For decades, Anthony Daniels has been hidden by a golden mask, a globally recognized droid with an instantly recognizable voice that’s played by a man few would notice walking down the street. As the man and voice behind the beloved Star Wars character C-3P0, he’s helped usher audiences into this vast space saga like no other performer. At the outset of the release of Star Wars the human contribution made by Daniels was downplayed, with early marketing efforts avoiding how such an indelibly neurotic character was brought to life. After struggling to come to terms with both the massive success as well as his connection to this iconic automaton, Daniels is finally in a space to tell his tale, rivets and all.
His new book, I Am C-3P0: The Inside Story, is a briskly told tale of a young stage actor who found the role of a lifetime, a man who struggled at first to make sense of just how he could navigate the success and anonymity of what brought his creation global attention. The film provides some fascinating insights, and is told with a droll, eminently British dry wit that’s indicative of the man. Like his costume, some of the more burnished moments are matched with events that are tarnished, yet throughout the telling there’s a sense of both gratitude and bemused amazement for what the last four decades have brought this soft-spoken, intelligent performer.
With the calculated odds high that The Rise Of Skywalker promises an even more integral role for Threepio, a capper for a saga that began with lines of dialogue spoken in wonderfully neurotic fashion from that iconic auriferous visage, making this a perfect time to reflect upon this remarkable journey that has shaped generations.
/Film spoke to Daniels while he was in Toronto for the launch of his book.
Your most celebrated character is an expert in human/cyborg relations, while in many ways you have spent the last few years engaged in human/fan relations. You have very much brought us into your world with a certain sense of invitation that not all of your fellow cast members had. Could you talk about your reaction to those whose reaction to Star Wars might have been different than your own when you originally saw the film, whose lives have been changed by what you did?
It’s only in recent years that I’ve come to know that. It sounds naive and it sounds like I’m making this up, but it’s only been really since this enormous chance with the Star Wars in concert – the big tour, a thousands of people every night – that I’ve really began to feel the energy. As a stage actor and performer you do feel that, but it’s hard to quantify energy from a big audience, especially the deep silences, when you say something and suddenly everything stops. That keyed me into the fact that they had all had a different experience from mine seeing the films. In some ways I cut myself off in the early days. When I was cut off I thought I wasn’t going to care either then. That’s a real shame and one can never really revisit that time, but one can correct it later on with perspective and maybe that’s what I’ve done. I’ve come now to realize just how important the fans have been – not in a silly way, but people who genuinely enjoyed George Lucas’s story and enjoyed my part in its playing. It’s a kind of comfort to know that now. I wish I’d spotted it earlier. But I’m interested you say that I’ve helped draw people in.
I’m thinking about your “Wonder Column” in Star Wars Insider. Your role in Star Wars brings out sycophancy, it brings out people who see in these stories themselves with their own heroic journeys, but not always with an adult sense of distance. You brought a sardonic nature to the telling – after all, you worked with Tom Stoppard! You gave Star Wars production lore a notion of that one can be slightly ironic about it but still respectful of it tonally. And your book very much follows the same tone.
I could not have formulated what you’ve just said, but you’ve absolutely got what I was trying to do. I was trying to speak as an adult ironically, figuring out, elaborating, but respecting. I don’t think enough irony is taught, certainly in the States.
It’s been said a major difference between the U.S. and Canada is our long embrace of British-style irony.
I was on a television show which shall not be named and the producer the night before said, oh, one thing, don’t use irony because nobody in the audience will understand what you’re talking about. It was a great lesson. I speak ironically most of the time and you see people kind of go cross-eyed and go, is he being rude? No, I’m being ironic. It’s meant to be funny. Deal with it.
I don’t want to be the person to chastise a book for what it doesn’t include, but there are ghosts in your book. There are certain things that are discussed and then talked around. I just want to go into a couple of them. You mention the Kenny Baker dynamic, and that was I think very respectfully and very eloquently put. But there are two names that didn’t appear in the book, and I wanted to get your reaction. One is the prequel producer Rick McCallum, and one is David Prowse who wore the Darth Vader Costume. I’m wondering if you have any reactions when I give you those names.
