Between 1999 and 2009 Lightsabre.co.uk brought news, fanfic, podcasts and much, much more to the masses. Our ninety-ninth guest is synonymous with all things Imperial – Kenneth Colley.
Lightsabre – Kenneth, welcome to Lightsabre.
KC – My pleasure.
Lightsabre – How does it feel to be a part of something as cinematically huge and culturally historic as the Star Wars movies?
KC – Well I suppose, if you let it, it becomes a way of life. I think we’re now into the third generation of people, who were not born, and it keeps it alive. For me the personal experience is a very long time ago, but this kind of secondary experience is going on all of the time. I’ve just signed a picture for someone just a minute ago. I think it may outlive me.
Lightsabre – How did your journey as an actor begin?
KC – I started in the theatre as a dogsbody, called an ASM, which was everybody’s gopher and dogsbody, an assistant. And they threw you on stage in small parts so they didn’t have to pay an actor. It’s the traditional way, before drama schools came into being, so it’s a long tradition. It goes back to Will Shakespeare’s day.
Lightsabre – Was that a good way to learn, to get your hands dirty?
KC – Well you have to, you becomes the directors assistant, the actors assistant, the scene pacer, the carpenter, and you have to do all those jobs with them. You know who everybody is and you’re never still.
Lightsabre – So you saw every aspect of a production?
KC – Yeah, and it was weekly rep. So there was a new fit up every weekend.
Lightsabre – You mention Shakespeare and I’ve just finished Bill Bryson’s book about him, fascinating book.
KC – I’ve just read that, yeah.
Lightsabre – And the amount of plays that they used to get through and might only perform a handful of times.
KC – Yes, that’s right. And some people believe they read them.
Lightsabre – So it’s a long tradition.
KC – Yeah. The drama school didn’t start until 1895 when Beerbohm Tree started RADA (Royal Academy of Dramatic Art).
Lightsabre – Did that ever interest you, going to drama school, or were you happy with the way that you learnt it?
Lightsabre – Do you think you approach acting in a different way than a drama school student might?
KC – It’s wins and loses. I’ve taught at drama school, and what drama school does is it gives you a basic grounding across all the things you might have to face, including music and classical work, poetry and so on. So if it’s a good school it’s a good idea, you know there are some lousy schools out there. And your real training begins when you step into the ring, when you’ve left drama school anyway. Nothing can teach you about film acting except film acting.
Lightsabre – What’s the transition between the two like? Are they very different or are they similar.
KC – They are very different. Perhaps less so today, but my generation of actor had to be prepared to tackle Shakespeare and to deal in received English, and to voice production and all that. I don’t know how many young actors go through that now. I was at the Old Vic in Laurence Olivier’s theatre company. We had the resident voice teacher who took no prisoners, she was great. But she would tackle Olivier about his delivery, and John Gielgud.
Lightsabre – Really?
KC – Yeah, tell them off when it was wrong. I think most of that’s gone, I don’t know, but now it’s gone very regional. The actors are from the region that they’re playing and sounds absolutely authentic. It’s the rise of the soaps I think that’s caused that.
Lightsabre – Are there still a lot of touring productions now, like there used to be?
KC – Well there are still touring productions, I mean I don’t think it’s still the great days of touring. The great days of touring was the 19th century, probably, and the beginning of the 20th. When the biggest names in the business toured. And so many theatres went because films came along, and then TV came along and they were all body blows to the theatre. Some became cinemas and the cinemas became bingo halls, that’s the way it goes.
Lightsabre – Which of the six episodes stands out as your favourite?
KC – Oh the middle one (The Empire Strikes Back). I think at the time the most influential American critic was Pauline Kael and she called it the most beautiful looking film of the year and I think she was spot on. It was shot so wonderfully, framed so wonderfully. And I think it probably had the best material. I talked to George about it, because originally there were going to be twelve, and then there were going to be nine, and then there were going to be six, and I said ‘Why are we doing four, five and six, why isn’t it one, two and three?’ and he said ‘Well, because I had to put the best material in Star Wars and this to get the money.’ And that’s the reason why you begin with four instead of one.
Lightsabre – Piett was almost unique in his manner with Darth Vader. He was an underling, but Vader clearly valued him. Was that in the script or was that something you brought to the table?
