Hi Nick, let’s start at the very beginning: How did you get into the movie business?
At school I never really knew what I wanted to do with my life but I did know that the drama classes were fun so that’s the path I followed. I studied Drama and Psychology at university after which a couple of friends and I started a street theatre company. We weren’t great but once again, it was fun.
I started going to auditions and workshops in Circus skills, Commedia dell’arte (an Italian Mask art form), Mime and Puppetry. The auditions were hit and miss but as an actor you have to develop a thick skin because that never changes. More often I found that the companies running the workshops would then hire me as a performer because they saw something in me. I learned so much “on the job” in front of live audiences. This led to more success in auditions and I started working as a jobbing actor on the stage, touring around the UK for a few years with various companies. Most of the shows were devised and involved physical theatre, clowning, dance, puppetry and mask work.
I knew nothing about the movie industry but I started going up for Creature roles on Television. I found that working in creature suits for children’s television drew upon the same skills I’d learned in theatre but also gave me new experiences working with animatronics, monitors and cameras. Most notably I play “Igglepiggle” on “In the Night Garden” and “Dipsy” on the new Teletubbies. These kids TV jobs definitely helped me move on to Feature Films.
I now work in both the movies and television as a Creature Performer and I love it. The work is hot, claustrophobic and can be painful, but it’s still fun!
In Rogue One you play the part of Bistan. Could you tell how you got this role?
The creature industry is a relatively small community. Even if you’ve never met someone, you do start to hear the same names mentioned.
At the time Episode VII was being made, I was puppeteering on a kids TV show called Strange Hill High and was about to go straight into filming the new series of Teletubbies. I’d heard rumours of a top-secret project that no one would talk about. In fact, the less information you could get about it, the more you felt it had to be the new Star Wars film. I’d put feelers out but security was really tight around the project and I simply couldn’t get seen for what turned out to be the The Force Awakens.
The following year I had a break in my schedule between filming series of Teletubbies so I asked around if anyone needed a performer for anything.
Reports in online entertainment news sites suggested that filming on Rogue One was to start soon so I figured all the roles would have been allocated to performers and I’d missed out on getting into Star Wars once again.
But out of the blue I got a phone call asking me to come to Pinewood for a meeting about an un-named project.
Not many people are expected to go for job interviews with no idea of the job they’re going for. But in acting if you get an invitation to Pinewood you just go. Pinewood is a remarkable place, it’s been at the centre of the UK movie industry for decades and it’s always exciting to be there.
When I arrived, even right up to the front door of the workshop, no one mentioned what the project was. I couldn’t believe it when, inside, there were amazing clay maquettes, costumes on stands, animatronic heads being worked on and most tellingly, R2 Units everywhere! My brain just melted! I was so happy.
It turned out that a friend, Vanessa Bastyan, who had fabricated some of the costumes for me on the TV shows I’d worked on was now running the creature workshop at Pinewood. Vanessa knew my work and she’d got me in there to meet the boss, Special Creature Effects Supervisor, Neal Scanlan.
They wanted to try me out for a “Space Monkey gunner” character they’d been working on. There was a chance this creature may have a more developed role to play and so they wanted an experienced performer inside. Fortunately for me, Bistan’s face is quite flat and the guys who were already on the crew were mainly western performers and to put it bluntly their noses were too big to fit inside his face!
I tried a face piece on and surprisingly, for something not built for me it fit. Neal seemed interested and said that it might work. I was then taken to try on the muscle under-skeleton and Bistan’s flight suit costume. At first the costume guys said I was a quite a bit shorter than what they’d wanted but, once dressed, my short legs made the creature look a bit more ape-like, also I’m actually flat footed which can sometimes make me walk a bit like a monkey anyway! Photos were taken and Neal said they’d review everything and would be in touch but could make no promises.
A few weeks later I was called back to Pinewood for the Creature Effects (CFX) “Show and Tell” day. This is when the finished creatures are presented to the film’s Director who decides if they’ll appear in the movie. It’s an important event for the team and the CFX crew would have been working really hard towards this day for months, designing and building the creatures.
