He is the Star Wars constant: Anthony Daniels is the only actor to appear in all six Star Wars films, and next year he will return in a hugely anticipated seventh. As the voice and body of the faithful and fearful C-3PO, the 68-year-old has embodied this character — a role he initially didn’t even want — across TV shows, radio plays, concert tours, and theme park rides.
Below, Daniels talks about the iconic droid’s next appearance in Disney XD’s fall animated series Star Wars Rebels, which chronicles the formation of the Rebel Alliance leading up to 1977’s Episode IV: A New Hope. Plus, the actor gamely answers our questions about landing the role, his favorite (and least favorite) Threepio lines, working with franchise creator George Lucas, his thoughts on the prequels, and he answers the one question he’s never been asked before. While we were forbidden to inquire about J.J. Abrams’ ultra-secret upcoming Star Wars film, Daniels shared a few thoughts along the way on that topic, too (yes, he’s back in the suit, and assures you’re going to “love” Episode VII). Before the interview, a colleague familiar with the actor advised: “Anthony Daniels IS C-3PO.” That’s not exactly true, yet it’s not entirely wrong either. As you’ll discover, Daniels is like C-3PO’s fraternal twin on some cellular, soulful level — markedly different, yet impossible to imagine without.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Hello?
ANTHONY DANIELS: Hi James. I hear you’re incredibly nervous about this.
The publicist would tell you that, wouldn’t she?
And I would tell you that she told me.
I admit this is an interview I’m particularly excited about.
It’s a real pleasure. I’m not exactly boasting about it, but I feel very good about having stuck it out [in this role] for nearly 40 years. I’m very happy to say I’m involved in another take on Star Wars. I think it’s very inventive that people — writers, producers, production, and directors, they can come up with some new angle that will give audiences another way into the story. Because Star Wars has always had a backstory. The first one, Episode IV, launched the story out of nowhere — [the story was told] as if audiences all knew what [the characters] were talking about. Certainly I didn’t, but intelligent audiences went, “Oh yeah, this is cool, this is real.” Similarly, even with an animated series, it fills in some of that history that would have happened whether you saw it onscreen or not.
As you said, you’ve played one character across seven feature films, several TV shows, video games, theme park rides—
Are you saying I should get a life?
No! I’m wondering if that’s some kind of performance record.
I think it probably is. There’s also Big Bird, Caroll Spinney. I once was on Sesame Street and Spinney’s devotion to that character was absolutely tangible. He had this professional attitude for this character that is lovable in the same way C-3PO is lovable. But to see the way he works on that series and the fact that he remains hidden and keeps the whole image of it going is very similar. There have been other people who have done that sort of thing, too. In 1975 I first met George Lucas. It’ll be 40 years next year. To do it in different iterations has been fascinating. Having been in the studio today [shooting Episode VII], I’m actually quite tired because Threepio is an exhausting character — he’s always very tense, he’s always slightly on the edge of panic. That’s why he’s funny, because he’s always in the wrong place. I record each piece three times in a row, so the director can choose without interrupting too much. But it leaves me now with a glass of wine talking to you, which is much nicer. I’m actually looking right now at one of the art renditions for Rebels because Threepio is newly designed and gives him a really nice look.
You once said you weren’t interested in playing C3PO until you saw Ralph McQuarrie’s concept painting of him for Episode IV — which is interesting because his work is also the basis for a lot of the Rebels art.
I wasn’t interested in the slightest. In fact, I was being polite by going to meet George Lucas. Can you imagine that? I was polite in the room, but it wasn’t a very interesting conversation because he was collapsing from having met pretty much every actor in England. I wandered in, and I think it was a refreshing change for him because I didn’t do what so many people apparently did — this stiff robotic dance. He had lots of people coming in being a robot, which to me is slightly embarrassing. What do you say to somebody who comes in like that? Apparently he would say, “No, no, no!” I was utterly relaxed because I didn’t want the job anyway. I only spoke about this picture out of something to talk about. But as I approached Ralph McQuarrie’s painting, I was very moved by [Threepio’s] face. It almost was inviting to come through the frame of the painting and be with him, or it, on this lonely moonscape. I’d seen the Mona Lisa in Paris, this world famous woman looking straight at you. But her eyes say nothing. Whereas Ralph McQuarrie, who had worked Boeing Aircraft as an engineer, he created a look that leads us to talking today. And it’s only come to me recently, on the film set, that Threepio’s face is as asymmetric as a human’s face. It’s not actually a machine-made metrical object. It is as quirky and lopsided as any human’s face. I never realized that! Which is why that face has such humanity.
It’s so perfect when you were first cast that you were in the Rosencrantz and Guildenstern stage show in London because now that’s sort of what C-3PO and R2-D2 have become in the saga — these two minor characters that weave through all the action.
