Back in January, I got in contact with Jerri Quinn, the manager of Mike Quinn regarding the possibility of interviewing him about his portrayal of one of my favourite Star Wars characters Nien Nunb. Here we are towards the end of March and the possibility of an interview became a reality. This has been an interview I was extremely excited to conduct and I am thrilled with the answers Mike Provided.
“Only you could have smuggled an entire rescue craft under the Empire’s noses.“―Princess Leia Organa, to Nien Nunb
Nien Nunb was a Sullustan male arms dealer and smuggler who joined the Alliance to Restore the Republic during the Galactic Civil War. Shortly after the Battle of Yavin, Nunb answered the call from his friend, Rebel pilot Evaan Verlaine, to help smuggle a group of Alderaanians off of Sullust while avoiding detection from the Galactic Empire; the Empire was searching for surviving Alderaanians after Death Star I blew up its first planet, Alderaan. He went on to further assist Verlaine and Princess Leia Organa in their mission to unite the surviving Alderaanians, during which time he helped Organa escape from potential Imperial captivity.
Only a few years later, Nunb became part of the Alliance Fleet and flew as the co-pilot for General Lando Calrissian aboard the Millennium Falcon during the Battle of Endor. Together, they fought against Imperial forces while attempting to destroy the Death Star II in orbit of the forest moon of Endor. Their battle was a success, and the Millennium Falcon fired the shot that destroyed the Death Star and delivered a devastating blow to the Galactic Empire. Three decades later, Nunb was a starfighter pilot with the military rank of Lieutenant Commander in the Resistance and fought in the cold war, including the Battle of Starkiller Base.
How did you get the role of Nien Nunb?
It was certainly unconventional the way this came about. I was hired as a general creature puppeteer on the movie and so went from creature to creature as needed as the movie progressed. Well about halfway through or so, I was hanging around Phil Tippett’s creature workshop at Elstree Studios. It was a small room up some stairs between Stages 8 and 9. Phil told me that this character had been chosen by George to become Lando’s co-pilot in some scenes in the Falcon cockpit. I assume because Chewie was busy he wanted Lando to have an interesting counterpart.
Nien was purely a background extra at this time. His mask was static with no moving parts on it at all. But the problem was that George wanted him to have dialogue. So Phil was thinking maybe they could put an oxygen mask over his mouth to hide the fact it didn’t move and maybe put air bladders in his cheeks to give him some life. I remember thinking that might not be so great. I could see if I put my hand inside I could sort of make his mouth move. I suggested to Phil perhaps he could be modified into a large hand puppet. He really liked that idea and suggested I modify one of the two masks into a temporary puppet to show George. So I “puppetised” the head so I could work it just like a large Muppet.
About a week later we shot a film test, directed by George with my puppet next to the extra in the masked version. He took us through assorted turns and reactions. I was able to wiggle his nose and suggested he could have eye blinks added. Also, I placed my finger behind his ear and made it wiggle, Stan Laurel style! Well, George loved what he saw and immediately asked how soon it could be mechanized and ready? Stuart Ziff who was coordinated stated about two weeks.
So off he went back to ILM California with Nien to be modified. Sure enough, he returned with mechanisms and all, just considerable heavier. Next thing I knew, I’d landed myself the job of the main performer for the new Nien in the scenes. So I guess I made myself the opportunity and it somehow worked out. Those fateful moments changed my life forever! I even wrote and spoke my own dialogue in English for reference on the shoot. The now-famous nod and laugh were just things I added that I had learned from my time with Muppets. That is now a big part of what fans enjoy about him now. I love that!
How did you get into Puppeteering and can you describe what it entails for people who are unsure about what it is?
I was always into puppets as far back as I can recall. They were always on TV when I was little, mostly as glove and string puppets. I used to move my teddy bear as though he were a puppet so I could bring him to life. When I was about eight years old I had a glove puppet show in a small booth that I would perform in park talent shows and auditions. I wasn’t much good but the spark was certainly there and I had fun with it.
So I wasn’t until The Muppet Show came along in 1976 that my spark for puppetry was fanned and the sparks became large flames. As Muppet Show was taped not too far from where I lived (coincidence?), I used to visit the set regularly on guest star days, so they got to know me. Eventually, I left school, asked for a job and I think Jim Henson took pity on me. Saw I was always hanging around he might as well give me a job, haha! This was just as they transitioned from the end of The Muppet Show to film The Great Muppet Caper at the film studio across the street.
The second part of the question is what does puppetry entail? It’s a lot harder than anyone would think. Besides the obvious holding your arm above your head thing, you also have the weight of the puppet, you have to watch your performance and framing on a monitor (which is reversed from a mirror so when you move the puppet to the left, on the monitor it moves to the right. That really messes with your head).
