Robot lawn mover
Anthony Daniels didn’t want to meet a relatively unknown American movie director looking for someone to play a robot in a “low-budget, science fiction film.” He just wasn’t a fan of the genre, but his agent persisted, telling the aspiring actor “you never know what it could lead to.”
It’s a funny anecdote when you consider that the director was George Lucas, the sci-fi flick was Star Wars: A New Hope and the part Daniels was auditioning for was a “nervous, persnickety and uptight” human-cyborg relations protocol droid named C-3PO.
More than 40 years later, Daniels is the only actor to have appeared in all nine Star Wars movies — from 1977’s A New Hope to last year’s The Rise of Skywalker, released on DVD last month. Now 74, he chronicles his journey, from classically trained actor and mime in London to one of the most beloved characters in the history of filmmaking (alongside his wing man, R2-D2) in a new memoir, I Am C-3PO: The Inside Story.
The story about not wanting to audition is only one of the surprises that Daniels shares. Lucas actually tested 30 other actors to give voice to C-3PO after filming was complete, including actor Richard Dreyfuss, before being convinced by a voiceover pro that Daniel’s take of the droid worked best. And he re-creates (in our video interview) some of his favorite lines, calling out the scene in The Rise of Skywalker when he’s about to get his memory wiped.
“I also felt that this was the last movie and I was saying goodbye and taking one last look at the fans around the world, the people who have been part of the whole thing,” he says. “But I was also saying goodbye to myself, taking one last look at myself in this role.”
Daniels, speaking over video chat from his dining room in London last month, also shared stories about how long it took to get into his unforgiving metal costume and about his favorite Star Wars toy. Here’s an edited transcript of our Skype conversation.
Q: Let me start out by asking, are you safe and healthy?
Daniels: I am safe and, touch wood, I am healthy. I’m here in my home in England, in London. The dining room has now turned into a bit of a TV studio because it’s not that safe to go out and also it’s turned into a gym so that I can stay fit and healthy, just in case I need to get back into my robot suit.
That’s not in any way to make light of the virus situation, it really is serious. But Star Wars has been such a beloved refuge for many people over the years that literally being in a home refuge right now, it can be the thing that might comfort us.
And it is a sad coincidence, but a good one, that [The Rise of Skywalker DVD release] is here at this time. People are feeling a bit down, and frankly, a lot of us are feeling a bit down. Let’s not pretend this isn’t kind of a bad moment in our lives.
In your book, you reveal you almost didn’t go to the audition. Why?
It’s absolutely true. At the age of 24, I was so fed up with life — not being an actor — that I took myself to drama school for three years. [In the book] I talk about doing mime with a blank mask on [gestures to his face]. And so I left drama school and I was very lucky. I won an award to do the BBC radio drama repertory company for six months. After that, I joined a theater company in London. And I’d been doing stuff on TV and having great fun in the theater.
Then there’s an invitation. I thought it was from Hollywood, because in my imagination, all films came from Hollywood. And all people in films are kind of cigar-smoking, big guys. I assumed that this unknown American wanted to see me because I was physically quite neat and could control my body as a mime person might, something I’d learned at drama school. George Lucas was seeing a lot of actors in England because the original film, to many people’s surprise, was filmed about half an hour north of where I’m sitting in a place called Elstree Studios.
I’d spent three years of drama school, and I thought I was really quite a serious actor. [Laughs.] I was a bit snobby about it. Anyway, my agent said, “Go and see him. You never know what it could lead to.”
So I did. It wasn’t far away, to the 20th Century offices in London. And there was George. He wasn’t this Hollywood mogul with a cigar. He was tiny. He was shy. He was really nice. Really, really nice. And he was very tired because he was seeing so many actors. He’d had people walking in doing robot acting [moves arms stiffly]. He was trying to tell them “No, no, no, no. it’s not that kind of robot.” And so we talked and I wasn’t really that interested, but I was polite.
What convinced you?
I saw a very small rendition of a painting on the wall [of C-3PO] that changed my life. It was Ralph McQuarrie’s concept of how C-3PO might look in the film. I fell in love with the painting. It’s as simple as that.
I fell in love with the face — fell in love is an easy, but not quite the right word. I was entranced by the face. He had a forlorn quality. It was as though he was lost. He wanted to come and take my hand. There was something there that clicked.
Then the next day they sent the script. Boy, was that a tough read. I’d never actually read a script before. The one thing I really got was that this metal man was different. He was unique. I loved what George had written. I just read it, [Switching to C-3PO’s voice]: I had a very good feeling about this.
So the next day I went back, and eventually I understood that I could play the part. The next day, I was being covered in plaster at Elstree Studios. That was not a great experience.
