Alan Tudyk on Creating His ‘Rogue One’ Droid K-2SO, Doing Improv on Set, and a ‘Dodgeball’ Sequel
Alan Tudyk is no stranger to playing non-human characters. From Sonny in 2004’s I, Robot to a scene-stealing rooster in Moana, he’s made a long career out of voice work. But if you think Tudyk’s droid in Rogue One: A Star Wars Story is just another voiceover gig in a major studio movie, think again.
Much of the hype surrounding Tudyk’s K-2SO, an Imperial droid reprogrammed by Diego Luna’s Rebel Captain Cassian Andor, comes from how different he is from the previous droids we’ve met in the Star Wars universe — partially because he cracks a lot of jokes in Gareth Edwards’ spinoff. The other big component is that Tudyk played Kaytoo, as he’s nicknamed in the movie, on set with the rest of the cast. Instead of being cooped up in a studio and filming his scenes on a separate sound stage, Tudyk performed his role in a special mo-cap suit on location in Jordan.
I got a chance to see a demo of the new mo-cap technology that Industrial Light & Magic created for the film on my recent trip to the Lucasfilm Campus in California. The designers explained that Tudyk wore stilts with special ankle and foot attachments to allow him to walk in a more human-like style, the mo-cap offered wider range of motion for his arms (unlike Anthony Daniels’ rigid C-3PO limbs) and he had a backpack suspended over his head to ensure his co-stars’ eyesight would line up with Kaytoo’s.
After seeing the demo (which you can watch below), I sat down with Tudyk to hear about creating his droid and how being on set as Kaytoo allowed him to improvise his dialogue. Tudyk also told me about making Luna laugh on set (keep your eye out, some of those scenes made it into the final cut) and his reaction to a very strange Dodgeball fan theory.
I just saw the motion-capture display downstairs. It’s amazing that you were able to wear the mo-cap suit and see what the digital rendering of Kaytoo would look like right then and there. How did that help you play this character?
It was good to get sort of a vocabulary of how he moved and what expression within movement was effective and what didn’t tell the story I was trying to tell. It’s interesting, any kind of casual stance or movement really brought him to life as an organic creature because he’s such a machine. To see him sort of get a little casual, even if it is just a little slouch or a cock of the head, read as something interesting and read as life and personality. So sort of finding the parameters of that — where it’s too much, where it’s not enough. Standing up straight was better because he’s hump-backed. If you’re hunched over too much then he looks doubly hunched over so it was important to keep a certain rigidness in the back.
How did that compare to playing Sonny in I, Robot? The technology has changed so much in 12 years.
Sonny was — we chose to move ergonomically because he was one of thousands of them. I was in training to move the way your skeleton was meant to move, without expression. His expression was very subtle in places and a lot of it was played on his face. Kaytoo doesn’t have a mouth, so that was something that we took into consideration. If he’s talking, it’s good for him to move and he can’t just smile at someone and tell a story. Working with his hands was great.
The way that K-2SO was received on set or treated on set was different as well because in the world of Star Wars, droids are so important. There’s so many beloved characters that have been created prior to this one that to be on set, and I’m a droid, they are like, “Oh! Wow!” It’s exciting to people. You’re the droid in this movie. Whereas in I, Robot there were so many of us and it wasn’t a movie about a world, it was a movie about Will Smith’s character and this droid who happened to be important, but on set there was hundreds of us. It wasn’t the same thing. On this, he was a true character. He was an important part of the story and the way people responded to him and the way that Gareth and the producers treated Kaytoo’s story reflected that.
The fact that you were on set instead of just voicing Kaytoo from the studio must have also made a major difference. How did those interactions shape your performance?
It’s so important. You can’t do it the other way. Here’s a good example: [In the movie] we’re looking down at Jeddah. It’s a scene that has been in one of the trailers, I believe, where Jyn takes her bag and throws it at my chest, and I hold it and then I drop it down. It was not in the [script] for her to hand me her bag, but because she worked it out, as she’s walking out she goes, “I don’t want to see, maybe they’ll miss you and hit me.” And she hands me her bag.
So [if I was] not on set it couldn’t have happened. She gives it to me and then they walk away and I say, “That doesn’t sound so bad to me,” which wasn’t a line in the script, but I got to add it because that’s how it made me feel when she threw that bag at me. And then I just dropped the bag because I’m not going to carry that lady’s bag, forget about it! So all of that makes that scene not just a scene of “That’s Jeddah, we’re going to Jeddah. Look, they’re taking Kyber crystals out,” or whatever they’re doing down there. “Let’s figure it out, let’s go down there,” is now between people and there’s action, there’s humor, there’s interaction, a little spark. You won’t get that if nobody’s on set. You won’t get that if you don’t have actors creating true characters. So you need that.
It’s crazy to me that you were able to do so much improv because this is Star Wars! Everything is so structured and planned within the universe.
