From the first lines of the very first “Star Wars” movie — “Did you hear that? They shot down the main reactor. We’ll be destroyed for sure! This is madness! We’re doomed!” — it was clear that C-3PO was not like the other droids.
Next week sees the release of the final installment of George Lucas’ space opera sextet, “Star Wars: Episode III — Revenge of the Sith.” And C- 3PO, ever the nebbish, returns to fret, kvetch and backseat-drive the story to galaxies far, far away.
Actor Anthony Daniels, unmasked, is surprisingly spry and bright-eyed — certainly far more animated than the staid expression of his C-3P0 mask. An Englishman, Daniels has a natural penchant for understatement and drollery, which he demonstrates when a reporter confesses to a Napa-induced hangover acquired before arriving at Daniel’s suite at the Marigold Spa and Beach in Santa Monica.
“I do get hangovers. A lot. And it’s not always to do with the amount. Sometimes it is. A lot of stuff gets put into wine that we don’t necessarily know about,” Daniels commiserates, then adds ruefully, “I don’t drink things like brandy anymore. It’s definitely a young person’s occupation.”
Daniels, 59, splits his time between London and a home 40 minutes from Avignon, near the Chateauneuf-du-Pape area of France’s southern Rhone Valley vineyard region. He was in Los Angeles shooting segments as C-3PO for a Discovery Channel program about tech innovations explored in the “Star Wars” movies. Such is the half-life of the golden droid. Likewise, Daniels has been the only actor to portray C-3PO, whereas five performers, including James Earl Jones, have gone into the character resulting in Darth Vader.
Given the success of the “Star Wars” franchise, it is ironic that Daniels initially bristled at playing C-3PO.
“I didn’t even want the interview. I refused to meet George, and my agent made me go. I didn’t want to be in a sci-fi movie, I didn’t want to play a robot,” says Daniels, smiling at the memory of it. Daniels didn’t warm to the notion of playing the droid until he had a near-mystical experience with the character’s concept art.
In the painting, a proto-C-3PO, bearing a resemblance to the android agent provocateur of Fritz Lang’s 1927 “Metropolis, ” looks out from the desert terrain of Tattoine with a pitiful look on his face.
“It was solely that painting — he looked out at me very forlorn. It was weird. I’m very fond of Threepio,” says Daniels. “Threepio was always somewhere just waiting to arrive through me. He even surprises me sometimes. Yes, I make myself laugh, which is a bit sad, really.”
Much has changed in filmmaking in the 16 years between the last of the old trilogy (“Return of the Jedi”) and the first of the new (“The Phantom Menace”). Thanks to advances in digital effects, R2-D2 no longer requires the presence of Kenny Baker, the diminutive actor inside the pint-size robot for the first trilogy. Consequently, Daniels is essentially working on his own during his scenes with his comic counterpart.
“I say something, pause, then say my next line. It was a very lonely experience. To do a double act on your own is tough.” But then life has been something of double act for Daniels ever since “Star Wars” broke box office records in the summer of 1977. Die-hard fans frequently recognize him, even without his costume, and entreat him to perform the droid’s signature voice. Graciously, Daniels becomes C-3PO on the spot.
“I’ll have people come up and ask, ‘Can you do the voice for my kid?’ And I’ll ask the kid, ‘What’s Threepio sound like? Does he sound like this? Hello, I am C-3PO, human-cyborg relations, and this is my counterpart R2-D2.’ And you see their face — and that is magic, really lovely,” he says beaming.
The transformation is indeed beguiling, and it’s hard to imagine anyone else in the known universe bringing the character to life. Lucas, however, did have others in mind when casting the voice of the character.
“I was the last choice, which is better than no choice,” says Daniels, whose competition at one time included Richard Dreyfuss, the lead in Lucas’ “American Graffiti.” In the minds of “Star Wars” fans, of course, Daniels’ twee English butler, coupled with seven milliseconds of delay, is unmistakably, irreplaceably C-3PO. “If you had received another image at the beginning, you would now say, ‘What do you mean your voice? You couldn’t have used your voice, it’s much better with an Inuit accent’ or whatever. You’re already conditioned,” says Daniels, who reshaped the character from Lucas’ original conception of C-3PO as a kind of fast-talking android used-car salesman.