KC – Well, he wasn’t in the script of the third movie. I got a call from my agent saying there’s been a lot of fan mail about this character and George has decided to put him in the next one, do you want to do it, and I said sure, yeah. Who wouldn’t? So I went and sat on the set while George wrote scenes for me as he was talking about the saga. I remember sitting in while they were rehearsing how to make Jabba the Hutt work. He wrote a scene and gave it to me as we were sat watching them rehearsing with this huge thing. Because in those days it wasn’t CGI, what you saw on the screen was actually three dimensionally there, whether it was tiny or as big as a room, and that was.
Lightsabre – It was impressive wasn’t it.
Lightsabre – I’ve interviewed one of the guys who worked on Jabba, a guy called Toby Philpot.
KC – I know Toby.
Lightsabre – And all the mechanics of how it worked, all the intricate timing of just making him stick his tongue out and roll his eyes. Absolutely fascinating.
KC – Well it was a beginning you see. Now it’s just a continuation. Beginnings are always like that.
Lightsabre – I always remember reading, and I don’t know if this is true or not, about a press junket that Lucas did when Jedi came out, and obviously Admiral Piett bit the bullet when that A-wing flew through the window and took out the Star Destroyer that crashed into the Death Star, so you assume he’s dead. But I always remember hearing that Lucas said that he either did, or would like to think that he somehow survived it. What do you think?
KC – Well when we shot that scene, that last one on the bridge and that was the end I said ‘Well, that’s the end George isn’t it, now he’s dead.’ and he said ‘Well, not necessarily, in Star Wars you never know.’ But I don’t know what he had in mind.
Lightsabre – What would you have liked to see him do if he had of survived?
KC – Well it’s always more interesting to see something develop rather than repeat itself, so I would have liked to have seen where he ultimately could climb to. Because he was obviously ambitious but very wary of where to out his foot. You see him learn, actually in one shot you see him learn a great deal from the way Vader deals with Admiral Ozzel. And he carries that with him through the two films. That was always something capable of development, but an actors stuck with the script. You do what the script says, and what it doesn’t say you don’t do (laughs).
Lightsabre – I did a bit of research and saw that you were in an episode of The Sweeney, and more recently you appeared in New Tricks. What was it like working with Dennis Waterman again after such a long break?
KC – Well it was like we’d never been away. This business is like that, you never know if it’s going to be the next thing you do or twenty years before you see somebody and it’s just like you were never away. Because he hasn’t changed at all.
Lightsabre – Still sings the theme tune.
KC – Yeah.
Lightsabre – What other interests do you have outside of your acting career?
KC – Well I don’t know if you can call it outside of my career, because I’ve just made my own movie, I wrote, produced and directed a movie that I shot here, which actually is going to be playing at the Canterbury Odeon in the mornings. It’s a question of when the students are going to be back at university for a potential audience.
Lightsabre – What’s it about?
KC – Well I describe it as a birthday party that turns into a nightmare that they can’t wake up from.
Lightsabre – Oh right. Sounds like Christmas for me.
KC – I shot it in my own house and it’s called Greetings.
Lightsabre – I’m sensing there’s a twist in this story. Is it a straight forward drama?
KC – Greetings is obviously ‘birthday greetings’ but they also begin to get greetings from something else, something nobody would ever wish to meet. I’m trying to get a distributor at the moment, I’ve sent it off and I’m waiting to hear if there’s going to be any response.
Lightsabre – Is it feature length?
KC – It’s the short end of feature length, it’s 72 minutes which I think is about the cut-off point for when you can call something a feature. It’s an ambition, realizing an ambition to be the creator of something and see it through rather than just be a hired hand.
Lightsabre – Have you ever been on a film set where you’ve wanted to grab the director by the scruff of the neck and say ‘why don’t you do it this way?’
KC – Not exactly that, but there is the myth of the director takes a lot of killing. They’re mostly supported by the crew, the director says what he wants but it’s up to brilliant people like cameramen, lighting men, operators and sound men to give him what he wants, and these days special effects people. Because I had special effects in Greetings and of course I had to find out and just leave it to somebody, and it came back great.
Lightsabre – If you could have had first pick of any of the roles in the films, which ones would you have picked?
KC – Oh I think I probably had the one I should have had, I just wish that they could have shown more, because the problem with playing those parts is they’re only ciphers, only uniforms and they’re essentially background characters but somehow, combination of things, I think he began to come into foreground a tad, which was probably why he had that response. I think you begin to see the man rather than just a knee-jerker in uniform.
Lightsabre – Piett was certainly more than just a background character in uniform.
