I’ll admit, I underestimated C-3PO. He always struck me as the classic straight man to ping jokes off of, the anxious companion who increases the tension of a tight situation. I honestly never thought about him as a real character with dimensions, motivation, and consistency.
But Anthony Daniels recently gave an interview to Entertainment Weekly that made me shift my perspective and increase my appreciation for ol’ Goldenrod. If anyone should have greater insight, it is certainly the man who has played him for nearly 40 years.
Certainly the whole interview is worth reading, but there were four bits that kinda blew my mind.
1) C-3PO and R2-D2 are Rosencrantz and Guildenstern.
It was maybe five years after filming Star Wars, I think maybe I was doing Empire Strikes Back, that it suddenly occurred to me that R2 and 3PO are Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. For people who don’t know that play, they are the tiny characters in Hamlet who, in a play written in the 20th century [by Tom Stoppard], became the main characters. One is highly intelligent and sort of intuitive and the other is plodding and slow and usually more correct, usually sensible. I was the clever one, Guildenstern. And I think having played that role the week before we finished and then we’re in the desert [shooting Star Wars], I almost carried on the stage play that I’d been doing. The only difference was that the actor on stage playing Rosencrantz actually spoke to me, whereas R2-D2, to my horror and consternation and bewilderment and confusion, didn’t speak at all. I was in a one-sided monologue.
How did I not know this?! I love Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, I even teach it, and I have never, ever made this connection before. But he’s absolutely right, of course, that the characters are practically the same. It’s even more fun to consider the two droids as attempting to figure out how to get out of this “madhouse” of a universe, as Rosencrantz and Guildenstern do in Stoppard’s play.
2) C-3PO’s pessimism comes from logic, not fear or cowardice.
Not to get heavy about this, but one of the laws of robotics is that a robot has to protect itself — that is, after it’s protected its master. He’s not basically a coward. He has the logic to extrapolate any given situation to its dreadful end. The interesting thing is he only ever sees a bad outcome. He doesn’t have that capability or programming to say, “Well it could end up fine.”
Again, this makes perfect sense. And yet, because Daniels makes 3PO so human, it’s easy to attribute human characteristics of fear or cowardice on him, when he’s really just far too intelligent to be optimistic.
3) Daniels flat out refused to allow his performance in the upcoming films to be CGI.
I will tell you that when [director] J.J. Abrams rang me to ask about filming Episode VII, one of the first things he said after he told me how wonderful I was — and that didn’t take long — but he then said, “Would you be interested in being in the film just doing the voice?” I said, “No,” and he said, “Right!” He knew I’d say that. There’s no way I would just do the voice. I also said that it can’t be the same suit. I will tell you that the team then got together and built a new suit. They made an entirely new look-a-like with changes that you will never notice [on screen] that made my life a lot easier. I can get it on and off very quickly. [During the prequels], the only time [Threepio has] been CG was when it was very dangerous [to act in the scene in a suit] — and it wasn’t very good. In fact, I’m going to say it was awful. One of the difficulties is with a character that you know and love so well is that, as a member of the audience, you go, “Oh no, that’s not right. No, he doesn’t move like that.” With me [in the suit], he’s always going to move the same way and have the same reactions, timing, and so on. With CG, you’re working with some brilliant person on the keyboard who is trying to pretend to be me.
Daniels is not just an actor, he’s a mime. Of course he wouldn’t want his physical acting to be done by a programmer. Bully for you, ol’ chap!
4) How Daniels would envision C-3PO’s final fate.
Humans die … I guess, wow. … Would he rust, gently? … I think probably he would realize that his programming was failing, that it was too old fashioned, and Microsoft had stopped supporting that particular brand. He would see upcoming new robots and realize his power source was running out. He’d say to R2, “Can you go down and get me a new power spectrum?” or whatever. I don’t think he’d ever — I’m looking at this image with [C-3PO wearing his replacement] silver leg … I think he would go on. Getting spare parts, getting surgery. And I think the people around him, humans and droids alike, would help because he had become part of their daily lives, part of their environment. They wouldn’t want to let him go. You know, I’m a great do-it-yourself person at home. I mend pretty much anything I can, whether it’s melting plastic with a hot skewer from the stove because the plastic is cracked, or with my glue gun mending this or that, or cannibalizing a part from something else that I kept in the workshop. I will keep objects going. I’m not from the throw-away culture, I’m from the make-and-mend culture. Threepio is nice to have around. I think he would go on and on and on.