You also must be able to communicate thoughts very clearly and simply through the puppet, be able to act, speak, sometimes sing, step over cables and boxes in mid-performance. Remember lines and even improvise at times too. It’s a bit like being a
musician, to where you don’t want to worry about the technical side of how to play the instrument but to be able to enjoy the performing of it. Yet you are also like a dancer, using kinetic movement efficiently to portray emotion. To stand out as a puppeteer, you have to work hard and excel. If not, you are doing the audience a disservice. So it’s very physical but also requires mental gymnastics at times.
You also performed other characters like Ree Yees, Admiral Ackbar, and Yoda amongst others, how did you get involved with these?
Ree Yees was probably the first creature I performed on Return Of The Jedi because we filmed in Jabba’s palace first. I never auditioned. I was just given the hand puppet close up to work and that was it. He had jaw and lip movement and eye blinks. He was very heavy so we created a pole that went from the body to a hip harness. My left hand was on the head turning it and my right worked the cable controls. There was also a full-length version of him, performed by Paul Springer which just like the costume version of Nien, had no facial articulation. So Paul and I worked together on scened in case we had to duplicate the action with both versions.
There was also a scene in Jabba’s sail barge where there was an argument over drinks but it was cut from the final movie. Still exist for that though. Ackbar and Sy Snootles were handled by Tim Rose, who was involved in developing them during his time at ILM. So I became his assistant. For Snootles, I worked strings from above for the wide shots and the singing lips on cable control for the close-ups. For Ackbar, I worked his mouth on cables for the wide shots and his eyes and lids on cables for the close-ups.
Yoda was a real gift. I was a big fan of Yoda in Empire Strikes Back while I was still at school. I have already assisted Frank Oz being the right hand for Miss Piggy and Fozzie Bear. So this really was the same gig, working for Yoda’s right hand. I was small for fitting next to him under that tiny set and Frank knew my work. So he just requested me and that was it. It was a real joy though.
Can you describe your time filming scenes?
For all the Star Wars movies, it has always been such a blast! A real rush from start to finish, whether it’s ROTJ or the new movies decades later. I’m often among the first to arrive and the last to leave. Perhaps that tells you something of my passion and love for performing and being on set? Also, I love working with the great cast and crew. They are all so lovely and talented and many have become good friends. So when a project comes to an end, it’s always heartbreaking because the family has to split up. It has always been this way but you would think I would be used to that by now?
As far as working on set and filming goes, there’s a huge feeling of gratitude and responsibility. You know you are creating something that will be viewed and dissected frame by frame for generations to come. Long after I’m gone in fact. So I try to not let that cripple me and just enjoy the process. Sometimes I’ll just stand there in-between setups with the Nien head off and just look around and soak it all in. I want to remember the moment and that feeling. There’s nothing like it I tell ya!
What was it like being on board the Millennium Falcon?
“Nunb can fly anything, in any conditions.“―Gial Ackbar
Well, she may not look like much but she’s got it where it counts. The Falcon is so iconic and my favourite ship of all time. So jumping into Chewie’s seat was quite intimidating for this teenager. I was actually still 17 years of age at the time of filming. They had to cut out the seat part of the chair and were very concerned that it was necessary for me to fit in there as they told me they were 1973 race car seats and couldn’t replace them. So I lay flat on my back, wore a microphone and had a six-inch black and white monitor on my chest so I should see what the camera saw. The cockpit was detached and on a rocking gimbal so Stagehands could roll it around. For me it was a bit like being in the hull of a boat at sea and unable to watch the horizon, so I actually got quite queasy in there.
Returning to the Falcon again in The Last Jedi, after over three decades was just wild! Standing there with what remained of the principle cast near me was quite surreal. It was lovely watching Carrie and Daisy sing together in-between takes. Rian Johnson placed Finn and Nien together and John Boyega was quite excited to have a little moment with Nien as he told me he played as Nien in Battlefront. We just improvised some stuff for that scene, so I made it my mission to say stupid things to him to try and crack him up (which I managed a couple of times). I consider that a well earned perk of being a “legacy” character!
What was the make-up and costume process like for these films?
Well for ROTJ, Phil Tippett had to lower Nien onto me through the Falcon window. My left hand was in his head and my right hand was in his right hand, holding the steering yoke. His left hand was stuffed and fixed onto the other side of the yoke. The puppet was pretty heavy and I had to sustain his performance for several minutes at a time. However, his weight I think was a blessing visually because it kept him grounded and forced me to keep him real and not too puppet-like. Perhaps that’s why most people seem surprised when they hear that and thought he was a guy in a costume? I should take that as a compliment I guess, even though the technology wouldn’t have been available to do it at that time.
