By Jeff Labrecque
March 13, 2015 at 12:00 PM EDT
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When Bill Irwin heard that Christopher Nolan was asking about him for a space movie he was working on, he understandably got excited. Perhaps not as excited as his agent—”Christopher Nolan wanting to talk to you makes an agent’s eyes go kind of wide”—but he had no clue what to expect when his phone rang and the Interstellar director was on the other end of the line.

Turns out Nolan thought the 64-year-old actor, who’d once trained as a Ringling Bros. clown, could breathe life into TARS, the robot that would help Matthew McConaughey and Anne Hathaway’s astronauts through the cosmos in search of a new home for mankind. “He described this plank machine and I did my best to follow what was in his mind,” Irwin says. “He said, ‘I could save a lot of money if I just had an actor come in and do the voice afterwards, but I won’t do that.’ He was very clear that this was going to be a physical, visceral gig.”

That gig required Irwin to master a form of puppetry to make some bent-up aluminum convincingly walk across rough terrain that suited Nolan’s desire for old-school effects. Irwin and stuntman Mark Fichera dressed in grey unitards and literally controlled TARS movements for about 80 percent of the movie. (The other 20 percent were CG-enhanced to accomplish TARS’ more dynamic action sequences.) In an exclusive behind-the-scenes extra from the Interstellar Digital HD release, which arrives on March 17—the Blu-ray and DVD will be released on March 31—Nolan explains why he chose Irwin, and viewers get to see how the actor and FX crew brought TARS to life. 

Even as they mastered TARS in pre-production, Irwin had concerns about how the machine would work once live actors were introduced. Pure terror, actually. “Because we would get to the point in the shop where we’d start to feel like, ‘I think we have something. I can bring it right up to Matthew McConaughey’s face and not drop it on him,'” says Irwin. “Then they’d disassemble it and ship it to Canada and then disassemble it and ship it to Iceland and move it around in the water—and it would change. It got rusty. It got out of alignment. And then when Chris says, ‘Action,’ you’d realize, ‘Oh man, this machine is not working the way it was the last time we had it out.’ So it was scary because you always wanted to bring your work up to everyone else’s, and you always wanted to please the captain and give him what he needed in a scene.”

One thing Irwin never lost sleep over, however, was TARS’ voice and personality. Thanks to the script, he had a full and deep grasp of the character that required very little debate or discussion. “Almost offhandedly, Chris said, one day, ‘By the way, have you thought about the voice for this?'” says Irwin. “And I said, ‘Well, I think the way you wrote him is like a retired military officer who has a certain kind of sense of humor, a certain kind of strength in his voice, and has seen a lot of things.’ And he was like, ‘Yeah, that’s fine.’ That’s the only conversation we ever had about the character.”

Nolan hasn’t expressed any desire to make an Interstellar sequel, but Irwin is in no rush to say goodbye to TARS. The actor and his mobile-monolith are currently at SXSW, where fans can climb aboard the Interstellar Virtual Reality Experience. That might be their last time together, and Irwin seems to be at peace with that: “For an actor, a storyteller, TARS was the kind of gig that’s probably only going to come around once in life.”

Jack Dempsey/AP

In a related video, Interstellar makes an appearance in EW‘s “Mishaps in Space” supercut:

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