“Did you hear that R-2? They’ve shut down the main reactor. We’re doomed. There will be no escape for the princess this time.”
These were the first words uttered in the Star Wars saga that has dominated the last 40 years of popular culture and whose story draws to a close this month.
The line was spoken by C-3PO – or Threepio – the gold-plated droid built for “human-cyborg relations”. Speaking with an English butler’s prim and proper tones, walking with a geisha shuffle, he became a talisman for the adventures and, crucially, was endlessly merchandisable. Like glitter on a Christmas card or a twinkle in the eye, C-3PO was the shiny thing that first grabbed the audience’s attention and we have been riveted ever since.
Anthony Daniels, now 73, has played C-3PO since the beginning, usually bolted into a cramped and uncomfortable costume. And four decades later, he is present and correct at the end – the only actor to have appeared in every Star Wars film.
A long time ago (a month or so) in a galaxy far away (France, where Daniels now lives), The Big Issue interrupts his morning of gardening.
“The sun is shining, I can hear the church bells in the distance,” he says. “I’m in my gardening gear, fighting nature. It’s all lovely, but a tonne of work.”
This is the calm before the publicity storm that always precedes a Star Wars film, and the buzz on The Rise of Skywalker is noisier than ever. After some fans felt the franchise lost its way with The Last Jedi, the pressure on The Rise of Skywalker to right wrongs and tie a nine-film series up satisfyingly is astronomical.
Speculation around C-3PO’s destiny has been heightening since a trailer showed him with red eyes. It could mean everything or nothing, and not knowing just increases anticipation (though in some comics there’s a rogue C-3PO-style droid known as Triple Zero). At this point Daniels is still to record his final lines, “when we’ll know what we’re saying and why we’re saying it”.
Are the red eyes a red herring?
“Yes indeed they could be,” he says, laughing in a manner that could be interpreted numerous ways. “It is a problem now, knowing what’s real and what’s not.”
That is partly why Daniels was determined to set the record straight. His new book, I Am C-3PO – The Inside Story, is a lightspeed trip through the series, full of often frank reminiscences. C-3PO had a tetchy relationship with sidekick R2-D2, and similarly Daniels has little positive to say about Kenny Baker who played him: “He appeared at countless conventions and the fans loved him. Sadly, our off-screen history prevented me feeling the same.” Daniels also mentions the bullying on the set of the prequel trilogy, with its “industrial, rather threatening atmosphere” and how Mark Hamill and Carrie Fisher were “appalled at their roles” in The Force Awakens. At the first script read-through, Hamill had read the stage directions because (spoiler) he didn’t have any other lines. Afterwards, Daniels recalls, he was “traumatised”.
“If I’d said everything was marvellous, darling, you’d go that’s just bullshit, wouldn’t you?” Daniel says now.
When The Big Issue spent time with Mark Hamill while he was filming The Last Jedi, he told us that Daniels “is a lot more like his character than you would imagine, he is a little bit prickly”. What attributes does Daniels think he shares?
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“Threepio is a bit impatient, partly because people never listen to him. I myself am a little impatient. He is kind and caring and these are two qualities I would like to be known as… as well as being impatient.”
When working on the first film over 40 years ago nobody, including Daniels, suspected it would change his – and a large portion of the audience’s lives. A jobbing actor based in London, Daniels wasn’t even aware it had opened in the US until its enormous success was being reported worldwide.
“When I saw the cover of Time or Newsweek, I can’t remember which, I knew,” he says. “Very quickly after that I was flown over to Los Angeles to put my footprints on Hollywood Boulevard. I saw the lines of people waiting to go into the theatre that went up and around into areas of quite nice houses and gardens. The lines were so long that people were needing to pee – and they were peeing in people’s front gardens. It was a genuine phenomenon.”
The masses believed that C-3PO was a real robot. “I do take it as something of a compliment. I was pretending to be a robot and they believed me. I used to say to Mark Hamill, jokingly in the desert, you don’t have to act here because if I’m in the scene all I have to do is wobble a bit and everyone will just look at me.”
Star Wars is a wonderful piece of imagination, but there are real world factors in there and I want to talk sensibly about it.
Four decades on, robotics and AI have not quite caught up with Threepio but over that time as a pseudo droid ambassador, Daniels has kept an eye on the technology. “Very much so. Out of my own interest really, and so I can talk on the subject. Star Wars is a wonderful piece of imagination, but there are real world factors in there and I want to talk sensibly about it. If only, frankly, to point out that I’m not just somebody who puts on a costume, wobbles about and speaks funny. You’d be surprised in the past how people have trivialised what I do. I don’t argue about it. I know what I did.”
Speaking of speaking funny, Star Wars mastermind George Lucas didn’t imagine C-3PO as sounding the way he eventually did.
