Willie Coppen (Ewok)

Willie Coppen
Ewok (Return of the Jedi)
Interview: November 2022

In the 80’s English actor Willie Coppen was lucky to get cast for three movies that have never lost their popularity over the years. He played a Nelwyn in Willow, an inhabitant of Fantasia in The NeverEnding Story and an Ewok in Return of the Jedi. In this exclusive interview he looks back at his career!

How did you get started in the movie business? 

I left school back in 1979 aged 16 and started working in a shop, selling car spares, in a suburb of Derby. The shop had a vast range of customers, from members of the public wanting to save money and service their own cars, to professional mechanics (Trade Customers), from the local garages. One day in 1981, one of the Trade Customers phoned me, to tell me an Agent had just been on the local radio station, asking for people with Dwarfism for parts in the next Star Wars Film. I phoned the agent and made arrangements to see him that evening after work. He said he needed to see me, to confirm that I was indeed a person with Dwarfism, as he’d had people calling, saying they were small at 1.54 meter! I’m 1.32 meter and have Achondroplasia Dwarfism, which is the most common form of Dwarfism.  My dad took me to see him, we had a chat and he confirmed that he’d be happy to put me forward to the Star Wars producers.    

A week or so after meeting the agent, an appointment was made for me to go to Elstree Studios for a costume fitting. I didn’t know what to expect, and kind of assumed that they would ask me to do an audition, or something! But no! I arrived, asked for the person I was to meet, she took me of too wardrobe, and they started taking measurements. From what they were saying, it sounded to me as if I’d already got the part, so I had to ask them if I’d got the part? Their answer was, ‘Yes’ as if I should have already known it!   

What do you recall of the filming of your scenes for Return of the Jedi

The whole thing was very exciting for me for many reasons.

Although I’d previously met a few people who were small like me, this was to be the first time I’d met a lot of people with Dwarfism. My brother later said, ‘I matured a lot that year’. This was because through people I met on set, I joined a charity for people with Restricted Growth, and started to make friendships, which I still have today. 

I’d never been on a film set before, so everything was exiting. The set in the studio was very high up, because the Ewoks lived high up in the trees. It also surprised me how many people would be on the set at any one time. Often there were more people behind the camera than in front! 

They did look after us very well, ensuring that we were fully hydrated at all times, as we were very hot in the costumes and sweating a lot. We had plenty of opportunities take our heads off, between takes, to help us keep cool!

Did any strange, remarkable or funny things happen on the set?

Due to the padding and the fur, it was very hot inside the costumes. We wore pajamas like t-shirts and leggings under the padding which we changed twice a day, as by lunchtime, they were soaked with sweat! Due to the heat, out of the forty something people performing as Ewoks in the UK, around 10 of us were ill at one point or another with Heat Exhaustion, including myself. I remember saying to someone that I don’t feel too good. The next thing I knew, I was on the other side of the set with people taking my costume off and Harrison Ford was holding a fan to cool me down! For most of us, this was the first time we’d met each other, so trying to remember everyone’s names was difficult, out of costume! Once in costume, we’d ask someone, who they were and half the time we’d be no wiser as to who we were near!   

Return of the Jedi was directed by Richard Marquand, while George Lucas produced it. How were both men to work with? 

Like most of the Ewoks, I was just an Extra, so there wasn’t a lot of individual instruction for them to pass onto me. Although I did have the odd chat with George Lucas, probably asking things like, when the film would be coming out. 

After Star Wars you starred in two of my favorite 80’s movies Willow and The NeverEnding Story. What fond memories do you have of those productions? 

The NeverEnding Story was memorable because it was the first time I’d been out of the UK and first time I’d flown in a plane. One evening we were invited to a BBQ for the cast and crew, and I ended up playing around with an American Football with Noah Hathaway who played Atreyu.

Willow was a lot of long days. Up at 5.00am, out the house by 5.30am for the train. The location at Brocket Hall in Hertfordshire was on a slope and when it rained was very slippery and muddy! I also met my previous partner, the mother of my eldest daughter on the set. To my knowledge, there has now been at least five or six grandchildren born (two of them mine) to people who met on Willow

Which character did you play in The NeverEnding Story? 

I was in the Ivory Tower standing behind Atreyu. I’m the one wearing what looks like a rug over my head, with a bronze face.

You have attended quite some conventions where you got to meet the fans and fellow actors. How do you look at these conventions? 

I really enjoy going to the Comic Cons and meeting so many fans of the Star Wars films. Lots of people are amazed when they find out I was an Ewok and ask lots of interesting questions about my time on the film, including what the main stars where like etc.

What are you doing these days? Are you still in the acting business? 

I came back into the business in 2018 after having done office work for many years. Since then, I’ve appeared in Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs Pantomimes in such places as Rhyl, Sunderland and will in Nottingham this Christmas. I’m also going to be in the new Disney+ series of Willow, which is coming out soon, and the TV series A Spy Among Friends which again is coming out soon. During the summer, I did some work on a film which will be released in 2024, which I’m not allowed to name!

I’m also an active member of the Dwarf Sports Association UK and am expecting to be part of the GB team at the World Dwarf Games in Cologne next summer. Competing in Swimming and Boccia amongst over sports.  

Final question: of all the movies and series you have worked on: which particular one are you most proud of, and why? 

That is a tough question! Each film has its merits (or not) for different reasons. Return of the Jedi – First film I did, first time I’d met lots of people who were like me. Also, the fact that even now, people, like yourself, are still talking about it.  The NeverEnding Story – My first time going abroad, and again, people are still talking about this film. Willow – Although the relationship didn’t last, I would not have my eldest child and two beautiful granddaughters. The new Willow series, I was able to work with my son George. The film I did during the summer, I was working with my wife.