Daniels’ interpretation of C-3PO, however, recalls the twittering maiden aunts of E.M. Forster novels, always in a hullabaloo about the condition of the heroine’s virtue and mortal fears about everything under the sun.
“The craven aspect, I suspect, is actually a kind of childlike honesty. He doesn’t bull. If he’s afraid, if he doesn’t like something, he says, ‘I’m afraid I don’t like this,’ ” says Daniels, tipping slightly into the iconic voice.
With the release of “Revenge of the Sith,” Daniels’ schedule is brimming with appearances and speaking engagements that he attends either as himself or as his android doppelganger, as when he was recently inducted into the Robot Hall of Fame at Carnegie Mellon University. Outside the “Star Wars” universe, Daniels plans to content himself with remodeling and landscaping projects at home in France, where he lives with his girlfriend.
“It’s lovely. We have a huge garden — we have a gym in the house, but I never use it because the garden is partly on a hill — pushing a half- barrel of earth is great for the thighs,” he says, laughing.
“For an evening stroll we walk through the vineyards. It’s lovely,” he says, adding with relish that he often picks grapes right off the vine. “Of course, they taste like blaaa. I’m just amazed at the skill of a vintner who can work out that that rather foul-tasting thing is going to end up as something rather delicious.”
The same might be said of Lucas’ new trilogy. The first two episodes, “The Phantom Menace” and “Attack of the Clones,” were critically panned, and those old enough to have seen the original movies in the theaters — fans who had collected all the merchandise and had waited with bated breath for new episodes to be announced — turned on Lucas as if he had done something inappropriate to their inner child.
However, the latest and last installment ends with the advent of everyone’s favorite villain, Darth Vader, and promises, in many ways, to redeem Lucas’ recent foibles.
Daniels, of course, is tight-lipped about the inner workings of the franchise but lets it slip that he’s a fan of the final movie.
“How clever, how thoughtful, how sensitive, how tear-making. And guess who has the last line in the movie?” he teases. “Well, I have the first line in the next one,” he says, referring back to where it all started. “That may be a secret. I don’t know.”
It is no secret, however, that resistance to the final “Star Wars” installment is futile. Besides the delicious schadenfreude of watching pretty- boy Anakin devolve into the leather-clad lord of the dark side, there’s a rumor that a befuddled C-3PO serves drinks in this film, which is somehow a recommendation in and of itself. Regardless, millions will line up around multiplex blocks, eager to see the thing through to the end and perhaps heal the psychic wounds inflicted by the previous two films.
While in line, Daniels suggests, bring Champagne to ease the wait. “But it would be quite fun with sake as well,” he says dryly. When asked what to pair the film itself with, Daniels sees red.
“I think it would be a rather heavy Merlot or Syrah — though maybe Syrah would be too rounded. It’s got very spiky moments, so maybe something with a bit more tannin — a rather tannic red, I think. Slightly uncomfortable, this film, rather dark. Yes, so I think a rather heavy, tannic red. Mmm,” Daniels says sagely, then reconsiders his answer. “But then a rather delicious Champagne to begin or a Chardonnay would be nice. But isn’t it sad everybody got sick of Chardonnay around the same time? Unless it’s the Champagne, which is a fine way to drink the Chardonnay grape, I think. I would start with a little Champagne, then about halfway through, hit the red in a major way and leave it there.”
Daniels reflects for a minute, his eyes drifting out past the hotel’s courtyard to a slim vista of beachhead. For a moment, his thoughts return to the final “Star Wars” film, the story of which seamlessly dovetails into the first film. As Darth Vader might say, “The circle is now complete.”
“I saw the end the other day,” says Daniels, a wistful note coming into his voice. “There was something about the completeness of dubbing with George, then watching (composer) John Williams put some of the music on at Abbey Road . .. The ending just made me cry. It was not because it was the end of it all for me, it’s just so redolent of the good feeling that was in the original movie. I think you will get quite a strange feeling yourself. I certainly did. The good thing is, it does complete it. You will feel satisfied.”
Daniels lets the thought trail, sighs, then composes himself: “When you’re crying at the end, what would you drink when you’re in tears? A cup of tea, I suppose. Yes, hot sweet tea at the end to cheer yourself up.
“The Champagne would help you also.”