Rancor Keeper (Return of the Jedi)
Interview: December 2019
One of the most heartbreaking scenes in the Star Wars saga is in Return of the Jedi. Early in the movie we see a tearful Rancor keeper, mourning the death of his huge friend the Rancor. The man who played the part of Malakili the Rancor keeper is British actor Paul Brooke, who I met and interviewed at the EchoBase convention in December 2019.
How did you get cast for Return of the Jedi?
I was touring India with a play for the British Council and my manager had trouble getting in touch with me because we were moving around from city to city. When we got to Calcutta, there was a message in the hotel waiting which said, “I’ve accepted two days filming for you the week you get home”. You have nothing to do. But we both made the money. Which made me laugh at the time and hadn’t really made me laugh ever since because I feel like I’m privileged to be even in a small role, the smallest role I ever played in front of a camera in a lucky career where I’ve rarely stopped working. But how lucky I was to be part of this extraordinary franchise.
What was your initial feeling when you got the part? Star Wars was very popular and this much anticipated movie promised to be big; it had the biggest budget of all three.
I wouldn’t have known that from my two mornings. But having said that, I’ve appreciated it, to be honest, more over time than I did at the time. For the reason that I’ve given you. Because I was nice and busy, I was lucky with work, and I was normally playing much better parts. But then the fact that people remember after all these years and that I get mail every week shows that even if it’s a small part, if it works, which is not just tied to the actor, of course it’s down to the script and everything. But if it works, it can make an impact that people will stick with. I’ve had the most extraordinary stories from people over the years of not only of their enjoyment, but of the passing on their enjoyment to their children and even grandchildren, which is rather touching. Probably if I’ve been offered the part and I was at home because I had loads of work where I had more to do, I would probably have turned it down and I would have regretted it like mad with hindsight.
Did you see the other two movies?
I think I’ve seen them both. I’ve certainly seen Star Wars. I was amazed and surprised that a very intellectual British theatre director, a famous guy at the time called William Gaskell, who I worked with at Royal Court Theatre, a pioneering theatre in London and who was rather up-market in all sorts of respect. I was doing a play with him before I got offered Return of the Jedi and he came out with the fact that he was a huge Star Wars fan. At the time I hadn’t seen the film and I didn’t think I thought, well Sci-Fi not particularly my scene. But then when Gaskell said, but it’s wonderful, it’s absolutely wonderful. You have to see it. So, I did and I was hooked like all the millions of others over the years.
What do you remember about the filming of your scenes?
The main thing I remember is how short it was. I did the little bit with Mark Hamill and then the following morning it was just me on a rostrum in front of a blue screen. No Rancor and nobody except for me being given directions by Richard Marquand, the director. Raising my head a little, turning the right a little up a little more. Now you’re looking at the Rancor, which of course I wasn’t, because the Rancor wasn’t there. And then on the cue having to burst into tears. That was my experience from the acting point of view. I mean, that in itself is not easy because normally you have other actors or even if the Rancor had been there in some shape or form you can respond to that. Responding to thin air is not always easy.
Did you know then what the Rancor looked like?
No, not at all.
The first time was when I saw the film and the first time I was actually WITH the Rancor was two years ago in Kentucky when this guy who built a huge Rancor for thousands of dollars and who takes it round the conventions, making money from people to be photographed with the Rancor. He said my model is up, would you pop up when you have a break, have some photos taken? I said “of course!”, and it was stunning.
Can you share any remarkable, unique, strange or funny things that happened?
I think the strangest is what I’ve already told you because it was so brief. I didn’t get to know any of the other actors. So, I said hello and shook hands with Mark Hamill. There were no personal stories. The strangest thing I think was the only time at that that I had to do something which was apparently responding to a creature that wasn’t there. But I’ve had other strange experiences in films and television. Maybe the strangest acting during a scene with Marlon Brando in an anti-apartheid film called Dry White Season, where although he was there and huge at the time. He was one of the only actors who made me feel small. It was really delightful, but he didn’t learn his lines. So, after you’d said you’re lying to him, you waited for ages while the woman upstairs told him through an earpiece what to do next, so there was a silence. You heard this in the background and then he’d come at you one hundred miles an hour force of his personality. You’d come in on cue. Then another long gap while upstairs the line was going into his ear. That’s difficult because you can’t suspend disbelief. It becomes a like an acting exercise because normally the response of the of the people helps you to act well, and if you’re not getting it straight back, there’s nothing to believe. So, when he speaks, you can respond to that but by then you’re out of the action for a period while the woman is telling him what to do. But I wouldn’t have missed it for anything. I mean, heavens, having acted with Marlon Brando, hero of my youth.
