In 1975, Anthony Daniels was among the first people signed on to help George Lucas bring his vision, a serial-inspired space opera simply called The Star Wars, to life. “Threepio was the one for me,” he says of discovering the character that would define his career on the pages of the script and in Ralph McQuarrie’s concept art.
In the months that followed, Daniels was on the ground floor as sculptors and prop makers fabricated the stunning metal exoskeleton of C-3PO, human-cyborg relations, formed to precisely fit his slender frame, a 60-pound costume of metal and rubber that was secured with four screws that kept the actor entirely encased and dependent on the crew.
In those early days on set, sweltering in the Tunisian sun filming the sands of Tatooine for what would become Star Wars: A New Hope, Daniels admits he thought to himself, “What on Earth have I got into?” Between the restrictive costume, which sometimes pinched or shifted to crush his foot and was so time consuming to put on that he had to remain fully dressed and propped up beneath an umbrella between takes; the elements; and a counterpart who was completely silent on set, forcing the theatrically-trained mime to fill in the beeps and boops of R2-D2 and react accordingly, it was a challenging time. “Those first days on the set back in 1976 were difficult. Not only the suit, because nobody had ever really made a suit like that, but one of the issues of wearing it was to be so isolated from people,” Daniels says. The desert could be blistering hot or frigid, but Daniels’ costume was always the same. “You see the crew dressed up in parka jackets and I’m there in a pair of tights and some plastic knickers,” he says. “It’s not a good look. Not a warm look at all. But I am professional enough to [say] I don’t think I’ve ever walked away from a job.”
Not only did Daniels stick it out, he returned to the role for the sequel, Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back, and again and again over the next four decades. On a recent book tour, Daniels stopped by Lucasfilm headquarters to regale his colleagues, old and new, with stories of his 43 years playing C-3PO and accept a golden statuette in his character’s likeness to thank him for his years of service. “Once I’d done the second one, it became a given that I would do the others,” he says. “I had connected with Threepio by then, I almost needed to look after him. But I did recognize that I was going into something I knew would not be that comfortable.” In his new book, I Am C-3PO: The Inside Story — which he jokes should have been titled “Telling the Odds,” a line he delivers with perfect posture and in the unmistakable voice of his on-screen counterpart — Daniels writes with wit and heart to recall the trials and tribulations of giving life to the prissy protocol droid.
StarWars.com recently sat down with the man behind the golden mask to talk about years spent peering out from Threepio’s eyes, the magic of the Star Wars in Concert series, and saying goodbye to his friend as the end of the Skywalker saga nears.
‘People are very moved’
According to Daniels, we have Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker director J.J. Abrams to thank for the book’s existence. One day on set for the latest film, “He looked at me and said, ‘You should write a book. Are you?’ He’s got that kind of brain,” Daniels says. “So two days later I said, ‘Yes, I’m writing a book. Would you write the forward?’” Abrams humbly replied: “I’d be honored.”
It’s the perfect time for Daniels to look back over his long career as the iconic character. The final trailer for the forthcoming film already gave fans an emotional moment with Threepio taking one last look at his friends. “People are very moved, very questioning,” Daniels says of the reaction to the clip. “What it means, I leave to the audience to discover,” he says. “I don’t want to spoil anything.”
This isn’t the first time Daniels has said goodbye to the character he helped create — a team effort he describes in detail in his book that took Lucas’s idea, McQuarrie’s visionary concept art, the artistry of sculptor Liz Moore, and countless others to make the metal man a reality. When the original trilogy came to a close, it seemed like the end. Then the prequels were announced and Daniels returned to reprise the role. Still, his last days on set for The Rise of Skywalker were emotional ones. “I don’t believe that I’m saying goodbye to Threepio in the workplace,” Daniels says, having also provided the voice of the character in animation and for the Star Tours experience in the Walt Disney theme parks. “And I feel so good about Episode IX that it’s OK to say goodbye. It feels the right time…. Not to say that the last day on the set wasn’t a bit difficult, quite moving. But I think a lot of that was to do with the complete affection that J.J. and the crew provided. It was a very warm atmosphere on this film. One of love, affection, and respect because all of the crew have grown up with Star Wars. They just really respect what everybody has put into this, which is why it works.”
