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How being a Star Wars extra changed my life

Jerome St John Blake played seven characters in the Star Wars saga, launching him into a new world of movie stars and fan conventions. Here's his story.

Lucasfilm Ltd.

Orn Free Taa, one of the magnificent seven Star Wars characters brought to life by Jerome St John Blake.

Lucasfilm

If you're a Star Wars fan, you've probably imagined yourself wielding a lightsaber against a Sith Lord or flying the Millennium Falcon into an epic space battle. But what's it like to fulfill that dream and actually play a part in the Star Wars saga?

For the 40th anniversary of Star Wars, I talked to a man who knows a thing or two about that: Jerome St John Blake, who played no fewer than seven characters in the prequels.

The British actor remembers being "shell-shocked" when he first saw "Star Wars" in 1977 at the Broadmead Shopping Center in Bristol. He saw it three times. So 20 years later, when makeup maestro Nick Dudman, with whom Blake had worked on 1997's "The Fifth Element", asked if he wanted to be in a new Star Wars film, the answer was obvious.

In "The Fifth Element", Blake climbed inside a hulking alien Mondoshawan suit, which meant he was used to not being seen on screen. That was the case for "The Phantom Menace", which called for many characters created from layers of makeup and prosthetics.

As preproduction raced toward the film's 1999 release, Dudman and his team began by making a cast of Blake's head to sculpt the necessary prosthetics. Blake soon became the go-to guy for donning rubber masks and becoming whichever characters were required: he played seven roles in "The Phantom Menace," reprising some of them for "Attack of the Clones" and "Revenge of the Sith" too.

Two seconds on screen

Filming of the "The Phantom Menace" began in 1997. Arriving on set, Blake decided to aim a bit higher than being just a rubber head in the background. After a chat with the casting director, he managed to wrangle a screen test alongside actor Silas Carson and another hopeful, Marc Warren of the British TV series "Mad Dogs" and "Hustle". Blake read the role of Qui-Gon Jinn, Carson donned a Jar Jar Binks mask and Warren took the part of Obi-Wan Kenobi for a scene set in an underwater craft, being filmed to test the sequence's animation.

"I thought it went pretty well and everybody else agreed," Blake says. So he headed back to the makeup department to peruse the shelves full of alien heads and ask Dudman what the Qui-Gon Jinn character looked like. "Almost without looking up from his desk, Nick just said, 'It looks a bit like Liam Neeson.' So I knew I wasn't getting that part."

Blake did secure several roles that required increasingly outlandish new faces. The hirsute Jedi Oppo Rancisis was surprisingly easy to assemble, as Blake simply donned a swimming cap covered in hair. But he had to sit for five hours in the makeup chair to transform into Orn Free Taa, a corpulent Twi'lek senator with a large floppy-eared look. After seeing the film for the first time, Blake bumped into makeup artist Mark Coulier, who made the prosthetic pieces (and also appeared in the film as a different alien).

"It's a rum thing, isn't it?" Blake said to Coulier. "Five hours of makeup for two seconds on the screen."

Coulier replied, "Never mind five hours. It took me three months to make all the latex pieces."

The prequel trilogy spanned a period in which computer-generated imagery began to seriously replace practical effects, with George Lucas' movies at the cutting edge of digital trickery. In "The Phantom Menace," the character of Jar Jar Binks and the vistas of Naboo and Coruscant were conjured digitally, but there were still plenty of physical sets and characters created with practical makeup.

"By and large, 'Phantom Menace' was quite a traditional type of filmmaking," recalls Blake. "The sets were there -- there really was a Galactic Senate with pods in it."

But Blake witnessed the shift to digital firsthand. One of his characters, Mas Amedda, a lackey of the soon-to-be emperor, appeared in the Galactic Senate scenes throughout the trilogy. "Progressively you found yourself dealing with more and more green-screen material and less people," Blake says. "By the time they got to do my bits on 'Revenge of the Sith' there was nothing there, it was just completely green-screened."

Hayden Christensen and Ewan McGregor do battle, against what will be an entirely digital backdrop in "Revenge of the Sith".

Lucasfilm

The best of everything

Blake describes shooting as "a very calm process" with few problems rearing their head. "By the time [Lucas] got around to making those movies he had the best of everything -- the best heads of department, best crew, everyone at the top of their game."

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The prequels enabled Blake to act alongside a galaxy of stars, from Natalie Portman to Christopher Lee. During scenes involving the Jedi Council, Blake played opposite Samuel L Jackson, who had lobbied hard for a role in the saga.

Blake remembers one day between takes he was sitting next to Jackson, who was reading a book. "He very calmly closes the book, takes his reading spectacles off, puts them on top of the book -- and then drops his head into his hands. I said, 'Sam, are you not feeling well?'"

"He said, 'Yeah, yeah. I'm OK -- I just can't get used to the idea that I'm working with Yoda.' He'd just been on 'Jackie Brown' working with De Niro and Tarantino and he was more excited about Yoda!"

Multiple roles

Blake is probably the actor who's played the most parts in Star Wars, but he's not the first to have multiple roles. In fact, some extras have even appeared in scenes with themselves. British actor Derek Lyons guards the door of the temple in the coronation scene at the end of "A New Hope." But when Han, Luke and the others reach the altar they encounter him again, where he hands over their medals.

Alongside Blake, actor Silas Carson played multiple roles in the prequels. In the opening of "The Phantom Menace" he was both the devious trade federation Viceroy Nute Gunray and the ill-fated pilot killed by Gunray -- meaning one of Carson's characters killed the other.

Canadian actor Angus MacInnes had the unusual experience of seeing his younger self appear in 2016's "Rogue One," nearly 40 years after he filmed his scenes for "Star Wars." MacInnes played X-wing pilot Gold One in the original film, and recorded new lines for "Rogue One" over old footage.

The con is on

Having appeared in a Star Wars movie doesn't just look cool on your IMDb page. It opens up a new world of going to conventions and meeting fans. Blake talks warmly of the countless fans he's met, and highlights charitable endeavours like thefund-raising Stormtroopers of the 501st Legion.

In the early days of conventions, actors Dave Prowse, Kenny Baker, Jeremy Bulloch and Peter Mayhew were part of a core group who regularly met with fans, Blake says. They were known as "the men behind the mask" because their faces were hidden in the films -- playing Darth Vader, R2-D2, Boba Fett and Chewbacca.

"They were the pioneers. And some of them are still going. I was in contact with Jeremy just two days ago and he's always on a plane somewhere." Blake marvels at how conventions and fan events have evolved, going from sports halls and assembly rooms to huge international arenas.

The actor enthusiastically threw himself into this new world. "By that time," he said, "I had become great friends with dear, departed Richard LeParmentier, [who played Admiral Motti]. It seemed he and I were on a plane somewhere every other weekend. It was tiring, but it was a really fun time because when we got there, Richard and I liked to support the local economy, shall we say."

Today, Blake's convention trips have thinned as the number of people seeking him out has tapered off. With new films launching a whole new generation of actors onto the convention circuit, he offers this advice to new stars like Daisy Ridley and John Boyega: "Enjoy. Park your baggage at the door, remember why you're there -- it's the person on the other side of the table [that matters]. Go with an open mind and an open heart, and you will have a fantastic time."

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