Simon J. Williamson is a versatile Star Wars castmember. He played three parts: a Mon Calamari, a Gamorrean and the star of the Max Rebo Band: Max Rebo himself. Besides Star Wars, he is known for his work on the cult-classic The Dark Crystal, made by Jim Henson and Frank Oz.
I have met Simon three times within one year: in the fall of 2005, the winter of 2006 and the summer of 2006. The following interview was also done in 2006, and is an exclusive for this website!
What was your first reaction when you saw the characters you were going to play in Return of the Jedi?>
Well, originally I was contracted as a puppeteer, and could have been allocated any of the creatures. In fact, I was at one time due to puppeteer a large slug-like creature on the floor of Jabba's palace
which Richard Marquand, the director, didn’t like very much and kept trying to stick right in the back of the shot, but which George liked, so it kept finding it’s way back in.
Then one day Phil Tippet (who was responsible for the makeup and creature design) asked me if I would try Max Rebo. And I thought Max looked great, a FUN character, lets face it. He was also bright blue in a dark set- so he was going to have impact if I did a good job.
On another day, Hugh Spight and I saw some extras having difficulty keeping themselves upright, without fainting under the studio lights, in the large Gamorrean guard costumes. Having been in The Dark Crystal under even more physically difficult conditions, we decided to offer ourselves up. So we each got into a "pig guard" costume and terrorized Howard Kazanjian.
It clearly worked, as we got to play most of the Gamorrean Guards from then on. They called us ‘Smoky’ and ‘Streaky’ on set.
Having been given Max Rebo and a Gamorrean guard or two, I found the Mon Calamari’s a bit of an anticlimax. They were quite humanoid, so there wasn’t a great deal of creature-movement one could do.
Since the Max Rebo ‘costume’ was essentially a puppet, albeit a larger one than most people think of when you mention the word ‘puppet’, what types of difficulties did you encounter as you performed him? Were there any good aspects to performing in this manner?
The main difficulty was that it made me deaf for a few days. As I couldn’t see I had to be given instructions by an earphone, but it got so tightly wedged into my ear that it affected my hearing for days after. The costume was very tight overall and a real squeeze to get in an out of. Lucky I wasn’t claustrophobic. I have drawn a picture, which I take to conventions, which shows exactly where I am in relation to Max’s outer shape.
Was any part of it good? It was all brilliant fun.
Did you meet the big four (George Lucas, Mark Hamill, Carrie Fisher, and Harrison Ford)? What do you think of them? How were they on the set?
Yes I met them all, as I had scenes with all the principal actors. George himself was always there,
looking over Richard Marquand's shoulder, although not obtrusively, but he didn’t say a lot directly to us mimes and puppeteers.
Harrison Ford sometimes could come across as grumpy on the surface, but I think that was more a case of him trying to ensure something was right. At one point he was trying to get my Gamorrean guard to grip his shoulder tightly, but the finger mechanism wouldn’t allow me to do this, so in the end he had to act being held tight, while I followed his movements. Really, they were all fine. It was, after all the third film, so they all knew each other well. Carrie Fisher was nice to have on set, wafting around in her slave girl costume, inflaming the desires of all the men on set. And Mark Hamill was charm itself. But we didn’t meet a lot. With us fully costumed, we stayed on set with armies of hair/makeup/costume people to adjust the various layers of costume, while the principal actors could always grab a few moments in their dressing rooms between shots.
You played the Gamorrean that fell into the Rancor pit along with Luke (Mark Hamill). Was this a dangerous stunt since the costume must have been very heavy?
It wasn’t too bad a stunt for the stunt man. I had the easy part: being at the top and then the stunt man did the fall, and the next shot picked me up from the moment I scrambled to my knees and started running to escape the Rancor. The Rancor was to be processed in later, so I had to imagine what I was fleeing from. I think I imagined the tax man running after me with a huge bill.