No. Should I?
Well, you talk in depth about your experiences, your challenging experiences on Episodes I, II, and III, and the public face for a lot of fans at the time was Rick McCallum. David Prowse, meanwhile, is the antithesis of what you went through. He is “just” the person in the suit who had his voice taken away and for years took it extremely badly. There were reports he was very hostile and very disrespectful to those who became fans, but then became a slightly sadder character in the sense that he goes to conventions and tries to draw out attention. In some ways did the opposite. Your kept your voice, as it were, and became more inexorably linked to the character. You stepped away from it, but we saw you when you invited us in to go along for your journey. I think that your stories are in some ways mirrored. His is in some ways a much more tragic story, from his perspective, because he felt the lack of respect and I think you recognize the respect that we give you.
I just hope you’re going to be able to copy your words on to paper because they’re beautifully eloquent. I probably wouldn’t add anything to that.
Prowse was a different thing – he was not a trained stage actor, he was a guy who fit the suit.
I guess. I hadn’t really thought about it in that way, but you did describe the situation.
What are your memories of Peter Mayhew?
Just lovely. He brought a warmth to this big furry suit, yeah. We had some laughs, especially when we were roped together in Cloud City.
I guess what I’m saying in an indelicate way, is that these were characters that were costumes, and C-3PO was not. C-3PO has the first line of dialogue in the saga, and it’s your voice we hear.
That’s just happenstance, isn’t it?
We are invited into this world thanks to your character, in the same way as the peasants in Hidden Fortress.
It’s a classic trope of literature, and it’s not the only time that the common man theme has been used. And yes, it was George who put in [switches to droid cadence] “Did you hear that? They shut down the main reactor. We’ll be destroyed for sure.”
Some of your impatience with the film was that people saw you as merely a prop – hence the “3P0 is human” matchbooks you gave out to the crew. But what I’m getting at, in a roundabout way, is that C-3PO is a fundamentally different character than even Kenny Baker waddling in R2, or the other costumed characters. You are wearing a mask, essentially, yet your performance as a droid always is evocative of your humanity and performance.
I don’t really talk about the other characters. That’s for them to tell their story. I was asked to do this book, to talk about feelings that I’ve never talked about. My aim was not in this book to trash anybody or to be sensational. You talk about ghosts, and, yeah, there’s probably things I might have said that I’ve taken out of the draft, that I didn’t need to say that.
Let’s go back a bit – It’s the mid-70s, you’re on stage in London, doing Rosencrantz and Guildenstern…
It took maybe five years before I realized that Rosencrantz and Guildenstern were a paradigm for R2 and 3PO, which may have coloured my ability to play with a non-speaking partner.
…you get the call to be in this space opera by some weirdo beardo. Let’s say you turned down this costumed role. What is your life like?
I very much doubt that I would be in showbiz. Well, maybe I would be in the entertainment industry, but I think my acting talents were really aimed, not that I knew it, at being this mechanical creature. I’ve lost some of the subtleties that a different kind of actor needs to use. I watch performances when they’re in front of me. Oscar Isaac is just bewildering me with his gentle talent. I’m looking for where’s the on button – how does this work?! I don’t have it, I don’t have one of these buttons. Or I watch a film and think, how is this actor doing this? I lucked out. I got something that I fitted, or it fitted me, or whatever, it was made to fit me, literally, in places. I think probably I’d be in production rather than in front of the camera now. And I wouldn’t be unhappy with that. Actually, there’s a bit of me that kind of likes it. I was a crew briefly on Episode XIII and I really liked that. I felt so much part of a team and really kind of contributing to what other people were doing on the set.
Could you recount that story about working as crew on Rian’s film?
