You have a very interesting job: you work in a circus! Can you tell something about how you joined the circus and what you exactly do?
I got a scholarship with Zippo’s Academy of Circus Arts when I was 17 and spent the 1999 season touring the UK in a traditional Big Top. They taught me my first two circus acts – Tightwire and Aerial Hexagon. After that I trained in top circus schools in London and specialised in Aerial Circus Arts – my favourite pieces of equipment being Rope and Doubles Trapeze. I love working with a partner up in the air – nothing beats the feeling of trusting on the strength in one another, and achieving perfect physical timing up high – it’s exhilarating. I’ve now got my own business (Circus Passion) and I teach aerial skills, host children’s parties, run circus workshops. I also perform with fire and sometimes put on larger shows with multiple Circus Performers, particularly during the summer months in carnival season.
How did you get cast for Star Wars: The Force Awakens?
I was part of a show with Aircraft Circus Professional Company, and the Director (Alex Frith) phoned me urgently as he was looking for a ‘short stilt-walker’ for a movie. I had no idea what the movie was and I wasn’t a stilt-walker at that point but I took a leap of faith. ‘I’ll learn to stilt-walk! When’s the audition?’ I had two weeks, and in that time I hired out a local hall to practice in, as well as making numerous trips to East London for expert tuition from Alex. When I rocked up at Pinewood Studios on the day, I found myself in a warehouse, on a pair of tall stilts, showing off my skills in a solo audition with about a dozen people from the Star Wars Creatures Department watching me! Even after I left that day, after what was part of a conceptual process for the creatures team to see how their character idea might physically work, I still had no idea the gig was Star Wars, or if they would even ask me to come back.
In The Force Awakens you play HURID-327, a very tall droid. What can you tell about this costume? Was it comfortable inside for instance?
Being inside Big Red (as we affectionately called him) was an ongoing feat of both balancing on stilts and carrying weight. His upper shell, body and arms were attached to my back and the stilts had additional weight with the incredible robotic design. Inside the upper shell were two levers that I manipulated to control the swing of Big Red’s arms. I had to ‘time’ this push and pull of the levers with the rhythm of my steps and at the same time I had to lean slightly to the side away from the leg I was lifting. A sway from side to side became the default solution to managing the ‘top-heavy’ aspect to Big Red. Once I was comfortable operating / performing inside Big Red, it felt like I was home and that was the place I was supposed to be. Although my feet were almost numb from the straps, my thigh muscles weak from lifting the weight and an irritated trapped nerve in my lower spine flared up. I strangely loved it and comfortable is surprisingly how I ended up feeling.
You appear in the scene where the three leads (Ford, Ridley and Boyega) walk towards the castle. Can you describe the making of this scene?
I was on a wire, I guess in case I toppled onto the leads! For me the scene was literally walk from A to B, reset, walk from A to B, reset…times 100! By the end of the hour I did require said flannel to mop my brow. At one point Harrison Ford came over and knocked on the side of my robot. “How are you doin’ in there?” he asked. I, not knowing it was Harrison (as I could not see anything!) replied: “Is that the camera-man?” Harrison says, “No, it’s catering!” at which I delightfully and in great jest requested sweets to keep me going. One day maybe Harrison will get me those sweets…
Did you get to interact with the big stars during breaks?
Not at all! Unless of course, Neal Scanlan counts? He’s the biggest star in my book!! I got to hang out with everyone in Creatures Department and they are uber talented, mega awesome, fantastic people that I am literally beside myself with pride to call my friends.
The Force Awakens was the most anticipated movie of all time. How did your friends and family react when you told them you were in this movie?
They were gobsmacked, much more than I was! It means so much to them that I took part in such a historic movie. They have supported me throughout my life, in so many ways, so for them it was a nod to all they have done to be with me through the less cool times. They whooped and cheered as my name was visible on the credits in the cinema, and I was able to buy them trendy crew clothing for keepsakes.
Were you a Star Wars fan before you got cast?
I watched bits of the old movies years ago. I always loved the Ewoks and the battle in Ewok forest. I spent some time imagining how a lightsaber actually works, and how it is that such a lethal weapon was even allowed to be made! I mean, a touch of a saber cuts someone’s arm off – it’s an awesome weapon and total respect to the Jedi family for learning that skill. I’d like to fight with a saber, running around a film set fighting off the bad guys with my ferocious skills…that would be sick.
When was the first time you saw a Star Wars movie?
Years ago, with my family, on a grainy television via VHS! Those were the days!
How do you look back at the whole Star Wars experience?
Incredible. Words do not do justice the ultimate challenge, friendships made, lessons learnt… I’ll never be the same again! Star Wars has changed me for the better for sure, and being involved has brought validation to the years I have worked to bring my dreams to reality. I feel totally humbled, honoured and privileged to have gained insight into the inner working of the Creatures Department. Being flown out to Abu Dhabi was unexpected, but being out there in the deep desert was something I’ll never forget. The rolling orange dunes went on for miles, and how the crew managed to film in such dire circumstances and intense heat, was an inhuman feat that deserves maximum credit to all who partook.
Episode VIII is coming up next year…will we see you in this one?
If I was in that movie, it would be a dream come true for sure.