Droids absolutely have feelings, Anthony Daniels tells me. “Very much so,” says the actor who has played C-3PO—the anxious, multilingual, tin-gold half of the Star Wars cyber greek chorus—for almost four and a half decades. In fact, it’s the golden droid’s personality —and his posh British accent—that has made C-3PO one of the most beloved, recognizable characters in American film history. “[C-3PO] certainly isn’t a hero, but he was allowed to speak more emotionally than humans do,” Daniels says.
Speaking freely about emotions is something Daniels is doing more of this month, with the release of his new memoir called I Am C-3PO: The Inside Story. In it, he divulges the long and surprisingly emotional story of becoming the famed protocol droid. For many years, the human actor behind Threepio–Daniels’ preferred spelling–was not widely known. That’s the because Lucasfilm, according to Daniels, wanted the droid in Star Wars to appear as a “true marvel of robotic engineering,” classic Hollywood magic. Not as a man in a suit.
But of course, there was, and has always been, a human behind that sand-scorched golden mask. And in Daniels’ memoir, we learn that he’s every bit as studied, sensitive, and dedicated to the craft as any actor–robot-suit or otherwise.
A trained mime with a mastery of classical isolation techniques, Daniels was strewn into the relentless and dehumanizing Hollywood machine at just 29 years of age. After spending months getting fitted for a what would become his personal Iron Maiden torture chamber, the actor was shipped off to Tunisia to film the opening sequences of what was then titled The Star Wars: From The Adventures of Luke Starkiller. With little to no time spent in the costume prior, Daniels was forced to improvise in real-time on the searing dunes of the desert and deliver a convincing physical performance without the majority of his eyesight or even the ability to bend his knees. The poor dude wasn’t even given a bathtub in his hotel room. You can imagine Daniels had no trouble bringing pathos to line, “We seem to be made to suffer. It’s our lot in life.”
But despite claustrophobia, despite George Lucas initially despising Daniels’ voice performance (he didn’t think Threepio should be an English butler), and despite the performer barely receiving any recognition for his work until very recently, Daniels became drawn to the character, who he says, seemed “classically tragic.” And today, Threepio’s frightened golden face has become as recognizable as the five dollar bill.
Daniels is the only actor who’s appeared in all 11 Star Wars films (Threepio wasn’t in Solo, but Daniels was). He’s has said goodbye to Threepio twice before–once in Return of the Jedi and again in Revenge of the Sith. Now, with the Skywalker saga coming to an end in The Rise of Skywalker, it seems Daniels may be saying goodbye to the character for good. But the actor told me, though the chances of seeing Threepio in a main series film are slim, the shimmering neurotic cyborg will always exist in the “electronic media ether that we all inhabit now.” According to Daniels, “I don’t think it’s the last time you’ve heard from Threepio.”
First off, I just want to say I’m a longtime fan of Star Wars. I really enjoyed reading your book. I’m wondering, are these stories that you’ve been hoping to put down on the page for a long time now?
I had never actually thought to write a book. They came to me and said, “would I?” and they came up with 40,000 words. And it seemed okay, doable. But we ended up at 95,000 words, roughly. But it seemed an auspicious moment to actually write [the book], because it’s the end of the third trilogy, coming up in six weeks time. It’s kind of cute that my book comes out first. I have told some of the stories over the years at meetings and conventions, whatever, and they’ve stayed pretty current in my mind. I just thought to put them down for people who’ve never been to an event where I’ve been talking. And, also to add different stories I’ve never talked about, and some of my inner feelings that I’ve never talked about, to give hopefully a rounded, honest, real, appraisal view on the last 43 years of my professional life.
Is the character spelled See-Threepio, like two words or is it spelled with the letters and digits?
You can spell it two ways. the letters and digits–capital C, dash, three, capital P, capital O. Or, you spell it capital S, E, E, next word capital T, H, R, E, E, P, I, O. Sometimes, in literature, if you’re writing something, it looks better in the word form.
So the thing that’s always struck me about this character is how he’s kind of always been this anxious presence on screen. From your perspective, do these droids have feelings? Does C-3PO suffer from anxiety? Was he traumatized?
