Bruce Spence interview | Tion Medon | Star Wars

Number 3 must be the lucky number of Bruce Spence. The New Zealand born actor played in the third installments of blockbuster movies Mad Max, The Lord of the Rings The Matrix and Star Wars. In Star Wars: Revenge of the Sith he portrayed Utapau inhabitant Tion Medon, who welcomed Obi-Wan Kenobi. I was lucky enough to have the following interview with Bruce Spence in February 2010. Enjoy his stories!


How did you get started in the movie business?

I was studying fine art in the late 1960’s and met some folk working in avant-garde theatre. I joined them as a jack of all trades mainly doing set construction etc. and after a few months I was offered a tiny acting role just to fill in for someone. Apparently I impressed certain members and the next thing I was spending more time acting and things just grew from there. I must confess my first love is still the theatre.

How did you get cast for the part of Tion Medon in Revenge of the Sith?

I was asked to audition. Lucky wasn’t I?

You once said that the costume of Tion Medon was a huge contribution to the character and you felt priest-like. How did you feel about the heavy make up? Did it take long for instance in the make up department and did you like the looks of your character?

Once I was cast for the role, I had to go through the saga of having to sit for a head cast. In order to make the prosthetic, the special effects folk require a detailed cast of your head and this involves having the whole of your head from your neck up, cast in pink goo and then Plaster of Paris with a couple of straws up your nose to breathe with while it sets. If anyone suffers from claustrophobia I do not recommend it. From personal experience I can tell you, it isn’t pleasurable!
The makeup took over four hours to put on and just over an hour to get off. Remember there were hands to be made up as well. But I loved the makeup. I loved the fact that Tion Medon’s face gave the impression of someone who could well be primitive and cruel but his inner character was exactly the opposite.
The great thing about prosthetics today is that they move with your face whereas the old ones were much like wearing a mask – almost nothing moved. With Tion Medon I could grimace, smile, sneer, etc. and it would translate through the prosthetic.
The costume had echoes of the kind of vestments that religious priests wear.


About Tion Medon: how did you prepare to play him? Did you delve in the history of the Star Wars universe for instance?

I was very familiar with the Star Wars films. However I realized that Tion Medon’s world Utapau, was a new creation of George Lucas’s and as Tion Medon I was inviting Obi Wan to my place. In other words he was in my world not the other way round so I had freedom to create my own character.
I came to the conclusion that Tion Medon, being a leader, had to be a person of great knowledge and authority. I loved the contradiction of the rather threatening nature of his facial features with the calmness of his inner character - a reminder that looks often deceive, that we should never judge a book by its cover. The script, (though somewhat brief) along with the costume etc. gave me clues that Tion Medon required a necessary composure and stateliness even in the face of adversity.

Can you tell something about the filming of your scenes for Revenge of the Sith?

The filming of the scene with Tion Medon took place pretty well towards the end of the shoot in Australia. As for getting my character right, it was actually a very straight forward shoot with a minimum of fuss. Serendipitously, it seemed that George Lucas and I had very, very similar ideas as to how Tion Medon should be played. It was remarkably smooth.


Tion Medon and Obi-Wan Kenobi (Ewan McGregor)

Your scenes with Ewan McGregor and you were directed by George Lucas. How were these two men to work with?

As I said, George Lucas was a dream to work with. George sets a high standard in his direction and I love that. Ewan is very relaxed, generous and open as an actor and this resulted in a truly blissful time.

Looking back at Revenge of the Sith and the whole Star Wars phenomena you have experienced: what are your thoughts and feelings?

Many years ago when I saw the first ever Star Wars movie, I was totally awestruck by the world that George Lucas had created. The technology along with the bold story telling was clearly a huge hit with audiences. Mind you, when the first Star Wars movie came out, it tapped into an audience that was becoming increasingly familiar with the world of myth, fantasy and science fiction.
A few years earlier, Stanley Kubrick had blown us away with his ground breaking epic 2001: A Space Odyssey while George Lucas had followed soon with his innovative THX 1138. Films like these laid the ground work for productions like Star Wars and Spielberg’s E.T. and Close Encounters of the Third Kind. I also remember in those days J.R.R. Tolkien was very popular with everyone reading the Lord of the Rings trilogy so audiences were more than ready for the Star Wars phenomena.
Back then as an aspiring young actor, never in my wildest dreams did I ever think that I would find myself in front of a camera participating in that epic tale of the Rebel Alliance and their battle with the dark forces of the Empire.

