Zev Senesca (The Empire Strikes Back)
Interview: August 2013
How did you get started in the acting/entertainment business? If I’m correct you were just 19 when you started at the Royal Shakespeare Company?
I started acting with an amateur company in BC Canada at the age of 17. The group built their own theatre, The Powerhouse Theatre in Vernon BC and this year it celebrates it’s fiftieth anniversary. I then travelled to England when I turned 19, had to stay because I only had a one way ticket. My grandmother lived in Essex and I stayed with her while looking for work. It was through her contacts that I managed to swing an audition with the famous RSC and after several call-backs I got in and spent a magical 2 years with the company, playing very minor roles but learning a great deal from the directors and the company of the finest actors in the UK at that time, artists like Paul Scofield, Ian Holm, and Diana Rigg. Contemporaries included Malcolm McDowell, who I shared a flat with, and Helen Mirren as well as some friends who have remained close all these years like Frances De La Tour one of the UK’s finest stage actresses. It was the best apprenticeship that an actor could have and I was earning the princely sum of 16 pounds a week, seems impossible to believe we lived on that in those days but it’s true!
Who were your ‘role models’ when you started as an actor?
I learned a great deal from actors like Ian Holm, probably the most truthful actor I’ve ever worked with. But others include David Warner (Hamlet) , the great James Cagney who I had the pleasure of performing with in Ragtime in 1980. It was an honour just to be on the same set! There were also some great actors when I was at Stratford, Ian Richardson, Norman Rodway, even Patrick Stewart who went on to great fame in Star Trek, although I think he was lucky to have got the part! Brewster Mason and Alan Howard and Vanessa Redgrave were also great stage names of that period.
How did you get the part of Zev Senesca in The Empire Strikes Back?
I auditioned I think, it IS a long time ago. The offer came through for what was meant to be a day’s work shooting at Shepperton. This day turned into 12 as they couldn’t get the blue screen right. In the end they had to fly in another wider angle camera from Hollywood. The camera turned out to be the very one used on Gone With The Wind, with an historic plaque on its casing.
Had you seen the first Star Wars movie before you got the part of Zev?
I honestly can’t remember, but I did like the first film, although I’m not really a Sci-Fi fanatic.
Your scenes were filmed against a blue screen with just you. Despite this, which actors did you meet on the Empire set and how were they?
Well because I had to go in every day and hang around in case they figured out how to shoot my sequence I did meet and have fun with Mark Hamill particularly. We really got along well and I had the pleasure in catching up with him in Orlando last summer at the convention. I also met Carrie and Harrison, who I subsequently worked with on Force 10 From Navarone. I liked him a lot, very straight and honest guy.
Can you share some memories regarding the filming of your scenes? Did any strange, funny or remarkable things happen? I’d love to hear your stories!
When it came time to shoot my stuff with this wonderful camera, I remember George Lucas showing up on set as well as Gary Kurtz and of course director Irvin Kershner. I was rocked to and fro at one point by Irvin himself as he shouted reactions he wanted me to enact. It all happened very quickly. It was cramped and hot in the speeder and by the end I was very hot and sweaty and a little confused and shell-shocked at what I had just been through. I also had a few other scenes with the other pilots but can’t remember them much. I had some mates who worked on Star Wars, Garrick Hagon, Bruce Boa, Chris Muncke, Richard LeParmentier, Bob Sherman, and my very close friend Denis Lawson. I subsequently presented Denis in the leading role in my very first west end musical production which was the famous show Pal Joey. Denis was superb and it ran for a year at the Albery theatre in 1980-81. And of course Denis’s nephew Ewan McGregor played such an important role in Episode I and II. He is a fine actor and a very nice guy as well.
It has been +-34 years since your scenes in The Empire Strikes Back were filmed. Today, the Star Wars franchise is still very popular all over the world. What do you make of the continuing popularity the Star Wars franchise has engendered?
It’s of course extraordinary, and attending the convention last year was really unbelievable. So many fans who came up to my desk were always interesting and diverse. So many from the far east, and even south America, quite amazing. Why this should be so enduring is quite a mystery to me. I don’t really think the prequel movies work in the same way as the original three, but they are still entertaining and of course the TV spin-offs and now the new films looming must help to keep the magic alive.
During your career you have worked with many people. Who is (or are) the person(s) you learned the most of?
I have worked with some great people, some mentioned above, others include directors Milos Forman, Bruce Beresford, Jim Sharman from the original 1973 Rocky Horror Show, Joseph Losey, and on stage Peter Gill and Michael Blakemore all giants in their field. I’ve had a lot of fun working with my old friend Jennifer Saunders and Joanna Lumley on Absolutely Fabulous in which I was a regular cast member over the 20 years it was produced.
A few years ago you co-produced the musical Flashdance in the UK (I saw it on New Years eve 2010 at the Shaftesbury when I was in London. Loved it). How did you become the producer of this great project?
Thanks for coming to see it! It was a project I developed with the original writer of the movie Tom Hedley. Myself and fellow UK producer David Ian presented the first production of it throughout the UK in 2008, with it finally making it to the Shaftesbury Theatre in the west end in 2010. It was a great pity that the show didn’t have a long run but it has got to the US where it’s on a nationwide tour throughout this year and next. You should try to catch it, I hear it’s very good!
What are you currently doing? Do you have new projects?
I’m currently working on a very exciting musical project for 2014. I can’t reveal anything at this time as its very hush hush but it will be on in London in February of next year.
What do you regard as your biggest achievement regarding your career in the entertainment business?
I regard working in both in front and behind the curtain my biggest achievement. I have enjoyed the acting since 1966 when I turned pro although I haven’t appeared much in recent years, and I’ve really enjoyed producing work for the stage since 1980. I have had success as well as disappointing failures but overall I enjoyed them all, and made great friends through out the industry here and around the world, having worked throughout Europe, South Africa, Australia, Japan and even Argentina where I co produced and directed the Rocky Horror Show in Spanish, which was interesting as I didn’t actually speak the language!
Final question: The Empire Strikes Back is not only considered to be the best of all the Star Wars movies by many fans. Actually, it is even considered to be one of the best movies overall. How does it feel to have been a part of this?
I’ve enjoyed being part of this great franchise and this film in particular. I’m very happy it’s considered such a classic and take great delight in knowing that if Zev wasn’t there and didn’t find Luke and Han Solo…hey there would have been NO movie!