On a Saturday afternoon in Edinburgh, the hall was filled for the Star Wars panel, where Femi Taylor, who played Oola the dancing green alien in Star Wars: Episode VI - Return of the Jedi, and Arti Shah, who did all the motion capture work for Maz Kanata in Star Wars: Episode VII - The Force Awakens, talked about their experiences on the sets of two generations of Star Wars films.
Femi Taylor On Securing The Role of Oola
"How I got the part as Oola is that I was asked to go up for an audition for a film, and I wasn't told anything about it. So I went to Twickenham Studios, which was still open back in those days, the '80s — don't want to share my age just yet! I went for the audition and they just said that they were looking for a female dancer; they weren't allowed to say because of the secrecy and I think that if they had told us what it was then it would have leaked out to the press, but back in those days we didn't have social media, we didn't have mobile phones, but they still had to keep it quiet. And then I went up for my second audition about three days later, did this grueling audition, still didn't know what it was, and then we asked: 'What is it?' And they said it's for the next 'Star Wars' movie.
"And I was doing the show 'Cats' at the time, and in the evening when I was doing the show, my agent came and said: 'You've got the role as Oola.' The news actually went out over the tannoy: 'Oola's got the role in Star Wars!'"
And fortunate she was to get it, too — that is, until she was thrown to the Rancor.
Arti Shah On Getting The Role of Maz Kanata
"So I was asked to go in for a meeting at Pinewood [Studios], and I didn't know what it was about, and I got there and it still wasn't mentioned that this was 'Star Wars,' and then I saw a certain drawing of a certain character and I went: 'Oh my God, is this real? Is this 'Star Wars'?' And they were like: 'Yep.' So I went in to do some creature work, and I flew out to Abu Dhabi and did the Gonk Droid and another character who was used later in the film, and then I got back and thought: 'Oh that's me, I'm done.' And then I got called in for another fitting, and then I got called in and asked to meet with visual effects and with J.J. Abrams and obviously Lupita N'yongo who is Maz Kanata, the voice and the face, so I went to meet with them and J.J. was like: 'Do you want to do the part as well?' And I was like: 'Whaaat?'"
I think any of us fans would have reacted the same way to being offered a role in any Star Wars film!
Taylor On Beginning Her Career On Stage
"I trained as a dancer; I was training in London at one point and we weren't allowed to audition at all, and I think that still happens if you're at drama school or dance school. I don't know, I don't get it. But you had this newspaper called The Stage and I think it's still around, and there was this audition and they wanted a black female dancer and I thought: 'Oh I should go and audition.' But I wasn't allowed to audition and now I was a naughty kid at school, I sort of broke all the rules and so I got all my friends and said: 'Come on, let's be naughty and let's go and audition.' So I auditioned for this West End show, it was a smash hit and they all kept saying: 'Oh Femi, this seems so interesting,' and I was panicking because I had to sort of explain. Anyway, I was asked to do my second audition, I went back and they said: 'We want you to join the company.' Yeah, and I was only 17, so I had to decide whether to join the company, earn some money, get my equity card — back in those days you had to work at least six weeks to earn your equity card, get some experience and work with an all-American cast or still train, so I left the school and didn't really look back. But I feel like it's crazy, if there's an opportunity and you feel like you're ready for it, then why not? It's a practical career and it's also a short career in that respect."
And I think that's a good lesson in not necessarily needing school to have an awesome career!
Taylor On Watching Herself On Screen
"You know what I think? It's hard because every actor sees their flaws, they don't see all the bonuses and positives in their performance. It's tough because you actually criticize yourself so much, but I think it's always better than you think."
Taylor On The Prosthetics She Wore As Oola
"I had no idea, it was only when I had my costume fitting that I got put into the — one second costume, and I didn't realize that I would have the Lukoo (antennae-type things) and when I was doing the dance routine on set they really threw me off balance because they were really heavy. It was such a pain because there were lots of turns and different-direction movements, I even got smacked in the head a few times.
"I filmed for a week, believe it or not, it was a week of rehearsal, pretty grueling."
Shah On Trying To Do Maz Kanata's Motion-Capture Work
"For Maz Kanata, because there was Lupita as well, she was doing the dialogue with the actors on set and then I would do the motion capture, the movement. But, for example, if she's holding the lightsaber in her right hand and she's passing it to Rey a certain way, I have to do exactly the same thing, so there's a lot of pressure. But having pressure is good because it challenges you and makes sure that you give it the best possible performance."
Shah On Whether She Is Returning For 'Star Wars: Episode VIII'
"Do you know what? I don't know. You know, we've all signed NDAs, but I really don't know yet."
But we can all keep our fingers crossed in the meantime.
Shah On Maz Kanata's Castle Set
"Oh! Maz's castle? It was amazing! Walking on set and seeing it, I've got to praise everybody who worked behind the scenes. The set designers, the props, special effects, the CFX people and the creature people — it was phenomenal. And when I saw the film, I thought: 'Oh we haven't really had that much time in the castle, the whole scene itself was quite big.' But going through and seeing all the creatures was very quick. But the set itself was wow."