One of the things that you wrote about is just how onerous and restrictive your costume was — 60-plus pounds, with no air conditioning, limited field of vision and limited mobility. Who was this character in your mind and how did that manifest itself in your movements and how you brought him to life on screen?
I had six months at Elstree Studios with the team making the costume — I would go three or four or five times a week to try on a piece of this or that. They were making it up as they went along, making molds. The plaster shop was really, really very clever.
They were working on materials — fiberglass, plastics and aluminum for the arms, because the rest was plastic. And they were testing it. And they really needed to test things on me because it was my body that was going to be wearing it. I used to stand there often reading the script because they’d be fiddling with some part of me and I couldn’t really get involved. I really developed a feeling for this character who was being blown about by events way beyond his ability to deal with. He was always put down. He was always ignored. He would give warnings and nobody would listen to him. Now, there are classical stories of this — Tiresias, Greek and Roman stories of somebody not being believed. A soothsayer.
He was also bewildered because of all his qualifications — translation is just one thing — he was programmed for protocol and etiquette. There’s not a lot of protocol and etiquette in a Star Wars movie, is there? Han Solo wouldn’t have any idea what those words meant. Neither would Jabba the Hutt, of course. But I did see him very, very clearly. And I think George and I may have talked that [C-3PO and R2-D2] were based on the two little farmers from The Hidden Fortress by Kurosawa. George was very open about that. Because they are the common man, they are the nobodies that most of us are on this planet. The nobodies being pushed around. And now we’re all being pushed around by something way bigger than us.
And so a lot of it clicked with me. And I loved the writing of the two characters, Artoo and Threepio, because the humanity, the unspoken, loving friendship — where they would poke fun at each other, needle each other, but basically adore each other as great companions, I love that.
And what a shock on the first day’s filming to find that the conversations, which I’ve been reading over and over again, actually went like this:
Threepio says this.
Artoo beeps a response.
Nobody in six months could ever bother to say, “Oh, by the way, that’s not gonna happen. You’re talking to yourself. Okay?” That was a real shock. It took me a couple of days to get over it, then I got over it and got on with it. I learned all the scenes, kind of imagining, writing in sometimes, what Artoo would say. Then when I saw the finished film, [sound engineer] Ben Burtt had added his beeps and burbles so magically that you, the audience, assumed that we had been there the whole time [we filmed it].
Many people can’t separate your voice from the role, but you share that you actually had to audition again for voicing your character. George Lucas even brought in other actors to try to voice you, including Richard Dreyfuss.
During filming, I had a little microphone and a wire that would go off of my head and connect down to a transmitter shoved in my pants at the back. But you couldn’t possibly use that . At the end of the day, they would ask me to stand, without the suit on, and do all of the lines again so’d they have a clean track — a guide track — to edit with. We finished filming after 12 weeks, I kind of had enough — it was a pretty uncomfortable experience in many, many ways. And I sort of had even forgotten about the whole thing, believe it or not.
And then I got a call to go to Hollywood for the first time and get to a studio. Before George Lucas walked in, the engineer said, “We tried 30 different people that put a voice on your character. Why? Because, you know, George really hates your performance.”
And I was so shocked. I didn’t even say hello to George when he walked in. I just said, “You hated my performance?”
And George said, “Well, I never thought of him as being a British butler.”
Well, he could have said something [earlier]. But he never said that, because George has always had a love for doing things in postproduction. And he assumed that you could take the physical element, the gold man being in the desert, and just put another voice on it. With Darth Vader, he had somebody in a suit and you had James Earl Jones magically [speak the lines].
So he had had all these actors in Hollywood, including Richard Dreyfuss. But here’s the magic thing: Threepio was and always is a single thread — my brain, my voice, my movements, my shape. It had to be like that and I’m so grateful it did.
This [gestures toward his “beloved” Lego version of C-3PO] is one of my favorite pieces of Star Wars stuff. I don’t have a copy of the suit here. I didn’t do lightsaber fights. This is the one reminder that I have been in these movies. It’s not just [C-3PO’s] voice. It’s his attitude and the way he emphasizes things, sometimes in a rather odd way.
What are your favorite lines from the movie? You mentioned a scene in which R2-D2 is playing chess against Chewbacca, and you say “Let the Wookiee win.” But you also call out an exchange with Han Solo in The Return of the Jedi. Can you tell us?
The thing about “Let the Wookiee win” is that the crew, all these big, tough guys, adopted it as a joshing phrase.
But for the scene with Han Solo, Han had been a bit rude to Threepio all the way through. So in the scene where Threepio is “some sort of god” — that was a sweet line to say — you get Harrison [Ford] saying, “Excuse me, your Highness or whatever.”
But then Han is hung over a cooking fire and he asks Threepio, “What are they saying?” And Threepio says [in C-3PO’s voice], “It appears, Captain Solo, that you are to be the main course at the banquet given in my honor.”
