It’s rainy and in the 50s as I go to pick up Nick, by far the gloomiest and coldest day of the fall thus far. I’m tired and considering ditching the whole thing, worried that this will end up being a waste of a Saturday morning I could have spent pressing up against my wife, whom I rarely get to spend time with as a result of our various endeavors.
Nick’s daughter, 6-year-old Addison, answers the door in her pajamas, and I’m encouraged to have a seat in the living room by Nick’s disembodied voice floating down the stairs.
Addison is watching a cartoon on Netflix, and as soon as I press her on her show selection, she immediately changes it to a cartoon series called Star Wars: Clone Wars. In a manner that feels too earnest to have been prepped by her father, she extolls her passion for the saga and various animated offshoots.
Finally, Nick appears on the landing, his black robes swirling.
“You ready to do this?” he says through a thick layer of black and red greasepaint. I am uncertain and feel the obligation to force eye contact despite the one inch horns glued to his skull.
On the 35-minute drive to the museum, Nick gives me background on his hobby. He is a part of something called the 501st Legion, a global organization of Star Wars costume aficionados with garrisons or outposts on 6 continents. There are 44 in the U.S., including Nick’s Virginia Chapter, Garrison Tyrannus.
Even just looking at the Legion website, you can see these guys are no joke. There’s a chain of command, charters, and a seven-section, 75-page governing document called the “Operations Protocol” that covers everything from merchandising regulations to a code of conduct while members are dressed, or “in kit.”
Unlike the janky Princess Leia and Darth Vader you saw duking it out at your nephew’s birthday party, these legionnaires aren’t wearing costumes off the rack from Wally World; each one is custom made. In fact, you can’t even become a member of the 501st until your costume is confirmed to be movie-accurate by Legion brass and a consultant from Lucasfilms itself.
The guidelines come from the Costume Reference Library, or CRL, a Bible-sized guide that details every stitch on the costumes of hundreds of characters. It is so intricate, Nick explains, holding out the arm of his tunic, that the distance between the pleats on his sleeve must be accurate in order for the costume to be approved.
“Where does the information come from?” I ask Nick as we hurtle down I-95. “Is a costumer at Lucasfilms giving you the patterns, or is it just some dude sitting in front of a TV and hitting pause to measure the distance between the pleats?”
“Probably both,” he says. Much like the Old Testament itself, not even True Believers know the complete origin of the info within the holy CRL.
Nick said it took him four or five attempts to get his Darth Maul costume approved, mostly because the face makeup is so intricate and has to be dead on. For each attempt, he and his wife applied the black and red greasepaint using a gridded photo from the CRL as a pattern. He’d take prescribed photos from several different angles and send them to the garrison’s Lucasfilms liaison for feedback. He was also asked to solicit feedback from the other members already approved to portray Maul, so they could critique and offer opinions on improvement.
“I checked with our liaison for accuracy, and the first thing he said was ‘did you check with the other Mauls?’” Nick says. “The problem is that some of the other Mauls are haters, and they were super critical,” a sentiment that had me laughing so hard it almost shot my morning coffee out of my nose.
As I’m assured by Nick and many fellow Legion members throughout the day, it’s only the “face characters” — known characters like Darth Maul, Luke Skywalker, and Chewbacca — that require so much scrutiny. Generic characters such as Rebel pilots and Imperial Troopers (or “TKs” as they’re known; I’m too lazy to look up the origin of the abbreviation) must adhere to general guidelines outlined by the CRL, but are usually approved without much fanfare.
Accuracy of the costume is not the only thing the Legion scrutinizes. Face characters must also submit to the Legion’s own form of body shaming, wherein members may only portray characters that match their approximate height and weight. One of the reasons Nick chose Darth Maul as a character, for example, is because he is the exact height and weight as Ray Park, the actor who portrayed Maul in the films. Nick is slightly vague about how this part gets enforced; it seems by the way he frames it that most members self-regulate in order to avoid any awkward conversations. The more prominent the character, the more genetics play into getting approved. It is expected a Luke Skywalker, for example, have blue eyes and sandy blond hair a la 1977 Mark Hamill, or at the very least contact lenses and a wig.
Nick said the dimension guidelines are not 100 percent hard and fast. He knows one Princess Leia who is the exact size of a 70s Carrie Fisher but lacks in the face, and then another who could be Fisher’s face twin but is a few inches too tall. One thing Nick is certain of, however, is that convention-goers probably won’t see a black Han Solo or Obi Wan any time soon. “I know that sounds bad,” he says, “but the fact of the matter is that Harrison Ford is white. It isn’t accurate. It’s the same reason I can’t play Lando or Finn. That’s just the way it is.”
Such fastidious inspection ensures that portrayers of these characters are virtually interchangeable; Nick tells me of a time a co-worker recounted meeting Darth Maul twice during a two-day conference and being shocked to learn he’d met two different players. “The whole idea is that we can trade off without anyone knowing there’s been a change,” he says.
Though, as previously mentioned, the 501st is not without its caucus of haters. One of Nick’s primary concerns on this day is that the placement of his new, more screen correct horns, is not precisely accurate. He admits he had to put the “top horn,” designed to go at the center of the skull, an inch or so out of place because of the shape of his head. “If the haters want to flame me online,” so be it,” he says. Criticism just comes with the territory when you’re playing a high-profile character like Maul.