Taylor On Working With The Big Actors In The '80s
"For me, Mark [Hamill] was wonderful, he was a real sweetie. Just, when I was sitting on the throne waiting to shoot the scene, he would just come up to me and have little chats. Harrison Ford was very busy pacing up and down and learning his lines. I remember Carrie Fisher was in a bad mood. But I see her at conventions and she's lovely."
Shah On Working With The Big Actors In 2015
"Obviously, when I worked with Harrison Ford, it was after his accident and I said to him: 'How are you doing with the injury, are you going out much?' And he said: 'Oh, I don't go out much.' But we were doing this scene in Maz's castle and I had to sit next to him and there was this glass that I had to take and drink it, and the glass was way out on the table, and Harrison Ford was sitting next to me like, 'No, we've got to bring it closer to you, because how are you going to reach it?' And I thought: 'Wow, he's such a pro.' Carrie Fisher, I would say she's kooky. We did scenes together but they weren't in 'The Force Awakens.' And obviously, I worked with John Boyega on 'Attack the Block,' where we did fight scenes together, and then when we worked together again he was just like: 'Oh yeah, we're friends.' And then Daisy Ridley, I worked with at the Greenwich Festival in London in 2012 and she's so down to earth. And Lupita, you know, she's really, really cool, everyone was really nice. I didn't get to work with Mark Hamill but I can tell you a little story. So when I got the part of Maz, the head of creatures said: 'Right, we still want to make sure you look pretty decent, so let's get the hair put up so you can wear that silly motion-capture hat.' So I would have to go into the makeup truck every morning, and I would be my usual chatty self, so I go in and there was a gentleman sitting where I would normally sit, who had quite a lot of gray hair. But I was talking away and as I was leaving I was like: 'Ohhh, that's Mark Hamill sitting there.'"
I think Shah again emulates all of us with her embarrassment after realizing that she was hanging with an icon!
Taylor On Being Called Back For The 1997 Special Edition Scenes
"It was amazing, I don't know if you've heard the story but I was in New York at the time, and I just wanted to visit a really good friend of mine, and not tell anybody where I was and I went back to her place and she said there's a phone call for you from Lucasfilm, and I went: 'This is absolute rubbish,' because nobody knew where I was, and I called this person up and it was the casting director, and she was saying: 'We've been trying to track you down for about six months and everybody at Lucasfilm, at Skywalker Ranch, was laughing at me because they didn't think we would be able to track you down, and even if we did then because it's 16 years later you'd be looking different.' So they said: 'Can you take some photos of yourself because we just want to see what you look like now because you have to fit into the costume again.' I didn't have my babies back then, so I took some photos and they said: 'Oh no, you haven't changed, we'll fly you out to San Francisco, we're trying to merge your scene with the special edition.' So that's what happened, they flew me out and it was just really weird putting my costume on 16 years later; it was quite nostalgic, it was odd but it was great. But it was different because we had blue screen, but when I go into the pit, they actually built it. And that wasn't going to happen; it was because of the associate director Rick McCallum. He said to George Lucas: 'I think we should keep Femi here a few days and build her a set and see her get killed,' so that wasn't going to be there originally. So I stayed for an extra week, they built the set for me to be eaten by the Rancor, but it was great, it was so good, and I was the only actress, I was the only dancer to be brought back, which was just really, really good."
Taylor On The Changes That George Lucas Made In The Special Release
"Oh the special edition? Oh — I think the original was better. I think when it was done originally it was better, it was more authentic."
And once again, I think the majority of us would agree on that one. Well done, Femi, on speaking out against Lucas and his wacky changes!
Aside from getting to talk to these two at the panel, I also got the opportunity to talk to another original cast member — Paul Blake, a.k.a Greedo!
And I asked him a very, very important question:
Who shot first?
"I have the T-shirt that says it. I admit, Han shot first. I disagree with what George did with the special edition, because I think — Greedo was a bounty hunter, if he had shot first there's no way he misses from that distance. But, it's George's movie, he can do what he wants with it."
And there you have it, folks. Even Greedo admits Han Solo shot first. And that should be that.
In addition, if you're interested, IMDb lists British actor Jimmy Vee on the cast list for Star Wars: Episode VIII, with the character title R2-D2 of all things! Vee hasn't appeared in any of the previous films, but was on the list here without any announcement having been made. So just because he happened to be at Edinburgh Comic Con, I made a point of asking him if he was going to appear in the film. He smiled at me and said that he wasn't really allowed to talk about it. And since he would be able to talk about it if he wasn't in the film, he is almost certainly in the film, and probably playing R2-D2, as IMDb states.
Anyway, that's all of the Star Wars actors that I was able to hunt down at Edinburgh Comic Con! Let me know in the comments what your favorite part of the panel was.