As I tried to escape up the chute, acting terrified, my Gamorrean Shoe got snagged and started to get pulled off (unseen by the camera, because we were in tight shot), it suddenly occurred to me that here was I, a grown man, dressed as a green pig, fleeing something that wasn’t there, having to assume a huge acting style, to make the emotion read through layers of green foam rubber, with my foot swiveling around on the end of my ankle. A moment of complete absurdity, but probably why I became an actor in the first place: to have fun, while telling a story which might affect people.
You puppeteered Nien Nunb along with Mike Quinn and Tim Rose; two colleague puppeteers on Jedi. How was it to work with them and have you kept in touch?
Well, they were also The Dark Crystal friends, and it’s the convention circuit that has brought us all back together again. That was one of the best things about "Inebriation 3" - I’m sorry, I mean Celebration 3 - meeting them all again, along with Dave Barclay and Toby Philpott from inside Jabba. The days on Nien Nunb were actually quite disorienting, as the cockpit was mounted on a sort of gimble, which was rocked back and forth by a couple of grips to simulate it’s troubled flight through space. I think we were ok, but Billy Dee Williams (Lando Calrissian) was getting "space-sick", but of course, us puppeteers are a tougher breed than these actors.
In the 1997 Star Wars Special Edition they changed the Max Rebo sequence; the scene became longer with new footage and even a new song. What is your opinion on this being one of the main performers in that scene?
Well, Id have loved to have come back and done some reshooting, so many years later, but CGI seems to rule these days. Naturally, I prefer to see live actors than CGI. Did the Special Edition improve Max Rebo? Not for me, but it was what George Lucas wanted, and it’s his film.
What is your fondest memory regarding working on Return of the Jedi?
Laughing away inside the Gamorrean Guard costume, at the sheer absurdity of what I was doing and also being shown round the set for the first time by someone who thought they were only possibly going to use me on the film, when in fact I had already been signed up. At each sound stage, people came over to say hello, recognizing me from The Dark Crystal, which was shot at the same studio six months previously. "Er.. I guess you’re hired, then" he said, after this had happened a few times.
You have worked together with the legendary Jim Henson on the Muppet movies and The Dark Crystal. Did you look up to him back then? How was it to work with him?
Of course, and still do. Through The Dark Crystal I got Return of the Jedi, so Jim started it all for me. And he was a friendly, warm and generous man, dedicated to running a big organization like a family. In preproduction for The Dark Crystal, he gave us puppetry workshops once a week, because there were a group of us who weren’t hired solely as puppeteers, we were a combination of actors, dancers, circus performers and mime artists.
It’s strange to think that he died so long ago, now - and maybe this proposed The Dark Crystal sequel will remind everyone just how groundbreaking the original was.
The Dark Crystal was a very serious puppet movie; almost an arthouse one. What was the general feeling on the set since it was a unique project in every way (puppets in a dark movie that wasn’t meant as a comedy).
I think we knew that this was a movie that would be difficult to describe and define. It was also shot and rehearsed in a totally different way, and we were uniquely privileged to have had such an extensive and experimental pre-production period. The puppet builders would ask us what we needed in order to achieve certain things, then go off and build it, or modify the mechanics and proportions, and ultimately make them all work. This would be considered too expensive and time-consuming by today’s movie financing world, and its a great tribute to Jim Henson that he was able to insist on this approach.
After an intense series of workshop auditions with Swiss mime Jean Pierre Amiel, I was chosen to be one the ten mime artists. I was in the first group of four, who worked all the way through the film; the other 6 joined us a few months later. We were a separate group from the regular Muppet performers, who did most of their performing upright, (i.e. The Skeksis) whereas we were usually bent over in excrucutiatingly uncomfortable positions as the Mystics (UrRu). The Dark Crystal was one of the most exciting and unusual projects I have ever been involved with, and physically very demanding. We had to train like athletes and have special diets to minimize any circulation problems from being in painful and crouched positions for hours at a time.
