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by dr andrew cousins

I Was The Third Stormtrooper On The Left

With principal shooting having recently wrapped on Star Wars: Episode II, it seems an opportune moment to look back at the making of the first film which took place almost 25 years ago at Elstree studios in London. I spoke to an actor who until now has never talked publicly about his part in the making of the most successful film franchise in cinema history. His name is Brian McMurty.

AC. Tell me how you got started in acting.

BM. Up until 1976 I was mainly doing theatre work and an occasional stint as an extra in the odd television series. I once got to break a bottle over Martin Shaw’s head in an episode of The Professionals. People don’t realise the skill involved in being a good extra. I once played a milkman in Coronation Street. I only had one line, "There’s no yoghurt today, Mrs Bishop". But even with that one line I had to express all the crushing disappointment that man must have felt. I had to try and get into the mindset of a man who lives to sell yoghurt and yet has none. How would he feel? Knowing that Mrs Bishop wanted her yoghurt and that he cannot supply her with any. How could he face his family afterwards? How could he live with himself? In many ways it’s more challenging then Hamlet.

AC. Then you were offered the part of the robot C3PO in Star Wars

BM. That’s right. I’d gone and auditioned for George Lucas some months previously. I’d done a lot of preparation before hand though. I spent hours trying to think myself into the part of a robot. Initially that proved too much of a leap so I started off by trying to think myself into a toaster instead. Then I built it up into a fridge-freezer and so on.

Anyway, I was a week from my costume fitting when I slipped and fell. I put my back out and was confined to bed for a month. The special effects people insisted that they needed time to work on the C3PO costume and so they had to re-cast the role.

AC. Does it still frustrate you that you lost the part?

BM. When I see Anthony Daniels (who was eventually given the role) jetting off to Australia to film the new Star wars films or appearing on television chat shows you can’t help but feel a momentary pang of jealousy. But I have my own career now. I’m playing Inspector Goole in ‘An Inspector Calls’ at Chichester Playhouse next month. So I’m not bitter. I’m not bitter at all. Not even slightly.

AC. So for a while it looked like you were out of the film.

BM. Exactly. Once my back was better I went back to work and forgot about it. I got a job as a Playschool presenter, which is a great deal more challenging then it sounds. Having to work with the toys could be a bit of a nightmare because you’re not getting a reaction back from them. You have to get into their way of thinking. What is it like to be Humpty or Big Ted? What makes them tick? It could be very frustrating sometimes. It was a bit like acting against the walking dead. One day I lost my cool and threw Little Ted at Buffy the Guinea Pig. I was sacked the next day. Floella Benjamin had tears in her eyes the day I left the studio. She insisted that it was because she’d caught one of her hair beads in her dungaree straps but I knew that secretly she empathised with me.

Then a week later my agent called. She said that George Lucas had asked me to be an extra on Star Wars by way of an apology for me missing out on the C3PO role.

AC. What was the atmosphere like on set?

BM. Well it was a bit weird to say the least. Remember that in those days nobody knew what a phenomenon the film would become. All we could see were a bunch of actors performing what seemed to be some rather dodgy dialogue. You used to see the technicians cringing every time somebody had to spout another line of gibberish. People were convinced that it was going to be a huge flop.

AC. It’s been well reported that Alec Guinness in particular didn’t enjoy making the film. Did you ever see any evidence of that?

BM. I remember once when Mark Hamill was having some trouble getting through a scene. He asked for a moment to gather his thoughts and went off to a corner of the studio. Alec could see he was having some trouble so he went to talk to him. He didn’t realise that I was in earshot. He asked Mark what was wrong. Mark replied that he was having trouble with his motivation for the scene. He asked Alec, "What motivation are you using?" Alec looked at him and replied, "The money, dear boy. The money."

AC. What were you required to do as an extra?

BM. Most of the time I was a Stormtrooper because I was tall. I was very good at standing to attention so I tended to be put into the background of scenes. People automatically assume that just because you are just standing in the background of a shot that it’s an easy job. That’s not true. Every little movement you make must scream, "I am a Stormtrooper". It’s very subtle. A little shift from one foot to the other here — a little adjustment of your gun there. I used to spend hours in my flat just standing still.

AC. What about the rest of the cast - what were they like to work with?

BM. Harrison Ford was great. He had been carpenter before he became an actor and still really enjoyed working with wood. He used to make furniture between takes. He said it helped him de-stress. He fixed the door on one of my kitchen cupboards as well. I think I’ve got a spice rack he made somewhere.

I remember one problem we had was that the crew would give the characters nicknames. For example, Chewbacca the Wookie became the Walking Rug. That caused a slight problem because Carrie Fisher was going out with Paul Simon at the time. He was visiting the set one day and heard one of the crew say, "Can we lose the Rug please?" It took us some time to calm him down after that.

AC. Did you have much interaction with George Lucas at all?

BM. I did have some, yes. I was always trying to suggest ideas to him. I’m a very instinctive actor and if I thought of a new way of standing to attention on set then I would suggest it to him. He was very open to suggestions like that. At one point he said, "Look, just do what the hell you want". He gave me a lot of freedom which is an absolute gift for an actor. What people don’t realise is that it’s often the background players who bring scene to life. When Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman say goodbye at the end of ‘Casablanca’ are the audience watching them? No. They’re watching the extra playing the aeroplane pilot looking at his watch in the background. There’s a tremendous amount of subtlety involved.

AC. Do you still work as an extra?

BM. Yes I do. If you watch ‘Gladiator’ when Russell Crowe instructs his army to "unleash hell" then I’m the third centurion on the right. I’m the one with the limp. It’s difficult to spot because I’m standing to attention but I just felt that my character would have a limp. I think it really brings the scene alive. Being a background artist is no way as easy as people think.

AC. Brian McMurty, thank you.

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