I’d like to start at the very beginning: how did you start your career in movies?
Before becoming a creature puppeteer I was an actor. I’ve had two careers in a way. I graduated from drama school in London in 2005 and for 5 years worked as an actor in the theatre. In 2010 I was cast in the West End production of the Royal National Theatre’s Warhorse. But at that point I was still primarily an actor. During that first year on Warhorse and alongside playing a part and understudying others I learnt and performed many of the background puppetry that supported the main horse puppets. I really enjoyed the puppetry and when an opportunity to play the front legs of Joey the horse came up I took it. That was the beginning of my second career as a creature puppeteer and what led me to work in film. The Force Awakens was the first film I properly worked on.
How did you get cast this movie?
I was very lucky. Derek Arnold, who I worked with on Warhorse and Liam Cook who I worked with on Walking With Dinosaurs were both already attached to the project. As I understand it, the puppetry coordinator Brian Herring (who went on to puppeteer BB8) needed another Creature Puppeteer for a two person creature they were working on. My name came up and I was asked to come in. That creature would go on to become the Luggabeast.
You were dressed as the character Sarco Plank photographed for the famous Vanity Fair shoot. What was it like being in such a huge magazine but not being allowed to tell anyone it’s you.
To be completely honest with you by the time that the magazine came out I’d actually forgotten that I’d been dressed as Sarco Plank! A friend who was dressed as the creature standing next to Sarco Plank sent me a message and it jogged my memory. Don’t get me wrong, being involved in a photo shoot with Annie Leibovitz isn’t something you normally forget but Derek (Arnold) and I were jumping in and out of new creatures on such a regular basis that sometimes it was hard to remember what we’d done. We were told that we were the only two performers to be used in all of the sequences that the CFX team did for the film.
In the movie you didn’t play Sarco Plank. What was the reason for this?
Sarco Plank is such a cool character. There was talk that I might play him before we left for Abu Dhabi. But when we got there I was busy doing something else. I believe one of the supporting artists from a Dubai agency played him in the film. I’d love to see Sarco Plank back in Episode VIII. It would be really cool if he was the ‘Boba Fett’ for this new trilogy.
In The Force Awakens you play the big yellow droid B-U4D (Buford). Can you share your experiences regarding playing him?
I’m really fond of Buford! There is something about how slow and retro he is that really endears him to me. That part of the film was also a joy to work on. The interior set for the rebels was breathtaking and the first time I saw Carrie Fisher and Anthony Daniels. Anthony Daniels was very generous. Natalie Cuzner (PZ-4CO) and I were the new droids on the block and Anthony Daniels made time to offer his advice on both our performances. I remember thinking at the time ‘this is crazy’; C-3PO is giving me advice on how to be a droid!
Along with Derek Arnold you puppeteered the Luggabeast. Since you had been in the play Warhorse before I bet your experience came in quite handy?
Neal Scanlan gave an interview recently where he revealed that JJ Abrams had seen Warhorse and wanted to do something similar for The Force Awakens. I feel very privileged that out of the large pool of Warhorse puppeteers Derek and I were ended up being the guys to bring the Luggabeast to life. In some ways we were very prepared for the Luggabeast. We’d worked in that configuration before using a puppet and human rider on top. But in other ways the experience would be the most challenging feat we’d ever attempted. Nothing can prepare you for the searing heat of the desert or the practical implications of trying to walk a puppet like that down a sand dune. I trained very hard in the run up to flying out to Abu Dhabi to get my fitness up. I was dead lifting and squatting twice my own body weight and doing yoga in a sauna to replicate the conditions that we would be working in. But as soon as we got out there and into the puppet I felt as weak as a kitten. It’s scary what that kind of heat and dehydration can do to you physically. But when you are literally carrying the weight of a blockbuster film on your shoulders you have to dig deep. It was such a special project and JJ Abrams was such an inspirational leader that we all wanted to do the best we could. Luckily we (Derek and I) were in it together and had the fantastic CFX crew around us to rush in between takes and hold the weight up, give us water and shout encouragement. They were amazing and relentless in their support and professionalism.
I think it’s great they did the Luggabeast as a practical effect instead of CGI. What makes your (and Derek’s) performance better than any CGI effect?
I think it’s important to remember that when you watch the final edit of that scene it’s a happy marriage between both practical and CGI. I recently wrapped on a film where we worked very closely with the Visual Effects department and I have a lot of respect for what they do. In regards to the Luggabeast someone in post production spent a long time painting out mine and Derek’s legs! I think both Practical and CGI have merits but when they come together we get something magical like the Luggabeast.
I always enjoy hearing good stories of funny, weird or remarkable things that happened on the set. Can you share yours?
The only conversation I had with JJ Abrams on the film was about carpet! When we were preparing for the Luggabeast back at Pinewood Studios we had always been told that we would never have to walk the puppet on sand, there would always be something under our feet like wooden boards or carpet. First day on set with the Luggabeast, Derek and I climb in and we keep saying to each other “Wow that sand dune looks steep but it’s ok because they’ll lay down some boards so we’ll be fine”. All of a sudden we hear “ACTION!” and we’re off, staggering down the side of this sand dune carrying Kiran Shah on our backs. At one point I really thought we were going to fall over. I kept thinking ‘I hope Kiran will be alright!’ Kiran admitted after that at one point he thought we were going over too and he’d prepped himself to do a stunt fall if necessary. As soon as I could I jumped out and rushed over to one of the assistant directors to try and explain that we really needed something sturdy under our feet. The assistant director stepped to the side and suddenly I found myself face to face with JJ Abrams! I was no doubt very hot and agitated but JJ was really kind and said “Yeah sure whatever you need”. Looking back I can’t believe that I asked JJ Abrams for carpet but sure enough the next thing we knew they’d put down carpet under the sand and we got through the take which is the most important thing.
Were you a Star Wars fan before you got cast?
I was a huge fan as a child. I still have a load of my original Kenner action figures. Now my son plays with them!
Do you remember the first time you saw Star Wars?
I don’t remember the first time I saw Star Wars but as children my brother and I used to have these nights my mother called ‘Movie Marathon Nights’ where we would watch all three of the original films back to back. I wish I could step back in time and say to my younger self ‘One day you’ll be standing on the set of Star Wars under the Millennium Falcon next to Han Solo!’
How do you look back on the whole Star Wars experience?
It was undoubtedly the most incredible thing to be a part of. The Creature Effects team was the most hard working and talented group of people I’ve ever had the privilege of working with and I learnt an enormous amount.
Rogue One and Episode VIII are coming up…will we see you in one of these movies?
You’ll just have to wait and see when the films come out but in the meantime you can keep up to date with the projects I’m involved in by subscribing to my YouTube channel or following me on twitter. Thanks!