You have also worked with Frank Oz a couple of times; the Muppets and The Dark Crystal, and he even directed you in Little Shop of Horrors. Did you learn a lot of him regarding puppeteering?
On the set of The Dark Crystal I saw a unique bit of performing by Frank that literally made my skin stand up - the moment when his Skeksis was cowering against a wall, being mobbed and stripped by the other Skeksis. It showed just how good puppetry can be. I regarded myself as more of an actor with movement skills than a top puppeteer, but on that day on set, we were all in the presence of something incredible. Now that I’ve started directing, I’d look to Frank as an inspiration for directing, too - one of my favorite comedy films is his Dirty Rotten Scoundrels.
In the last decade, CGI is the reason that there aren’t as many puppeteers as before; computer animation is taking over. What are your thoughts on this?
Obviously George Lucas has staked his position in regard to CGI , but for me there’s nothing like being on proper set and having real characters that actually exist in space - even though they may be foam rubber and latex, with a human or body underneath. For me it feels real, whereas CGI generally doesn’t feel quite right. You can admire it and go "wow" for a moment or two, but ultimately something creeps into the back of your head and you cant totally accept it. In my opinion.
What are you doing these days? Can you tell us something about your current or future projects?
I’m trying to become a writer and director. I’ve made a few shorts, including one - The Right Hand Man which went to DragonCon in Atlanta one year - it’s world premiere, as it happens. That was a rites of passage story set in a gambling community in Wales. It’s a comedy drama and is a little under 18 minutes long. It was a The Cannes Film Festival this year, as was I, but has pretty much had it’s festival exposure now, although you can see some stills and a synopsis on my website (www.simonjwilliamson.co.uk).
I’ve also written a screenplay set in London and the Isle of Man. It’s a comedy about an actor who appears in a low budget film, which indirectly causes a series of other disasters in his life. It’s a little like Martin Scorcese's After Hours in tone. I’m putting that out to the Industry, to try and get it funded. My main focus is therefore less on acting these days - but Id like to see if there’s anything I could do on the Star Wars TV series and The Dark Crystal sequel - I read at one point that my character, UrSol, is meant to be heavily featured.
Your first ever official autograph appearance was in Paris. What’s been the most fun thing about going on the road to meet the fans?
Conventions and signings are great fun, especially when you get to travel internationally as well, with someone else organizing the tickets and hotels, etc. It makes you feel appreciated, as do the fans. Celebration 3 was also great for meeting people I hadn’t seen for twenty years, and also meeting for the first time a lot of the Aussie and Kiwi actors who worked on the prequels. They were a great bunch of people who really know how to party.
Have there been any "negatives" since you’ve started appearing?
The main negative is that I feel I’ve discovered the circuit rather late, as many of the others have been attending for years. I wish Id known about it sooner and could have got more travel under my belt.
I like politeness and good manners, so anything that detracts from that can be a drag - and that occasionally happens - but thankfully it’s rare. Most conventions are well-organized and both organizers and fans are respectful and interested, and very glad to have you.
What do you make of the continuing popularity the Star Wars franchise has engendered?
George Lucas tapped into something very special and archetypical. I know he used Joseph Campbell’s book The Hero of a thousand faces extensively, but he also did so with Willow - which was less of a success, so that’s clearly only part of it. lt was probably more to do with a passionate desire on George Lucas part to get the story out there, and written from the heart, and subconscious. There’s also the factor of what was going on in the world at that time. Wherever he was he first thought of Star Wars, then it was obviously a very creative time for him. Also – I believe - with the first film having no stars and a smallish budget, being filmed so far away from Los Angeles, there was less incentive for the studio to "over-manage" the production, leaving George freer to make the film he wanted.
There’s also something powerful and iconic about Darth Vader - not only visually in terms of presence, but also emotionally - enough to carry dedicated fans all the way through to the final installment, over nearly thirty years.
Whatever the reasons for it’s success, it’s great to be part of Star Wars.