[The following story contains spoilers for Andor episode eight, “Narkina 5.”]
When Toby Haynes took over for creator Tony Gilroy as the director of Andor’s first block of episodes, he, too, was shocked by the bold direction of the show.
Besides heavier themes and a more serious tone, it was extremely important to Gilroy that his series have verisimilitude, and that meant foregoing the franchise’s fondness for prominent Easter eggs. Gilroy even encouraged his collaborators to put away their Star Wars fandom in order to make a show that isn’t hyperaware that it’s Star Wars.
Haynes, who’s a lifelong Star Wars fan, admits there was some concern about his passion for the franchise, but ultimately, he made it clear that he’s a storyteller first.
“[Tony Gilroy] was nervous about how much I love Star Wars, but I always say that I’m a dramatist first and a Star Wars fan second,” Haynes tells The Hollywood Reporter. “He never wanted to foreground the monsters. He never wanted to foreground the droids. He wanted it to be part of the fabric of the piece, but not do a special shot where you’re announcing a new alien or something like that. He really wanted it to feel completely integrated in the world that he was presenting and not presented [in and of itself].”
In Andor episode eight, “Narkina 5,” Forest Whitaker reprises his Rogue One character, Saw Gerrera, for an extraordinary back and forth with Stellan Skarsgard’s Luthen Rael. For Haynes, it was a day he’ll never forget.
“They really went at each other, and there was this incredible tension in the room as they read this scene,” Haynes says. “Seeing [Forest Whitaker] do that was just absolutely magical, and to have him play opposite a heavyweight like Stellan was a career highlight.”
The episode also featured a surprise appearance from Andy Serkis, who previously played Supreme Leader Snoke in the Star Wars sequel trilogy. In his return to a galaxy far, far away, Serkis plays Kino Loy, Cassian Andor’s fellow inmate and foreman inside Narkina 5, an Imperial prison and factory. Haynes notes that Serkis’ previous Star Wars role had no bearing on his casting, especially since Snoke was a CG character who had just seven-and-a-half minutes of screen time in The Force Awakens and The Last Jedi.
“He got a lot of screen time in our short block. Tom Felton, who played Malfoy in Harry Potter, only got like 32 minutes of screen time across the whole Harry Potter series,” Haynes adds. “And so the opportunity to play a character like Kino who has such a big part and such a big journey was a real acting opportunity for Andy, and he was very excited about it.”
In a recent spoiler conversation with THR, Haynes, who previously directed Black Mirror’s Emmy-winning episode “USS Callister,” also discusses the creative freedom he received from Gilroy.
So in late September 2020, you took over for Tony Gilroy as the director of the first block of episodes. While it seemed last minute based on the timing of the report, did you still have ample time to prep?
Yeah, I probably had more prep on this project than I’ve had for most of my projects. So it was a very generous amount of prep time. But the scope and the scale that they wanted, like all projects, always outstrips the budget and the time that you have to do it. So we had to hit the ground running. On my second day or something, I went out to see the construction they were doing at Marlow, which is where they built Ferrix, and I saw the scale of what they were doing. And that’s when I realized just how deep the shit that I was in. (Laughs.) So it was a huge responsibility, and it was incredibly exciting.
Denise Gough told me that her first day was on the Ferrix set, and story wise, her character, Dedra Meero, just arrived on Ferrix in episode eight. So did you block shoot all six of your episodes’ Ferrix scenes?
Yeah, we spent a good month and a bit there after Christmas, and it was the coldest part of the shoot. There was a time when it had snowed, and so there were people using heaters to burn the snow off the ground and keep the continuity. But it was freezing. Maarva’s interior and exterior set were the same set, so it was a fully three-dimensional world. But it was so cold, and that’s why you can see her breath when she talks. You can see that she’s freezing cold and that’s why she’s not putting the heating on. Cassian was worried about her sitting in the cold because she’s going to get sick. So that was a reality, and that sense of reality was what Tony was really after the whole way through. Luke Hull, the production designer, was incredible, and he just brought that to screen. So it was always a thrill walking onto his sets.
