Long have you waited for the next instalment and wait no longer, Their Star Wars Stories Strikes Back with the first of many interviews from the original trilogy.
We don’t need to see our guest’s identification though, he appears many times throughout arguably one of the greatest films of all time, so many times in fact that we had to make him list them.
Our guest is The Empire Strikes Back’s Alan Austen, so let’s open the blast doors for him and talk Snowtroopers falling over, extremities of Harrison Ford being cold and a certain famous scene where we address the rumour that Alan was in Carbonite or a Stormtrooper or both!
Absolute pleasure Alan and thanks for giving up your time, we have a lot to get through with your involvement in The Empire Strikes Back, how did it all start?
I joined the Film Artists Association and Central Casting a month or so before the film and as part of the process you were supposed to phone in every day to check for work. They were always quick as they had thousands of members calling them and one day they said can you be at Elstree Studios at 6 in the morning for a film called ‘The Empire Strikes Back’, it was my first job through them and happened really quickly.
I hadn’t seen the first Star Wars film at this point but Alan Harris (Bossk), who sadly passed away recently, took me under his wing on my first day. As I got more into it, I started making friends with the other guys and some of us are still friends to this day. It was a big learning curve for me and every film I did after that was a bit of an anti-climax to be honest, you kind of go on set thinking “Where’s the magic?”
Does it take some pressure off that you hadn’t seen Star Wars? I can imagine now people walk onto a Star Wars set feeling an immense amount of duty. Did that make it easier for you, would you say?
With hindsight I think it did. If it had been the phenomenon that it is today maybe I would have felt differently. It’s a similar situation to when I did Raiders of the Lost Ark the following year. If Steven Spielberg had been the Steven Spielberg that he is today, I don’t know if I could have done it.
It was a gradual introduction to the Star Wars universe, we were dressed as Hoth Rebels and had to just run past a camera, and that’s when I first got talking to Harrison Ford. Obviously, I knew who he was but he wasn’t the box office sensation that he is today. This was him finding his feet, too. We were able to talk on a very casual basis; I wasn’t awestruck at all.
What would you say is your best story from working on The Empire Strikes Back?
Oh, so many! I was in the tunnels of Hoth with Harrison, just he and I during one of those long waits pacing up and down between takes. It was really hot on Hoth! We were dressed up for arctic conditions with lights all around us in the Spring of 1979 and I said “Harrison, is it warm enough for you?” and he said “Kid, I’m sweating my balls off!” Harrison is a funny, witty guy who would throw his own stuff in there.
I can’t really come up with a best story although there’s a shot of Carrie Fisher laughing that was a behind-the-scenes shot which is a story I will tell in a book I am writing. The greatest thing about working on Empire was some of the friendships I made, John Mogridge (Hoth Rebel, Snowtrooper, Stormtrooper) is still a great friend and we met on set. John and I were the Stormtroopers who placed Han Solo into Carbon-Freeze during the “I love you, I know” scene, that was a stressful few days! You could barely see through the helmets, but it was such a crucial scene to be involved in. We were both picked out to do that as we had developed a bit of a rapport and we didn’t want to get it wrong. It was the end of July 1979 and a lot of people had come and gone by that point.
Going back to what you said about Harrison throwing his own stuff in there, the original line was supposed to be “I love you too” and he famously improvised that right?
I think he probably said the other line a few times, we did so many takes of that scene, more than I can count but he cut it down to “I know”.
Did I not read that you were also Han Solo in Carbonite? You would have been in the scene twice!
I’ve seen a lot of confusion about this. We’d all finished on the film and the sets were being broken down, the main cast had returned to America and I got a call from Central Casting in September of 79 and they said can I go back on Empire. They told me they wanted me to double as Harrison Ford, I thought they were joking but sure enough I got dressed up as Han where they had me twiddling knobs, flicking switches, swivelling round and stuff like that.
Because of Star Wars lifelong friendships were formed and for that I will always be grateful. One standout moment though, there’s too many!
You are making me want your book now Alan! You pop up everywhere in Empire Strikes Back, which role was your personal favourite?
Stormtrooper without a doubt. I was a Hoth Rebel to begin with, then they dressed us up as Snowtroopers for a short time. There are a few photos of us all falling into a heap, the guy in front tripped when we enter with Darth Vader and we all crashed into each other! After that I was a Stormtrooper, a Bespin Guard, an X-Wing pilot briefly, not a very flattering photo of me doing that by the way! Mainly it was a Stormtrooper, a lot of running about, firing blanks and chasing after Carrie, it was all a lot of fun.
I saw you got drawn back into acting via the convention circuit, how do you find attending these events?
They are wonderful! John and I often get booked together; no-one knew where John was for a while but now we are back together and we get booked together. We love meeting the fans, we enjoy telling our stories. I’ve done quite a few in Germany now and we go down well over there. I’ve nothing but praise for conventions, they are brilliant!
It’s a wonderful thing isn’t it that so many people want to engage with you due to Star Wars no matter what the size of the role is, I’m not sure how many other film franchises can claim to have that lasting effect.
It’s the enthusiasm that comes across. I watched all the films but I didn’t for years. I didn’t go to the cinema to watch it and I turned down Return of the Jedi (Your writer makes a surprised noise!) I don’t know if that was a good or a bad decision. They wanted me to be a Stormtrooper again, but they were clear that there’s not much work on it and I had other things going on, so I turned it down.
I saw through attending events that you appeared in “Salient Minus Ten” the award winning short that brought you back into acting in 2017, how was it to be back in front of a camera?
Salient was more reactionary acting, I hadn’t been in front of a camera for 10 years at least and it was like falling off a log, a bit rusty obviously. Someone must have liked my performance as I got a best actor award although I haven’t seen what the competition was like! I think when you do something for the best part of 30 years it becomes second nature, you walk onto a film or TV set and you know what to do.
Could a future Star Wars project tempt you into the bigger screen?
100% I would be there although I wouldn’t do it as a background artist. In 1984 I started getting a lot of good stuff on TV and then Absolute Beginners came along and I discovered lots of my old friends were on that. The surprise was it was a David Bowie film and I’ve got to say it was the happiest film I ever worked on. I had about a month working on that but after that I said that was it, no more supporting roles in films. Salient Minus Ten was the next scripted role that came along and I was very happy to take that on.
But you got to meet Bowie which must have been a real honour, I’m staring at a portrait of him on the wall as it happens! Where can fans meet you next?
I’ve just shot a short film called “The Other Soul to Evie” by Martin Daniels, who is quite an up-and-coming director. It’s about mental health and I’m playing the father to two adult children, a son and a daughter, and the trailer is available to view on YouTube. I’d like to work with Emma Dark again and follow up Salient Minus Ten when she’s ready.
I’m out doing a lot of conventions, Holland in April, Germany and Folkestone in May and following that Los Angeles in December. I try to do as many reputable conventions as I can, so I hope to see fans there!
Thanks to Alan for the excellent story, hope you the dear readers can catch Alan on his convention travels and check out the trailer for “The Other Soul to Evie” On Youtube by clicking here! Until the next time, I’ll be there for you…Cassian said I had to.