“He had thought of Threepio as having a sleazy New York second-hand car dealer type of voice. But he never mentioned that to me,” Daniels remembers (dozens of actors auditioned to record the voice, including Richard Dreyfuss).
“He thought he could change the voice in post-production. Other people told him, ‘No, Anthony’s voice works.’ He was big enough to say, ‘OK’ but it was touch and go. I’ve been very lucky because it means I’ve had work in cartoons, books, commercials and all sorts of spin-offs.”
If there is still some dialogue to be recorded, it’s not too late to give C-3PO his originally intended Bronx accent though, right?
“I think people would be very disappointed if he started speaking like that.”
Ah… fans and disappointment. The Last Jedi divisiveness is nothing new, as Daniels well knows.
“A lot of people got irritated when George Lucas made the Special Edition and fiddled with the original,” Daniels says.
“People got cross, really upset. When reading some criticism of The Force Awakens and The Last Jedi I looked on YouTube, which I had only recently discovered, people come up with such amazing theories that are sometimes better. There’s a certain amount of hate and fury, but it’s because people care that they can lose their sense of proportion. I do understand but unfortunately the internet has made anger a pretty common phenomenon now.”
Daniels has searched for a different word to describe fans. “I just worry that the word fan is slightly dismissive or makes it seem petty, and that is not the case,” he says. “I think the French is adhérent – people who belong or adhere to what you’re doing, to what you’ve made. Without the people who went to the first screenings and came out shrieking, getting their friends and coming back again, we wouldn’t have made a second film and we wouldn’t now be making the ninth film.”
Many people have spent their whole lives with Star Wars stories as a backdrop to their own existence. Their identity is tied to that of the characters, so when a new film doesn’t match their expectations it becomes a BIG DEAL. And why shouldn’t it? By now the story belongs more to fans than filmmakers.
“They do sort of own it and you change something at your peril,” Daniels agrees. “But how wonderful they do own it because they care. They genuinely have feelings about this and they want to express them and they want them to be respected.”
It’s not just the fans. Mark Hamill didn’t love the direction his character took in The Last Jedi.
Was that a mistake because it didn’t consider what fans’ reactions would be, or is it more important for filmmakers to push their own creative vision?
“It has to be a mixture of both. Mark in the last films wasn’t terribly happy but it’s not about Mark or Luke, it is the whole thing. I could certainly see some of his criticisms because they’re absolutely valid but somebody has to be in charge – and you better hope that person knows what they’re doing. You trust them. It’s his – we haven’t yet had a female director – person’s responsibility and you have to regard their take as the truth because they are the captain of the ship. We know that in Solo there was a point where there were artistic differences with the chosen captains [Phil Lord and Christopher Miller] and a new captain was brought in.”
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Daniels cites another example of a time the captain of the ship might have steered into stormy waters. While Daniels almost became invisible, obscured by the character of C-3PO, Ahmed Best who played Jar Jar Binks in the prequel trilogy became vilified just because not all fans loved the character.
“I think it was beyond cruel,” Daniels says. “Ahmed is hugely intelligent, hugely talented, sharp, witty, bright and energetic. He did exactly what George [Lucas] wanted him to do, so there’s an example of the auteur – the captain – and the actor doing exactly what he was told to say, how he was told to say it.”
I went to drama school in the age when it was all Laurence Olivier and poncing about
Daniels definitely has renewed hope for The Rise of Skywalker, a good sign as he wouldn’t have been able to hide his discontent.
“Acting styles have got so much better,” he says. “I went to drama school in the age when it was all Laurence Olivier and poncing about. That has changed. The naturalistic style and so on. I did laugh. I was doing a scene with Oscar [Isaac], Daisy [Ridley] and John [Boyega]. We were rehearsing, we had this complicated scene of dialogue amongst us all. They were speaking very quietly, and sincerely, and then Threepio COMES IN LOUD. I realised the acting styles are utterly different.”
We are reaching the end of the original saga, but while something still makes money it’ll never die. This could be the end for Anthony Daniels’ involvement though.
“In The Rise of Skywalker there’s quite a lot of interesting stuff and therefore a wonderful film to sweetly end on for me,” he says.
But just as other actors have taken over R2-D2 and Chewbacca, let alone digital cameos from the late Carrie Fisher and Peter Cushing, could C-3PO be starring in Star Wars films for many decades to come?
“Far more easily than Carrie, yes.” How would you feel watching C-3PO on screen having not played him? “I don’t think I’d feel good. C’est la vie, that’s art. Actors, I’m afraid, are expendable, especially in these days of digital.
“I don’t think of him as me and I don’t think of me as him, but I know he’s only truly true if I’m doing him. I know how he thinks, I know how he feels, I know how he times things. Who knows? Threepio is too good a character to cease to exist, so after I’m gone there will be somebody carrying the torch.”
This article was originally published in The Big Issue print magazine.