After leaving theatre school in London I decided to remain in the UK for a year or so to get experience of the British stage. A year later I landed a role as James Caan’s bodyguard in Norman Jewison’s Sci-Fi film Rollerball. Though a small role I was needed for pretty well four months of filming in Munich and London and so I spent a lot of time on set simply watching and learning. In one sense it was like doing a post grad crash course in the techniques and subtleties of acting for the camera. I fell in love with film work, it’s technical demands and creative possibilities.
How did you get cast for Star Wars: A New Hope?
Of course it wasn’t A New Hope then, it was Star Wars, plain and simple. Or rather at first it was The Star Wars. Every North American actor of my generation working in London was interviewed for a role in this little, low budget Sci-Fi film. The sheer numbers George Lucas needed for this project meant that virtually anyone who could walk, talk and not bump into the furniture got the gig. George had a unique method of casting; he would score actors one to ten and assign roles. 4, 5 & 6’s might be fighter pilots. 2’s & 3’s might be Storm Troopers. If you looked particularly jaded you might get a 7 and wind up an Admiral. If your face was hidden by a tin can you might even get a second or third role. A lot of the people who couldn’t do the required walking and talking thing had a rubber bits or plastic hats stuck on their heads and given weird voices. Movies; what more can I say?
What do you recall of the filming of your scenes?
My lasting memory is of terror. This was my second picture. In the first I didn’t even have to talk never mind doing stuff while talking. This guy Lucas wanted me to scramble up a ladder and crawl into half a mocked up spacecraft made of cheesy wood and plastic that was balanced on a huge platform. Naturally I did as I was told, got settled into my seat. Then four large men at each corner of the platform removed the props that were holding it secure and they began to rock the thing back and forth and from side to side while a camera sat about eighteen inches from my face. I managed to babble through my lines and then they set off a large explosive charge behind me, scared six kind of shit out of me and let me go home. Later I was in the ‘briefing room’ scene and got to drool all over Carrie Fisher. That part was much more enjoyable. Did any strange, remarkable or funny things happen on the set? Can you share some memories?
The only thing that was remarkable was the manner in which we filmed this movie and as this was only my second outing I had no idea it was unusual. Filming Star Wars had moments of working on the assembly line at Ford’s. I followed one actor who did his bit and I was followed by another who did his. None of us had any idea what was actually happening in the scene except it was some kind of battle. I think we all pretended we were doing the Battle of Britain.
George Lucas, who wasn’t the powerful man he is now, directed you. Did you have the feeling back then that he was to become as big as he is now?
He isn’t particularly ‘big’ even now. He’s still a short guy though yeah, he has put on a few pounds. As for being ‘big’ in the biz, well that’s what happens when you’re behind a couple of big ass film franchises like Star Wars and Indiana Jones. You get the cash, jack! So, no, at the time I had no idea George would wind up with several billion dollars in his pocket. I’ve never been clairvoyant.
Did you think during the making of Star Wars that this movie was going to become a success? And what did you think or feel when you first heard that Star Wars was becoming the highest grossing movie ever?
Unlike many of my fellow actors on Star Wars I was a big Sci-Fi fan at the time. I saw what George was doing and got right into it. The texture of the film was spot on and I was utterly confident it would be a success. Now, that is not to say I knew how big a success that would be. Like I said, I’m not clairvoyant. And by the way, neither is George Lucas. Believe me, he was as surprised as anyone with the success the film received. I only wish that he had set aside say, half of one percent of his gross of the films in some kind of a trust fund for the actors as a thank you. See, actors do fantasy too…
Over the years you have attended various conventions where you had the chance to meet the fans. What do you think of these events and how is it to meet all those fans who want you to sign photos, posters etcetera?
Perhaps the greatest reward from doing Star Wars has been the conventions and the fans I’ve met at them. They are some of the nicest, if strangest, people I have had the pleasure to meet. As for signing the photos, hey, it’s not exactly hard, is it? Mind you, the joined up writing was a little tricky to master at first……
Looking back at A New Hope and the whole Star Wars phenomena you have experienced: what are your thoughts and feelings?
The feelings are of satisfaction. That a film made thirty odd years ago can still work for an audience like this one does is quite remarkable, perhaps unprecedented. Of course it’s terrifying to watch yourself at more than half your current age, when you had hair on your head and your bones didn’t creak when you moved. That part is pretty weird.
In the 80’s you were in the highly acclaimed movie (and a personal favourite of mine) Witness, that also starred Harrison Ford. What do you remember of the making of this movie?
Along with Atlantic City, Witness is the most memorable film I’ve been part of . I could write a book on it’s development and filming from being buried alive in corn to long bucolic summer evenings in the Pennsylvania countryside watching Amish buggies roll past. Witness was like a dream, Peter Weir perhaps the finest director I’ve had the pleasure to learn from. A truly remarkable life experience.
Other well known and popular movies you were in are Hellboy, Force Ten from Navarone, Superman II and Stanley Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut. Which movie or part are you most proud of?
It’s not the movies as much as the directors I’ve been fortunate to work with. Peter Weir on Witness, Louis Malle on Atlantic City, Guillermo Del Torro on Hellboy, Michael Apted on Enigma, Norman Jewison on Rollerball, Stanley Kubrick on Eyes Wide Shut, Costa Gavras on Amen and many others. The satisfaction of doing a film that works, no matter how big a hit it becomes is it’s own reward.
Looking at the future: what are your upcoming projects and what would be your dream project?
My next project will be the one someone pays me cash money to do. I’m a hired gun, I need to work in order to live, to pay the bills and buy wine. My dream project is one suffused with imagination and creative verve. I love taking risks with my work which is why I do crazy short films every now and then. No money but risky and fun to do. With pictures you never know what is going to work and what isn’t.
Is there anything you want to say to the readers? Here is your chance!
I doubt there are any words of wisdom or intelligence I can pass on to Star Wars fans other than ‘beware the Dark Side’. Go well my friends.