Praster Ommlen (The Force Awakens)
Interview: January 2017
Let’s start at the very beginning: You’re originally a cabaret and burlesque host (as Benjamin Louche). I am very curious how you got cast for a Star Wars movie since this seems lightyears away from each other.
In actual fact I was an actor (of sorts) long before I did cabaret. I studied mime and physical theatre at The Mime Centre, London, which lead to ‘skin work’, appearing first in The Mummy, then The Mummy Returns, and then The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy. It was on Hitchhiker’s that I met Brian Herring, who years later became puppeteer consultant for The Force Awakens and of course principle BB-8 performer. We’d remained friends and so when The Force Awakens came along, he suggested me for it.
In The Force Awakens you’re in the same scenes as the legendary Harrison Ford. A dream coming true? Or just a job?
Dream job definitely. One of my fondest memories from the shoot was waiting offset with my creature head on, and listening through my earpiece to what they were shooting; hearing Harrison Ford’s voice delivering lines really brought it home to me that I was in an actual Star Wars film. It was one of those WTF moments. I was 6 years old when A New Hope came out and it changed my life; I had Star Wars curtains, Star Wars bedspread, t-shirts, figures, you name it; for both A New Hope and The Empire Strikes Back, myself and my sister won tickets to our local premier, where actors were walking about the cinema dressed as storm troopers and Darth Vader. So when I heard Han Solo’s voice, well, let’s just say it’s not something I’ll forget in a hurry.
Are there funny or remarkable stories can you share regarding your time on the set of Star Wars?
One of the problems (difficulties?) with my costume was that, with the head on I was effectively blind, and so missed a great deal of what happened on set, having to rely only on what I could hear through my earpiece.
Something that sticks in my mind though is a moment when I was sitting with my head off in between takes and had done a good job on convincing myself that, yes it was cool that I was in Star Wars, but it was just a job, I was being very level headed about the whole thing; then I saw Chewbacca, which was fine, no problem. But then I saw Chewbacca’s bowcaster and for some reason that did it, it was as if I could reach back through time to the young me and whisper “You’re in Star Wars” and completely involuntarily I made a noise, a kind of excited high-pitched whine. Thankfully I think no one heard me.
In another shot they tried having all the creatures that could walk, move about the set, in and out of each other, busily to and fro. Now, not only was I blind as a bat, my creature head was incredibly heavy, my arms hidden inside it (so that if I fell I would have nothing to break my fall) and I was wearing eight inch platform boots under my robes. The entire shot was achieved (and they only tried it once) by me having creature choreographer Paul Kasey’s calming voice in my head telling me when to slow down, when to stop, turn etc.
What can you tell about JJ Abrams and the way he directed you?
Again, I saw very little of him, but he certainly runs a very relaxed yet focussed set; in my experience this is not always the case. He did speak directly to me once though; he said “can you see anything at all?” I said: “nope, not a thing.” That was it!
What is the best or most precious memory you have regarding The Force Awakens?
Hearing Han Solo’s voice has got to be up there, but other than that? The whole experience was incredible. Working with Neil Scanlon’s amazing creature crew in particular was a dream come true, in particular senior animatronic designer (who acted as my dresser) Tahra Zafar, who put up with all my griping, took off my head and gave me water when I needed it. You would not believe the insane amount of detail that the creature department put into every single creature that appeared, whether they were foreground or background, the attention to detail was dizzying. They are all staggeringly talented.
Oh, and daisy Ridley spoke to me once. She said “can you see anything at all?” I said: “nope, not a thing.” That was it. You tend to hear the same questions when you’re in an 8ish foot Ottegan suit.
Your character, Praster Ommlen, got (like every other Star Wars character) a name and complete background. When and how did you find out about his backstory and what do you think about the fact that your character got this kind of attention?
I only heard his backstory after the film had been released and I read it in The Visual Dictionary. From day one everyone just referred to him as ‘Hammerhead Priest’ -which was exciting for me because it was something of a link to the Hammerhead in A New Hope (even though he turned out to be an Ottegan rather than an Ithorian).
We have the same heroes: David Bowie (I’m a lifelong fan since the early 80’s) and David Lynch (Twin Peaks is the best series ever). What is it about these two men that inspires you?
Bowie for me was the beginning of a lifelong obsession with music. Discovering him changed everything. I can safely say that there is no other single figure in the arts that has had such a huge effect on my life. I’ve no idea who or what I would be doing without him but I wouldn’t be me, not the me I am, chiefly because it wouldn’t have been communicated to me in quite the same way that it was ok to be so. I wouldn’t have heard the things I heard, wouldn’t have dressed the way I’ve dressed, made the friends I made, wouldn’t have read the things I’ve read, or for that matter written the things I’ve written. I wrote a blog entry when Bowie died that says it better.
Every year the charity that I’m a trustee of Cabaret vs Cancer stages a Bowie tribute night Ashes To Ashes, which I host, from which all proceeds go to cancer charities; the next of these is on March 1st 2017.
David Lynch was the first film director that could truly put on screen the sensation of a bad dream, and because I was plagued by these my entire childhood, this was instantly attractive to me. Twin Peaks lead me on to Blue Velvet, then The Elephant Man, then Eraserhead and so on. We started The Double R Club in 2009 as a way of staging cabaret that was a little darker, stranger and less… expected, and all these years, countless shows and several awards later we’re still going. We describe ourselves as “cabaret inspired directly, or indirectly, by the dark and beautiful worlds of David Lynch.” One of the greatest things that’s happened through The Double R is that we’ve put on shows at the Twin Peaks UK Festival and therefore met several cast members; a highlight was meeting the late Catherine Coulson, The Log Lady, who took one of our flyers back to the states to show Lynch himself. Also, interviewing Sheryl Lee was wonderful. Everything was going smoothly then I said something and she gave me that Laura Palmer smile and it kinda blew my mind.
Since you know a lot about cabaret…suppose you could produce a Star Wars cabaret show. How would that look like?
There actually is, or was, a Star Wars cabaret, though I was never able to go as I was always working. It was called May The Farce Be With You.
But if I were staging a Star Wars cabaret? I think my first decision would be to set it among the “wretched hive of scum and villainy” that is the Mos Eisley Cantina.
How do you look back on the whole Star Wars experience? And will that experience continue in Episode VIII: The Last Jedi?
It was undoubtedly a highlight of my non-cabaret career. As far as Episode VIII goes, well, as you might imagine, all those taking part in such a film would have to sign non-disclosure agreements, so, ahem…
What are you currently doing? Can you tell something about your new/upcoming projects?
On the third Thursday of the month at Bethnal Green Working Men’s Club, London, The Double R Club walks, in dreams, with you…
I spend most of my time rehearsing for cabaret shows and writing. I write short stories, odd / ‘amusing’ poems and novels. I currently have a novel crowdfunding on Unbound.com called The Dutch Wives.
Later this year (before season 3!) I have a book of Twin Peaks themed poems and oddities coming out called Postcards From Twin Peaks.