Actor Christian Simpson concludes his detective work-meets-Star Wars magic true story of trying to track down Kipsang Rotich, the original voice of Nien Nunb in Return of the Jedi, to reprise his role in Star Wars: The Force Awakens. Be sure to read part one in case you missed it!
After looking high and low for any leads regarding the whereabouts of the original Nien Nunb — and beginning to think the case was closed — a tip finally came through. “I am an American named Larry,” began an e-mail I read with a mixture of excitement and curiosity. “I am currently a guest in the house of Kipsang Rotich…”
On my search for Kipsang Rotich, someone had seen my original local forum post that biographer L.D. Goldberg’s info had led me to, and within hours I was on the phone to a “Mr. Bill Rotich.” Was it the original voice of Nien Nunb in Return of the Jedi?
“Bill” was very understanding as I explained things in broad strokes and asked if he’d mind verifying some due diligence checks. I asked Bill about the wedding date from Kipsang Rotich’s postcard, Kipsang’s wife’s name (I figured he should know that), and more.
I texted supervising sound editor Matthew Wood just two words as Bill told me his answers in a friendly and distinctive voice.
Bill had answered it all 100 percent correctly! Within minutes he was telling me tales of Pat Welsh, of Hemingway safaris, how his family knew fellow Kenyan Lupita Nyong’o, and how Ben Burtt had offered him the voice of E.T., but he had graciously passed it along to Ms. Welsh as his senior!
The Nunb had awakened! Instantly the response came back from Matthew.
And so I arranged for Kipsang Rotich to set up a call with Matthew Wood to welcome him formally back to the Star Wars family. And after that, a bonus message came in to me.
“J.J. is very happy!”
I later asked Mr. Abrams how he felt when he heard the news. “I was relieved that fans would have that authentic voice they knew and loved back in the Star Wars universe,” he said.
“I gave Christian the only facts I knew about Kipsang,” Matthew Wood said, “and his tenacity and research (coupled with a LOVE for Star Wars) brought Kipsang back to us! This is just one of many special stories bridging the past with the now, and I’m grateful for everyone involved who made it happen! Thank you!”
But we weren’t there yet! One small thing remained. To actually record Nien Nunb’s lines.
With hours to spare.
Matthew gave awesome, specific direction as to tone, dialect, that it must match Return of the Jedi, and that there were just two lines needed.
“I said, ‘Do things that are in the affirmative.’ Because every time Nien Nunb was asked to do something in the movie, it was always, “We’re going to go here!” And he had to say, “Yes!” Or, “We’re going to do this!” and “Yes, sir!” I did the same thing [as Burtt did for Jedi]. I took his voice and put it in there exactly how it was. That’s the original voice.”
— Matthew Wood (to The Daily Dot)
He also detailed that the dialogue should be similar to the situation in the Falcon like last time. But also everything had to be able to match the puppeteering mouth work, necessitating the lines being two to five syllables, in Kikuyu. Not much to ask for a remote recording in Africa, then!
We found a studio near Kipsang that could provide the required 24bit/48khz/WAV file (for us audio geeks), could record on a shotgun mic with a Lavalier backup (for us super geeks), and could do it that same day (for deadline geeks). I tried writing out everything for Kipsang, but it quickly started to look too confusing for failsafe transcontinental communication. It seemed the right approach for the most reliable end result would be to simply give the lines to actor Kipsang Rotich in the format he would be used to.
Suddenly I realized that I was in a way writing — well okay, typing — a tiny part of the screenplay for Episode VII. I took pause at that moment, and thought back over all the ways Star Wars had held me, kept me connected to it, since I was seven years old watching Empire with my dad for the first time. And those incredible “coincidences” I wrote about in my other articles here. It was almost too much. I shook myself out of it, for there was “work” to do and a deadline several million people were waiting for.
Within hours I had the final audio files on my computer. And there he was playing over the speakers. The distinctive “Nien Nunb” voice and laugh! And you can’t help but laugh at moments like that. Yoda had been right. We tried not. We did it!
Ever conscious how busy the rest of the sound team were, I shortlisted two sets of phrases from the dozens that had been recorded; a “Top 20” and a “Top 6.”
Then the real magic happened. Matthew cut the dialect so it fit the on-screen mouth movements perfectly, whilst retaining the unedited Haya that sounds like the “real” Sullustan we knew and loved from 1983. The next day a new TV spot aired featuring that very recording!
Before I knew it, the movie was out. Matthew kindly invited the Hollywood voice actors to the cast and crew screening. How brilliant to see Nunb up on screen, with those vocals that had been files in my inbox days before.
And there at the end of the movie, Kipsang Rotich finally got his credit after 32 years.
The circle was complete. I received a lovely message from him, which I passed along to Matthew Wood, who’d been instrumental in getting him that on-screen credit, and in turn to J.J.:
“Thank you ever so much for your support in the movie. The movie is amazing! Congrats to you and the team for the splendid work in making Star Wars a global success!”
– Kipsang Rotich
And we understand it went down rather well in his native country also, where Matthew found an article from Kenya Buzz which reported:
“[Nien Nunb’s] two lines of dialogue got the loudest cheer in the theatre (followed closely by the first appearance of Han Solo and Chewbacca).”
And now with The Force Awakens Blu-ray release, thinking back, if it wasn’t for that encounter at Celebration, die hard fans of Nien Nunb might not be celebrating today — but was it just chance, or something more mysterious at play? For the ripples went much further. Some time after, Kipsang’s daughter Anita got in touch with us:
“I just want to thank you. It’s been really amazing to discover this side of my dad and to see how he lights up when speaking about this current Star Wars film and the previous one he did.”
– Anita Rotich
That moved me and that alone makes it all worthwhile.
But the most curious twist was still to come. I visited my parents (hi mum!) near London this Christmas. There, my young nephew Alfie, who is a recent huge Star Wars fan, had heard about my old Kenner AT-AT and other toys still in my parents’ attic. And so he requested we take him up to see them. Of course, we did. And there, waiting patiently under the Millennium Falcon cockpit canopy, as it must have been hiding for countless years, was just one, lone, presumed-missing action figure.
I sent Kipsang the photo and he replied that it was “divinely ordained.”
I think he’s right. I just call it the will of the Force.
StarWars.com thanks Christian Simpson for sharing this amazing story!