Star Wars as a saga has numerous characters who have left lasting impressions on us, the fans. However, there are some you could show to non-Star Wars fans and they would likely recognise them due to the cult fame they achieve. One such character was portrayed by our guest, Tim Rose.
Tim was responsible for bringing Admiral Ackbar to life in Return of the Jedi, The Force Awakens and The Last Jedi. Tim was also the puppeteer of the awesome Sy Snootles and Salacious Crumb in Return of the Jedi and fellow Mon Calamari, Shollan, in Rogue One. Basically, Tim has left an indelible mark on Star Wars history.
It’s a trap! I waited two paragraphs to write that – it was worth the wait. Yes, Ackbar is also responsible for a very famous internet meme, but as with all interviews on this site this story is about Tim, his journey and how he looks back on it all now. So, on we go to cover The Muppets, Guantanamo Bay torture techniques and disliking your writer’s choices of cosplay…
Right so the long number on my card is…
I won’t start with that; I normally save it for the end! How are you keeping yourself busy during lockdown?
I haven’t really noticed any difference. About 17 years ago I had to move out of London or I’d have ended up in jail for a road rage incident. I moved out to the countryside and bought a Victorian hackney coach driver’s house. It’s got paths through leading to a barn where the old owners would keep the coach and horses, and that’s where I set up my workshop. Lockdown or not my commute is past the raspberries and up to the workshop.
Starting at the very beginning, what was your motivation to get into the Film and TV industry?
I had no idea what I wanted to be when I grew up. When I started university, I’d enjoyed my art classes and I had done a bit of drawing and writing but I didn’t really know how to apply any of that. At university I started to go to drama classes, and I liked it, but I didn’t enjoy the applause at the end. Anyway, we started doing renaissance fairs and while doing the fairs I decided to do a Punch and Judy show.
I discovered that with puppetry I could sculpt; I could write scripts; I could draw and perform. I could do all the things that I loved without giving anything up, so from that point I stuck with the puppets. The main guy on our TV sets at the time was Jim Henson and The Muppets Show. I used to sit in front of the screen and work out how he was doing it. After a year or so when I left university, I managed to get a job with Jim, which is why I’m in England now because this is where Jim did all of his work.
I suppose there is no avoiding that Star Wars has been a massive part of your life, but when you first got into it how did you feel at that point in your career?
I’d been working with The Muppets and I already knew George Lucas because he was always coming around to see what Jim was up to. What I actually loved the most was starting from a design concept and carrying it on all the way through to performance with the actual creature that I’d built myself. The only two places to do that were The Muppets or Industrial Light & Magic or Lucasfilm. When I got a job at Lucasfilm, I was very happy because I’d worked at the two best places to do what I wanted to do.
Going straight to the two companies that were ideal for you is quite something! Is it something that came naturally to you?
Although I have a university degree, I got my job because of what my father taught me when I was playing on his workshop floor. My dad was into models and radio-controlled airplanes and so I always knew about building things from scratch.
I always joke that if you were to put a label on me, which in school they try to do, I would have been labelled dyslexic. When it came to being a designer, my brain shot off in five directions at once and I actually came up with a lot of really original ideas because I was putting things together in a way no one had ever thought of before. Was being dyslexic a problem or was it an asset? Ultimately, I think it was quite a good asset!
When I worked on The Muppets they were starting to develop the robot side of the puppets to make them more technical. It always amuses me that everyone knows the word animatronics, but do you know where the word came from? I do not. Jim was American but did all of his work in Britain and at the time the film industry was going through a bit of a nosedive, yet they didn’t want anyone coming in taking their jobs from abroad. Jim was told that what he needed to do was give them a job title that doesn’t exist in England, so they called us ‘Animatronics Designers’ and we didn’t displace anyone because no one had that title in the UK…because we made the name up! It was a title that needed to be made though.
What would you say is your best story from working on Star Wars, the one you look back on most fondly yourself?
I was just the right age that when the very first Star Wars movie came out, me and my buddies were teenagers. We would sit in the back of the cinema and pretend to fly X-Wings. We watched it over and over again. Two movies later, I’m saying good morning to Carrie Fisher and Harrison Ford, walking past the Millennium Falcon to go into my own spaceship – every day of it was fabulous. I don’t have a favourite story. I enjoyed the entire process from beginning to end.
That’s still a good answer! I think if I were in your shoes it would be hard to choose one story…
What is fabulous about movies that you’ve worked on is that when you watch a scene, you don’t just see that scene in front of you. Your mind can see the camera guy, the sound guy, the lighting guy, the boom operator and you know it brings back the memory of the whole situation and the experience, not just that bit of film footage. It’s a really nice special thing about being on movies.
You’ve featured in the original trilogy and the new trilogy. For you, was there a different feel when you returned as Admiral Ackbar?