They very much have feelings. C-3PO has feelings. But–and remember I didn’t write these lines, George Lucas did–what in fact I think he was doing, was mirroring human emotions. And, as an adult, you must hide those feelings of doubt and fear and discomfort. So to see them written very large on the golden face coming out of this golden figure was kind of refreshingly new, that he certainly isn’t a hero, but he was allowed to speak more emotionally than humans do. And it has become absolutely clear to me that it’s part of his wide appeal to people. Especially to people who don’t feel that comfortable in human society, that really have to struggle to put on a face to go out and be with other humans.
In your book you say that when George Lucas was going through the footage for New Hope, he told you that he hated the performance and that he was trying to dub your voice with other actors. From your perspective, what do you think he was looking for from the performance?
Oh, well I guess he was okay with the physical performance because he never said anything on the set to a different thing. But he thought he could just casually change the voice, as many voices change in movies, in post production. It’s quite easy to do, especially these days. But he, famously, always wanted a kind of character who might be selling used cars in the Bronx, but he never kind of mentioned that to me. So I didn’t even attempt it. I made him into almost the opposite, this kind of uptight, British butler, because that’s the way I read him in George’s script. George never said, “you know, could you try something else?” At the time, George had an awful lot on his hands to get the thing made at all, let alone telling me how to act. He just assumed he could change an element to my performance in post-production, and that would be the voice. Unfortunately, or fortunately, something happened, some kind of space magic, and Threepio became a unified character. Not just the look, not just the voice, not just the attitude–but he just is Threepio. And there’s certainly no arguing about that now.
Robert Downey Jr. famously decided to stop wearing the metal suit and rely on computer effects for Iron Man, completely. Since you were able to imbue such humanity into this character by literally being onscreen, I’m wondering, do you think that practice kind of detracts from the craft?
I would love to be Threepio without the suit on. But, you know, digital effects cost a heck of a lot of money. There are frustrations in having to wear something physically-restrictive. I can act physical restriction without actually having to wear it. I quite see why [Downey Jr.] did that. In some way, the Iron Man costume is possibly a bit easier in its design than Threepio. There is no doubt that I could act the role. And if you’ve ever seen me without the suit, if you’ve ever seen me in the dubbing chair putting my voice on, you know, I stand exactly like he does, because that way my diaphragm and my whole frame is in the same mode as on the set. But yeah, good for [Downey Jr.] for doing that. He has more clout than me.
When you talk about A New Hope, you speak about the difficulty of doing it and how the other actors in the trilogy were getting more face recognition simply because you were behind that mask. And the studio was kind of hiding the fact that there was an actor in that suit. Was there a point when you came to accept that the task of playing this masked character and just came to peace with what would lie ahead for you?
Yeah, that’s a good question. I think it must have come. I don’t remember exactly when. It must’ve come with entering into the second film, Empire Strikes Back. I think it must have been there with Irvin Kershner. And yes, accepting what had passed, the hurts to my confidence when New Hope came out, I accepted it. And you know, there I was, thankfully I had a job in the second film, still being with my companion, Threepio, and then going onto the third film. And then, miraculously, of course, years later, going into the prequels, and even more miraculously, coming up to where we are now now. So that transition happened fairly early on I think.
Is there something about directors working with actors who are playing, for lack of a better word, prop heavy roles? Have you noticed any sort of different way that you’re treated from the actors who are not in suits on set?
Yeah, I think a lot of directors don’t realize that there are possibly more subtleties to be had, with a bit of encouragement, rather than just…it’s quite funny, when you see an actor on set, the director’s talking to him or her a lot, and then that director doesn’t say anything to you. It’s quite easy to feel neglected. It possibly means that they’re completely happy with everything you’ve done, and cannot think of a single word that to improve it.
But the psychological effect is, “Well what about me?” And of course somebody like [J.J. Abrams] just casually gives you a little thumbs up as he walks by, and then talks to another actor. It’s not that easy, acting in movies, for anyone. And, I might envy the humanoids, the human actors in nice clothes. But they’re having to work very hard to put nuances on their face, their faces and in their words, whereas I’m kind of bashing through as this crazy droid who people now accept as a given character.
I was very warmed to see that it’s so clear how much you care about this character.
Thank you, yeah, because I do.
