Kenny Baker is the actor/entertainer who crawled into the R2-D2 unit for every Star Wars film thus far. Being three feet and eight inches tall never stopped Kenny from making it big in the entertainment industry. He was in several fantastic films including Time Bandits, Flash Gordon, Amadeus, The Elephant Man, and of course the Star Wars films. If all goes well, he should end up being one of the proud few who can claim that they were in every Star Wars film. He currently lives in England and is enjoying life relaxing between touring all over the world and appearing at various Sci-fi conventions, something he really enjoys. Kenny was kind enough to take some time out to answer a few of my questions. (Original posting: July 25, 2000)
How did you end up landing the role of R2-D2?
One of the casting girls knew of me and called me in to see George Lucas and that was more or less it! George liked me right away and I was cast, but I didn’t want the part and turned it down about three times before I was talked into it.
Why did you turn it down?
At the time, I was in a comedy act with Jack Purvis (who ended up playing the chief Jawa) and we were doing really well, working all over London and the country with top names. So I thought, “Why do I want to stop all this when I’m not even gonna get my face seen?” In the end they said that filming wouldn’t get in the way of the double act. We’d film during the day and do our act at night. So in the end we both did the movies and carried on with the act for many years.
Is it easy to play R2-D2 since there is no dialogue?
Well, yes and no. I didn’t have any lines, but physically moving the droid, for me, was pretty hard. Being in the suit for a series of takes was bloody hot and stuffy work.
Do you remember a man named Tony Dyson who created R2 units?
Tony Dyson made the first R2-D2 units. We worked together a lot to get the robot as easy for me to move and as comfortable as possible. I still see him from time to time at the conventions.
What do you do inside the R2 unit?
I have a tiny seat inside and as I’m lowered in, I place my legs into each of the feet. Then I have two handles in front of me that I use to waddle the robot from side to side, making him move.
Do you remember the very first scene you ever shot as R2-D2?
Well it must have been at Elstree studios in 1976, but no I honestly don’t recall that first scene I did.
Did you and Anthony Daniels ever bicker like R2-D2 and C-3PO did in real life?
No, never. Anthony has a hard job in C-3PO. It takes a long time for him to get in and out of the suit. So, we didn’t see a lot of each other because I could just turn up, do my bit, and leave. Also when we were inside the suits, you couldn’t hear a word we said.
Did George Lucas or any of the other directors give you any usable direction?
They just always directed me as we went along, but I did enjoy working with Irvin Kershner. He and I got on very well. He’s a great man. George is easy to work with as well. He just knows what he wants and how it should look.
You also played Paploo the ewok, but did you play any other roles?
Well, I did start out playing Wicket, but I was ill on the day they filmed the scene in the woods were Leia meets Wicket for the first time. They used Warwick Davis instead and the whole character seemed to come alive more with him in it, so George stuck with that. That was great for Warwick and I was very pleased for him as well. He got what turned out to be a big break.
Do you remember anything about filming scenes for The Empire Strikes Back that involved the Wampa ice creatures?
A lot of the snow scenes in Empire were filmed in Norway, and I didn’t go there. If anything was filmed at Elstree with the Wampas, I wasn’t involved.
Do you remember filming a sandstorm scene that was to take place in Return of the Jedi?
Yes, that one I do remember. It wasn’t very nice. All the F/X guys had the fans on full blast, blowing the sand everywhere up inside the robot suit. I had a few showers that night!
Do you recall anything about a scene from Return of the Jedi that involved Luke, R2-D2, C-3PO and possibly some jawas that depicted Luke placing his lightsaber in R2-D2’s head?
I have heard about this as well. But no, nothing really sticks out about that scene. My big memories of that time were of all the English stunt guys falling into the big sand pit and coming out with broken legs and arms. It was like watching them go out to war. You didn’t know in what shape they might come back!
Were you ever in the R2-D2 suit in anything outside the films?
No. On the few times that there was a Star Wars special they would use the three legged R2, like on The Muppet Show. Anthony Daniels and Mark Hamill did a few shows though.
Were you in the Star Wars Holiday Special that aired in 1978 on TV?
No, I wasn’t involved with that, but I have seen it and thought it was quite good.
You were in Flash Gordon in 1980?
It was only a couple of days filming. I was one of the little guys watching the football match between Flash and the guards. All I had to do was kick one of the guards that Flash had just knocked out.
