Anthony Daniels on 40 years of Star Wars and C-3PO’s ‘value’

We sit down with the man behind one of Star Wars' most beloved characters to talk about his place in the galaxy far, far away…

As the man behind everyone’s favourite gold-plated protocol droid, C-3PO, Anthony Daniels is the only actor to have starred in all nine of the episodic Star Wars movies over the past 42 years – from 1977’s Star Wars (aka A New Hope) to this Christmas’ The Rise Of Skywalker. In other words, he’s one of the lynchpins of one of the biggest cinematic franchises of all time. Quite an achievement, right?

“It’s very odd,” Daniels laughs when Den Of Geek points out his unique accomplishment. “You make it sound like it was deliberate, but it all sort of happened at me, if you see what I mean? Of course, it’s an extraordinary…” He pauses, searching for the right word. “I don’t know. I don’t know what you would call it. It’s not a feat. It’s a factoid, isn’t it? Yes, I am in all of them.

“I should really be in the Guinness Book of Records,” he deadpans. “But what’s the point?”

He’s being modest, of course, but it’s a factoid that very nearly wasn’t to be. “It hadn’t been my plan,” the actor says of his initial involvement with Star Wars. “Many people know that I just wasn’t interested in the job to begin with. But something took over in my life – force, fate, whatever you want to call it – and here I am, approaching the viewing of Episode 9, which is incredibly exciting.”

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When Den Of Geek catches up with Daniels for a natter ahead of the release of the spectacular saga-closer, he’s in a jovial mood, happy to reflect on his time playing one of cinema’s best-loved robots. Not only does The Rise Of Skywalker give the actor his biggest, funniest and most poignant franchise role in some time, but he’s also just released a book – I Am C-3PO: The Inside Story – in which he writes candidly about his Star Wars experience, both in and out of character.

“When you start writing a book of memoirs, you just think: ‘How do I begin?’” Daniels says of the daunting challenge of putting 40 years’ worth of experience into words. Luckily though, he quickly stumbled upon a perfect entry point, rewinding back to his gig as the host of a US tour of ‘Star Wars In Concert’ musical extravaganzas.

“I thought about the moment that really did change my attitude [towards Star Wars], after a long time of sticking around,” he explains. “We did that show about six years ago now. The great thing about being on stage with a live audience of thousands of people is that you can feel the connection and the affection – it’s a huge energy field, and it’s palpable. It came at me, and I realised that I had been too close to the product to ‘get it’. So now I do see it – how much people relate to it, and to C-3PO…”

Going back to the late ’70s, it must have been such an exciting time to work on this independent movie that people had almost written off before it came out, and then overnight became this massive global phenomenon. What are your recollections of that time and how Star Wars evolved into this beast of a franchise?

Well, curiously, it was remarkable that we on the set had been so wrong about what George was doing. Everybody on the set got on with it, and did a professional job, whether it was Carrie [Fisher] or Mark [Hamill] or Harrison [Ford] or me. But none of us believed that it was going anywhere. It was all a bit hokey. It was just George [Lucas] who put his head down and kind of ran with it. But we all did it properly. And then it opened, and very quickly I was looking for my name as being connected with it. And it wasn’t there… [Daniels was excluded from the film’s publicity to maintain the illusion of a ‘real’ droid.] So it was quite a sort of swipe. It took me sideways a bit, and kind of instantly disconnected me from it. It removed me from being a part of it, which was really quite hard to cope with at the time.

Was there a marked difference between working on Star Wars and The Empire Strikes Back because of how it evolved?

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One of the huge things, of course, was that nobody gave a damn about security when we were shooting the original. It was just filling up Elstree Studios. There was no security. Nobody was interested in silly stuff with a robot in it. Then it came out, and boy… The first time round it was something really innocent, where it was just people having fun. And then we were making a second movie, a sequel, and it suddenly mattered. That was quite a burden, in a way. The movie turned out to be everyone’s favourite. I still, actually, curiously, like the first one, even though it was a pain to do. The story has that kind of innocence – in a way, The Empire Strikes Back is a bit too serious and heavy for me. Which I totally understood.

