I was running a small production company adapting and re-voicing foreign-language animated television programmes when I got a phone call from a woman called Robin Gurland, who was working for something called JAK Productions. She was casting a movie, she said, and was contacting all the production companies in the book looking for voice artistes. I asked her what the movie was.
‘Star Wars, Episode One – The Phantom Menace,’ she replied.
Trying to keep the tremor out of my voice, I said that I myself was an actor and did occasionally do character voices. The next day I presented myself at Leavesden Studios, just north of London, to audition for George Lucas, and that summer was on location in Tunisia, playing the part of Watto. It was a fabulous, fun job – I was working on one of the most successful movie franchises of all time, and I had a ball.
Filming had started in London, where I had already done most of my scenes with Liam Neeson, and nearly broken his nose because of the lampshade George insisted I wore on my head.
Although Watto would be a completely computer generated character, George likes to get the voice artistes to actually work on set with the other actors. This results in a more realistic look than could be obtained by the actors playing to empty space. The reason for the lampshade, he explained, was to let the animators know which of the actors they should animate over in post-production. I pointed out that as I would be the only one in shorts and a T shirt amongst a host of naked blue aliens and men in long robes with stuck-on beards, that would be fairly obvious. I also hated wearing the thing because it was hot and uncomfortable, leaving deep welts where it fixed against the skin of my forehead. It also had a wired and dangerously sharp rim, which I thought was an accident waiting to happen. I did not have to wait long.
George, however, dismissed my fears, nor would he be swayed by my pathetically plaintive cries of pain, and I had to cope with the lampshade hat.
One scene involved Watto threatening Liam’s character by virtually spitting in his face. To reach his eye level, Liam being very tall, and me being rather... vertically challenged, I had to stand on a camera case. On the take I got a little overexcited, and the brim of the hat bashed Liam on the bridge of his nose. There was a collective intake of breath from the crew, and Rick McCallum, the producer – as tense as only a man in charge of a $100,000,000 budget can be – whipped out his calculator and began working out how much it would cost to rebuild Liam’s nose and keep the crew on standby while that happened. There was silence as Liam held his expensive proboscis, blinked a few times, removed a speck of lint from his eye, then smiled and asked me ever so politely if I would mind not getting quite so close next time. The crew exhaled, Rick collapsed with relief, and we finished the scene.
The fact that I was wearing on my head something that gave me the potential to incapacitate a multi-million dollar actor had not escaped George’s notice, and the hat was quietly disappeared.
After filming in Leavesden finished, the production moved to the deserts of Tunisia, where the Mos Espa scenes were to be filmed. My scene in the desert was scheduled to take a day, and I was supposed to join the party after about three weeks, towards the end of July. But one night near the beginning of the month, I got a panicked phone call from Robin saying that there’d been a storm and that most of the desert set had been destroyed. Because my scene was ‘rain cover’ (meaning that it didn’t matter if it was shot inside or out) I was needed urgently – my scene was the only thing they could shoot.
I was on the plane the next morning. Time is money on a film, so if they couldn’t work, it would have cost about $50,000 a day on a film like The Phantom Menace just to do nothing. I had visions of everyone standing around twiddling their thumbs, waiting for me to show up. In my imagination I arrived on the set to the sound of trumpets: the saviour of the film. George welcomed me with open arms, Rick offered me a raise… But my own exaggerated sense of self importance was quickly dispelled when I arrived at the location hotel to be met by a grinning Ewan McGregor who thrust a beer into my hand and told me that the damage was not as bad as originally thought, and that they’d rebuilt the set and carried on filming to schedule.
I spent two weeks by the pool in a five star hotel waiting to do my scene, which took just two hours – it could have been worse.
Sadly, Watto had only one scene in the next film: Attack of the Clones. Once again I was flown out to Tunisia and driven the two hours to the desert set.
The scene was Anakin and Padme visiting Watto’s shop looking for Anakin’s mother. I happened to mention to George that it seemed strange to me that the scene was played in English. Surely, I said, it should be Huttese. George agreed, saying there’d been a mistake – the scene had never been translated.
‘We’re going to have to rewrite it,’ said George.
Rick went white and clutched his chest. ‘What, now?’ he gasped.
‘Now seems like a good time,’ George replied with an easy smile.
‘But, but, but…’ Rick stuttered, indicating the hundred or so extras, the crew, make up, wardrobe, the caterers, the truck drivers…
‘They’ll have to wait,’ said George. And that was that. He turned to me. ‘Do you remember any Huttese from the first movie?’
‘Yes, I think so,’ I said.
‘OK, let’s kick something around and see what we can come up with.’
For the next ten minutes, George and I stood in the sun improvising Huttese dialogue while Rick tried not to have a heart attack. It was one of my proudest moments, there aren’t many actors who can say they’ve collaborated on a script with George Lucas.
Making a film, one is inevitably thrown closely together with one’s fellow workmates, sometimes in the strangest ways.
For the Mos Espa scenes, a small town had been erected in the middle of the desert. And it really was in the middle of the desert, there was nothing for miles around. For the comfort of the actors and crew there were air-conditioned tents, a restaurant under the shade of a marquee serving everything from Spaghetti Bolognese to Sheep’s Eyeballs, a fully-equipped medical centre and a lavatory block.
I don’t know why, but there seemed to me something rather incongruous about a urinal in the desert. The first and last time I used it (myself and, indeed, almost everyone else preferring to pee al fresco) I was chuckling away to myself about its absurdity, when George walked in. George, being a shy man, is not an easy person to engage in banter. Not wanting to give him the wrong idea, but at the same time wishing to appear casual and friendly, I racked my brain for something light and witty to say. But imagination failed me. All I could think was that I was standing next to George Lucas having a pee in a urinal in the middle of a Tunisian desert. It was probably the heat, but the thought occurred that if he was in here, then filming must have stopped, and if so, this was probably the most expensive pee in history. I began to wonder how much his trip to the loo was actually costing, and arrived at a rough estimate of around $1,400, that’s about $12 a drop. Trying to shake such thoughts from my mind, I eventually uttered something like: ‘This is something to tell the grandchildren, eh?’ He looked at me strangely, washed his hands, combed his hair and walked out without saying a word. That was the last time we met.
I really had the best time making those two films. Everyone from George and Rick down was an absolute joy, I got to work with some of the best actors around, and was treated like a star. Sadly, Attack of the Clones was Watto’s last outing, and yes, I’m envious of those who went on to make the third.
But then, now I’m immortal. Like featuring in a question in Trivial Pursuit, to be part of the Star Wars phenomenon is to live forever – not such a bad result for a boy from the Mumbles.