As a fan, that’s really great to hear. I love the part in the book where you’re talking about the disagreements you and J.J. were having about C-3PO having a red arm in Force Awakens. We’ve seen some footage of Threepio in the upcoming film holding what looks like Chewbacca’s bowcaster in his hand–he seems to look a little bit different. I’m wondering, did you struggle with any disagreements on this production too?
Absolutely not. You know, working with J.J. is just such a wonderful piece of collaboration. He’s the funniest, cleverest, a total genius. And we have a very great relationship. I’m very happy. He’s always emailing me silly stuff, especially now…I wrote a lot of this book many months ago now and things are changing a daily basis with this new film. So we’re still working on it, which is great. J.J., you know, adored George Lucas’s work, originally, when he was 10 years old, and now he is masterminding the final chapter. It’s quite a thing to take on.
It seems that you’ve said goodbye to this character, twice now, and this is the third time, right?
Oh yeah, I said goodbye three times now.
I can’t imagine what that must be like. The sensation of saying farewell in The Rise of Skywalker, was that different from the past two times?
It was strange to think that this was the third time, although this time, probably, it is true. I’m a realist. You know, it’s a role in a film, it’s not life. It’s a piece of artifice. And, it’s been a magical ride. Some rocky places, but it’s been magic. And maybe it’s time to put away that side of it. But I don’t think it’s the last time you’ve heard from Threepio, or, indeed, from me. There are other things–not as great as movies, perhaps. But Threepio is too valuable to put away. To valuable as a character in it. He will always exist very strongly in the electronic media ether that we all inhabit now.
It seems that you’ve also had the experience of saying goodbye to Mark Hamill twice now on set.
I guess, yes, and that’s kind of fun. People are surprised that we don’t all see each other all the time, and so on. But we bump into each other at celebrations and other events, or premieres, and we give each other a kind of supportive hug, if you will. Because, it’s part of the joy and the duty of being in these films, that you go to events that support it, and it is just nice to see people who have gone through some of the stuff you’ve gone through and survived.
Do you two share anything–you and Mark Hamill, or C-3PO and Luke Skywalker–in this final film, as a sort-of goodbye? Can we look forward to anything?
I’ve written about as much about Episode 9 as I’ve felt comfortable saying, because I do not want to detract from the surprise. So, we don’t talk like that. But it was great to see him around the set.
I’m really intrigued by the last line in your book. You asked J.J. Abrams if he would be giving Threepio a fitting, meaningful end. Like, a death for “the Cause,” as you say. And he said, “Not on my watch.”
Oh yes, yes. You probably don’t know. He changes his mind on a daily basis, minute by minute! I mean, you would really, I can’t go into details, but you would laugh at correspondence we’re currently having, because the film isn’t finished yet.
Wow. And the film comes out in a few months!
You know, everything is up for grabs until you see it in the theater because then you can’t fiddle with it anymore. Yeah, we have a very teasing relationship, and in fact, I actually do not understand an email he just sent me, when I have time I can write him back, “What?” But it is a wonderful ending to the whole Skywalker saga, in every sense. The whole set is peopled by the crew who’ve grown up with this story. And, you know, the actors who were there. Billy Dee Williams is back, as we know, and other people, and the new guys. So a really, really good atmosphere. It’s a ton of work, and by the end of it, I wasn’t sorry, you know, to kind of lie down. But it’ll be worth it.
It’s great that this particular film has come at the end, as far as I’m concerned, personally. I have ended up on a high note.
The last question I’m interested in, I don’t know if you’re able to talk to this at all, but with all of this talk of upcoming new Star Wars stuff like The Mandalorian, and whatever’s coming next, do you see C-3PO as being part of that?
He may not be. I think The Mandalorian is set in a slightly different time period, and they tend to be very careful about mixing things like that, so there’s no anachronisms there. I think Threepio, we’ll find him in all sorts of other ways, invented or not at the moment, so I’m not hanging up his golden shoes, right now. I hope.
That’s great news.
That’s so nice because, as I said, he’s too good a character to give up on. He exists so strongly in the current audience’s minds that I think it may be sad not to see him again. So, I will be ready and waiting at the end of the phone, but meanwhile, living a perfectly normal life, wearing perfectly normal clothes.