Michael Pennington
Moff Jerjerrod (Return of the Jedi)
Interview: December 2019

In Return of the Jedi we met a new Imperial: Moff Jerjerrod, who had the difficult task of ensuring that the second Death Star was finished on time. Jerjerrod was played by the British actor Michael Pennington who already had an enormous track record when it came to theater work. Now, 37 years after that, he can call himself a true expert when it comes to Shakespeare since, in addition to acting in his plays, he is also a co-founder of the English Shakespeare Company.


How did you get cast for Return of the Jedi?

Well, it’s a sort of half funny story, which is that because most of my work up to that point and subsequently has been in the theater and I was with the Royal Shakespeare Company from the mid 1970’s to 1981 or 1982. I had just had the great good fortune playing Hamlet for them and when you play a part of that kind there are people who say to you, oh, my goodness, what are you going to do next? What’s going to be the next great mountain you’re going to climb. What’s it going to be? The first thing I was offered was three days on Star Wars. This new Star Wars movie I didn’t know anything about, Return of the Jedi. It sounded like fun and easy. I only did three days on the film. So I’m really here at this convention under false pretenses because that’s all I did. On the other hand, I enjoy this, the fact that the films have lasted so well that people still have such enthusiasm. But whether you go to Cincinnati, Utrecht, Birmingham or Minneapolis, wherever you go, there is always the same. And I love to be part of that. To be part of a convention is great. So I got to just in the normal way. My agent said they wanted me for three days and I decided to do it. I didn’t audition. I didn’t meet George Lucas till the days that I did. I didn’t meet the director. So it’s sort of funny, haphazard way in which work comes to actors.

Did you see the first two movies before you got cast?

No. By that time, I knew a little bit or I asked around. I did get them in when I knew I was going to do my first convention about 18 months ago. I thought, I’m going to sit and watch the whole thing. Unfortunately, at that time, I had a little bit trouble with my eyes, I had some infections and things like that. It was physically very difficult to watch. I did my best to look at my scene and was amazed at how short it was because they had cut a lot. So I wasn’t really prepared. But I did understand the story.

Well, my next question was going to be if you found a way to play Jerjerrod in a way that would differentiate him from the other imperial officers?

At that stage all I had was what he actually did. I mean, I saw what he was doing, what his job was. You could press, if you would think in a very naturalistic, realistic way, maybe he’s a trained engineer or maybe he’s some kind of intellectual. What is it? I mean, he’s given this is very unpalatable job of building a new Death Star, and he’s immediately bullied by Darth Vader because he’s not making enough progress. Well, like with any character, you work out what the character might be like. You don’t use everything you think of because there’s no point wondering whether Moff Jerjerrod had a family or children that I could imagine that he did or didn’t. I could see this was a man who was under pressure, was being bullied by an authority, was going to stand up for himself. He was fundamentally probably quite a decent guy compared to many of the people.

And then, of course, we shot an alternative ending to his story by suggesting that he might have been strangled by Vader and only came across that years and years later as everybody else did. Well, it’s a pity that wasn’t it? In a way. But you get used to these things and you just go do the job and leave. The great Star Wars family is something I’ve never really been part of. I dipped in and out of it so quickly, I couldn’t really say anything authoritative about the entire sequence.

(Photo above: Moff Jerjerrod gets Force choked by Darth Vader in this deleted scene from Return of the Jedi)

Although it was just three days, can you remember any remarkable, unique, funny things that happened on the set?

I had the privilege of working with Dave Prowse, Darth Vader. It was a curious job for Dave who because after all, not an inch of his body was visible. He was locked away by Darth Vader’s shellac suit and in the end, his voice was going to be redoubled by the American actor James Earl Jones who had a particularly good timbre, voice for the part. I’ve often thought that was a bit tough for Dave, but I think he’d accumulated so much popularity is that because he has been in each and every film. He was quite self-confident. Our biggest difficulty was executing a shot, which is pretty typical. A tricky thing to do cinematically, though not impossible at all, is to walk together, maintain the same speed, the same speed of speech, the same stride so the camera could remain on the same angle tracking with you. That’s not so easy to do. We managed that. Unfortunately, at the end of the first take, well indeed in each of them, we were supposed to swing out of the camera’s view. We approached the camera and just as we were going off vision, it seems that I trod on Darth Vader’s cloak which was rather long and stretched behind him on the ground. And he froze because that’s you do when your cloak is stepped on and he himself said “cut, he mustn’t stand on my cloak”. We became quite good friends, in fact, and I’m glad of it. But it was it was all so brief, there’s no other anecdotes.