This was my first time in the full Bistan costume including the contact lenses.
We were on a big sound stage with tents scattered around for us to get dressed in. Creature after creature walked past me on their way to the performance space. They were all new designs and looked so cool. Eventually it was my turn and I was led on. My eyes were streaming from the contact lenses, which are hard and quite irritating. The stunt co-ordinator joked, “There’s no need to cry.”
“I’ve just been thinking about these kittens” I replied, “I can’t help it.”
I, or at least Space Monkey, was introduced to Gareth Edwards who starts examining Bistan and directing me. I remember Gareth asking me to walk a bit less like a monkey.
Then he put a camera on a group of us to see what the creatures looked like on screen. I was sat at a table with Admiral Raddus and the other two Mon Calamari officers from Rogue One. The performers inside them were Paul Kasey (Raddus), Aiden Cook and Tim Rose. We were asked to improvise a meeting in a war room, discussing tactics etc. I remember laughing inside my costume because Tim was playing his Calamari as a hippy pacifist saying stuff like, “Hey man, I think we should all just go home. I don’t wanna fight, let’s get a beer.” Tim’s very funny and naughty but he can get away with it because he is Admiral Ackbar.
Next I was given a laser rifle and they put fans and spotlights on me as if I was looking up at helicopters right overhead. Gareth filmed loads of close ups of Bistan’s face, exploring how my eye’s looked, how the paint job on the skin reacted under light, how the hair moved in the wind and how I performed.
All the time Gareth gave me directions as if I could see or hear enemies in different places. He’d tell me I was exhausted, totally demoralized or frustrated. The camera was really tight on my face and Gareth wanted me to work with tiny head movements or just my eyes. My facial animatronics weren’t operational at the time so it was all down to me.
Then I had to run around the set with the rifle, pretending to take cover behind walls and firing at imaginary foes. It was just like playing as a child except this was for Star Wars and I was in heaven.
The day went on and there were more lighting tests and photos. I didn’t know where I was going to be taken or what I was going to be asked to do next. At one point I did a stunt assessment in costume, pretending to fight loads of stunt guys with a stick/sword. On another sound stage I did a camera test in what turned out to be a U-Wing. They positioned me at the ship’s gun and we improvised an aerial dogfight, testing both the costume and myself and also experimenting with how they might film the sequence.
At the end of an intense day, whilst I was still fully in costume, Neal came up to me, shook me by the hand and said, “Congratulations Nick. Today you carved yourself a role on this movie.”
Nobody could see it but I had a beaming smile inside Bistan’s head.
What can you tell about your costume and especially the head (it must have been filled with all kinds of electronics?)
Bistan was made by some brilliantly talented people who I must to give credit to. He is an Ivan Manzella design. Sculpted by Colin Jackman. Gus Hoegan created the animatronics. Elisabet Berggren fabricated the muscle body suit. Heather McMullan was the hair artist. Henrik Svensson did the paint job. Gary Page made the space suit, which was designed by Dave Crossman and Glyn Dillon.
Bistan’s an awesome creation and when you wear the whole thing you just can’t help but move in a way that isn’t you, it’s so cool.
Well actually it’s really hot! Also if you wear it for too long you get masses of pain in your back, shoulders and neck but, for me, it’s worth it for Star Wars.
Once the animatronics are turned on all you can hear are the electric servos buzzing so you’re pretty much deaf. I have an earpiece through which I can hear my puppeteer who is operating Bistan’s face and Paul Kasey the movement director. I had two puppeteers for my scenes in Rogue One, Phill Woodfine who is a really experienced operator and Matt Denton who is also one of BB-8’s inventors.
You could argue that the puppeteers who operate the creatures’ faces from outside the costumes add just as much to the character as the person wearing the suit. Performing these designs of creature is a real team effort and when you work together lots you become a tight ensemble. That makes the performance feel organic and real.
As Bistan I wore extra large chimpanzee contact lenses that are hard and uncomfortable. When I’m wearing them under light they make everything look orange and fuzzy. On a dark set all you can see are silhouettes and no detail. The sets on Rogue One were very dark.
