented sculpter, Liz Moore, created most of the design by adding modelling clay to the surface of the figure. The most magical piece, I think, is Threepio’s face. It is blank enough not to intrude its own personality but detailed enough to provide me with the most expressive mask that can appear to change expression, although it is quite solid. But prep time ran out, so on the first day’s shooting in the desert, I had to ask someone to take a Polaroid picture and hold it up in front of my eyes where I could see what I – rather, Threepio – looked like. Amazing!”
“It will always been a sadness to me that Liz never saw her Threepio come alive on the screen. She was died in a car crash.”
“Though moulded to my shape, the complicated manufacturing processes couldn’t make the suit easy to put on or to wear. There wasn’t really room for me inside, let alone a cooling system that was always promised, and finding somewhere to put the radio transmitter was a delicate task. I won’t say where it ended up!” laughs Daniels. “During the first few days it would take half an hour just to line-up the three screws that kept the two parts of the head together. You can imagine what it felt, and sounded like, for me. It was just like being inside Rubic cube with people on the outside arguing over the instructions. And it seemed as though it was my fault that Threepio took so long to construct each time.”
People often ask Daniels how he sees from inside Threepio.
“Through the centre of the plastic lenses I could see very long distances straight ahead, in a tunnel that got narrower, the nearer the object. I could hardly ever see R2 because he was below my eye level. I just had to rehearse everything very carefully and hope nothing got moved before we shot. Sadly, one of the Ewoks didn’t realise the danger of moving around beside me – such a mess – but we had a spare one, so it was all right!” he laughs.
“Apart from the pinching and chafing it caused on the inside, the suit restricted the gestures I could make on the outside. So I tried to do the best with what was available to me – head and body attitude – that sort of thing. Thankfully my mime training at drama college had been pretty good. It did work sometimes, I think, especially when Threepio is sad or afraid, or cross – like with Han in the Ewok storytelling scene.”
Sitting down and getting up were impossible in the costume, so Daniels would take his position and fake bits of gold suit were cut and taped around his legs, to make the costume look complete. Any transitional movements were implied as the camera looked somewhere else in the scene and cut back to Threepio in his new position. “Editing, as I say, is always a great help.”
“Two of the dangerous things for me were stairs and running. I couldn’t climb stairs at all and I could only come down by counting them carefully, then staring straight ahead, concentrating hard, leaning forward and going into free-fall, rapidly counting again as my instep hit each edge, till I hoped I’d hit ground. Terror concentrates the mind! Watch me in the start of the Cantina scene.Pure concentration!”
“Running, on the other hand, had its own problems, since there was nowhere inside the suit’s torso for my chest to expand. If I got out of breath, it was almost impossible to take a big one to replace it. The worst time was when we were rehearsing a big stage presentation for the ABC Television Affiliates in a New York theatre, to publicise Droids. The director asked me to run down the aisle to the stage. I arrived but found I couldn’t breathe.”
“Triple-locked inside the suit, making desperate ‘Help!’ gestures towards the people admiring my hilarious characterisation, I felt I was drowning. Talk about mind over matter – as my life flashed before me, I must have used something akin to The Force and got back my self control and my breath. Later, in the performance, Threepio walked down the aisle, very carefully. But of course, robots don’t breathe, anyway.”
Daniels looks forward to seeing the computer-generated magic that George Lucas will cook up for the announced Special Edition in 1997.
“I believe,” says Daniels ” that George always wanted to re-edit Star Wars.I think the film is a work of art that shouldn’t be tampered with but if it’s the artist himself doing the fiddling, then I guess its okay.”
The release of the Special Edition on the 20th anniversary of the first film conjured up lots of memories for Daniels.
“When I first met George, I was a serious actor and I didn’t want to be a robot. But once you meet him you want to spend more time with him. Then I fell in love with the look of the character when I saw his portrait painted by Ralph McQuarrie.”
“We spent several months creating the costume around my body – although people are often surprised to find that I was actually inside the suit and not just the voice. While that was going on, I was studying each new draft of the script. It seemed that Threepio had a fairly complete character. Eventually he took on his own life, almost without me meaning for it to happen.”
George Lucas was initially uncertain about using Daniels vocal portrayal of the character, which didn’t fit with his original idea.
“I have to admire George’s generosity and open-mindedness in eventually keeping what I gave him for Threepio. In spite of everyone saying it was okay, he could still have said, ‘Well, I want a different voice anyway!’ It was his film, after all.”
“People say that they could never see Threepio as anything other than the neurotic, terror laden personality I helped create. But if they’d been presented with a heavy-metal-punk-machine and someone else said, ‘Let’s make him neurotic and terror laden,’ the idea would have been booed down. We tend to like what we already know. But a lot of Threepio’s character was in the writing. And in the situations he encountered. ”
“And – in spite of everything – I can’t help being fond of R2 – neither can Threepio.”
The little robot was totally silent throughout filming, so to develop Threepio’s relationship with his astro-droid companion, Daniels would actually write out lines of dialogue for the silent R2 unit – approximations of the imaginary conversations. Whilst this helped him to memorise his scenes, he felt quite lonely talking to himself for most of the time. He was enchanted to see the final results of his scenes with Artoo, punctuated with Ben Burtt’s language for the little droid.
“You’d never guess that all those expressive noises weren’t there as we were shooting but the reality was quite different. Artoo was about as entertaining and companionable as a mobile water cooler – an empty one! ”
Daniels recalls one of the most difficult scenes for him in the trilogy – his retelling of their adventures to the Ewok tribe gathered around him in Return of the Jedi. Most of the magic of that scene was created by Daniels, with his mime skills.
“I was asked to come in the next day prepared to mime the story of Star Wars, Empire and Jedi up to that point. I got home, pushed the furniture aside and started working on ideas. But rehearsing on set with Harrison Ford staring sardonically at you while you’re saying, ‘Teekolo carbon’ and ‘Gooboo sarlacc,’ can be a bit embarrassing.
Threepio was an ideal character to describe the adventures of Luke Skywalker to the Ewoks, not only because of his facility with languages, but because of the character’s unique perspective on the events.
“He is aware of every nuance of fear and danger. He exhibits all the fright we would show if we hadn’t been taught to be grown-ups. Everyone can relate to him and he becomes the conduit into the story. He’s dragged into the adventure, right along with the audience.”
And it’s all been an adventure for Daniels.
“Sometimes I think that having my footprints outside Mann’s Theatre in Hollywood or being in the Smithsonian or being a breakfast cereal proves I’ve entered the vocabulary of pop culture. But there’s one very special memento of my participation in Star Wars that has pride of place in my home.”
“It’s a Trivial Pursuit card. I had it beautifully mounted and grandly framed. It says ‘What part did Anthony Daniels play inStar Wars?’ It’s hanging in a toilet.”
“To actually be an official piece of trivia, is quite something, isn’t it?