Entirely different! I wasn’t alone but I was heavily involved in creating the original Admiral Ackbar. There were two versions of him. There was the full body suit and a hand puppet head. Servos hadn’t gotten small enough, and because we hadn’t fully utilized how to use them a lot of the full body suits had cable-controlled heads, which is what Ackbar’s head was. With a person in there it doesn’t leave a lot of room for the mechanics, so I built a second version which was a hand puppet where I puppeteer the mouth and that left room in the rest of the head for the eyes to move. It allowed you to have a more animated character.
In the new movies I’ve got my carbon fibre helmet on, I’ve got 38 servos around my head, all chirping like budgies, and I don’t have full control of the performance anymore. I was much more personally involved in the original one.
You of course were the puppeteer for Sy Snootles and Salacious Crumb also. Did you prefer the puppeteering side of it? Or does a character’s performance come through no matter how you are performing it?
I was at a convention in Australia. We had finished filming The Force Awakens but it hadn’t come out yet. I couldn’t talk about it even though everyone wanted to, so I decided to talk about what it’s like being in a full body suit costume. I realised what we put up with was not dissimilar to the torture techniques used at Guantanamo Bay, ha-ha. When you start sweating in there it’s a bit like waterboarding because the scrim in front of your face gets blocked with sweat; you get full-on sensory deprivation and your whole body goes over 100 degrees…
You are making it sound very appealing!
What’s enjoyable is creating the character and seeing what you’ve created. From that aspect, Salacious Crumb was much more enjoyable as he was just a hand puppet. I could put him on and just walk around and entertain the crew with him, ad-lib and joke.
Puppets introduce me to parts of myself I didn’t know existed. I’ve always considered myself to be quite a nice guy but Salacious was a right little bastard and when I had him on, I became a right little bastard too, ha-ha. I guess you, Mr Dressed-In-The-Carbon-Outfit, know the story with Harrison Ford? I do indeed. That took place when the carbonite scene was going on and so the second I saw you in that photo I thought, “That’s it I’m not doing this.” Ha-ha! I still react quite strongly to seeing any references to the carbonite scene.
I’ll make sure I don’t trigger any bad memories! Ackbar was voiced by Erik Bauersfeld, who sadly is no longer with us. When you are acting as a character with a different voice, do you work together much, or are they separate processes?
With Jim Henson, the two most crucial things for the life of any character were good eye focus and spot on mouth syncing. If you heard that character talking you had to believe those words were coming out of his mouth.
I found out from Mark Dobson, who did Salacious, and Erik, who did Ackbar, that neither of them were shown my performance when they did their voiceovers. When Ackbar says “It’s a trap!” his mouth isn’t in sync with the words even though when I did it, it was spot on.
Most people don’t notice. I was trying to sound like a man in his fifties but I obviously wasn’t at the time. It needed that final bit, the mature voice to sell the character. What I love about the puppet characters is not one of them is done by a single character; they are all a group effort to create something that’s better than the sum of the parts.
Do you look back on playing the character fondly now?
From a convention point of view, one of the big things for guys like David Prowse (Darth Vader) and Jeremy Bulloch (Boba Fett) is they’ve always had to contend with that they weren’t the only guy to wear the costume. As time has gone on, at least I can say I was the only person to play Admiral Ackbar.
That’s true, there can’t be many people who can claim they are the only character in those suits…
I said to fans at the time, they are going to want a younger guy who can do it not an old man who needs to go for a pee. That actually did happen in Rogue One…I was Shollan in that one. We had gone for six hours solid without a pause break, and my character held up his claw and said, “I’m sorry but the old man has to pee,” and at that point we got a break.
I have BB8 to thank for coming back as Ackbar. The person doing BB8 was Brian Herring and we first worked together on Spitting Image in the 80s. When they were doing The Force Awakens he was in charge of getting the performers for the characters and he kindly said, “Tim’s not dead yet, he should do Ackbar.” I was at a convention in Australia and he asked me to sign something so I could talk to him. It was an NDA from Disney and he asked if I wanted to be Ackbar again and I said, “Of course I do!”
The next thing I did was pump up the tyres on my bike because as I’ve already said…full body suits. At my age you could die in there, ha-ha!
I’ve seen you at a couple of conventions and you seem to still get a lot of joy from meeting the fans. Does it bother you to be known for Star Wars, or is it something that you still get enjoyment from?
It just shows what a good actor I am, ha-ha. That’s not true!
I hit my mid-life crisis…why didn’t I listen to my mother and become an architect instead of running away to the circus and all that. CG was coming in and work was getting less and less. It was really when I started doing the conventions and meeting all the people that we had quite an amazing long-term effect on that I fully appreciated that I hadn’t been wasting my time after all. I’ve gotten to go to so many parts of the world. I used to travel all over the world making the movies. Now I travel all over the world talking about them…
You can check out more of Tim’s stories on his official website as well as purchase official autographs by clicking this link.
Keep checking back for more Star Wars Stories and until the next time, I’ll be there for you…Cassian said I had to.