KC – Well, that’s the challenge when you play those parts. You can’t just play a uniform or a single attitude, you have to somehow try to dig up within the parameters of the part something human, because that’s what the audiences respond to, the humanity. The response I got was because of the humanity, not because of the uniform, if you see what I mean.
Lightsabre – I can’t resist asking this one. You played Jesus in Life of Brian, and you must get asked about that as much as you do about Star Wars. Do you have any stories from the making of that other classic?
KC – Well just what a joy they were to be with. There was as much fun between takes as on takes, always with them. They were simply great. I mean I go back, with that kind of comedy, to The Goons, who were my gods of comedy and then there was nobody until they came along anywhere near. This kind of collective genius was so rare. Individuals, but a collective genius across four people, that’s something. And I was just part of it, so I was privileged.
Lightsabre – And it’s another classic movie. Where was it filmed?
KC – Tunisia, strangely where Star Wars was. In fact I remember going to a hotel for dinner and the Star Wars guys had dressed up one of the entrances and the hotel had kept it, a Star Wars sort of entrance. A place called Matmata, underground, a big underground hotel.
Lightsabre – Life of Brian is such a class movie, it was a 6th form classic. How different was it working with Irvin Kershner on Empire and the Richard Marquand on Return of the Jedi? Were they markedly different as directors?
KC – Yes they were. By that time the thing was such a rollercoaster they tended to want to let you just shoot it and frame it and let you do what you knew you were doing. Although Irvin Kershner was great at foreshortening, because you know a lot of George’s dialogue was almost unspeakable and there was far too much of it and Irvin was brilliant at just honing it down to a single sentence that did the job. He’s a great photographer, he is a great stills photographer of international note anyway, he has exhibitions around the world. That’s why it looks so good, you know.
Lightsabre – I was lucky enough to interview Kershner last year and I didn’t just want to talk about Empire, that seemed rude so I asked him about his wider career. But he kept bringing the chat back to Empire, which was absolutely fantastic, obviously.
KC – It was a big thing for him, it was a huge thing. Because of the success of the first one they had the budget to really put their vision on the screen, where mostly you’re fighting to do that against budget and producers and more line producers. There was no need on that.
Lightsabre – Back when you made Empire what was the feeling on set? The expectation must have been huge, to follow up Star Wars which had been so massive.
KC – Well I think so yeah, because nobody thought Star Wars would do anything. The cut the money off and told him to cut together what he had and send it out. That’s where all the invention came in, because they could afford it. They didn’t overindulge in what they left on the screen either, which was great. I think the last three were…I think there’s too much effects on the screen.
Lightsabre – You saw the last three?
KC – Yeah I did. I think that George got a bit scared that in the interval that effects had gone to such a degree that he had to keep up and somewhat overcome, and so I think he just overloaded the boat really. And the characters were nowhere near as interesting anyway I don’t think. And the basic drama about a tax, I don’t think kids care about a tax. They want right is wrong and good and evil.
Lightsabre – They’re doing a TV series now set between Episode III and the original Star Wars.
KC – Yes, so I hear. Someone said it was animated.
Lightsabre – Yeah, they’re doing an animated one this year and a live action one next year.
KC – Oh wow, I didn’t know about the live action.
Lightsabre – And the central character is going to be Boba Fett, who was in Empire and Jedi with you.
KC – Jeremy, I wonder if Jeremy will do it? It doesn’t matter who’s in the suit.
Lightsabre – If there was a role that was suitable, would you be interested in being a part of it again?
KC – Of course, yes (laughs) but I don’t know what you do with thirty years of development and ageing.
Lightsabre – Well I guess they could always have Admiral Pietts father or uncle or predecessor.
KC – Or in retirement or something, yeah. If there’s such a thing.
Lightsabre – You’ve made your film, but are there any other big burning ambitions that you’d like to do? Is there an actor you’d like to share the stage or the screen with?
KC – No, I’d just like them to be good. I have been with some of the best anyway. You know, Tony Hopkins, John Gielgud, Colin Blakely, Glenda Jackson. They don’t come any better than those people.
Lightsabre – What did you act with Hopkins in?
KC – Oh we did a movie called Juggernaut in about ’74. Richard Harris, Omar Sharif picture about an ocean liner with a number of bombs on it, and we did the story of Peter and Paul for American TV some years later.
Lightsabre – That’s fantastic, thanks Kenneth.
KC – Thanks, bye.
This interview was originally posted on lightsabre.co.uk on 9th March 2008.