It was maybe five years after filming Star Wars, I think maybe I was doing Empire Strikes Back, that it suddenly occurred to me that R2 and 3PO are Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. For people who don’t know that play, they are the tiny characters in Hamlet who, in a play written in the 20th century [by Tom Stoppard], became the main characters. One is highly intelligent and sort of intuitive and the other is plodding and slow and usually more correct, usually sensible. I was the clever one, Guildenstern .And I think having played that role the week before we finished and then we’re in the desert [shooting Star Wars], I almost carried on the stage play that I’d been doing. The only difference was that the actor on stage playing Rosencrantz actually spoke to me, whereas R2-D2, to my horror and consternation and bewilderment and confusion, didn’t speak at all. I was in a one-sided monologue.
Did you ever make up dialogue for R2-D2 so you could better play off him?
I actually wrote out his dialogue on the pages so I could then get the whole scene in my head, so that at least I knew why I was saying the next thing. Now I do it tacitly. You see improv on TV — not in a million years could I do that — but actually it’s what I’m doing with R2. When I saw the movie and saw what [sound designer] Ben Burtt had added as R2’s voice, I was fascinated because it did make sense. He had gone in the gaps between me speaking and it was like Ben Burtt could have been there all the time.
What’s your favorite and least favorite line of C-3PO dialogue?
My favorite line is — interesting you ask least favorite — my favorite line is, [in character as C-3PO] “We’re doomed.” It’s a phrase that encapsulates his whole philosophy. It’s his life. He always feels on the edge of disaster. That’s where the humor comes from because he is a humorous character, but mostly it comes by default. He doesn’t tell jokes. He’s just wrong about everything most of the time and lives on this precipice of fear, which gives a sort of tension. You and I hide that. You hid magnificently that you were terrified of talking to me. As humans, adults, we sort of do. He doesn’t have that guile. And in fact, now that I come to think of it, he is pretty much without guile. He says it as it is and that can occasionally be quite funny because he can be inappropriate without meaning to be. This is the thing that George and the writers originally created and we’ve taken it further and further. There’s no way I can think of the situations he’s put into, but they sometimes let me tweak [his lines]. In fact, they always let me tweak the script.
Lucas once said you’re the only Star Wars actor who changed his lines.
What you’re missing by saying that is the look on his face as he said it. I think the word “resentful” comes to mind.
What was the most memorable line from the film your either added or one that you got rid of in terms of tweaking?
Oh, that’s difficult. It’s just a way of phrasing things. One that comes to mind, you’ve got Anakin Skywalker coming up and originally it was written differently where I said, “I am C-3PO.” Now, he’s talking to somebody who built [Threepio] as a kid. Just very simply, I gave Hayden Christensen one of my words. I said, “I am C—” and he goes “3PO?” That’s a simple dynamic of how you can make something a little more lively. It’s not Shakespeare, none of it’s Shakespeare. My least favorite line was — and I remember wincing, really — was, [as C-3PO] “Curse my metal body! I wasn’t fast enough!” I remember saying to Mark Hamill with the crew in the car going to the desert on Tatooine, “How can you say your lines with a straight face?” He said, ‘“How can you say yours?’ That was a line I was reading at the time because we were going through each others’ scripts. I said, “Yeah, but I’m behind a mask, nobody can see I’m saying this stuff, whereas you, your face is there.” He was particularly good at saying daft lines. But because he said them, and I said them, with honesty, integrity and professional delivery, [the audience] believed them. You accept this weird dialogue, and George had the nerve to write it — and we all know what Harrison said about that. I have a faint knack for the sort of rather painful vocabulary [3-CPO] uses. He does come out with some fairly sort of antique epithets or words or phrases that sound odd in a very nice way, but it sounds like not current human-speak. That’s one of the ways he remains robotic — he’s slightly old fashioned. Words like, “Horrid.” Nobody says “horrid” anymore, do they? You’d never hear Threepio say, “Awesome.” Neither would he say, “I guess I should do this or that.” That’s modern language.
Rebels executive producer Simon Kinberg said you gave him some notes about the character’s dialogue just like you did with Lucas. What did you advise him on?
I’m really bad, aren’t I? I’m so ashamed. I think I told him not to worry about upsetting me — “No one worries about upsetting a droid.” That was a really good line. I think people think that I, Anthony Daniels, by absorption, by osmosis, know this character, how he would react. I don’t get paid extra for putting in my two cents. I don’t even get the two cents. I’ve put in my two cents. They oftentimes take it, and sometimes they say, “Yeah, we’ll do it the way it’s written.” I’m an actor for hire. I do what I’m told.
