The Many Faces of Vader - Rolling Stone
Home Movies Movie News

The Many Faces of Vader

The actors who brought evil to life look back

James Earl JonesJames Earl Jones

Actor James Earl Jones attends the opening night of 'On Golden Pond' after party at Blue Fin in New York City, April 7th, 2005.

Paul Hawthorne/Getty


I was originally exposed to the Star Wars universe through memorabilia. My brother Tove was a big Star Wars fan, and those action figures were always lying around our basement. I didn’t really see the films until they were rereleased theatrically — but as a young kid, I was doing my best Darth Vader impression anyway. On long car trips, I’d sit in the back seat with my little sister Kaylen and scare her by imitating Darth, lowering my voice and breathing heavy. Now I’m playing him. It’s very surreal.

Certain things about Star Wars are embedded in your psyche from a young age: Anyone who picks up a light-saber toy just automatically starts making the whooshing noise. In fact, Ewan and I were never really able to refrain from doing it. When we were filming, George would have to come up to us after some takes and say, “Listen, guys, that was great, but you’re both moving your lips when you’re fighting. Really, we can add that noise in post, so don’t worry about it.” We weren’t even aware that we were doing it.

Darth Vader epitomized all that was evil. People responded so strongly to him because of his mystery. All you really got was this very intimidating masked figure, and the breathing, and that great voice that James Earl Jones provided. Otherwise, you knew very little. The audience could imagine their worst fears; Vader could represent what was most villainous and evil to them.

This last film change everything. Now we’re really able to see Anakin Skywalker behind that Darth Vader mask. Obviously, his use of the Dark Side is what changes him, but he’s still the same person. Star Wars has traditionally been very black and white, and now George is exploring shades of gray: There’s ambiguity and confusion, and Anakin really doesn’t know what’s right or wrong through most of this film. It makes him a more pathetic character; it humanizes him.

Being behind the Vader mask is almost indescribable. It’s so cool. It’s empowering. A beastly feeling wells up inside you — and there’s a sense of imprisonment. I thought that was appropriate for what Anakin should be feeling. But it’s claustrophobic in there: Your vision is extremely limited, it’s hot and it’s awkward to move around in. To make adjustments for my height difference, they put huge lifts in the shoes, so it was difficult to walk. I told George I needed practice walking around in the costume, because my movements were so rigid and I didn’t feel like I was walking like the Darth Vader we knew from the original trilogy.

He told me, “That’s what I want. Anakin is not acclimated in this suit yet; it’s very new to him. He shouldn’t be able to walk effortlessly.” It was an interesting choice.

It took about twenty minutes to get suited up. There’s no Darth Vader underwear; I wore my own. It starts off with the pants, followed by the boots and upper coverings, which come in a few layers. There’s a leather jacket, then a fiberglass chest piece. Then there’s a leather jock piece, which looks a little funny. Then it’s the helmet and the cape. The lights on the costume don’t start blinking until they plug you in on the set.

As each piece comes on, layer by layer, you feel the essence of Darth Vader overcoming you. The Darth Vader scenes were the last day of filming — we saved the best for last. Everyone from the crew and the production office came out to bear witness and see Vader again. As I walked past people I knew and was friends with, I watched their reactions. It was phenomenal: There was awe and excitement in their eyes, but there was also a certain level of respect that needed to be paid, and a tinge of fear. As I walked by, they would gasp, and then they would lower their heads and take a couple of steps back-as you would if Vader was passing.

There was a hint of sadness when I put on that costume. I was given the job of being the connective tissue from Jake Lloyd in Episode I to Darth Vader. Getting to finally don the dark helmet meant something bittersweet: My task was complete.


I was eight when we started The Phantom Menace. My favorite memory was on my sister’s birthday: They brought horses to the set for us to ride around on, I think people like Darth Vader so much because he’s sinister. Everyone can appreciate that at one point or another. He’s a badass.


David Prowse could not fence, so they needed somebody who knew about swordplay. I fenced in the Olympics and did lots of movie work, and so I was picked to wear the Darth suit for the light-saber fighting scenes in Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi. I choreographed those fights. Luke Skywalker had no protection whatsoever, so Darth needed to be careful and not hit him, but you just couldn’t see a lot with that mask on.