The muscle suit worn underneath Bistan’s spacesuit is a bit like a cross between a bulletproof vest and an American footballer’s shoulderpads. It gives him the correct body shape and moves as his muscles would under his skin.
Bistan’s head is extremely close fitting too because as well as using animatronics to move the forehead, muzzle and jaw, the creature’s face is blended directly into my face with prosthetic applications and paint around my eyes.
Mechanically it was a lot to fit into such a small space but it moves so beautifully and has a great range of expressions. It’s impossible to tell where the animatronics finish and I begin.
In Bistan’s case, having a human’s eyes with the animatronic face gives the character a real soul. We filmed a “Creature Shop” featurette for the Disney Channel in the workshop and I was being operated by Patrick Comerford, who also puppeteers the Admiral Raddus face. It was interesting seeing how even up close, without any filming lights or cinema magic, the presenters were still really freaked by how realistic Bistan looked, and our performance of course.
Could you share some stories regarding the filming of your scenes?
Filming the Battle of Scarif was awesome. For Bistan we filmed it in two parts.
Firstly, in the sequence where the U-Wing glides down and drops off the marines onto the beach, Matt Denton and I were actually in the U-Wing as they flew it over the battlefield from a crane. They’d built the beach with loads of sand and palm trees on an airfield just north of London.
We were filming with a 2nd Unit camera crew out of the gunner’s door. I don’t think you can see Bistan as the U-Wing glides down as he was on the far side of the ship but it was great fun flying over the action with explosions blowing up marines and storm troopers all over the place as they ran across the beach. It was quite a spectacle from above.
Funnily, I already knew one of the marines on the U-Wing, Andy Wareham, from years back. We’d worked on In the Night Garden together when we were just starting out. So you had both Igglepiggle and Tombliboo Unn flying into the Battle of Scarif on the same ship!
Andy’s a stunt man now for loads of big Hollywood films. Actually, I’m sure Andy said that another marine on the ship was the suit performer for one of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles back in the 90’s so there’s another mash-up for you.
The second part of the U-Wing sequence was shot on a sound stage at Pinewood. Phill Woodfine was operating me that day from just off camera.
I turned up early for rehearsals and there was a large container mounted high up on hydraulics with massive grey flats all around it. The whole construction was as tall as the sound stage and it looked quite impressive. Then they turned the flats on and wow, it looked incredible!
The flats were actually huge panels of LEDs projecting aerial landscapes of what would turn out to be Scarif and the container was a U-Wing flight simulator. It was like an amazing theme park ride and felt so real once you were on board and it was moving.
Phill and I climbed on with a small camera crew and filmed the gunning scene with Gareth Edwards directing and even operating the camera at some points. We were locked in there with explosions and sparks flying everywhere. It was pretty intense.
It’s awesome to have been involved in filming the Battle of Scarif. There aren’t that many characters in the Star Wars cinematic universe that have been shown taking down an AT-AT and now Bistan has joined those ranks. It’s kind of a badge of honour. Ok technically, I know these were AT-ACTs but you know what I mean.
There’s a Bistan action figure and even a LEGO minifigure (I have the LEGO one myself). When did you find out you were ‘immortalized’ as toys and what was your feeling then?
With the kid’s TV characters I’ve played I’ve had quite a few toys released of me already so maybe you’d think I’d be used to it by now?
Nope! I am totally stoked about there being Bistan Star Wars toys! It’s amazing!
I have a small collection of LEGO minifigures anyway so it feels brilliant to be able to add a LEGO Bistan to the display.
I got him the day he was released with the LEGO U-Wing Fighter set and built it pretty much as soon as I got home. It looks great. I’m also loving the Bistan Pop! Vinyl Bobble-Head, that’s very cool.
I’m extra excited this year though as I believe they’re releasing a 3.75” cardboard-backed Bistan action figure which, for me, is the holy grail of Star Wars toys! It’s especially exciting if you played with the originals as a child, which I did. I have to say, in the early press photos he does look a little like the lost member of the rock band KISS but I don’t care, it’s just awesome that it exists and I will definitely be buying one, probably more!