George does sometimes get a bit of flak, but the fact he had the courage of his convictions with this series and turned it into this huge thing is quite an achievement…

Oh, absolutely. I sometimes use his determination as a lesson to people, that he invented the whole thing. Just in the last few years, I think people have slightly forgotten that. They moaned about the special editions or the prequels or whatever. But it was George who used his amazing skill and intelligence to create something that then people took as their own, as if they had invented it in some ways. If he altered something, they got a bit shirty about it. And then, you know, when he sold it to Disney… Who else would you sell something to? [Laughs] It’s not like there are many Disneys around. They are big enough and wonderful enough to carry the torch forward.

People try and knock it, but I’ve had a wonderful time working with Disney and Kathy Kennedy. They’ve made quite a difference, really. It’s allowed me to come from that slightly negative state of the beginning – when Star Wars came out – to now, where the story is coming to an end and I’ve stuck around. It’s been a real journey. But it’s quite easy to forget that it was all down to George. I’ve been a little sad with some of the things that people have said about him.

What were your thoughts in the ’90s when George first told you he wanted to revisit the world and go back to the prequels. Were you expecting it?

No, absolutely not. I’d been doing other stuff in the interim, and I’d also been doing cartoons and animation. But also, I’d been fronting exhibitions and things for Lucasfilm. I became a sort-of spokesperson unofficially. I became the kind of go-to person to stand up and say “Good evening ladies and gentleman” – slightly as C-3PO might have done. So I was genuinely surprised because I thought the story was complete. And then, how interesting, you know, that George, had gone off and had kids and everything by this point, and now he wanted to come back to Star Wars.

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It must’ve been quite a different process making them though…

Oh, yes.

The prequels really embraced the digital boom that was happening at that moment, didn’t they?

By then, Jurassic Park had happened. It was one of the things that pushed George towards making the prequels. The earlier films had been slightly hokey in their special effects. I actually liked that, you know? I liked using mirrors and string to make magic happen. It’s the sort of things kids can do at home – Blue Peter-type things. George, however, now could use the huge, wonderful, absolutely brilliant skills of Industrial Light & Magic to create things unheard of and un-thought of before. Really, if you go back to the dinosaurs of that movie, Jurassic Park, they were literally breathtaking. And of course, we’d moved forward from there.

Was that level of computer-generated effects difficult to contend with as an actor?

The thing I would say about greenscreen, really, is that it’s less fun. You don’t walk in and go, “Ooh, look at that. Isn’t that amazing?” Because there’s nothing there. You go, “It’s green” or “It’s blue”. But as far as how the finished film looks, yes – it was quite magical. Just less fun on the set. I think an area where it was a bit of an issue was if you had a lot of creatures that were digital mixed in with live-action. Certainly, later on – originally, a lot of the creatures were puppeteers and people in costumes or whatever, where you do get that humanity, that kind of gut feeling that we recognise as a sort of animal quality there. It’s flesh and blood, but it may not be human. You have a really solid connection with a human being, and a human being’s timing, and so on.

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So the prequels were kind of… It sort of had to happen. I remember, at drama school, our theatre got a revolve – a piece of staging that went around in circles. From then on, every production had to have the revolve in it. Because you had a revolve – you’ve got to use it. In the same way, greenscreen went full tilt [around the time of the prequels]. And then years later, they’ve pulled back a bit, and they use it to great effect now. It’s still a wonderful concept and very useful.

There was a lot of criticism about the prequels when they were released – what did you think of that?

I think what a lot of people forget is that the prequels were not aimed at the people who had originally seen Episodes [thinks] 4, 5 and 6 – I have to get the numbers right – who are now, what, 20 years older? They’re aimed at the new market, which was at the age of George’s son, of about 10. I personally have met people since who, when I say “which is your favourite film?”, they don’t say The Empire Strikes Back. They say The Phantom Menace. And I go, “Really?” And they say, “Yeah.” I totally respect that. And as part of the overall story, you know, those films needed to be there.

