I managed to get the chance to interview Mason Ball recently. Mason was the man behind Praster Ommlen in The Force Awakens.
The Ottegan male known as Praster Ommlen worked as a gunrunner before putting his life of crime behind him and becoming a devotee of the Sacred Order of Ramulus, an Ithorian sect of worship. Around thirty years after the Battle of Endor, Ommlen spent time in the castle of the pirate Maz Kanata, where he offered spiritual advice to other criminals. While there he connected with the Narquois bandit Pru Sweevant and the Bravaisian gemologists Munduri and Sonsigo.
He was present in the castle for the arrival of the smuggler Han Solo, who was accompanied by the scavenger Rey, the former stormtrooper Finn and the astromech droid BB-8. As Solo entered, Varmik (one of the Hassk triplets) approached Ommlen, who then moved to watch a game of Droid ball fighting being played. The game was interrupted when Kanata herself spotted Solo and yelled to him across the room, causing Ommlen and the room’s other occupants to all fall silent and turn to look at the subject of Kanata’s cry.
He was amongst the crowd of patrons that rushed out of the castle to watch the destruction of the Hosnian system by the First Order’s Starkiller Base superweapon. Shortly after the terrifying spectacle ended, the castle itself was attacked and destroyed by the First Order.
How does working on Star Wars compare to all your work on other projects?
Every film I’ve worked on has been very different, my experience chiefly defined by the costume / suit I was performing in. In The Mummy (1999 film) and The Mummy Returns my suit and head were very much skin tight and so a certain frame of mind was required when stuffed into them for long periods of time.
In The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy I was four different Vogons, and so was sealed into a kind of large egg-shaped costume; because I couldn’t see a thing I had a small TV screen so I could view the action in the scene. THHGTTG was also the first time my hands were inside a costume controlling the angle, tilt etc of a heavy animatronic head (the facial expressions of which were controlled by someone else); this the closest thing I had to prepare me for my work on TFA.
Film sets can be very stressed environments and tempers can fray, however I can honestly say that the sets of both The Force Awakens and The Last Jedi had very relaxed and positive atmospheres, both directors seeming to be enjoying their job, something that really rubs off on the entire crew.
How did you get the role?
I had met Brian Herring (of Team BB8) on THHGTTG (among other things, he played my Vogon arms in the Trillion interrogation scene) and he kindly recommended me.
When you were given the role Praster Ommlen, were you given any info to accommodate this?
Very little! In the costume fitting process, right through shooting he was referred to as ‘Hammerhead Priest’; it wasn’t until the visual dictionary came out that I knew his name and background. All I had to go on was the word ‘priest’ which to me suggested a certain regality of posture and physicality, however I also recall being told that no character would be at Maz’s without a certain shadowy past, so I imagined that the good Praster may even have been disrobed and disgraced (excommunicated?) for past misdeeds… but I should stress that this was very much my interpretation and should not be considered canon!
Can you describe your time filming scenes?
Hot and blind! We’d get the several layers of costume on (which included 6-inch platform boots) and then I’d half waddle / half stride onto set. We’d be told the action taking place in the shot and our part in it, then the head would go on. I had an earpiece so Paul Kasey (movement coordinator) or another puppeteer could be my eyes and tell me when to move, when to stop etc. Right before shooting I’d reach up inside the head and switch on the animatronics which immediately begin to whirr and chirp making hearing anyone but the voice in my earpiece very difficult.In between takes I could switch off the animatronics, angle the head up, and see a little of what was going on through the creature’s mouth!
How long did it take to get into costume? Was there much interaction between yourself and the directors, if so, what sort of things would you discuss?
I think by the end we got it down to a reasonably unhurried 10 – 15 minutes; the main body of the suit would go on in the creatures dressing area and the head transported to, and attached, on set just before shooting.
Usually any direction for the creatures is passed through other crew members, however JJ Abrams did once ask me if I could see anything, to which I had to answer “Nope, not a thing!” -Daisy Ridley asked me the same question!
If you could play any other character, who would it be and why?
As a child I always wanted to be a Stormtrooper, so maybe a vengeful ‘clone sibling’ of TK-421?
Who are some of your favourite characters from the franchise and why?
Han Solo and Princess Leia were always favourites, Han because despite being a “scoundrel” he always had the best lines and always came through in the end; Leia because at the time of Episode IV I’m not sure I’d ever seen such a ballsy female character stand up to bad guys like Vader and Tarkin with such strength.
What does Star Wars mean to you?
Episode IV came out when I was 6 and it changed my life. I was utterly obsessed. I had a Star Wars duvet cover, Star Wars curtains, Star Wars posters all over my bedroom and of course the action figures. My sister and I won tickets through the local paper to see our local premiere and they had actors dressed up as Stromtroopers and Darth Vader before the film started; it was magical.
Did you ever think your work would lead you to be in a franchise like Star Wars?
Never! Who knew they’d ever make more Star Wars films?!
What are some of your highlights filming Star Wars?
As I’d been on other films, I did a very good job of fooling myself that TFA was “just another job”. Yes, the sets were great, the creatures looked amazing, yes, I’d seen R2-D2, yes, I’d seen Chewbacca, but it was “just another job”. Then at one point, in between takes, I was sitting on set with my head off trying to cool down, and I glanced across and saw Chewbacca again, but this time he was carrying his bowcaster and for some reason that did it; completely involuntarily I made a noise, a kind of strangled moaning sound, as if a wormhole had opened up between that moment and the 6-year-old me and it really hit me that I was in a Star Wars film. Thankfully no one heard me.
What are some of your favourite scenes from Star Wars and why?
The big reveal in The Empire Strikes back was a real game changer for me in how a story could really pull the rug out from under your expectations. Also, the design, lighting and look of that scene, of the whole battle between Luke and Vader; then Luke losing his hand and his falling down into that seemingly bottomless shaft was incredible and, on the big screen incredibly dizzying.
Also, the atmosphere of skulduggery and potential violence in the smoky cantina at Mos Eisley, with all its alien ne’er-do-wells is such a great scene, particularly ending as it does with Han shooting first!
What was it like filming the Maz Kanata Castle scenes?
It was great to be part of what I was told was a scene that broke the world record for the number of creatures in one shot!
I think I’m right in saying that my first day on set was the hottest day of the year, not the best time to be locked in a heavy rubber and metal costume. I remember being told in my earpiece that I was standing next to the enormous open fire (which was part of the set) but I was so hot already that I couldn’t feel the heat at all!
Do you attend many comic conventions, if so, what does fan interaction mean to you, and do you have any appearances coming up?
I have yet to attend any conventions, however plans are afoot to do just that.