"Cantina Gal"The Bothan Spy's interview with Christine Hewett, published December 16, 2006
All good stories need original and interesting characters. No scene in Star Wars captured the imagination, due to its diversity of characters, quite like the cantina in Mos Eisley. Whether it was people in costumes or, in some cases, heads held up in front of the camera on sticks, the aliens in the cantina made for one of the most enduring scenes of the entire saga.
Among the ugly, the alien, and the bizarre, were two gorgeous women who spoke not a word but somehow fit right in with the rest of the patrons. These two women would come to be known to fans as the Tonnika Sisters, Brea and Senni. The Bothan Spy has recently had the opportunity to sit down and interview the actress who portrayed Brea Tonnika, Christine Hewett. Read on to discover some fantastic stories about playing an alien in a galaxy far, far away, how Christopher Lee keeps fellow actors entertained during lunch breaks, and how she was the center of controversy in Holland.
You began your career not in films but in modelling. How did you get into this business and can you describe what the first shoot was like?
As I grew to nearly 6 feet in height, people I met always said 'You should be a model'. Models were not so tall in the sixties so at first didn't try. When I left school, I went to work in advertising as a junior for Conde Nast Publications who publish Vogue etc. and often bumped in to models and photographers in the lift such as David Bailey and Jean Shrimpton ... which eventually fired up my enthusiasm to try. It was 1966, and I was painfully shy, but nevertheless I had photos taken and tried to get an agent. Most said I was too tall but eventually agent Tom Sheridan took me on and an endless round of photographers and casting agents began. My first job was a cover for 'True Detectives' and I was being strangled by a serial killer!
I had no time to be shy! I was in such an awkward position it felt like I was really being strangled!
One of your more notable modelling jobs caused quite a controversy in Holland as it was a photograph of you naked with a baby held in strategic places. Can you elaborate a little on this and what it was like to be the center of controversy back then?
Strangely enough, no Dutch model wanted to take on this job and as a foreigner now living in Holland, I was offered it. I thought the idea was good and the photographer stressed this was a prestige job to be printed in one of their serious newspapers. As it was, on the day all attention concentrated on which baby (out of 3) would sit still, look angelic and also cover my strategic bits. I must admit the full page in the Dutch Telegraph did cause a bit of a stir and everyone wanted to interview me. On the day this photo was published my mother and father were visiting Holland and my father asked what my latest job had been and I held up the newspaper. If he was shocked, he didn't say ... just commented it was a beautiful photo!
What would you consider your favorite modelling job and why would you choose it?
Very difficult to answer as I had many enjoyable jobs. I do have a soft spot for the Quality Street Gang Campaign which involved TV & Cinema Ads and press coverage. The character I played, 'Baby' (Strawberry Cream), was a vision of green sequins, pink feathers, blonde wig and outrageous makeup.
It was my first big job and a picture from the posters that went up on billboards can be seen on my website. Incidentally, the only word 'Baby' ever uttered was 'ooooooo'!
Fellow Star Wars alumnus, and previous Bothan Spy interviewee, Barrie Holland also began his career in the modelling business, and grew up not far from your hometown of Kent, England. Did you ever have an opportunity to work with him on a photoshoot prior to your Star Wars days?
I don't remember meeting Barrie but I could have ... its a long time ago. Also I was mainly a photographic model in those days and Barrie, I believe, worked more in fashion shows.
I wasn't in London a much the time as I was based in Amsterdam, Holland and later on Barcelona, Spain. Apart from being based in these cities, I traveled regularly to Germany, Belgium, Italy and France to work for various photographers. From 1973 on, I spent more time in London.
Your first appearance on film came in 1975's Tommy. Can you describe your transition from modelling to include acting and share any stories of your experience? Did you find a big difference in filming on a movie shoot compared to that of say a commercial?
I was sent to a casting for Tommy by my agent and was chosen for the job ... simple as that. I was thrilled to work with Ken Russell. I was sent sometimes for castings for films and T.V.
Sometimes working on a commercial is more like a movie than a commercial and they certainly can go in for lots of takes. I remember working for Ridley Scott and Alan Parker when they were up and coming directors and directed commercials. On the whole, although I have had fun on TV ads, I prefer movies.
I'd like to discuss the Star Wars experience in a bit more detail at this time. However, before that, there is a small detail that should be clarified. While most sites identify you as Brea Tonnika, some refer to you as Senni Tonnika and claim Angela Staines played Brea. Your own website, identifies you as Brea. How did you learn you were indeed Brea, as I understand the casting call referred to the Tonnika Sisters as simply 'Space Girls'?
I was Brea Tonnika at the Lucas Film Celebration 3 in Indianapolis 2005. You are correct, originally I was a Space Girl (one of two) ... the change of names to Tonnika Sisters came later.
Could you describe how you came across the role and what you knew of it before filming began?
Irene Lamb, a big Casting Agent, was looking for 2 tall blonde girls to play in the film. I was told this by another actress so I contacted her and she sent me to see George Lucas. My memory fails me here as I am not sure whether he gave many details away ... but I did gather I would be a 'space girl'.
