The illustrious Jabba bids you welcome and will gladly tell you his Star Wars story. That’s right, exalted ones, it’s time for a new tale as we delve back into puppetry with everyone’s favourite giant-slug-mobster, Jabba the Hutt!
If you appreciate Jabba the Hutt then you are the right kind of scum for our guest, Toby Philpott. Toby had the honour of puppeteering the main body of Jabba with the equally honourable Dave Barclay. Together Dave and Toby were quite literally Jabba’s right- and left-hand men but as Toby will tell us later, the Jabba Team in its entirety would be the size of a rugby team!
Jabba was a huge character in more ways than one and pivotal in bringing the main characters of the original trilogy back together. From Toby we find that learning to juggle results in jobs on Star Wars, what being inside Jabba was physically like and that you could (probably) get away with hitting Carrie Fisher in the face with a giant tongue…
Thanks for talking us through your Star Wars story, Toby. I’m really excited to hear more about you and your experiences. How are you keeping busy at the moment?
My life hasn’t changed a lot. I’ve been retired more than five years and we moved to the country a year ago which is great for the dogs. Toby’s dogs introduce themselves in the lovely garden setting. I got my first proper job at the age of 51 after being self-employed for 30 plus years and that’s what I retired from. I don’t work in showbiz anymore, but I do go to conventions. I’m missing going to a few different cities, meeting up with friends old and new and having those little adventures.
I’ve read a fantastic list of things you were involved in before The Dark Crystal and Return of the Jedi. Have you always been drawn to performing?
My parents were both teachers and performers, so it was in my family. My mum thought I was going to be an academic but I fell into performing once I dropped out of that. I wanted to be self-employed because to me adults did something that they loved; they didn’t wear a suit and work nine to five.
It all started because I went travelling with a French girlfriend. We were living in a squat in Paris selling jewellery that her friend had made. Then we hitchhiked around America for 18 months and that’s where I learned to juggle. I was living in the town of Bolinas, California and joined a group of what you would probably call hippies. We used to get into concerts for free doing a bit of clowning and juggling. I got a taste for the benefits of performing.
We went to Mexico after that where jewellery wasn’t of much interest, but they loved the performing we were doing and I slowly evolved a street show. When I got back to the UK it was winter in London. I started doing a few classes and a few shows in Covent Garden and Portobello Road, then I was doing kids’ parties and I became a court jester at medieval banquets. I was drawn to performing in that it gave me the freedom to travel and learn anything that might fit into a show.
Sounds like quite an adventure! How did all this end up with you puppeteering Jabba the Hutt?
I fell into the film business. I was training to be a mime when my teacher called me up and asked if I had looked at a trade magazine called “The Stage”. They wanted people to do big creatures for this movie which turned out to be The Dark Crystal. There were not many people ready-made to do big creatures and so they didn’t really know what they wanted. The advert asked for dancers, mimes, acrobats, clowns and people like that.
The audition started with 200 people and it wasn’t a standard one where you stand up and do your thing. Jim Henson and Frank Oz put us in a room 20 at a time with a few gloves, heads, and stuff like that and got us to improvise. If nothing else I thought we were getting a workshop in puppetry from Jim Henson and Frank Oz so I took it kind of lightly. They got us down to the ten they were going to use, and they said four of us would start immediately while they were in pre-production. We were playing aliens who didn’t look like human beings and working in very uncomfortable positions. Some needed three or four people which was unusual; they had moving eyes, ears and so on.
Working together in puppetry you need to synchronize your body movements. The main trick with a puppet is to lose yourself in the puppet. Jim was a magician; Kermit the Frog is basically a sock with two half ping pong balls, and yet, he is alive. People naturally talk to the puppet and not the human being. You don’t have to coach that, and that belief is part of what brings the puppet to life, but also the puppeteer putting in their energy through the puppet.
The way I got the job on Jedi, I didn’t apply for it and I didn’t know it was Star Wars. I got called in by a producer who asked if I would like to do a big creature on their movie and I found out many years later that Dave Barclay got me the job inside Jabba the Hutt.
When you got the Return of the Jedi opportunity was there excitement there? I know you’ve mentioned to me you were not a fan as such…
It’s not that I am not a fan, I just hadn’t seen the first two films at that point. I had heard of them, of course, so the first thing I had to do was find a cinema showing them as a double bill. I came out impressed that I was going to be in the third one and started telling my friends.