Going back to the VFX, the makers of the new films seem to have really strived to blend the digital effects with old-school practical effects, right?

Absolutely. Even when you come to creatures like BB-8, who’s just a ball really, but he’s a ball on the end of a stick wielded by [puppeteer and actor] Brian Herring, who enlivened the whole process. He made it absolutely real for me, and I think everybody on set, because he’s going, “[robot noises] Beep beep beep beep beep.” Because he’s a funny guy. I mean, he’s a comedian. I loved working with BB-8.

Talking of making the sequels, how have you found it working with the new filmmakers – JJ Abrams and Rian Johnson?

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They’re very different but absolutely wonderful. First of all, JJ came into Episode 7, and he’d been 10 years old when he saw the film. He obviously has a brilliant brain, but he’s more vocal than George – George is much more internal and keeps things to himself, whereas JJ tends to spill over his energy, and he’s just wonderful. Because he has such strong memories of seeing the first films that George had made with Star Wars, he’s retained that kind of excited thrill – whereas George was carrying the whole burden of creating the story. JJ has picked up the baton and gone with it. He’s so inventive. Things do get recreated on the spot, and then it’s: “Let’s do it again.” [pause] “Yeah, can we do it again?” So 14 takes later, you’ve finally got something that he really wants! And Rian is absolutely adorable. He’s much more considered beforehand, and more about doing things in order. But, again, with great feeling and great affection, which I think comes through in the film. I had a good time on The Last Jedi.

It must be interesting working with the younger actors, who probably – as you mentioned before – grew up with the prequels as much as the original trilogy…

And all the crew, too. Meeting Daisy [Ridley] for the first time was kind of interesting, because I think she was 21 or something. And she’d grown up with, as you said, the prequels, as had a lot of the crew. But a lot of the crew had also been there watching it from the beginning and loving Star Wars, and now they’re making it. So this made for a tremendous family atmosphere on set. Everybody knew what we were making, and why we were making it, and they loved making it. We were filming in England, and a lot of the same crew are working on these other movies from other franchises, like Super Woman or things like that. Who do I mean? Super Woman?

Wonder Woman?

Wonder Woman, yes. Not my kind of film. But they all come off these major events at Pinewood or whatever, and they just talk about the fact that they couldn’t wait to be back with us. So it was very touching.

You’ve also had the chance to catch up with a lot of the old cast on these new films, too – on The Rise Of Skywalker, for example, you’ve got Billy Dee Williams coming back. How’s that experience been?

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Well, how magical – he’s still around, like me – to make a connection back to the old days. I think that fans are going to be really chuffed to see him fulfilling that role again. It was very important when he came into the second movie, to be a different kind of hero from the Han Solo character. And, you know, good for him for just being there. Because he gave a kind of – I guess, from what I saw on set – a kind of… Ooh, how would you say it? An imprimatur, that this is the real thing. A sticker that says: “Contains original…” He brought that sort of thing.

It’s interesting talking about how the landscape has changed over the years, not just in terms of filmmaking itself but also in terms of the internet and how social media had affected cinema and fandom – especially with Star Wars. How’s it been for you seeing that transition? You’ve been getting quite involved with social media recently…

I’ve had a Twitter account – trust me, you’d laugh if you saw me tapping on my cell phone. I’m strictly a one-finger person, looking for the letters. There’s no way I can do the thumb thing. Years ago, when we were doing the wonderful show that we talked about, Star Wars In Concert, I started Twitter as a way of carrying the world around with me, if somebody was interested, on these tours that we were doing, which were magical. And I carried on with that. And then recently with, as you say, the rise of the need to talk on these phones, people are so enjoying the Instagram pictures of the wacky things I’m up to at the moment. And it’s kind of fun to share.