That uniform was terrible. I’m six feet one, and I had three extra inches on my helmet and two inches on my boots. I had a couple of cloaks on, and the helmet was the icing on top of the cake. Quite often, I was fighting with Mark Hamill, and I could see only his feet, so I was doing it virtually blindfolded.

My favorite fight was probably in the freezing chamber in Empire, where Han Solo was sealed in carbonite. The set had to be kept at a very high temperature because of the steam, and I had this outfit on, plus all the fighting — I lost about fifteen pounds that week. I was a bit overweight anyway.


I‘m just special effects. But I loved doing it. My agent called and said, “Do you want a day’s work?” And I said sure, because I was unemployed and broke and living in L.A., and it took about an hour and a half to do it. It was a pretty good day’s work. I hadn’t seen the whole film, but I was able to see the scenes with Darth. I was grateful he wore a mask, so I didn’t have to lip-sync.

George paid me between seven and nine thousand dollars. For someone living in Hollywood with no job, that’s not bad. I was not one of the actors, so I got no points and I didn’t become a millionaire. But I enjoyed being part of that whole cult. And to give George some credit, he gave me a Christmas bonus equal to my salary. Which wasn’t hard, but it was highly appreciated. And when he did The Empire Strikes Back, having sold myself not expensively the first time around, I couldn’t very well hike up the price!

When it came to the famous line “I am your father,” I didn’t believe it. I said, “He’s lying again.” My own son, who’s now twenty-two, hated Vader. He said, “Papa, how could you give yourself to that evil person?”

George directed me very specifically the first time around. But the second time around, we discovered the confinement of Darth Vader’s inflections. I kept trying to make my character more interesting and expressive, and he finally said, “You know what? The trick is to use a very narrow band of inflection, because he ain’t quite human.”


When I first read the script, Vader just popped off the page. I would come to the set, even on days I wasn’t shooting, Just to watch George work, Dave Prowse comes through the door for his first entrance, and I asked George, “Are you going to set it up with some guys on the other ship saying, ‘Darth Vader is the mightiest of the Sith lords’?” He said, “Nah, he’s all in black. We’ll just play some scary music.”

They didn’t tell Prowse they wouldn’t be using his voice. But come on, Darth Vader’s not from Cornwall. He was doing all this dialogue with a strong rural accent. The meanest members of the crew called him Darth Farmer.

When we did the “I am your father” scene, that’s not in the script. Dave Prowse said, “Obi-Wan killed your father.” By then they were worried about leaks — and within days, the false info was in the British tabloids. George pulled me aside before the scene and told me the real line, but he said, “You can’t tell your wife, you can’t tell Harrison, you can’t tell Carrie.” It was extraordinary to be sitting on a secret that explosive.


My whole career was based on bodybuilding. I had a fifty-three-inch chest when I did Star Wars. As a bodybuilder, you learn how to display your physique: You’ve got a few minutes to show off your body. That stood me in good stead: Since Darth Vader’s got no facial expressions, how he moves is extremely important. He’s regarded as the ultimate screen villain of all time, so I must have done something right.

I had a part in A Clockwork Orange; Lucas saw it and remembered five years later. He said, “I’m doing a film called Star Wars, and I’d like to offer you one of two parts.” One was Chewbacca, but I didn’t want to spend three months in a sweaty gorilla suit. He said the other one was Darth Vader, the main baddie. I told him, “Don’t say any more — I’ll take that one.” The best decision I ever made.

Most of us thought we were filming a load of rubbish. There was no music or special effects — and nobody had ever seen the blue-screen process before. But the suit was quite comfortable. It was made of quilted leather and fiberglass, and it went on in about fifteen different pieces. It was custom-made to fit me — I was six feet seven and 280 pounds. With the costume and boots, I probably went up to about seven feet.

I was doing all the dialogue, but my voice was muffled from the mask. I asked George, “What are we going to do about the voice?” He said, “Don’t worry — we’ll rerecord all your lines.” I thought he meant that/would rerecord the lines! But I didn’t hear anything, until the movie came out in the States. Then I got a telegram from Russ Meyer, a friend. He said congratulations, and by the way, did you know they overdubbed your voice?


Powered by
Arrow Created with Sketch. Calendar Created with Sketch. Path Created with Sketch. Shape Created with Sketch. Plus Created with Sketch. minus Created with Sketch.