What’s the biggest difference between acting in Star Wars and a Shakespeare play?

One’s a bit louder than the other normally. And that’s the Shakespeare play. It’s the same process. It’s exactly the same process. But of course, this is affected by the fact that usually in the theater you’re working and you’ve got to be audible and visible to somebody who’s hundred meters away. In the cinema the camera comes and looks at you. I’ve always loved movies; I’ve not done as many as I would wish to have done. But I have become quite experienced in terms of playing big theaters physically, which is quite a thing. But basically it is the same activity. After all, you could probably do a thesis about why Star Wars is Shakespearean. Somebody has probably written an academic paper about it. The camera will find you whatever you do, all you’ve got to do is think the right thoughts. Screen acting is no different technically from stage acting.

You have an amazing resume when it comes to theater work. Yet most people will always remember you for your role in Star Wars. How do you feel about this?

It makes me laugh. It’s completely fine. I am doing an interesting thing. Beginning next year, which in a way answers your previous question because I’m doing a production of The Tempest. I’m going to do it in a particularly small theater in London in which nobody is going to be more than about 20 meters away from the stage. It’s more a room than a theatre which has a capacity of about 80 people. I’m really looking forward to that, because as you kind of say, I’ve done an awful lot of these big things with big parts. I’m now going to do something in a room that’s no bigger than the one we’re sitting in now. I’d love to see if I can combine my fifty-five years of experience with what I know to be necessary to be truthful in acting.

Of all the parts you have played, what is your personal favorite?

I feel it does go back to Shakespeare. Hamlet, of course. But then I was the right age to play, which I wouldn’t be now. I did that when I was in my mid-thirties in Stratford. I did it for two years. Not every night because you play in repertoire, but they’re like an opera season. You do maybe two or three performances a week and then you have two weeks off. So it was not as exhausting as it might been. I’ve recently, by which I mean in the last five or six years, done King Lear twice. Once in New York with an American company in 2014 and then in 2016 I did a big tour in the U.K. in a new play, a different production of King Lear. I’ve played that twice, which is very unusual. You normally only get one chance at those parts because there’s so many other people waiting to play them, but I got lucky with that. I was able to improve the performance the second time and I’m very happy with that.

Back to Star Wars, a franchise that is still relevant. Did you expect this back in 1983?

No, I’m not sure that many people do. I think George Lucas and I guess others did. But I thought nothing of it. I knew it vaguely as I said. It didn’t strike me as something that would necessarily last for a lifetime. For a lot of people, of course, it has. Look around at the convention today, several people who were not born when it came out. But it’s been brilliantly handled as a phenomenon in terms of the days of releases of all the films, the conventions, the whole. As a phenomenon it is extraordinary. It should get Oscars not only for the films, but for the production, the technique. How to handle an audience of a long period time so they don’t go away from you.

Have you kept up with the recent releases?

Truthfully, for a long time, I thought the focus had probably shifted away. Of course, there’s a difference between those first half dozen and the later ones. I sort of lost interest and that’s no reflection on them but probably reflection on me. But I will go and see the new one now, because since the last one came out, I’ve done six or eight of these conventions and I’ve enjoyed them all, fantastic to meet the fans. So to return a compliment I will go and look at the new film. So the next time I’m asked the question by someone like yourself, I’ll have a proper answer for you.

If you have to describe your Star Wars experience in one word or one sentence, what would it be?

At the time it was ordinary. I couldn’t say more than that. My experience in retrospect now is actually quite intense pride because I see that without knowing I’ve entered an enormous extended family. I meet old colleagues who I haven’t seen since that time. I’m very pleased to be part of it and to know that those three days seem to have borne fruit so widely, so universally, I suppose I can say that.