He said you made a very good point though about cowardice; that it’s important that any cowardice from C-3PO comes from logic rather than fear.
Not to get heavy about this, but one of the laws of robotics is that a robot has to protect itself — that is, after it’s protected its master. He’s not basically a coward. He has the logic to extrapolate any given situation to its dreadful end. The interesting thing is he only ever sees a bad outcome. He doesn’t have that capability or programming to say, “Well it could end up fine.”
The character is often in a state of protest about whatever is going on. What does Threepio want? What’s his ideal day?
He generally wants not to be where he is. He wants people around him not to be doing what they’re generally doing. Somebody being inappropriate is going to put them in danger, Han Solo doing this or that, or particularly R2-D2, who has no sense of danger whatsoever. This is one of the brilliant things about the original concept. You have the shiny, bright, thoughtful, sensitive, intelligent one who sees the downside of everything and the potential risk of being melted down — [in character] “We’ll be melted down, for sure!” The other good line: “We seem to be made to suffer. It’s our lot in life.” He’s always looking for that suffering quality whereas R2 barges in and out, and is totally gung-ho. There you get this dramatic conflict.
Next: Episode VII; Getting the call from J.J. Abrams
You’ve lent your voice to plenty of other Star Wars projects. What’s the best C-3PO story not from the films that fans can check out?
I always loved when we were on Sesame Street. My favorite bit was a little scene where R2-D2 comes in. [As R2] beep-beep [in character] “New girlfriend? You want me to meet her?” And we go out into Sesame Street into the street. And I go, “R2, that’s a fire hydrant!” That was so brilliantly written by the team on Sesame Street. I loved it that you had these anachronistic moments. There have been all sorts of things that I loved.
What’s an on-set anecdote that’s particularly interesting or funny from the films that you have never told an interviewer before?
I’m saving that for the book I will write when I retire. Why should I give you my best stories? It’d be very revealing. There would be photographs.
You’ve had performances in the suit, as voiceover for CGI. It’s also been reported that you’ve done, or are currently doing, motion capture as the character. Which is the best method for portraying C-3PO?
I will tell you that when [director] J.J. Abrams rang me to ask about filming Episode VII, one of the first things he said after he told me how wonderful I was — and that didn’t take long — but he then said, “Would you be interested in being in the film just doing the voice?” I said, “No,” and he said, “Right!” He knew I’d say that. There’s no way I would just do the voice. I also said that it can’t be the same suit. I will tell you that the team then got together and built a new suit. They made an entirely new look-a-like with changes that you will never notice [on screen] that made my life a lot easier. I can get it on and off very quickly. [During the prequels], the only time [Threepio has] been CG was when it was very dangerous [to act in the scene in a suit] — and it wasn’t very good. In fact, I’m going to say it was awful. One of the difficulties is with a character that you know and love so well is that, as a member of the audience, you go, “Oh no, that’s not right. No, he doesn’t move like that.” With me [in the suit], he’s always going to move the same way and have the same reactions, timing, and so on. With CG, you’re working with some brilliant person on the keyboard who is trying to pretend to be me. The only time that has worked without doubt is Disney’s Star Tours: The Adventures Continue [theme park ride]. There’s an element in the pre-show which is digital and I cannot tell it’s not me. It’s brilliantly done by Disney. In a cartoon series like Rebels, you accept it because it’s not trying to pretend to be reality. It’s an extension, it’s an exaggeration. On that basis, it’s utterly acceptable — providing the characterization is correct.
To a casual fan, the character’s personality seems consistent. Has Threepio grown?
It’s a very good question actually. [Pause]. If you ask me about Episode VII … of course I will deny any knowledge whatsoever. But it occurred to me on the set the other day, because I’ve been doing it for so long, being 3PO for so long, I have a kind of confidence about what he would do in a particular scene. I think 3PO might have grown in confidence over the years because he’s survived so many dramas and he’s gained so much knowledge about what’s going on in the galaxy. He may have grown in that way. But generally the way he appears to grow is by being faced by new situations and new conflicts. He’s very much a washing machine — you could put in a set of fine lingerie and he might do it on a different cycle. It’s what you give him to do that brings out fresh attitudes. He might meet somebody who is rude or smelly or just awful and that brings out — I won’t say snobbishness, he is a bit of a snob but … it brings out his reactive quality. That’s always funny for me because I look for new ways to become appalled. A lot of the time in the studio, you should realize, I read the words, my mouth opens, he comes out of my mouth and we all laugh. I laugh. The director laughs, and the engineer laughs. You think, “Yeah, this is really good.”
You’ve been involved in so many Star Wars productions. What’s unique about Rebels?