But later on, Han Solo is very rudely interrupting Threepio while he’s talking to his new best friend — an Ewok — and asking directions. Solo keeps interrupting him, and by the third time — and please look at this because this is purely mine — I managed to trick my shoulders in a way that allowed Threepio to give Han Solo a look of death for being so rude. And I personally love that bit.
But the real favorite line, I’m afraid, is, “We’re doomed.” It’s how Threepio sees himself, that he has no hope. We have hope, but Threepio is just so blown apart by things, physically and mentally, that he doesn’t know how anything works really. He just assumes that he will be sent to the spice mines of Kessel.
You write that his character is really an exaggeration of a human, that “somehow the audience enjoys human emotions coming from a creature that is not actually flesh and blood, and the fact that he has no sense of humor, he finds human behavior hard to understand, is key to some of his anxieties.” But you made him so relatable to people. After all, he is a man, as you say, in a metal suit, or not a man in a metal suit.
Yeah, he’s immensely vulnerable in spite of all his pomposity and knowing everything. He’s very vulnerable. He’s not afraid. He’s careful. But he also feels responsible for humans that he’s attached to. One of my favorite aspects of him, which I feel and put into him, is his loyalty to his friends. And one of the joys of The Rise of Skywalker is that line about friends.
What are your thoughts about your co-workers?
The first person I met at the studio was Mark Hamill. I’d never met anyone like him. He was so full of life, so full of California joy, very un-British. And maybe that’s why it works so well out in the desert — there was a very clear relationship from the moment Skywalker meets C-3PO.
I don’t think many people realize that if you’re playing a character — for instance, if I was playing a king, I’d stand up straight and wear the crown — but part of that role is played by everybody else who treats you like a king. Part of C-3PO’s humanity came from Mark Hamill’s innocent, beautiful blond-haired face. He just spoke to Threepio totally normally. “You’re like you’re a real guy. You can follow me.”
He made it look all so easy. Because in these films we all got used to working with weird things, sea creatures and things that aren’t even there sometimes. We were all pretending or improvising.
Mark was particularly good. And Sir Alec Guinness was there, as well. I absolutely love the man.
We came back to England and there are two more Americans: Harrison and Carrie [Fisher]. I’d never heard of them. They were such pros. They clearly knew what to do in front of a camera.
So in The Rise of Skywalker, C-3PO has a moment where we think he’s not going to return after having his memories wiped. It’s one of the most poignant lines in the movie: “Taking one last look at my friends.” Sorry, spoiler alert. What did you think of that scene and how it played out?
It played out exactly as I planned it — the timing.
“Taking one last look, sir, at my friends.” Whoo… it gives me goosebumps every time. It was so touching. I knew that we were not talking about my death. I knew we were talking about a mindwipe that would eventually be corrected. But here’s the thing that I’ve come to believe now: As I said it, I knew that Threepio was talking to the friends of Poe, Finn, Rey and BB-8. But I also felt that this was the last movie and I was saying goodbye and taking one last look at the fans around the world, the people who have been part of the whole thing. And that was quite moving. And then I’ve come to realize, I was quite upset — not in a bad way, but I was also saying goodbye to myself, taking one last look at myself in this role.
Where is C-3PO now in your mind in the world of Star Wars? What is he off doing?
That’s kind of an interesting question. I’ve always said that Star Wars is my job and really did become my job in so many different ways, not just the films. I tend not to think in those terms unless I’m directly relating it to a piece of work because I’m not a fan of such.
What I do get is the energy and the love, just everything from fans around the world. I’ve been in their company either digitally, or at live events such as celebrations or concerts, where I’ve so felt their warmth. I don’t think Star Wars every day, to be honest, but I’m thrilled that a lot of people do. And I’ve said recently that in these tough times, thank goodness for the digital media. Star Wars fans can now absorb it through the Blu-ray, through the documentary, they can absorb stuff and then they can argue for the rest of their lives on the internet about who shot him first, should Rey have done this or that. There’s an opinion to be argued about. But here’s a little addendum to that: To be argued about nicely. Don’t get vicious or unkind, because right now we need human kindness. So you might have an opinion, but be nice about it.
What are you currently obsessed with? That’s the name of this podcast. We want to know what you’re obsessed with. If it’s not Star Wars, then what?
Well, obsession — you gotta be careful with obsessions. They can take you many places you don’t really need to go. I don’t have an obsession. … I’m not obsessed. I like a bunch of stuff. I’m a regular human being. I don’t collect things. Because the funny thing is. as you get older, you don’t want stuff, you want space.
On the other hand, I know that Star Wars fans love having something from the movie, a lightsaber, because that extends the experience and allows you to pretend to be part of it all. But as far as obsessions, sorry, I’m gonna say no.