I’d been wondering why Cassian and Brasso (Joplin Sibtain) kept commenting on Maarva’s (Fiona Shaw) heater needing to be turned on. Brasso even said that she could afford it.
Yeah, it’s a curious thing. They must have written that in to justify it. We could have heated it to the point that you wouldn’t have seen her breath, but putting an actor in those conditions and being able to see them breathe doesn’t happen very often and it’s worth going after. And it suited her character. So I think they incorporated that into the story, which was a really smart move.
As a TV director, you’re there to fulfill the showrunner’s vision, ultimately, but how would you describe your working relationship with Tony? He certainly knows what he wants.
He’s super smart, and it’s clear on the page what he wants. But he’s also incredibly fluid and open to ideas. He really wanted me to take ownership of it, visually, and bring my own style to it. I kept saying, “Do you want to know more about my lens choices?” And he said, “Do you know what you’re going to do?” And I was like, “Yep.” And he was like, “That’s all I need to know.” So he’s the best kind of exec to work with in that way. There was some stuff from block one that he’d really envisaged quite clearly, and he wanted to see that realized. But then he was equally ready to throw it away when there was a better idea or a different idea. So he’s very adaptable.
Early on, I certainly wanted to bring what I enjoyed about Rogue One and how it felt like it was on the ground. It felt like there was a lot of use of handheld and seeing handheld used in Star Wars felt refreshing to me. It’s a style that I can really engage with, and it also puts me in the character’s point of view. I feel like I’m on the ground with them. I feel like I’m running through the trenches with them, and that is where you want to be. It’s so much more dynamic that way, and you feel much more connected to the characters. So everything that I was driving towards visually was trying to get the audience close to Cassian’s experience as he’s journeying through the whole story.
One of the many things that I love about Andor is that it doesn’t prioritize Star Wars Easter eggs, and that aligns with what Tony told me about urging his collaborators to put aside their Star Wars reverence. So as big a Star Wars fan as you are, did you ever have to catch yourself from being too nostalgic or referential?
Yeah, [Tony] was nervous about how much I love Star Wars, but I always say that I’m a dramatist first and a Star Wars fan second. So what comes first for me is the story and the characters and what we’re trying to do. But when you see your first droid on set, you do get really excited about it, and you have to make a concerted effort to make sure it stays in the background. Tony was very clear about that. He never wanted to foreground the monsters. He never wanted to foreground the droids. He wanted it to be part of the fabric of the piece, but not do a special shot where you’re announcing a new alien or something like that. He really wanted it to feel completely integrated in the world that he was presenting and not presented [in and of itself].
Out of curiosity, had this show shot mostly in the Volume, would you have still jumped at the opportunity? And that’s not a knock against the Volume; it’s an amazing tool when used properly.
I guess I’d take any opportunity to work with that technology. It looks incredible. But it would’ve been with a sigh that I wouldn’t be walking onto the sets that I did eventually walk onto. There was something really special about seeing a new set every day. It would inform the way that I would shoot it. It would inform the way the actors acted on it. It brings so much to the whole universe that you’re trying to build, and it feels very thorough. It feels very from the ground up, and I don’t think this story would’ve lent itself to the Volume. It would’ve been, in some ways, a waste of what the Volume can do for you. What we needed was reality. We needed to walk in and feel the grit that’s under the fingernails and under the feet. We also needed to hear it. So it felt solid, and Tony’s guiding philosophy was to make sure it feels real.
So Andy Serkis’ Kino Loy was a nice surprise. He obviously played a CG character named Snoke in the Star Wars sequel trilogy, so how did his casting go down in this particular case?
Tony had been talking to Andy for a while. He was trying to line him up, but he was unsure whether he was going to do it or not. He was coming off a big directing gig. But we were all very excited by the idea of him joining. I know Andy separately through an old friend of mine, and I’d met him a couple of times. So the chance of actually working with him was very exciting for me, and then suddenly, there he was on set. It all came together in a very short space of time, and he had some big ideas of what he wanted to do with the character. And now I can’t imagine it being anybody else. There was never any other option, really. It had to be Andy.