It’s unique that it goes very specifically to a given period of time, which is just before the film that I happened to like the best — which is A New Hope, the first one. There are now three generations [of fans], which I know because of my work with Star Wars: In Concert where I could see in the audience terrifyingly young children and I thought, “They’re going to be a menace,” and they sat there open-mouthed at the story that I was telling to them onstage with the orchestra. Now you can [ease] people into A New Hope. And you’ve seen I, II and III, there’s gaps there. What happened to these characters? We love them. We want to see what they did when they were not in the big films. Because George and everybody who’s followed on has created such a reality in the galaxy far, far away that we want to see more about it.
What’s different about working on Star Wars now that George Lucas is no longer running the show?
He’ll always be the inspiration. The first film was incredible success. Then the the second was a phenomena too. You come to the third film [pause] that had Ewoks in it. Anyway! Moving on! People began having ownership of these films. Everyone is a critic, etc. Then time moves on and we come to the prequels. I’m ignoring the special edition, the 3-D special edition, the special edition box set, the whatever. But then you move on to the prequels and people became quite critical. Often they were the people who were there the first time around. They weren’t the 10-year-olds. What I’m coming to say is that none of this would have happened without George. None of it. The depth that people get out of the Star Wars saga in general whether it’s cartoons or toys or whatever is so praiseworthy, so astounding that George — How would you say it? Okay, I’m going to say it: George is the force behind it. Eventually, maybe, people run out of ideas, they lose track of what was the really neat stuff that we really went for. Then he wisely — probably thankfully, I don’t know but I would imagine — said, “Okay, I’ve done this, now you go play with it. Go play in the sandbox. I’ve given you the basic ingredients.” Darth Vader, Yoda, all these names that are everywhere now. [For me], it’s almost to the point of, “Oh please, let me off, for one day! Let me not hear this clock forever ticking in my ear.” But that’s the way it is now. Star Wars Rebels is just one way of bridging this 18-month gap between now and the next [film]. Rebels [executive producer], Dave Filoni, he knows what he’s doing. He upped the ante on the previous things we’ve done. It’s a tremendous form of access for young people and for parents to sit with their kids.
I saw the premiere of Rebels at Comic Con and was impressed. It had that sort of early Star Wars feel to it, which is elusive to capture.
It’s very elusive and I’ll tell you: It’s where we’re going now with Episode VII. We’re all back. And it’s great, actually, that Rebels is set before Episode IV because that film is quintessential basic, “This is Star Wars.” And you know George always used to say every time I arrived on set, I would always arrive for the first time back on set in costume, and during the prequels George would say when I arrived on set that “Star Wars has arrived” — because I was the old fashioned link. Rebels is is an old fashion link to the old fashion film, which which we all loved. And you will love Episode VII — I have electrodes strapped to my head to zap me if I say anything more about it.
[Publicist breaks in to say we are well over our time limit]
Actually, I have one final question. And I think it’s one he’ll like if I can get this in…
Is this where you offer me a large check?
No. It’s that Harrison Ford once famously asked George Lucas to kill off Han Solo in Return of the Jedi. What is your personal preference for the fate of C-3PO?
[Long pause] A child about 10 once asked me: “Is it hot in the costume?” And I said, “If only somebody had asked me a question that had never been asked before.” And he paused and said: “What would that be?” Well, of course, I smacked him, I knocked him into the ground, the little creep! You have asked me a question I’ve never been asked before … You asked the most interesting question I have ever been asked.
Really? That’s flattering.
Don’t get carried away. You asked me 20 others. It took half an hour to get to an interesting question. But you have asked me a brilliant question… [Pause]. Humans die … I guess, wow. … Would he rust, gently? … I think probably he would realize that his programming was failing, that it was too old fashioned, and Microsoft had stopped supporting that particular brand. He would see upcoming new robots and realize his power source was running out. He’d say to R2, “Can you go down and get me a new power spectrum?” or whatever. I don’t think he’d ever — I’m looking at this image with [C-3PO wearing his replacement] silver leg … I think he would go on. Getting spare parts, getting surgery. And I think the people around him, humans and droids alike, would help because he had become part of their daily lives, part of their environment. They wouldn’t want to let him go. You know, I’m a great do-it-yourself person at home. I mend pretty much anything I can, whether it’s melting plastic with a hot skewer from the stove because the plastic is cracked, or with my glue gun mending this or that, or cannibalizing a part from something else that I kept in the workshop. I will keep objects going. I’m not from the throw-away culture, I’m from the make-and-mend culture. Threepio is nice to have around. I think he would go on and on and on.
Star Wars Rebels premieres Oct. 3 on the Disney Channel before moving Oct. 13 for its regular run on Disney XD. Star Wars: Episode VII is scheduled for release in December 18, 2015.