For the new movies, I can now wear Nien as a fully self-contained costume. He was made to fit me perfectly and the head was made from a life cast of my head and shoulders. It takes two people usually to get me dressed into him, a wardrobe person and a creature shop person. We can usually do it within 10 minutes or so. I look through the eyes but they fog up very fast as I generate lots of heat and moisture during takes. Nothing I try seems to really help so they have to come in and blow cold air into the mouth hole in-between takes, which helps cool me down as well as clears out the vision for my eyes. After about two minutes I’m virtually blind in there, so I fall over a lot.
On both movies so far I’ve fallen over, I hope we don’t go for three. In the first movie, I fell onto BB8 outside the Falcon on location and broke his antenna. It was a sort of slow-motion fall, so I was ok. But my only thought was to not damage the head! In the Last Jedi, Anthony Daniels and I had just had a fun conversation about falling over in our
costumes and the many times he had fallen in his over the years. Well, not a few hours later I was running through the twisting salt mine tunnels in near darkness, proudly sporting a suitably large rebel blaster when for this one take my foot encountered a boulder and down I went hard and fast! Again my thought was “don’t break the blaster or the head!”. It was a split second before I knew I was on the ground and in agony from the impact to my knee. It was the final arrival at the Crystal Fox exit. C3PO was directly in front of me and behind was Rose on the stretcher. I blew the take and we all had to reset. We got it on the next take thankfully. I felt bad but everyone understood.
After filming had wrapped and I returned home, my chiropractor had told me I’d put my knee and right thumb out when I hit the ground. It wasn’t until a week or two later I had trouble walking. I suspect I came close to breaking it but the bone sure was bruised. at least I can say I do all my own stunts now, even if they aren’t in the script!
Was there much interaction between yourself and the directors, if so, what sort of things would you discuss?
Well, the way I see it, if the Directors aren’t giving me lots of direction then I’m doing okay. As George Lucas directed the Falcon scenes himself in ROTJ, I had him approve my guide dialogue I pencilled into my script. That was it for those scenes. Other then one of the camera operators telling me to watch my head doesn’t go out of frame in one of the closeup cameras, that was it for that movie.
On The Force Awakens, I was given blocking and filled in the rest myself. JJ wanted to save a spot in the movie for Nien Nunb’s reveal, as a gift to the fans. That was the shot of him striding out of the base entrance toward the X-Wing as the camera dollies left. The only thing was we had already seen him inside the resistance base earlier but I was happy he wanted to give us that moment.
In the X-Wing scenes, we just made stuff up pretty well and did a bunch of assorted looks, reactions and talking. It was all quite random but we knew they would just take it in pieces anyway. We never finished a full take as with all the shaking around in the simulator my battery pack connector separated, thus killing power to the head. So what you see in the movie were parts a single half take, no rehearsal or anything.
We were to shoot more scenes in the X-Wing for the dark environment, which is the second part of the Starkiller base battle. However, they were wrapping a lot of principle actors that day and my scenes were to be the last ones to shoot. They ran out of time and JJ came over from the other set and apologized profusely to me, which was very sweet. He was great fun on set and had a great energy. On The Last Jedi, Rian Johnson made a point to one over to me and thank me during my first scene, which was the one with Laura Dern. He was a delight and the crew just loved him. Very approachable. So I knew it would be okay to go up to him and ask for a blaster in the salt mine scenes, to which of course he obliged.
What are some of the main differences between filming for the original trilogy, and the sequel trilogy?
Surprisingly little. Mostly the technology has changed. I think film stock is more advanced. Lighting is a lot cooler and more subtle, probably due to the sensitivity of the cameras and everything now. But for everything else, it’s kind of the same. Hundreds of extras in costume, practical sets and ships. Detailed props. It’s amazing how similar it all is 35 years later. The food is actually better now, haha! There are even coffee trucks outside the stages. Wonderful stuff!
You have been in three of the Star Wars films now, what were the atmospheres like for them individually and was there one you enjoyed more than the others?
Hmmm.. well for ROTJ I was coming in as a huge fan of the first two movies, so it was an
amazing thrill to watch the third movie unfold in front of my eyes with all the familiar beloved characters and costumes. Coming back over 30 years later was a wonderful gift. A very surreal one. Now the new actors would recognize Nien Nunb and were amazed when they would learn it was me who played him in the Falcon too. I guess they just figured everyone was pretty well retired or dead by now, heh! I can’t really say that one was more enjoyable than the others because they were each different. However, the more scenes I get to play in and the more sets I walk on, the happier I am. I’ve made new friends in the new movies too which is really lovely.