Bistan was prominently featured on some promotional artwork and made an appearance on Star Wars Celebration London (during a panel with Neal Scanlan). Was Bistan originally supposed to have a bigger role or more scenes in the movie?
As I said earlier, I was partly brought in because there was a chance Bistan might have a bigger role to play in the film but you never know how storylines are going to develop.
I was lucky that the team who put together the “Celebration Reel” picked up on the on behind the scenes shots of me filming as Bistan in the U-Wing. Even though Bistan laughing didn’t make the final cut it’s just a cool image and it helped promote the film.
I did film more scenes on Yavin 4 but unfortunately those scenes were dropped. This isn’t unusual on big feature films. You just have to give the production the shots it wants and then hope for the best.
Fortunately Bistan, or Space Monkey as we knew him then, was particularly popular with the production crew because he looks so cool and there was always a little bit of a buzz when we were filming with him. Maybe this is also why he was asked to make an appearance at Star Wars Celebration in London. He’s definitely a crowd pleaser.
I just mentioned the fact that Bistan made an appearance at Star Wars Celebration in London. Was that you in the costume?
Yes, I was Bistan at Star Wars Celebration and I had a great time at the convention, thanks.
It was my first convention and once we’d finished our panel and interview I had the rest of the day there to enjoy myself. It was fun because I could walk around the convention and nobody recognized me whilst all the time I had this amazing secret that I was in Star Wars.
What did you think of the whole ‘convention experience’?
It was fantastic seeing so many fans enjoying Star Wars together, especially families who had all dressed up. I really enjoyed seeing how many fans were dressed as Rey. She’s a great role model. I’d be happy if my daughter is a Rey fan when she’s older.
The audience was one of the largest I’d ever performed to and Bistan got a great reception. Matt Denton was operating me again and he suggested that I pick up Warwick’s Ewok to have a look. When I threw it back to Warwick I didn’t know it was going to hit him! I did apologise afterwards but Warwick was totally cool about it.
What was the first time you saw a Star Wars movie and were you a fan before you got cast?
I’ve been watching Star Wars and playing with the toys for as long as I can remember and I do love it.
As a child I had a Star Wars spin-off storybook about the Millennium Falcon with an audio cassette tape narrated by C-3P0 which I played to death. R2-D2 would bleep every time you had to turn the page.
I had a few action figures of which the Hoth Wampa and Gamorrean Guard were my favourites.
On a family holiday in Swanage, sometime around 1984, I was allowed to buy one book in a seafront bookshop to read whilst we were away. I chose, “STAN LEE presents THE MARVEL COMICS ILLUSTRATED VERSION OF STAR WARS: RETURN OF THE JEDI” (In Full Colour) for £1.25 in paperback which I still have on my shelf at home.
Even now in my forties I secretly covet my friend Nik’s original Rancor Monster whenever I see it. I’m not a fan that knows every last detail about Star Wars but it was always a big part of my childhood.
Growing up in the late 70’s and early 80’s in the UK, it seemed that every public holiday they would show either Episode IV: A New Hope, Indiana Jones or one of the Superman movies on television, all three during the longer Christmas or Easter breaks.
I didn’t have Star Wars on VHS and there was no On Demand channels so it felt really special whenever the public holidays came round because I’d be home with my family and that’s when I’d get to see Star Wars.
Even though I accept that Empire is technically the best film of the original trilogy, A New Hope is still the most special to me perhaps because it’s been with me the longest. Actually, I love all three of them, you don’t have to choose!
My eldest brother took me to see Return of the Jedi at the cinema when it was first released. I must have been 7 or 8 by then. Apparently when we came out of the cinema I said, “When I’m big I want to be in Star Wars!” at least that’s what my brother tells me.
So thinking back to your first question, perhaps I did always know what I wanted to do with my life. It would just take 30 years or so to achieve it. Yes, I was definitely a fan before playing Bistan and I still am now.
I always enjoy the funny, remarkable and weird stories about the things that happened on the set. Do you have any?