It was always adorable to be with Rian, but I worked under Pierre Bohanna, who’s head of costume effects on The Last Jedi. All of the Stormtrooper suits and the robot suits were his department. He asked if I would talk to five actors who were going to be dressed up as waiters in the casino scene. They were all wearing silly suits, and we had such fun, just talking about the mimetics of being a robot. They dressed up and we played with the props, and then Pierre asked if would I come and be, if you like, the assistant director of those people. They all had teams looking after them, but would I coordinate the performances. I had such pleasure! The only thing was it’s the biggest stage in Europe, the 007 stage, and I did several workouts a day running backwards and forwards from behind the camera to the guys, sorting them out, running back again, and being quite tense in case they bumped into things or fell. I was seeing my performance from the other side, and I knew the kind of tensions that I might be having way away from anybody that could help. They were terrific and we had great fun.
With the book I really got a sense of your own journey. My introduction to you was this sense of, here’s this classically trained actor that had a bit of frustration that your calling wasn’t followed, instead you did this, there’s a reticence. It’s like with George always talking about these experimental films that he’s going to go off and do now that he’s sold to Disney, and I’m like, we’re still waiting, Mr. Lucas! So you can after the fact say that inhabiting C-3P0 at the expense of a more anonymous life in theatre is what you wanted? It seems your lesson is that sometimes we end up where we’re supposed to be.
I’m not really somebody who believes in fate or the force or whatever, but coincidences do happen. Luck happens, bad luck happens, and you just hope the good stuff outweighs the other. I think in this case, that’s the truth. You think, don’t you? It’s a bad habit. I don’t meet many people who do. It’s not flattery, it’s appreciation.
It’s an occupational hazard.
You talk about transformational and foundational myths that we draw from, but at some point in time, they also serve as entertainment. You may be aware that Martin Scorsese has gotten into a little bit of trouble by chiding Marvel films as theme park rides. As somebody who’s lived in the world of blockbuster, but also came from a more traditional theatrical role, how do you square those two things?
I don’t think Star Wars is a blockbuster. I think there are blockbuster moments. With those aerial dogfights, I get so lost in who the good is and the bad is, but I do in WWII movies too, you know? But there is so much fairytale telling in Star Wars that they transcend blockbusters. Maybe box office wise they are, but they’re not like a Marvel film.
The supposed dialectic between cinema as entertainment vs. being art has long occupied fans of the medium.
There’s nothing wrong with being entertained, we thrive on it. Storytelling is about entertainment. The first thing is the story. Without that you basically have nothing. We all see films that don’t have a story. It has been quite complicated in the end as we come to The Rise of Skywalker to tie all of the pieces up neatly with a bow. I think JJ has done that, and huge kudos to him. Can you imagine what it’s like waking up and thinking, what am I doing today? Oh yes, Star Wars. Yet the films are meant to be entertainment, and as such I’m slightly troubled sometimes when people get too argumentative about it, too brutal in their criticisms.
There’s an increasing sense of ownership, with the expectation that being a fan means you get to dictate the story you are told
Yes, and maybe that view is being tutored by memories from way back. The involvement of the audience, the fans, is fundamental to these projects, whether it’s just the fact that you can afford to make another sequel, because they liked the ones before. For the people who criticized The Last Jedi it doesn’t mean that we can’t make a wonderful end. But I liked it, very much. I like Rogue One!
But people sometimes get a bit too adoptive of Star Wars, the ownership, you know? Part of that is a shame, but part of it shows how involved people have become, how they’ve given themselves to it. When they don’t quite get what they had imagined it to be, they feel like some kid opening at Christmas a book rather than a big toy.
I’ve seen people line up for a half a day to see you speak at events like Celebration. Was there ever anything you were so committed to? Would you ever queue for hours for someone you were a big fan of?
I don’t think so actually, if I was honest. It embarrasses me when you say people line up, because they do! That’s why often you see me going down the line, because I want to thank them for doing this. I wouldn’t be doing this – I stand in lines in airports and that’s bad enough! What I do like is maybe people in line get to know each other, and they make friends and things. It’s difficult saying any of this without sounding egotistical, so I’m going down the line saying hello like I’m the Pope. I’m not, but I just feel somebody should be looking after them. People ask how am I like Threepio, and I always talk about loyalty. But I also think that I do have an innate need to make people feel comfortable. I can’t help it!
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