I know! I think because there’s such a reverence around it that you would think every word is gold and you can’t mess around. But that was the first day we worked. I was already adding lines, and they were like, “Yeah! Go with that!” So the first day we were in Jordan, the first day we worked, that was the first scene. I hadn’t thought about that. That really set the standard, and then by the end there were moments where they were like, “Hey, so we got this new scene. Here’s what Kaytoo says, but I don’t feel like that’s right. What would you think? What do you want to say there?” We’d get to throw out a few lines. “What about this? Here’s one. Do that one.” Then that would become his line. So it was very collaborative. I love writing and getting to connect with the character and to have a say in what he actually says is a gift and it’s rare. Especially on a big movie like this.
Did you get many chances to riff with the rest of the cast?
Yeah, we played around. There’s one, a couple of frames in this movie, I won’t say where they are, but where I say something that’s not in the script and Diego almost laughs. He covers his face and you can see just one side of his mouth is in a smile. It made it into the movie! [Laughs] I saw the scene. They rendered it and sent it to me and I could watch it on my computer. Again, you don’t get to see that. Especially these movies, there’s such secrecy around them. I’d be like, “oh!” — to my wife — “Baby! Come here! Look at this!” Because it was fun and we did play around.
All of that carries. Even if you’re not changing the lines or improvising together on set, if you have a rapport with your other actors, it’s going to translate. And the reverse is true as well, if you don’t get along, you’re gonna see something there. Maybe it works for some people, but it was fortunate that we all got along because it was fun. We spent at least six months together at least, even more after reshoots. It just added a certain spark to the scenes that we did do, a life that wouldn’t have been there had we just been cut, let’s all go to our trailers. Let’s not talk to each other. It was fun.
Kaytoo has such a personality, unlike a lot of the previous Star Wars droids. Was there ever a point while playing him when you stepped back to question if you were playing him too human-like, or too robotic?
Yeah. I luckily saw — and this is really nuts and I haven’t talked about this too much. I did a show called Con Man. We made a digital series. I crowdfunded it from science fiction fans, a lot of Firefly fans, myself and Nathan Fillion. There was a scene we put online where [my character Wray Nerely is] sitting in a stall on a toilet. On one side is one guy trying to get me to sign a magazine because he’s a sci-fi fan of a show that got cancelled, and then the guy over on this side of the stall chimes in because he doesn’t know who I am. But he hears him talking and then they start having a conversation over me. I’m like, “Guys, this is not the time for us to discuss this. Seriously.” They animated that for me to show me how Kaytoo would look and put it on top of my thing that I wrote, my little baby project.
So I saw how much could be done with true human stuff and it read really well. It was very entertaining, so I knew there was leeway in that. Then as far as the humor goes, I left that up to Gareth to police because I didn’t want to go Jar Jar. That was the fear. “I can’t go Jar Jar, man, don’t hang me out to dry.”
Did you actually say that to him?
Yeah. The feeling was, the rule is the humor can come out of being an honest and true character, true to the moment that is funny to people, but that [Kaytoo] is not trying to be funny. Like a child, when they’re honest and they say something everybody goes, “Oh my god!” [Covers his mouth] “I can’t believe you just said that!” But the child didn’t mean to be funny, they were just saying the thing that seemed obvious to them. So that was the key to his humor.
Do you think that his humor derives from the fact that he’s been re-programmed from an Imperial Droid? Was it Cassian’s re-programming that brought out that side of him?
I always thought about it. That he was…like the droids in the Empire have this restriction on them. They’re more enslaved in that way. I thought of Cassian as freeing his personality from him. Like, he was in there, he just had all of these functions that he had to do, these behavioral functions, these restrictions on his personality. [Cassian] just pulled out all the governors on that and let him ride, let him roll the way he was. That’s his personality full on.
Last question: I was reading a crazy fan theory about Dodgeball. I don’t know if you’ve heard it. The theory is that Steve the Pirate is actually an ex-Navy sailor who has PTSD. Do you buy it?
[Laughs] That doesn’t seem like it’s impossible. I don’t want to insult Navy sailors who have PTSD. I think that’s the best idea I’ve heard if we ever do a Dodgeball 2. I’ll investigate that as a character background because that’s not bad. He’s a pirate. He’s got a love of — I don’t remember how I justified that back then, it was a while ago, but what a crazy, fun role.
You think you’d do a sequel?
Somebody wrote one. They commissioned somebody to write one, but that doesn’t mean they’re going to make it. Sometimes they get the script after commissioning it and they’re like, “Eh! This is not what we wanted.” And then [Ben] Stiller just did that — what was the model one?
Yeah, he just did Zoolander 2 and it kinda didn’t…so he might be gun-shy there. If someone thinks it can make money I think they’ll probably do it. I think it’s more about getting the band back together. Stiller and [Vince] Vaughn. Who knows, maybe. I don’t think there’s anybody in that movie or of our crew that wouldn’t say, “I’ll do it.” Just get some Ben-Gay because damn, we threw our arms out on day two. I’ll have to get back in Dodgeball shape. I’ll put on my eyepatch, I’ll be there. Eyepatch and gold tooth.
Rogue One: A Star Wars Story hits theaters December 16.