At the end, perspective
Daniels’ book takes us back to where it all began, a love letter not only to the character that defined his career but also the evolution of moviemaking magic as witnessed through his glowing eyes. From the earliest practical effects that helped define Threepio’s geisha-like walk, a necessity to keep Daniels from falling down in the constricting costume, to finally getting a pair of gloves that can actually truly grip things in the latest film, and the experience of acting with a green screen during the prequels, it’s fascinating to see the history of Star Wars unfold from Daniels’ unique perspective.
Some of the tales have been previously aired at conventions or in his Wonder Column, once a staple in the Star Wars Insider magazine. “But then of course I talk about things that nobody’s heard me say before. Feelings that I’ve maybe not let out before,” he says. “Because as we come to the end of the whole Skywalker family saga, I have perspective on things.”
In the earliest days promoting the franchise, Daniels admits to feeling a bit neglected. His character played an important role in the driving plot of the first film, but during press tours he was not regarded as one of the key players from the film, he says, the preference being to maintain the idea that the droid was in fact a droid and not an actor in a suit. “I was not allowed to be a part of it and it took me many, many years to begin to feel a part,” he says. “Now I end feeling a part. So there is a journey there, which I hadn’t recognized as I was writing.”
On-screen, C-3PO has always acted as something of an unfiltered conduit for the audience’s own emotions. Between his dramatic and vocal exclamations and his physicality, Daniels has found the humanity in a character that is no man, all machine. “He’s a slightly prim, over-educated, over-didactic, preachy character who has got this tremendous vulnerability, which is kind of why we like him, who has no sense of humor because that makes him ridiculous,” Daniels surmises. “We’re taught to dissemble, taught to not give our true feelings, and we allow him to. It’s just fascinating to see that release of tension. He has no restraint, no filter at all, whereas we are taught to filter what we say. And also I think we quite enjoy the fact that at various times, he’s persecuted or humiliated or ignored or whatever. And we all feel that as humans from time to time… So, he’s a great person to relate to.”
Daniels mastery of mime allows him to convey a range of emotions through relatively simple gestures, although he credits John Williams’ score and the acting of his fellow cast members with helping the audience intuit Threepio’s emotional responses despite a blank and unchanging mask. “For instance, if Obi-Wan Kenobi has just died, it’s a bit of a sad moment. John Williams is telling you that. The other actors are telling you this is a sad moment. So by doing very little on my part, you can read that reflected sadness.” In that scene, Daniels says it came down to the way he cocked his head. “It’s a really animal signal about what is happening from the core and the center here,” he says pointing to his abdomen, “where a lot of emotion comes from.”
It’s difficult for Daniels to truly grasp the impact Star Wars has had from his vantage point at the center of it all from the very start. But while hosting Star Wars In Concert, he says he made the connection vividly as he experienced the live score, the emotional moments on screen, and the complete adoration and awe from the captivated audience. “It does create a kind of energy field that you can sort of feel,” like the Force itself, Daniels says.
And he relishes meeting fans and recalling anecdotes from his career, occasionally breaking into C-3PO’s prim inflection. “I find it really quite rewarding and touching when I am telling an anecdote in public and I do necessarily drop into the voice that people really respond to it,” he says. “People do really get emotional remembering those early days of seeing it with their family. It’s a whole family thing, Star Wars.”
And what would C-3PO himself think of the pop culture phenomenon that Star Wars has become? “I think he would be interested. Films are about living vicariously. The audience watches the protagonist going through the motions of their lives and in a good film they can relate, hang on the coattails, and go with them. And George was very adept at making that happen from the beginning. For me it’s too big…it’s such a massive, huge, big undertaking that I’ve been in the middle of that it’s hard for me to see it from the outside. It’s just something I do. It’s sort of natural to my way of life. Not taken for granted in an offhanded way, it’s what I do.”
I Am C-3PO: The Inside Story is available now. And on December 20, join C-3PO as he takes one last look at his friends and we experience the final act in the Skywalker saga with Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker.
Associate Editor Kristin Baver is a writer and all-around sci-fi nerd who always has just one more question in an inexhaustible list of curiosities. Sometimes she blurts out “It’s a trap!” even when it’s not. Do you know a fan who’s most impressive? Hop on Twitter and tell @KristinBaver all about them.
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