What got you into acting? Was it a movie, an experience or maybe something else?
My father was a church organist in Scotland and started doing Church pantomimes with the local kids. We were all age eight to ten, and, as his son, I always got the best comedy part. I then played Benedick in Much Ado About Nothing at my senior school and then auditioned at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art in London and was offered a place.
If any film inspired me it was a Russian film: Grigori Kosintzev’s Hamlet. We had studied Hamlet at school and the film suddenly brought what had been a dry examination text for us to life in a very inspiring way. Years later I worked at the Moscow Arts Theatre on tour with the National Theatre of Great Britain and met Innokenti Smotunovsky, the actor who had played Hamlet. That was quite a thrill.
How did you get cast for the part of Bib Fortuna in Return of the Jedi?
Very ordinary actor’s story. They wanted an actor who was tall and could move well. I had been seen in a West End play in London by the casting director and I met Richard Marquand and was offered the job on the spot. I had no idea what the film was until after I said I would do it. He then explained it was the next Star Wars film and I hadn’t to tell anyone. I immediately went home and told my kids but told them not to tell anyone. Of course they told all their friends.
What was your initial feeling when you got the part? Star Wars was very popular and this much anticipated movie promised to be big; it had the biggest budget of all three.
All actors are just relieved to be in work. The film wasn’t due to start for three months and I was making a TV series at the time so it was a very busy period. I used to go up to Borehamwood studios in pre-production to make the life masks, hand casts etcetera to help build Bib. It was good fun, but ultimately, to a professional actor, it’s just a job. I wasn’t all that aware of the Star Wars phenomena, so I approached it as just another job. I’d just made American Werewolf in London and loved film and film studios and all the paraphernalia. I’d spent ten years working on stage and in TV so big movies were a thrill. There weren’t many being made in England in those days.
I read that it took 8 hours to transform you into Bib Fortuna. How did you spend all those hours at the make-up department?
Yes, 8 hours first time round, but Nick Dudman got it down to an hour with practice over five weeks. I slept during the makeup sessions. Make up never finished. Nick spent the day gluing bits back on that had come loose under the heat on set.
Do you have any fun stories from the set?
Lots of the characters on that set couldn’t see anything because of the head pieces they were wearing. The Gamorrean Guards were always walking into each other and bouncing off like dodgems or walking into walls. It was like a slapstick comedy. I once barked a line at Luke Skywalker and Bib’s teeth flew out and hit him. The whole experience was like being a big kid, so although it was tiring, it was fun.
In the movie you had to work with Jabba, the largest puppet ever built. What was it like working with a puppet instead of an actor?
It was fine. A trained actor can work with a statue if necessary. What was a little disconcerting was that Jabba’s voice came from off the set where a stage manager read his lines from a script. The voice was disengaged and it was often female. So this huge, fierce, dramatic creature had a light, disembodied voice. Until his screen voice was dubbed on in America. Also when we took a pause in the filming all the guys inside Jabba would come out for a break and this powerful, sinister figure Jabba would deflate like a giant balloon into a pile of rubber on the floor.
Richard Marquand directed Return of the Jedi and George Lucas was on the set a lot, too. How would you describe them?
George was directing 2nd unit on another stage and only made occasional appearances. He was very shy but pleasant. Richard was a pleasure to work with: good humoured, clear, open and approachable. The sort of director actors like to work with.
What is your fondest memory regarding working on Return of the Jedi?
It was all just great fun. It was physically hard, but a bit like being a big kid. You dressed up in a funny costume and pretended to be a monster. Days were long and arduous but full of humour. Actors tend to have a highly developed and slightly self-mocking wit, so it was a laugh. Despite that we took it seriously. We were professionals working hard but enjoying ourselves.
You have attended loads of conventions, signing photos and other memorabilia. What is your general feeling to signing things?
I pick and choose the conventions as I don’t like to do too many. I don’t always pick the big ones. For example recently I went to a tiny convention in Lincoln in England, simply because it is a medieval town and I had never been there and wanted to see the cathedral. Although the convention wasn’t busy, it was in a wonderful museum up under the cathedral and I left with pleasant memories of the place and its beauty. What always surprises me about the conventions is the number of really young kids who are Star Wars fans and who know Bib Fortuna. The Star Wars phenomena is handed down from generation to generation.
What are you doing these days? Can you tell us something about your current or future projects?
I’ve just stated work on a new ten part TV series for ITV. So that will keep me busy till the autumn. Unfortunately contractual agreements forbid my being able to tell you what it’s about.
I fully understand that. Thank you for your time and good luck with the new TV series!