This article is a preview of WIRED magazine 01.16, our Star Wars special issue featuring J.J. Abrams, on sale from December 10 2015. Follow our Star Wars: The Force Awakens hub page for all of our web, print and behind-the-scenes coverage.
You can’t have Star Wars without droids. (Oft-overlooked fact: aside from Anakin and Obi-Wan, R2-D2 and C-3PO are the only characters to appear in all six films.) In The Force Awakens, Threepio will once again be played by Anthony Daniels. But to bring back R2, J.J. Abrams turned to two British super fans, Lee Towersley and Oliver Steeples.
The pair are members of the R2 Builders Club, a worldwide community of Star Wars-loving hobbyists and makers dedicated to creating movie-accurate droids, which they tour at fan events.
“We were at Star Wars Celebration in Germany in 2013, and Cathleen Kennedy was there,” says Steeples, 40. “We had a chat with her, and said ‘if you need droids for episode VII…’”
As it turned out, they were just the droid-makers Kennedy was looking for. A phone call and a few weeks later they were on set at Pinewood Studios. “It’s still unbelievable,” says Towersley, 45.
“We know ‘Club’ R2s inside out, but some of the Club specs aren’t 100 per cent, so we went back to the original plans,” says Steeples.
Hobbyist replicas are usually made from aluminium or styrene; The Force Awakens’ R2 was custom built from fiberglass and aluminium, with additional parts 3-D printed in the film’s Creature Workshop. The new droid is powered by hub motors in the base, allowing for more precise control during action sequences. (Unlike fan droids, the filming units are also silent; R2’s iconic beeps and whistles were added later.)
As R2 and several new droid characters for the film are piloted remotely, they play them, too.
“We were hiding behind boxes, because they had cameras all over set, with these explosions going off, droids getting blown up,” says Steeples.
Not bad, for two lifelong fans.
“Star Wars — that’s what childhood was for me,” says Towersley. “It doesn’t get any better than this.”