'Rogue One': Grand Moff Tarkin Actor Hopes the Technology Won't Become "Commonplace"

The role Guy Henry kept secret for 18 months was an unprecedented responsibility: "It was very, very frightening, in all seriousness."
Courtesy of Lucasfilm/Courtesy of Disney; Getty Images
Peter Cushing as Grand Moff Tarkin (left), Guy Henry

No performance from 2016 was met with quite the fascination of Guy Henry's turn in Rogue One: A Star Wars Story — and he wasn't even one of the few actors not involved in the film's worldwide media blitz. 

The British actor was tasked with playing Grand Moff Tarkin, with his performance capture work and visual effects wizardry helping resurrect the character played by the late Peter Cushing in 1977's Star Wars: Episode IV —  A New Hope. Rather than recasting the role, Industrial Light & Magic recreated Cushing's actual likeness for a performance not quite like any in film history.

Reached by phone in Great Britain Friday, Henry spoke about the unprecedented responsibility he felt to honor Cushing ("It was genuinely frightening"), his offer to let director Gareth Edwards recast him ("I won't be offended") and speculation that the story of Carrie Fisher's Leia might continue through such technology. (He declined to comment on Fisher, but did offer this of the technology: "I think and hope it won't be a commonplace thing.")

During the 18 months you kept this a secret, did your family know what you were doing?

The very, very closest of my family and friends — I graciously allowed them into the secret, because I think I would have gone mad otherwise. My name began to be associated with it occasionally. People would ask. At work, [the team behind the BBC One series] Holby City had to know I was doing something in it, but even my agent, when I was asked to meet Gareth Edwards, she didn't really know why. They didn't tell her. It was quite a responsibility really, and I'm glad it was kept secret right up until the very last moment.   

How did Gareth Edwards and Industrial Light & Magic's John Knoll convince you this would all work out?

I felt I couldn't feel too responsible in the sense of the way that it looked. I had to trust John Knoll and Gareth and the team, who were convinced they could make it work. Vocally, I'm not a mimic. I'm genuinely not an impressionist. I'd be doing my very best to do my Tarkin, the rolled "r" and the voice as best I could, and Gareth would say, "OK relax on that. Just be a bit more Guy now." I had to trust that they saw something in the reel of my work that convinced them it could be the tribute to Cushing everyone wanted it to be. It was very, very frightening, in all seriousness.

Did the reshoots affect you much?

Because the story was changing all the time, I kept thinking I had finished. "The responsibility has lapsed. Thank God, I can lie down." Then they'd say, "Actually, can you come in next week and do half a line here and half a line there?" It was genuinely frightening, because I didn't want to let down a huge movie, and equally, I didn't want to let down Peter Cushing.

Do you remember much about what changed and when you finally ended your work?

It was quite difficult to remember what the last bit was. I would literally be called back to do half a line a bit differently. Half a line that had a bit more stress to it because something else had altered slightly what had happened to a different character. It was immensely detailed. It's something of a blur.

Did you have doubts this would work?

Normally as an actor, you are you pretending to be another person. Here, I was me pretending to be Peter Cushing pretending to be Tarkin. I said at one point, "I won't be offended if you feel the voice isn't good enough or isn't right or is too young." There is a famous impersonator here called Rory Bremner. I said, "I won't be offended if you want to get him. I just want it to be good. Don't worry if you have to ditch my voice." They stuck with me gamely. 

When did you finally see what it would look like?

They snuck me in to show me [early]. I thought, "We might be all right here." It was only after the London premiere I knew for sure it worked. I'd had several glasses of white wine. I wasn't able to eat, I was so frightened. "If I haven't done good enough here, it's going to be so sad. That would be very bad." I don't mean bad career-wise. I had not done any interviews. "Don't bother about my name." I'd be referred to as a stand-in and a voice double who was a disaster, and I could go on. But I didn't want to let Peter Cushing down.

Have you heard from the Cushing estate? One of its executors has praised your performance.

I haven't first hand. If that is the case, which I gather it is, I'm so delighted. The reason for doing it was honorable. When people were talking about the ethics of bringing someone back who was long dead, I could see that if it was done for the wrong reason or something a bit seedy or just for the sake of it, that would have been wrong. When John Knoll pitched the film, obviously Tarkin is such a big part of the original. Not to have Tarkin in it would be just a shame, and I think they have done it very honorably.

Before Carrie Fisher's death, Lucasfilm said Tarkin was a special case and it likely wouldn't be done again. Do you think this will become more prevalent in other Hollywood films?

I can't really see why they would. Suddenly to make a new film and get James Dean in it? I can't see that's likely to happen. This was very specifically to recreate this character in a way that served the story of Rogue One. Apart from anything else, the work involved in it was enormous. I always felt so sorry for the poor people in Industrial Light & Magic. They had to spend all day and most of the night with me trying to make me look like him. Tony Gilroy, who was the second unit director, said, "God, I've spent a hell of a lot of time listening to your voice." I said, "You poor man. I'm sorry about that."

What would you think about Lucasfilm potentially using such a technique to help complete the story of Leia following Fisher's death?

I have no comment to make about Carrie Fisher, because Rogue One was my film and I have no connection to other films. To be honest, I don't know what she was or wasn't doing [in future films], I'm afraid.

I think and hope it won't be a commonplace thing. I can see when it can be used for a good piece of storytelling, and I'm sure they will consider it. I don't think it's going to be very common.

How did wearing the apparatus affect your performance?

There's something very claustrophobic, there's something very distancing about having the head cam gear. It's very unwieldy. It's hard enough on a film set to believe you are this other person. This other character. They had a lovely guy called Robert and a lady called Sonya from ILM, and they made it as comfortable and as easy to wear as they possibly could. It's very hard to find a performance with that thing sticking on your head, the lights and lenses shining on your eyes. It's a very particular way of working. I must say I found it terribly frightening.

Tarkin really shone opposite Ben Mendelsohn's Orson Krennic. What was that working relationship like?

He's wonderful. He gets himself completely into the character. He's alive. He's sparking. At one point, I was being deliberately louche in order to wind him up. He thought I was looking at the monitor, which was at the back of the camera. I was being deliberately dismissive. I succeeded so much, I really pissed him off. He shouted, "Don't look at the monitor, Guy!" I wasn't looking at the monitor, and as a true professional, I never would. [Laughs]

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