My first day on a Star Wars set was at Yavin 4. Turning up, I wasn’t sure whether it would be mostly green screen or not. I was amazed to find that they’d built the entire Rebel Base on Yavin 4 in a giant aircraft hanger big enough to fly airships into. I think it’s one of the biggest buildings in the UK and at one point they’d built an entire block of Gotham City in there to film the Batman movies. Weirdly enough I also found out later that my dad had taken his RAF basic training there when he was doing his National Service as a young man.
Anyway the new Yavin 4 was amazing, like walking into a childhood dream. They had re-imagined everything perfectly. The set design, all the SAs in retro costumes, even the analogue displays on computer monitors and little flashing lights, all perfect.
Best of all, there was a huge X-Wing right in the middle of the hanger. It was beautiful. I probably shouldn’t have but I walked straight up to the X-Wing and placed both hands on it, enjoying the moment saying to myself, “It’s real! It’s real!” If I had been in my normal clothes someone might have stopped me but as I was dressed as Bistan it was more like, “Ok . . . erm. Just let the monkey do what he wants.”
On another day back at Pinewood we were filming the War Room scene where Jyn Erso is attempting to persuade the rebels to go to Scarif, I was there with Matt Denton operating me.
We were all waiting for something technical to be sorted with cameras and they allowed me to remove Bistan’s head so I could have a breather. I still had my contact lenses in and as I’ve mentioned, I can mostly only see silhouettes.
I heard a voice from the person stood right next to me, “Hey Nick.”
I turned and leaned in to see whom it was to find I was stood right next to Gareth Edwards. He was clothed in an army jacket. Everyone on the Yavin 4 set, cast and crew, seemed to be dressed in either a flight suit or an army jacket. This meant that to me everyone’s silhouettes looked fairly similar so I simply didn’t know he was there until he spoke.
“Oh! Hi Gareth.” I replied.
I asked him how it was all going. He asked me what it was like in the costume and told me he liked the character. Everything was cool.
In fact, for me, everything was amazing! You see, probably every time I’d spoken to Gareth previously I was usually in the Bistan head and/or there was lots of work to do. Generally Gareth would need to shout instructions or speak to me via my operator’s microphone because I can’t hear anyone. Equally I would need to shout back from inside Bistan’s head for my voice not to be muffled. It wasn’t a dynamic conducive to small talk.
So, unusually, there we were, just chatting. Like normal guys . . . except I’m literally a performing monkey and Gareth Edwards is the director of a Star Wars movie!
Then Gareth said, “You know, we should get you a cameo.”
“Wow. Thanks. That’d be awesome.” I replied.
Out of nowhere a behind-the-scenes camera crew sees us talking and starts interviewing Gareth about Space Monkey and the moment is lost. Suddenly we’re ready to film again and so I have to put the head back on and obviously Gareth becomes really busy and I don’t meet him again that day.
Shortly after, production would be moving on to film the Jedha sequences out on the back lot. This would have been the ideal chance for my cameo but Bistan wasn’t on Jedha so I wasn’t called in for those days and it never happened. Gutted!
I’m sure Gareth had a million things to think about and, understandably, I was not high on the list. For the rest of my time at Pinewood I was always up to my neck in Space Monkey either in a crowd or filming my single shots on the U-Wing. I guess my cameo just wasn’t meant to be. With playing Bistan already, maybe I was being a bit greedy.
How do you look back on the whole Star Wars experience?
Recalling events for this interview does make me think, “Wow, that really all happened. That’s part of my life now. That’s just crazy.”
I totally love being a part of Star Wars. The filming of Rogue One and having the opportunity to contribute even a small bit of myself to that universe was so rewarding personally and professionally. Also, being surrounded by so many lovely, talented people whose work you respect was just one of the best experiences. My time there will always be special to me.
My last question: will we see you again in The Last Jedi or another upcoming Star Wars movie?
Who knows? Since Rogue One I’ve been back at Pinewood but on what? I cannot say. Plus I’ve learned that until you see a film in the cinema you never know if you’re going to make the final cut.
Also, technically, you will never see me because I work in creature suits for a living. Perhaps I might get my cameo one day, you can dream.