You expect to meet Anthony Daniels somewhere epic and exciting as befits a fixture of the Star Wars franchise, not a mundane conference room in a corner of midtown Manhattan. After all, as C-3PO, the humanoid droid who is fluent in over six million forms of communication, he has braved the sands of Tatooine, endured the icy plains of Hoth, escaped the Death Star and been hailed as a god on the forest moon of Endor. Now, Daniels is trying on a new role, that of author, with the release of a new memoir, “I Am C-3PO,” which hits stores on Nov. 5.
Out of his alter-ego’s golden suit, Daniels is self-effacing, soft-spoken and unstintingly polite. He almost seems sheepish about being the center of attention, having played more of a supporting role in the space saga. Thanks to his book, Daniels is taking center stage, recounting his long association with the mega-grossing series with wit and candor. He cops to feeling like his contributions were often undervalued or ignored, as though audiences and even his directors forgot the performance behind the robot. He acknowledges on-set feuds and pays tribute to fallen co-stars such as the late Carrie Fisher. And he drops tantalizing hints about what’s in store for the franchise with the December release of “Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker.” Daniels spoke to Variety about his decision to dish about his four decades playing a central role in a galaxy far, far away.
You write about not feeling appreciated for your contributions on the first film. Some people dismissed you as a robot without thinking about the actor inside the suit. Why were you resentful?
It’s there in print. I said it and I’ve never really said that before because as I say I didn’t want to spoil other people’s enjoyment. If you’re at a party you might be less happy if somebody you know is outside and doesn’t have a ticket. I remember my sister, a hundred years ago, gave me the last ticket to a ride on a fairground. And I went on the ride, but I didn’t enjoy it because she wasn’t on it. Almost that’s the stepping off place. That’s where the journey really began and it takes us all the way up to “Episode IX,” where I have huge joy and excitement.
Since the first Star Wars came out in 1977, there’s been a lot more written about the artistry behind special effects and lots of ink spilled on the motion-capture performances behind characters like Gollum. Has that given people more respect for what you did with C-3PO?
Very much so, but you have to preface that by saying they shouldn’t know. You can’t be in the suit saying it’s pretty hard work in here. They shouldn’t see the strings or the wire or the pulley or anything. In a film you should hide the magic, but then there is a time, and I think we’ve reached that point, where I think it’s okay. I didn’t get the part because I fit the costume. I’ve always felt slightly nervous about actors talking about their craft because it’s a bit like get over it. It can sound self-important.
Yet George Lucas wasn’t going to use your voice at one point. Is that true?
Yes, famously Richard Dreyfuss almost did it. I want to say Mel Blanc was also involved, but I’m not sure. It might not have been him, but it was a cartoon voice actor who told George, “Tony’s voice is pretty good, you could use it.”
The prequels used a lot of CGI and the most recent films use more practical effects. What do you prefer?
Sometimes that electronic process can get in the way of creating viable characters. Puppeteers coming back again has been wonderful. With all due respect to digital or whatever, it’s just more fun if you’ve got the real thing about you.
Alec Guinness hated being defined by his role as Obi-Wan Kenobi in the franchise. Can you relate?
I have lived long enough to go through those shallows of despond. He died before he began to rise up out of them. He left this planet before he got there. I like to think he would have and would have eventually seen that, as I call him, an old man in a dressing gown, has meant so much to people. I think he would have liked that, because he was a kind man. When you look at the acting that he did, there was extraordinary diversity to his performances, and I think he felt that all that had been ignored, because it wasn’t whiz bang spaceships and that sort of thing. If there’s an afterlife, I hope he’s thinking of “Star Wars” a bit more benignly.
Then you feel more favorably about your involvement?
Yes, and why not? Put aside all the irritations, it’s hasn’t given me the career I ever would have expected. Who could have? But it has given me a career. I have done a ridiculous number of things, whereas a lot of actors have stunning careers where they do enviable roles. But a lot of actors muddle along a bit. And I would have been at the bottom edges of that. But this unexpected gift came along. Once I was involved, there was no letting go in a way. He and I, 3PO and I, were wedded. I’m not sure how he feels about that.
Carrie Fisher died before filming began on “The Rise of Skywalker.” Was it hard to make the movie without her?
There’s no doubt that the Star Wars family felt a lot of grief. She was a very nice person. You’re always going to miss somebody like that. She was very self-deprecating and self-taunting. She, like many of us, had that impostor syndrome and she did say to me once, “I’m more of a writer than an actor.” She did find remembering the lines difficult in the end, which for a writer must have been very hard for her. But everybody on the set was really patient. We all get days when we cannot remember the lines.