Besides Star Wars, you were also in the third installments of the Matrix, Lord of the Rings and Mad Max. How do you feel about this, to be in four of the most popular movie franchises ever?

It was never planned, they called me. It is just the way these things pan out, it is very weird! By the way I have just completed work on The Voyage of the Dawn Trader playing the role of Lord Rhoop, which is the third installment in the Chronicles of Narnia films, so there is yet another one as well. I should buy a lottery ticket or something!
I just regard myself as a very, very lucky actor.
Right now I have a regular role, playing the Wizard, Zeddicus Zul Zorander in the television series Legend of the Seeker for Disney. That is a fantasy series so I am sort of still locked into the genre. I never planned things this way it is just how the folk who cast me see me, thankfully.


Bruce Spence and me in April 2005

In Lord of the Rings you were also in heavy make up as the Mouth of Sauron, while you didn’t have make up for your part as the Trainman in the Matrix. Does not wearing make up or face prosthetics make acting easier? Or is it quite the opposite?

Whether I am wearing a load of prosthetics on my face or just a more natural makeup really does not affect me greatly when the camera rolls and someone shouts, action! Inside you are still acting.
It is the preparation before the shoot that can make performing easier or harder. Being covered in goo and Plaster of Paris for the head cast and then waiting for it to set while trying not to panic as you breathe through a couple of straws is not easy. Then the four and a half hours of make-up before you are due to go before the camera is can also be a bit inconvenient.
But once you have everything on, including the costume etc. it is really the same. Beneath all that stuff there is an actor using all his skills to make that character appear as truthful and dramatic as possible.
Mind you, prosthetic makeup these days is much, much more co-operative than it was in earlier times. The prosthetic makeup for Tion Medon was brilliantly constructed. It would allow me to alter expressions etc. while the older stuff hardly moved at all. When you have make-up that good it makes acting so much easier.


The Mouth of Sauron from The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King, played by Bruce Spence

Can you share some memories regarding the filming of your scenes for the Matrix and Lord of the Rings?

The principal reason I act is not for the publicity, fame, etc. but I get real gratification when I know I have created a character that truly belongs in and enhances the world that is unfolding in front of the camera and that I have enriched the narrative that the writer and director have in mind. There is also a great deal of joy and satisfaction working together with talented, generous actors when we all lift each other. Actors cannot work in a vacuum, we all boost each other.
Film making is a hugely collaborative activity and every actor contributes something valuable to the story as well as every crew member. Without talented writers, make-up, wardrobe, camera crew, special effects and so on, right down to the office folk, there can be no movie. An actor relies on so many people to make him or her look the best on the screen.
Regarding the Matrix and Lord of the Rings, the situation was the same, where I found myself in a very privileged situation, working with a fantastic group of extremely creative folk. As a character actor playing a relatively small role in such huge epic tales consisting of three movies, three great storylines, I can only preoccupy myself with those moments that involve my character. It is like filling in a portion of a huge tapestry.

Of all the characters you have played, which one is your favorite? And which movie are you most proud of?

I have great memories but I am afraid I have no favorites. I must confess though I will always be grateful for being cast in Mad Max: Road Warrior. Working with George Miller was an absolute joy and gave me such an amazing profile.
I have also very many fond memories working on stage, in theatre. It was in theatre that I learned my craft.


Mel Gibson and Bruce Spence in Mad Max

You have been in the business for four decades. Your first movie was in 1970. What are the biggest changes regarding acting and making movies you have experienced over the years?

There have not been a lot of changes regarding acting but there have been big changes in technology. The digital age has changed filming enormously. The introduction of the digital camera has changed the way we light and focus an image, not to mention the extreme detail that high definition cameras can now capture.
We no longer need massive, unwieldy, uncomfortable hot lights to light a scene. With the new technology we can shoot a night scene using minimum light.
Digital cameras are now much more versatile and of course, lighter. Now with a much lighter camera the use of steady-cam is everywhere which allows us to shoot faster.
This has resulted in lowering the cost of filming, making low budget movies much easier to make. As digital technology improves cameras are going to get smaller and cheaper so anyone will be able to make a movie.
Sound recording has improved which now allows the actor to speak much quieter now.
Special effects have improved immensely assisted of course by the use of digital technology which has allowed folk like George Lucas, Jim Cameron and Peter Jackson to create unbelievable effects and awe inspiring worlds we once thought beyond our imagination.

What are your plans for the future? Do you have any upcoming projects?

I just want to keep acting, hopefully in films that audiences enjoy. I love acting and as long as I am lucky enough to get good roles in good films, I will be happy.