Nien Nunb managed to survive The Last Jedi whereas Admiral Ackbar was killed during an attack by the first order, how does it feel knowing that Nien Nunb is one of only a few characters from the original trilogy that is still alive?
Yes, it was quite the buzz arriving for the shoot and hearing that poor old Ackbar was a gonna. Some of the puppeteers thought I might be too but were too afraid to tell me. Happily, they were wrong. Once I was on the Falcon I knew I was safe! I think Rian Johnson said there were something like 20 Resistance characters left? That probably includes Droids. That’s just wild. I’m almost convinced the only reason I’m still alive is that they kept forgetting to kill me off…..But I’m thrilled beyond belief because I get to return to the Falcon again after all this time. Now they will have to give me more to do on the next one right? There’s hardly anyone left!
What was it like working alongside Billy Dee Williams in Return of the Jedi?
“Don’t worry. My friend’s down there. He’ll have that shield down on time. Or this’ll be the shortest offensive of all time.“―Lando Calrissian, assuaging Nunb’s concerns about the Battle of Endor.
He was a delight and really put me at ease. It can’t have been easy for him having to talk to a chatty rubber head. But we would converse in-between scenes and have remained friends with mutual respect ever since. It’s funny how those few minutes of scenes created a tie between us for the rest of our lives. I always enjoy seeing him at conventions and he’s always so gracious.
Who are some of your favourite characters from the franchise and why?
Yoda became the big deal for me in Empire Strikes Back. Partly because he’s a magical puppet (the first of his kind actually) and partly because when his scenes came on, there would be a hush in the cinema as everyone was so mesmerized by him. I think Yoda and Ben Kenobi are two of the most complex and interesting characters in this galaxy. But I may also have to say the Millennium Falcon is also a favourite character of mine. It is just so iconic and vital to each movie. I love that thing to bits! It has also changed my life by way of Nien Nunb.
What does Star Wars mean to you?
Star Wars means so much more to me now all these decades later. It’s not just a movie franchise. It represents hope, that some things are worth fighting for and it has brought so many people together, young and old and it is global. Star Wars to me is like a Genie that’s been let out of the bottle and keeps granting my wishes. I shall never take any of it for granted ever.
How does it feel knowing there are figurines of your characters?
I remember the very first time I saw the Nien figure hanging on a peg in a store. It was really weird and exciting. Now the current figure is actually from a 3D scan of me in the costume so it’s a much more literal version of me and my proportions and everything. It’s really a mini-me, rather than an artistic interpretation. Hundred have been calling for a Black Series figure so that hopefully will be happening eventually. There is a Hot Wheels car based on him too, which pleases the 7-year-old boy in me to no end!
You attend many comic conventions, what does fan interaction mean to you, and do you have any appearances coming up?
My appearances seem to come and go depending upon work. There was a time where I had all but retired from them. I do have new people working as agents for me now and that helping. I really enjoy doing them and meeting people. Its the only time I really get to hear what people think of the character. Had I not gone to shows I never would have known Nien’s little nodding laugh was a thing. So now it’s my mission to bring that back and get it in somewhere one last time for the fans. So now fans have a voice and can feed back into the movies. I think that’s so cool! I love connecting the dots and making it real for the fans and not so abstract.
As long as it’s fun, I will always try to fit in conventions. I’ve made so many new friends along the way. Also, they can be a great way to catch up with old friends and co-workers. So it’s a win/win really. I’ve been so fortunate. Now I always enjoy doing panels and Q&A sessions too. So I’m gradually getting ramped up with shows for the year here in the USA and the UK and hopefully a few other countries. But many depend upon work and things are going to get busy again as the year wears on.
Speaking of that continuity from screen to fans, I’m also developing my Secrets Of Puppetry Academy for film and television puppetry. It’s an online detailed training course that takes people from novice right up to expert if they so choose. It’s the first of its kind and I’m using all the things bought to me directly by Jim Henson, Frank Oz and the rest of the Muppet performers. People can find it at SecretsOfPuppetry.com
I would like to say a huge thank you to both Mike and Jerri for making this dream of mine a reality. Nien Nunb has been a favourite of mine for a very long time and to know that I have interviewed the man behind the mask makes it so much better.
Be sure to check out Mike’s puppeteering workshop page at: http://secretsofpuppetry.com/ and give him a like on all social media.
We all look forward to seeing Mike reprise his role as Nien Nunb in Star Wars Episode IX when it hits the cinemas in 2019 until then, may the force be with you!