The fact that he has Star Wars heritage was neither here nor there for us. To us, he was Kino, and it was all about him and what he could bring to it. It was a chance for him to really act a lot. He got a lot of screen time in our short block. Tom Felton, who played Malfoy in Harry Potter, only got like 32 minutes of screen time across the whole Harry Potter series. And so the opportunity to play a character like Kino who has such a big part and such a big journey was a real acting opportunity for Andy, and he was very excited about it. [Writer’s Note: Serkis’ previous Star Wars character, Snoke, had only 7 minutes and 30 seconds of screen time.]
I’ve seen what’s ahead, and I can safely say that you made the right choice. Anyway, this might be a silly question, but was Andy self-conscious at all about not sounding like Snoke?
No, but he did try an accent in one of the rehearsals. He was playing with the idea of an Iraqi accent because he has some Iraqi heritage. [Writer’s Note: Serkis’ mother was half-Iraqi.] But it never quite fit. With Andor, I don’t think we ever had an actor do an accent that wasn’t their own. We had everybody use their own original accents, without trying to soften them or anything. It’s part of their own character. It’s the realism of them, so there’s no additional layer of fakery. So we dropped that accent and went with Andy’s own accent. He wanted to find the right kind of tonal quality for it that fit the class level that Kino was at. We have a famous soap in the U.K. called EastEnders, and we didn’t want it to get too EastEnders where it would be too cockney. That would have a layer of artifice to it that we didn’t want. So it was just trying to find that right level of realism.
What are your highlights and takeaways from Stellan Skarsgard and Forest Whitaker going toe to toe in such an incredible scene?
Oh my God, that was an amazing day. We were all nervous. I had phone calls from Forest the night before, and he was asking me questions about Kyber crystals and backstory. But we did this incredible rehearsal where they just read the scene for the first time and went at it. They really went at each other, and there was this incredible tension in the room as they read this scene. And honestly, if I could have filmed that first time they read the scene, I would’ve been overjoyed to have gotten that performance from both of them. And the crazy thing was, when we went to film it for real, it was almost like we had to deconstruct what they did, spontaneously and naturally. So they had to reconstruct it and build it from scratch, in a way, when we got the cameras rolling, and it took us a while to get to that pitch.
I had this idea about how to structure the scene. I wanted to end on an extreme closeup of Forest at the end of his rant about all the seperatist groups of the alliance. A really direct, face-on shot would really bring you into the argument and build that intensity. And so I just got him to do that speech over and over again. I was just like, “Go crazy with it,” and that closeup was one of the best closeups of my career. Seeing him do that was just absolutely magical, and to have him play opposite a heavyweight like Stellan was a career highlight.
This prison set is awfully intimidating. Did your crew configure the floor so that the actors could have some kind of physical sensation to react to on the day? Or are Diego Luna and co. just that nimble?
They are just that nimble. We just had the lights changing. Like everything else, it’s timing and choreography. I did try it myself. I took my shoes and socks off, and stepped out of the cells and onto the metal floor just to get the sensation of it and to see how it felt. And you do feel incredibly vulnerable, especially on a film set where there’s so much equipment. The sets are held up by huge amounts of scaffolding and stuff, so it feels very industrial as you’re standing there with bare feet. There is a sense of vulnerability that it gives you, and I think it was really useful for all of the actors. And to have a hundred men standing there with bare feet, it brings its own atmosphere. Let’s put it that way. (Laughs.)
What exactly are they building in the prison?
It’s the building blocks of the Empire, but that’s probably a question for Tony.
Relative to the rest of the franchise, you portrayed Vel (Faye Marsay) and Cinta’s (Varada Sethu) romance in a meaningful way. Can you talk a bit about that?