You were also in Time Bandits with Jack Purvis. Can you share one of your fondest memories from that set?
My fondest memory of Time Bandits was meeting Sean Connery. He actually spoke to me on set one day. He walked over and told me to get the hell out of his way! No, really, the whole film was great fun, working with all the Python crew and Terry Gilliam. Who wouldn’t enjoy it?
Which is your favorite Star Wars film and why?
Well I like all of them, but I would say the second one is my favorite because of Irvin Kershner, and I like the way the story develops.
In which film did you spend the most time in the R2-D2 suit?
I spent the most time in the suit on the first film. George seemed to enjoy it more when I was inside. The second film was a lot as well, but the third film, not so much. That time it was half R2-D2 and half Ewok.
How long were you on set for The Phantom Menace?
I worked on The Phantom Menace for about four months. The worst, but at the same time funniest thing that happened was in Tunisia just before the first day of filming out there, a sand storm ripped through the set wrecking some of the major pieces. George wasn’t too bothered. He saw it as a blessing because the same thing happened on the first Star Wars and we all know the result of that one.
Do you remember being involved in any scenes that never made it into The Phantom Menace?
Yeah I do. In the scene in which Anakin is asking Qui-Gon about the force, you see Artoo drift off to the right and then the scene cuts to them getting onto the ship, but here’s what actually happened. After drifting off, he begins looking over the edge at the ships passing by. Artoo then stands up on the edge of his feet, to look further out and falls over the edge! Anakin runs over to the edge, crying out to R2-D2, who then comes flying back to the platform with boosters that have come out of the side. Then you hear Jar-Jar say, “Weezer going home,” and Anakin calls to R2-D2 as they board the ship.
Were you in the suit for that?
Not when the robot went over the edge. When it set back down on the platform, I got in and gave R2-D2 the expression of “Wow! That was a close one!” and then turned to look at Anakin. My son Kevin says that’s why you can get one R2-D2 toy with rocket boosters. They must have made the toy before the scene was cut from the film. Kevin was actually on set (he worked on the special effects team) and was at the bottom of the platform to help catch R2-D2 when he fell. The droid was on wires, but they had to drop him fast to make it look good. Someone had to be there so it didn’t smash or bounce off the boxes that helped to stop the fall. It would have been a great thing to see R2-D2 fly. Maybe it just didn’t look smooth enough. Oh well!
How did you get on with Jake Lloyd and Natalie Portman?
Jake and Natalie were both great fun to work with. Jake always kept people amused on set by doing impressions of Donald Duck. Natalie’s a very genuine person, really nice and always focused on her acting.
What was the most difficult scene you filmed in a Star Wars film and why?
I think the worst thing I had to do in the film was being an Ewok. Those things damn near killed me. They were so thick with all the padding that in the Red Woods you just sweat like mad, and if you fell over there was no way you could get yourself back up again. I wouldn’t do that job again in a hurry.
What’s your fondest Star Wars memory?
I think the best time I had was with Carrie Fisher and Mark Hamill on Jedi when we sat on the sail barge in Arizona, just having a real laugh. At the end of the day we had a big party with the whole cast and crew with lots of wine and food. It was a real magic evening.
What’s the one question you get asked over and over again at conventions from fans and what do you tell them?
“Was it hot working in the desert inside the robot.” Well, what can you say? Of course it was, but they just keep on asking it.
What do you think it is about Star Wars that makes it so loved by so many people all around the world?
Star Wars is just a fantastic hero/love/good vs. bad story that hits everyone from kids to adults. Even the way the original films were made, they still look amazing to this day.
What’s in the future for Kenny Baker?
I’m just enjoying life, traveling around the world with all the conventions, and when I’m at home I play some jazz with a local group. That’s fun. I play the xylophone and the mouth-organ which I played in the duo act as well. I love all the greats: Fats Domino, Dizzy Gillespie, and Buddy Rich. I go to jazz clubs whenever I can like Ronnie Scott’s in London, which is one of my favorites. As for the films, when they come in, I will do them, and I still love doing them.
Have you been contacted to play R2 in Episode II which is now in production?
I have been told that I will be in it, but I don’t have any dates of when I’m needed at the moment.
* This interview has been slightly edited from its original form to account for Kenny’s death in 2016.
(Original posting: July 25, 2000)