Tarkin (Rogue One)
Interview: November 2017
How did you prepare for the part of Governor Tarkin?
I watched Peter Cushing’s scenes over and over to try to get as close as I could to his physical and vocal qualities and mannerisms. I am not a particularly good or accurate mimic but I hoped to find the essence of what he did and how he sounded. The rolled “R” sound is the key!
One of the things you absolutely got 100% right was the voice. You sounded just like Tarkin/Peter Cushing. How did you achieve this?
That’s very kind! I don’t really agree – I feel I might have done better had Tarkin been played by Peter O’Toole who was my hero and my imitation of him is REALLY good! I concentrated on one “template” line from A New Hope: “You would prefer another target, a military target?” I used to say this line over and over to myself before each take on Rogue One to slip as best I could into my version of Cushing/Tarkin’s voice.
Peter Cushing is a legendary actor and Tarkin an iconic character. Also, Star Wars fans are very critical. You could say that playing Tarkin could only fail. However, it turned out to be a massive success! Did you fell any stress or pressure playing the part and were you relieved afterwards?
I found the whole thing very frightening! Obviously the people making Rogue One made it clear that this was an extraordinary experiment, something that had never been done before in the history of film, and I was daunted by the whole thing. I didn’t want to let down Lucasfilm and Disney nor the Star Wars fans, but particularly I didn’t want to let down Peter Cushing, whom I’d always greatly admired. To be chosen to represent him was an honour. Sometimes the director, Gareth, would invite me to be “more like Guy” – they’d chosen me because they felt I was able to present the essence of Cushing’s style and persona and they didn’t want a slavishly accurate impression. I did say that if they wanted to employ a bona fide impressionist (I suggested British impressionist Rory Bremner) to make all the right sounds for Cushing’s voice I wouldn’t be at all offended but they said they wanted me and the performance I was able to give.
What did you think or feel when you saw your performance completed with the CGI on screen for the first time?
I was greatly relieved that it/I wasn’t an embarrassment! It could have been and I think some people thought it would be – including me!
As said, you got enormous praise. Not only from the critics, but especially from the Star Wars fans and even the Cushing estate. Do you think that is the most rewarding thing an actor can receive and far more valuable that winning an award?
I did a signing session at a film fair in London on Saturday and was so touched when some friends of Mr. Cushing’s long-time secretary, Joyce, said that she was in tears of delight when she saw the film. I believe she was moved to see “him” back on screen again. He was by all accounts a true gentleman and much-loved.
Most of your scenes were with Ben Mendelsohn. I have heard some funny stories about him singing and dancing on the set. How did the filming of your scenes go?
Ben was immensely supportive of me. He recognised that my task was a difficult (and possibly thankless) one. One day I was standing doing my lines behind camera, playing the scene with Ben on camera, and I was being particularly louche and superior in order to help make him angry towards Tarkin… Ben thought I was looking at the monitor on the camera rather than looking at him… he was very cross with me, but completely understood when I explained that I hadn’t been ‘monitoring’ him!
One thing I always like to ask Star Wars actors is if they have good stories of funny, remarkable or weird things that happened on the set. Do you have any?
I had a scene with Darth Vader which didn’t make the final cut. Quite possible because the lovely man filling the Vader suit that day, Spencer Wilding, was only a little taller than me, so I tried to shrink Tarkin by playing the scene in my socks with my knees bent… not the most relaxing way to play a scene!
When did you see the A New Hope for the first time? And what would you have said when someone had told you then that one day you would take over from Peter Cushing as Tarkin?
I saw A New Hope in a remastered version whilst filming a TV series in Leeds more than a decade ago. I thought it was a collection of outtakes! I’d know idea who was fighting who, or why – I still don’t! I saw Rogue One first at the London premiere – though the very kind producer John Swartz did give me a sneak preview of the work in progress a little before that. If someone had told me I’d ever pretend to be Peter Cushing – and get praised for it! – I wouldn’t have believed them!
You have done a lot of work for the Royal Shakespeare Company playing many different roles, like Captain Hook in Peter Pan. What excites you more: playing classic parts in plays everyone loves… or important parts in blockbusters with huge fanbases like Star Wars and Harry Potter?
My old hero Peter O’Toole when asked whether he preferred theatre or film said: “Whatever I’m NOT doing at the time!”
There are more Star Wars movies coming up: besides Episodes VIII and IX there’s a Han Solo spin-off and a rumored Obi-Wan movie. Since Tarkin is alive in that time period I was wondering if you will ever return as Tarkin (or maybe as another character?)
I’ve heard rumours that there might be a film involving the story of Tarkin’s life – if so, nobody who might actually make such a film has mentioned it to me!! We shall see….