In fact, it was filmed in Zimbabwe because they wouldn’t allow at the time an anti-apartheid film to be filmed in South Africa. And I had two scenes there, one with Donald Sutherland and one with Brando. After I had done the scene with Sutherland they said, you can’t go home yet because we don’t know if Marlon Brando is coming or not. They said you don’t have to stay in the capital. You can go sightseeing, you can go to Victoria Falls, Lake Kariba and all these fabulous places but phone in every evening and we’ll let you know. So after about 10 days or something, I phoned in and they said, he’s not coming so you’re on the next plane back to London. I came back alone and they mounted his scenes, I think, at Pinewood, if I remember right. He was just in court scenes, so as isolated section of the film, he played an attorney. Then we filmed those couple of months later or something like that just outside London. When I first met him and introduced him, I said, I’m so grateful to you for not coming to Zimbabwe because I had this fabulous holiday at the film company’s expense. Now here I am at Pinewood being paid all over again for the same job. The great Marlon said to me “Glad to be of service”.
You have done a lot in your career but most people will always remember you for your role in Star Wars. How do you feel about this?
That’s part of the course with the acting game. The greatest thing for the actors of my level, basically a supporting actor, occasionally played leading part but mainly a supporting actor. The main thing is to keep working and you balance a part of which you have a lot to do a film or TV series with something where you don’t, or occasionally you do it just because it pays the bills.
I feel no negativity whatsoever about playing a tiny part and the fact that it has been clearly so focal for so many people is a bonus. You know it’s funny and genuinely touching when people get in touch with me and say “I saw this when I was six and I’ve been a fan ever since”. But I had so little to do. You know if you went to make a cup of tea you’d miss me and they say it doesn’t matter and they’ll always remember that moment. That is quite heartwarming. It’s great to hear.
Earlier this year a Star Wars fan film was released which features your character as a kid. It’s a prequel, an origin story where we see how he meets the Rancor. Have you seen it?
I haven’t seen it. I didn’t know is existed.
I was asked at some point, but after I retired, if I would be up in one of these later films for doing another scene. But I’d retired by then and I thought it was pushing it One of the things you have to remember as an actor is to remain reasonably match fit. You know you have to be up for it. The element of tension in front of a camera or on stage that you can still do your best. I felt having already given it up for a few years. Going back to it would probably not be a good idea.
For which movie was that?
I don’t remember. I’m afraid because I wiped it immediately. All I know is I’ve been retired for 10 years and it was during that 10 years. It was just an inquiry it might not even have come up with a job but I think it might have done because they were moving into this other area and they were I think they wanted to have a bit of a prequel for the Rancor keeper. Maybe they did it with somebody else and I haven’t seen that film that’s possible but I didn’t think that they did it.
The short film I was referring to isn’t official. It’s a fan film. Do you keep up with Star Wars? The new movies, TV series?
I haven’t seen anything of the stuff on television but I think I’ve seen all the films at least once but not the newest one. But I will do because my son will make sure that I do.
You have attended conventions, signing photos and other memorabilia. What is your general feeling to signing things and meeting fans?
Well I haven’t done a lot. I did one, for a different organization. I did one years ago maybe twenty years ago or more which had a bit to do with Star Wars, a bit with James Bond and other productions that I’ve been in. I was offered to attend conventions occasionally but I was always working so I never felt I needed to do it. I thought whatever my current project was I was lucky enough to be doing that. That was what I should be concentrating on. Now being quite a long time retired Zack got in touch with me nearly two years ago and suggested doing one in Kentucky. I thought what the hell. I went and did it and it was thoroughly enjoyable and the three days were packed with people. Then I did one for him ten days ago in Telford. So this is really only my third.
Looking back at Return of the Jedi, what are your feelings towards it?
What can I say. From an acting point of view it wasn’t hugely stretching. But, when I look back I think I’m really lucky to have been part of this legend. I feel that particularly because of the reaction of people and the fact that this very tiny bit of the film is remembered by so many people and think of it fondly. I really like that and probably they think about that much more about that than they do about television or films where I’ve had a lot to do.
I saw the movie in 1983, I was seven at the time, and I still remember you!
(Laughs) Extraordinary. Thank you!