The most exciting part was that we were the main character in the scenes and I had never felt before that my movement was so crucial to the scene. Jabba has around 20 minutes of screen time and it revolves around him. We had quite a lot of close ups; Dave was doing the right hand and the mouth with the dialogue in English and I am moving the head around and my arm is inside the tongue as well as moving his left hand. He’s left-handed because the right hand is over the body so I got quite a lot of moves. I got to hit C-3PO, eat the frog, smoke the pipe, grab Bib Fortuna…and they were shot close up on a set of about 100 people on it – no pressure!
One of the reasons I say Jabba is so important is that he draws all the main characters back into one place and then he is killed off because his work is done. Talking to fans at conventions, people love Jabba. He’s bad but not necessarily evil; he’s kind of a pirate comedy villain and not really in the overall battle of good and evil. He’s fun!
That’s true, despite the fact he is essentially a giant slug, he fits the typical characteristics of an Italian mobster!
There’s a bad guy in ‘The Maltese Falcon’ who is a fat jolly soul played by Sydney Greenstreet (Kasper Gutman) and he’s a delightful, mischievous villain. I saw Jabba like that.
They started off humanoid with Jabba then went very sluggish and settled on the appearance he ended up with; there were quite a lot of versions. When Dave Barclay and I first saw him, he already looked great before we started moving him around. When we brought him to life, we tried to give him as much glee as possible because inside he’s so many layers of fibreglass, airbags and rubber. Dave and I were diving around in there to get him to move – quite the experience!
What would you say is your best story from working on Star Wars?
Normally on set you can talk to the other actors but obviously in our role we couldn’t do that. We missed a lot of experiences; I never saw Carrie Fisher in the bikini for example even though she filmed with us.
This is a story I never heard the end of…when Han Solo comes out of the carbonite and the Gamorrean Guards bring Leia over, Jabba sort of wiggles his tongue at her and the tongue really was disgusting. The first take I did it cautiously but I heard over the headphones to push out the tongue further, so I checked they had told Carrie I was going to do it. It seems they didn’t, because they wanted a natural reaction from her. Between takes the guys who made Jabba put this gunk all over the tongue, some mixture of Swarfega and KY Jelly, it was like drool. On the second take I pushed it right out and they said OK do it again but not so much. When I came out, I asked what was wrong with the second take and they said, “Oh, you stuck the tongue in her ear and licked her face”. I never got to ask Carrie Fisher about it; I didn’t know what I had done so someone could have been winding me up…
Is that frustrating? The fact that you will never know if you attacked Carrie Fisher with a tongue…
Yeah, it slows it down to say that it may not have happened. Pranks on films are very common! They said if you want to see what we did yesterday and watch it back you can learn stuff. In Star Wars I didn’t get to see the rushes so I will never know, that’s why it’s my favourite story. If anyone knows the truth about that part of film, write in!
We shall put out an appeal for it!
Well I’ve asked a lot of people at conventions! Carrie Fisher always had a big group of people around her, apart from that she may have reacted angrily to me anyway, ha-ha.
Does it take a lot of endurance to play a part like Jabba the Hutt? I imagine there’s a side to it that’s quite mentally draining…
Yes, it’s physically much harder than you think and with Jabba we were in our street clothes and we weren’t wearing him, we were basically sitting in a little tiny cave. It was normally the two of us flinging ourselves around. Keeping your energy level up through a ten-hour day is just tiring and being ready to go at a moment’s notice.
If you don’t believe me, stick your arm in the air and hold it there for 10 minutes. All the blood will rush down…and then try to move a big head around!
You’ve moved away from the film industry now and you summarised your experience with, “I was just a street juggler who got lucky.” Do you look back on your time in film fondly now?
I tried very hard to not take a steady job. In the last five years there’s been more interest in the other films, especially Labyrinth since Bowie died, and Dark Crystal because of the Netflix show.
Films had been a few lucky years of my life. In 1999 I heard that people were interested in meeting me, 20 years after I’d done the work, but if you got signatures for the whole Jabba crew it would be a rugby team! It was Jabba who got me out and about in the convention circuit so I accept the fact that Star Wars is what impresses people, and I’m proud of Jabba and the team I worked with on that.
With that we that we thank Toby for his time and let him get back to his very excited dogs! You can read more about Toby’s experiences in film at his website by clicking here as well as order autographed items in the absence of conventions.
Did you enjoy reading this interview? Why not check out the Star Wars story of Admiral Ackbar himself, Tim Rose by clicking here. Tim worked with The Muppets and Jim Henson before his career defining role as Ackbar while also portraying numerous other characters including the mischievous Salacious Crumb.
Keep checking back for more Star Wars Stories and until the next time, I’ll be there for you…Cassian said I had to.
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