For me, it really doesn’t matter who the romance is between or what it’s about. It’s really just about conveying what’s on the page so that it feels impactful. It’s about making sure that you are feeling it, and that you’re not going too subtle or too bold. I just want to make sure I’m feeling empathy for all of my characters, and it doesn’t matter what the beat is. I’m completely indiscriminate, actually. For any beat, I’ll make sure that it’s turned up to the right level for that moment, and I want to feel it. When I’m sitting on set and I’m looking at the performance, I’m going, “Am I feeling this or am I bored? Am I thinking of other things?” And when I’m sitting in the edit and I’m seeing what we’ve done with it, I’m asking those same questions. I’m asking those questions all the way through. I’ll even ask them when I first read the script. “Does this moment land?” And so I did the same with that moment.
So what was your pinch-me moment where you said to yourself, “Oh my God, I’m in a Galaxy Far, Far Away”?
I mean, [Stellan and Forest’s scene] was incredible. It was an out-of-body experience just directing those guys on set, and I felt like a very lucky director that day. You just constantly have pinch-me moments. In the first block, a pinch-me moment was when we first introduced B2. When we introduced B2 on that Ferrix street, I had a sleeping giant animal down the street that’s breathing, and I had all these sleeping droids around the place as B2 is moving through. And then we set these dogs off, and one of them pees on B2. It was the craziest thing. There I was in a galaxy far, far away, and I’m doing a scene with a droid. I’m doing Star Wars. It’s this amazing thing for me, and then I do a scene where a dog pees on a droid. It’s totally insane.
At the other end of the spectrum, were you quite shocked when you learned that your Star Wars career would kick off with a brothel and two dead cops?
(Laughs.) Yeah, I was like, “Is this on Disney+?” I was really shocked. That’s the first thing I said to Tony. I was like, “This is bold stuff.” And he was like, “Yeah, it’s all conscious. I’m making a point.”
I can’t believe that the two of you have made me care about two Imperial or Imperial-adjacent officers like Meero (Denise Gough) and Karn (Kyle Soller), which is something that hasn’t really been done to this extent before. So why did you want the audience to potentially empathize with Team Fascism?
It’s very easy to paint the bad guys as black-and-white bad guys. The scariest kind of bad guy is a bad guy who genuinely thinks they’re doing the right thing. And so to see that in three dimensions, it makes you think a lot more about what it takes to be a good guy. It’s also important to subvert the moral construct of what the alliance really is. They’re the good guys and live by a moral code, but I think Tony is trying to say that if you actually want to get something done, you sometimes need people who live in the gray areas, between good and bad. Sometimes, you have to do things that you are not happy about and you have to break your own rules. People are constantly struggling with whether or not they’re doing the right thing, and you see that with Luthen and Syril.
Kyle Soller is one of the most tremendous actors to work with because of the dimensions that he brings to that character. It’s so interesting how unappealing he should be, and yet, we’re so drawn in by him. That’s down to Kyle as much as it is Tony’s storytelling. But I’m really excited by that story because it really does feel like new territory. It’s just too easy to paint a villain as a bad guy. The Sopranos did this a long time ago by pushing the audience into this dodgy moral territory, but it’s a really interesting place to put the audience.
Lastly, are you able to say what’s next for you?
I actually have no idea what’s next for me. It’s a very exciting time. The response to Andor has been absolutely mind-blowing, and I really wanted to take a moment to breathe. Doing the series was a huge undertaking, so I needed a good beat. I just finished a new Black Mirror episode that I did in the summer with Brian Davids Charlie [Brooker]. So that’s going to come out next year, and I’m really proud of that one. So I’m really excited about not knowing what I’ll do next.
After his voice cameo in your beloved episode “USS Callister,” did you finally get the chance to work with Aaron Paul in live action? He’s part of this new season, too.
No, but I did meet him. I visited him to say hi and meet him in person, finally. What a guy. But no, he wasn’t in my [Black Mirror] episode.
Andor is now streaming on Disney+. This interview was edited for length and clarity.
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