Before “Rogue One: A Star Wars Story,” 56-year-old English actor Guy Henry was best known for his work on the BBC and in classical theater (he was also Pius Thicknesse in “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows”). But now he’s played one of the most famous movie characters of all time in the “Star Wars” saga, even though his face was never in a single frame of the movie.
Henry is the man and voice behind the most talked-about character in “Rogue One: A Star Wars Story,” Grand Moff Tarkin, who was brought to the screen through the magic of motion-capture computer graphics after being famously played by Peter Cushing in 1977’s “Star Wars: A New Hope” (Cushing died in 1994).
The events in “Rogue One” happen just before what we see in “A New Hope,” and to connect the dots, “Rogue One” director Gareth Edwards wanted to prominently feature Tarkin, since he casts a huge shadow over the main plot point of both movies: the Death Star. But to do that, he and the team at Industrial Light & Magic decided to do something unprecedented: use a living actor to basically be the skeleton of their Tarkin and then replace the actor’s face with a digital version of Cushing’s.
On May 5, 2015, “Rogue One” casting director Jina Jay contacted Henry’s agent and asked if the actor could meet up for lunch in London with Edwards.
“They chose a very secret lunch in one of the most public media places in town, the Dean Street Townhouse, which I thought was very clever of them,” Henry recently told Business Insider of getting the role. “So we talked very quietly.”
In fact, Henry remembers that a table beside them recognized him from a show he does on the BBC and the diners came over to say hi. But this was one of the rare moments when visibility wouldn’t help an actor land a role, since it was Edwards’ job at the lunch to convince Henry to play the CGI Tarkin.
“It was a very strange thing to get your head around,” Henry said about the offer. “Normally as an actor you’re presented to be another character, but there’s another added complication here — it’s me pretending to be Peter Cushing pretending to be Grand Moff Tarkin.”
Before Henry agreed to the role, he suggested that Edwards do a screen test of him, just to confirm the director’s hunch that he would be right for the role. Henry acted out a Tarkin scene from “A New Hope,” doing his best Cushing voice with his hair slicked back and makeup to make him look older.
Edwards, along with Disney and Lucasfilm, were convinced by what they saw. But Henry, who admits he was always told he sounds more like his idol Peter O’Toole than Peter Cushing, was still very nervous when he agreed to take the job.
“I wasn’t comfortable throughout the whole process,” said Henry, who spent a month of prep constantly watching Cushing’s Tarkin in “A New Hope.” “I was constantly plagued by the thought that I was going to be the tall idiot from London who let the whole thing down. When they look you in the eye and say, ‘This has never been done before in the history of film, but we think we can do it,’ you really don’t want to muck it up. For them but also Peter Cushing, who was an actor that I always admired genuinely. I didn’t want to go through this slightly weird process and let him down.”
Henry’s Tarkin scenes were shot during principal photography in the summer of 2015. During his three-week schedule, a car picked him up at 4:30 a.m. every day for the hour-long drive to London’s famed Pinewood Studios (“Rogue One” production was under the code name “Los Alamos”). After putting on the gray Imperial officer’s uniform, Henry would then go to the makeup room where he would get his hair slicked back and a transparent mask with small holes all over it on his face. Then with a black eyeliner stick, the makeup artist would mark dots through the holes onto Henry’s face. A person from ILM would then put the motion-capture dots over the marks on his face. Then right before a scene was about to start, a head cam would be placed on him, which would capture every facial movement Henry made.
Before every take, Henry would repeat a Tarkin line from “A New Hope”: “You would prefer another target? A military target? Then name the system.”
“It would just get me into the flow of the Cushing voice,” Henry said of repeating the line.
Henry would then perform the Tarkin scenes on the set with the other actors. Henry said he didn’t always do the Cushing voice — sometimes Edwards would ask him to do takes “as Guy.”
“I did as much of a Peter Cushing [voice] with the rolling Rs as I could, which was f—ing difficult,” Henry said. “I’m pleased that people don’t find it a jarring voice and it seems to have worked, but I’m not a mimic. I did every take every day, including reshoots, and all along I just tried to do my best.”
Henry said that he actually told Edwards and the “Rogue One” producers numerous times that he would not be offended if they wanted to bring in a voice actor who could do a better Cushing voice. Henry even insisted on doing an ADR session during postproduction so he could have another pass at the dialogue.
“I can’t pretend that it wasn’t really frightening,” he said. “When I offered the option of having someone else do the voice, they said, ‘We don’t want that, we want your performance, we chose you because of who you are, and we want you to inhabit the performance.’ For better or worse, it’s my performance.”
Henry wrapped on his three weeks, but that turned out to just be the start of his time on “Rogue One.” With constant rewrites of the film’s plot during production, along with reshoots, Henry said he was called back every other month or so up until November 2016.
“I would always think, ‘Back to the dots, back to the fear,’” Henry said.
The highlight for Henry was working with Ben Mendelsohn, who played Tarkin’s rival in claiming credit for the Death Star, Orson Krennic.
“We played all the scenes together, we rehearsed together, we’d go outside and have a cigarette together and go over lines,” Henry said. “It was a one-on-one acting relationship as opposed to me being a stand-in.”
One of Henry’s favorite moments was when Tarkin had to be his typical authoritative self and get under the skin of Krennic.
“He gets into the mood and has got all guns blazing,” Henry said of Mendelsohn’s process. “So there was one scene where I play Tarkin particularly imperialist behind the camera to get him worked up, which I succeeded at beyond my wildest dreams. Ben thought I was looking at a monitor behind him, but in fact I was just being dismissive and he suddenly shouted, ‘Don’t look into the fucking monitor, Guy!’ But honestly, we got along famously.”
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Outside of a brief look at a rough assembly of a Tarkin scene while the movie was in postproduction (which eased his anxiety about what the filmmakers were trying to achieve), Henry didn’t see the finished CGI Tarkin until he went to the film’s London premiere a few weeks ago. Having to keep his involvement in the movie a secret to everyone he knew for over a year, he finally saw the fruits of his efforts.
“I didn’t eat all day,” Henry said of the premiere. “I went in full of white wine and my heart in my mouth, but after the first Tarkin scene, I enjoyed it. I mean, I didn’t get the whole script so I was working in the dark. I was watching a film that I knew little about. I’m proud and relieved that it has been positive.”
Well, for the most part the response has been positive. Though some “Star Wars” fans love Tarkin’s prominent placement, and some with less “Star Wars” knowledge don’t even realize the Tarkin character is CGI, there are others who feel the character is a distraction. Some critics even brought up the question of whether it’s ethical that Disney/Lucasfilm used the magic of computer graphics to bring a dead actor back to life.
Lucasfilm received permission from the Cushing estate to show his likeness in the movie, and according to Henry he’s heard that Cushing’s longtime secretary has seen “Rogue One” and enjoyed the Tarkin scenes.
“If it had been done as a joke or a gimmick that would have been stupid,” Henry said when asked about the ethics issue. “But in this case it was an honorable attempt to tell a story with one of the most famous characters from the ‘Star Wars’ saga. I thought it was worth doing. If it doesn’t impinge on the real living or dead person’s sensibilities, I think it’s another tool in the box. But I’m not in a hurry to repeat the process — I’ll tell you that.”
Despite the anxiety around the role, Henry has no regrets and says the experience is unlike anything else he’s done in his career. He looks forward to seeing the movie again — with less white wine in his system.
“I think it was an honorable tribute to Peter Cushing, and I’m very happy for that,” he said.
“Rogue One: A Star Wars Story” is currently playing in theaters.
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