Well, these lines have so much jargon in them that they must be difficult to remember.
Yes, and then you have to say them with credibility and belief and honesty like they’re everyday phrases. They have to sound like, “Can I have a cup of tea?” Nobody ever says that in the movie, of course. For me it’s much harder walking around the set. With the suit on, you don’t have any peripheral vision.
You obviously have a lot of respect for him, but it sounds like George Lucas could be pretty cold on the set. Was he difficult to work with as a colleague?
He’s the man in charge, so he’s not a collaborator or a colleague. He’s the boss man and the responsibility of that is enormous. He had a very difficult time on the first one, so huge power and praise to him. There isn’t much time for compliments and that kind of thing because it’s costing thousands a minute to hang around, so you have to sort of say, “great” and move on.
One person you definitely didn’t get along with was “Return of the Jedi” director Richard Marquand. You essentially stopped talking to him on set. What went wrong?
Poor Richard, he just took on more than he realized. It became very obvious, very quickly. George himself has said he didn’t mean to be on set the whole time, but he was. It was strange because you had sort of an apprentice director and you wondered why? Why doesn’t George just tell everyone what he wants? It was uncomfortable.
What is it like to work with J.J. Abrams on “The Force Awakens” and “The Rise of Skywalker”?
He’s not only charming, but super intelligent. He’s almost George’s acolyte or apprentice. J.J., the first time I spoke to him on the phone, you could tell that he’d carried that magical thing that he got from George’s work as a child. He’s like that on a set. He can drive you crazy because he’ll go, “that was terrific. Let’s do that one more time. Let’s do it again.” We got up to 14 takes once, but he’s looking for something special. Something magic. I don’t necessarily know what it is, but he knows.
What do you think about the most recent trilogy?
I don’t know who could have done this but Disney. I don’t know of any other company that would have had the facilities and the courage and the wit and all that. To take this on from George — it’s a big legacy. But Disney took it and did something spectacular with it, as you’ll see in this next film. I’ve seen chunks of it, they’re still working on it, but it’s pretty finished.
Will “The Rise of Skywalker” be your last appearance as C-3PO?
Well the story of Skywalker is over, and quite rightly, too. It’s fine that it comes to an end. This is the end of the Skywalker story as we know it. Maybe a hundred years from now, there will be another one, but right now let’s go look somewhere else in the galaxy as they are doing with “The Mandalorian.” Hopefully people won’t get sated by it. Principally, I feel fine, because in writing the book I realized there’s almost a beginning, a middle and an end to my story. If the end is “The Rise of Skywalker,” it’s a perfect one.
But would you turn down other opportunities to reprise the part?
No. I’m absolutely convinced that Threepio in some other format, whether audio or visual or written, he won’t stop existing just because we’re not talking about the Skywalker family anymore. I would be a little sad if that were the case, but I don’t think it is.
Why do people love C-3PO?
He’s in a sort of eternal crisis, because George wrote him to be in the wrong place always. He’s always been told to shut up and go away. He’s never listened to. He’s a combination of Tiresias and Cassandra. He tells the truth, but nobody is interested in it. That’s charming. I think people relate to his sense of frustration. There is a childlike vulnerability about him. The fact that he doesn’t quite understand normal human discourse. He says, “I don’t understand human behavior.” For people in this world who don’t quite understand what’s going on, he’s quite a comfort.
Which of the Star Wars films do you like the best?
The original because it was the simplest. You had a story that made sense on its own. You could imagine what happened before, you could imagine what happened afterwards. You didn’t need to know anything more. It was an innocent film to make. There was no security issues, apart from the embarrassment of telling your friends that you were playing a robot. So much of that original film was an astounding coming together of all sorts of elements that made something bigger than its parts.
These movies are made with such secrecy. What has it been like to be involved in something like that where you can’t share any details with friends or family?
It becomes second nature. It’s almost like always hiding what you’re giving your partner or your child for Christmas. You hold back because you know the effect at the end will be far greater than dribbling out spoilers here or there. What is irritating is if you are being interviewed and people try to push you to say something. Why would you do that?
“The Star Wars Holiday Special” was so terrible that George Lucas essentially made sure that it was never rebroadcast. Did you know it was a train wreck when you were making it?
Yes, I did because my reaction to be off it was one of intense relief. It was so ill conceived. It became an object lesson in taking care of the product from then on. It was the last time that anything got away from Lucasfilm.
There’s been a merchandising empire that’s been built up around Star Wars, one that relies heavily on C-3PO. Are you ever resentful that you don’t get to profit more fully from that?
I gave up on that years ago. It’s not my property. The fact that I imbued it with life seems irrelevant.