The bit I felt diffident about was that some of the people that I’ve seen on YouTube or whatever ran things that said Kathy Kennedy should be sent packing, or JJ is a monster who has ruined Star Wars. No. It’s one or two people, I think, who got a bit carried away and a bit too aggressively critical. It’s a movie, and there’s a bit of the movie for everybody. There’s no need to be so harsh, if you will.

Would you say there’s almost a sense of entitlement with these things sometimes?

That’s a very good word. OK, you paid your ticket money, and whatever, for all these films. You can say, “I didn’t like it. It wasn’t for me.” Whatever. But people have… I don’t know. It’s a difficult one. We’re entering an age where everyone has the right to pen what they want on the internet, without any sense of qualification or whatever.

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Look, the public are very much the audience and very much part of the whole event, of Star Wars. Because it is a truism, and I say it on the first page of the book: without the fans, there wouldn’t have been a second film. And without the second, you wouldn’t now be on the ninth. But I was a bit shocked approaching The Rise Of Skywalker that people were quite so unpleasantly vociferous. And of course, the opposite is true when you work with these people, and when you understand what they’re about, and the effort and the affection and the aim behind these films. Their aim is not to piss off the audience. Their aim is to create something that they believe, as a filmmaker or a group of filmmakers, is the right thing to do, and is a pleasing thing to do. And now everyone is a critic – a classic phrase – and not everyone will agree. But you know, if you try to agree with all the audience, then what do you end up with? It’s not going to be a film I want to see.

We’ve talked a bit about how much Star Wars means to people. But what does C-3PO as a character mean to this franchise, and to you?

That’s a good question. I have, in the last few years, of course, met quite a few fans and so on. One of the things that I have found is, C-3PO does speak to the insecurities in some of us – in a lot of people, but certainly for children.

The other day, literally a few weeks ago, I met a fan, an adult, who said that as a child seeing the original films, he was a little frightened by some of the stuff that was going on, and would hide behind the furniture in his home, with his parents, but he would just peep out from behind the settee – very much, curiously, as I remembered peeping out in what must have been the mid-‘50s, with a serial called The Quatermass Experiment. And I remember doing exactly that: hiding behind the settee so that if something too horrid happened, I could dip back. But the interesting thing here was that this guy said that as a child, it was OK for him to be frightened, he felt, because C-3PO, this gold figure, was frightened as well. This big robot said he was frightened and behaved as if he was frightened, and this gave him permission to feel this or that.

I think audiences, in general, enjoyed his overt sensitivity. He doesn’t dissemble very well. He can only do it if he’s got to confuse some Stormtroopers. But his feelings are fairly raw on the outside. Most of us have points where we tough it out and pretend everything’s that OK. And sometimes it’s really refreshing to see a character who doesn’t do that. I know people who have slight social issues with relating to other people and so on. I have also found that they have found C-3PO… There’s a passage in the book in which I am really very deeply touched to have included people I have met, and the reasons they are so attached to Star Wars, and that it was a great support to them in various circumstances. So somehow, I was given the chance to play a character who, it turns out, had more value than just being entertaining. That sounded very grand, but it’s true. It’s not always easy to find words to explain something like that.

Having put all this experience into words, what do you hope that people will take home from your book?

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I don’t know. There’s nothing sensational in it, because it’s not that kind of book. I don’t think it’s necessary. It’s a way of selling books, but it’s not very nice, is it? There are no headline-breaking dramas. It’s just a curious journey of a man who wanted to be an actor, and somehow landed on a strange magic carpet that shot him in a direction he never thought of going.

I think people are just genuinely kind of interested. The fans are just interested in that behind-the-scenes working and how it’s all played out. But it is also a book for people who are not Star Wars fans but have heard of Star Wars, obviously, and to see the curious behind-the-scenes goings-on that have affected a human being’s life, or nearly half of his life. Because everybody’s got their own journey, and possibly there are lessons in there about doing that – sticking with it through some difficult times and eventually coming to a sense of fruition and a sense of wellbeing about the whole thing. And that is very much a human story.

I Am C-3PO: The Inside Story by Anthony Daniels is published by DK and available to buy now.