George Lucas has become infamous for keeping his Star Wars scripts confidential ... to the extent that he has purposely released incorrect information to keep his movies true plots a secret. You, however, worked on the very first Star Wars film when, not only was the Saga not a household name, it didn't even have any high expectations from 20th Century Fox. Was plot confidentiality an issue while filming the movie from Mr. Lucas?
I don't remember any plot confidentiality but I indeed didn't know the plot.
While not seen in the same shot, your character reacted to a brawl in the cantina involving Luke Skywalker and Obi-Wan Kenobi. Were Mark Hamill and Sir Alec Guinness on set with you? For that matter, Harrison Ford had a major scene filmed in the cantina. Did you get to meet any of these three stars? If so, what memories can you share with us about that experience?
I worked in the cantina for about 2 weeks and Harrison Ford, Sir Alec Guinness and Mark Hamill were on set most of that time. I got to meet all of them and Mark Hamill was very friendly (showing us photos taken in Tunisia ... they had just returned from there). Harrison Ford was very quiet and studying his script a lot of the time. Sir Alec Guinness was very polite and was a real English gentleman.
Considering many of your fellow actors in the cantina were wearing cumbersome masks and heavy costumes, it must have been a relief that you only needed to wear a wig and simple costume. On the other hand, one could imagine being a tall, attractive woman in a bar scene wearing a skin tight catsuit could present its own level of discomfort. What was it like to wear your costume, and did you enjoy the experience?
It was indeed a relief to have a light costume and just a wig but skintight catsuits do rather draw attention from the male sex - great for the ego but
a bit trying on a daily basis on a film set. Happily, after a bit we got used to the costumes and so did everyone else!
The infamous Star Wars Holiday Special shown on CBS on November 17, 1978 included a revisit to the cantina with Bea Arthur portraying the bartender this time. Many characters seen in A New Hope returned in this scene. Were you ever asked to reprise your role of Brea Tonnika for this TV special? If you have ever seen it, what are your impressions of it?
No I never saw this special and didn't know about it.
That is a shame. While not exactly a darling of the critics, or even Mr. Lucas himself, that is clearly an opportunity he missed by not bringing you back.
Let's move on from Star Wars and discuss some of your other film and TV roles.
You guest starred on two very popular TV shows from the 1970's, Dr. Who and Space: 1999, appearing in the latter alongside Hollywood legend and future Star Wars prequel actor Christopher Lee. How was your experience on these shows, and what do you remember of Mr. Lee?
Dr Who was fun ... another show another catsuit! The sets etc. were rather makeshift then and I remember Tom Baker tripped over his scarf in the middle of a shot! I also have a good memory of Space: 1999, which I worked on for 3 weeks ... despite the fact I was in suspended animation a lot of the time! Christopher Lee (who was famous at that time for his Dracula roles) had very piercing dark eyes which were quite hypnotic. I remember he would go to his dressing room at lunchtime and sing opera. He had a good voice and it was amazing to hear.
It seems that many sci-fi roles for women back then involved catsuits, doesn't it? That is a very interesting tidbit about Christopher Lee singing opera between takes and something very few likely know about.
Continuing on ...
While your list of film credits is modest in size, you have worked on some very popular films, including Who Framed Roger Rabbit?, Four Weddings and a Funeral, Bridget Jones' Diary, and the James Bond film Die Another Day. All of which were box office hits. Do you have a favorite movie you appeared in out of these and can you share any memorable experiences while filming them?
On Who Framed Roger Rabbit (an appearance without a catsuit, weird hair, or makeup), Bob Hoskins sometimes forgot where the penguin waiters were meant to be in the nightclub. His comments to the director were along the lines of, "Sorry guv just tripped over another f.....g penguin" and kept everyone very amused.
On Die Another Day, the day of the director's birthday, the the song 'Goldfinger' suddenly started blasting over the set and a voluptuous 'Kissogram' painted gold with just a tiny g string started dancing towards him rather suggestively. He looked as if he wished the floor would open up and he could disappear! Of course everyone else couldn't stop laughing. Favorite film is difficult, I do love Bond movies and the ice palace did look so beautiful with the dry ice swirling around. Plus, I've always been a Pierce Brosnan fan.
You have a film coming out next year called The Riddle, in which you double for legendary actress Vanessa Redgrave. Could you tell us a little bit about this upcoming project and what you do in it?
I appeared for Miss Redgrave towards the end of The Riddle where there is a confrontation with the baddy on the shores of the Thames River. When she wasn't there, I ran her lines for her on set with Vinnie Jones and Sir Derek Jacobi and I doubled for her when she was there as she couldn't duck down when commanded by the villain as she had recently had a hip replacement. It was a nice little job.
Besides film and TV work, you have maintained your modelling career and still model today. How has the industry changed since you began in it over 30 years ago and do you have any recent stories to share with us?
One of the changes on the modelling scene is that now being 5'11" is not a hindrance to getting work as it was in London in my heyday ... but a bonus. On the other hand, I would not have appeared in Star Wars if I hadn't been tall (and some other jobs I got through being tall). We didn't make anywhere near the money they make today either. Now hair and makeup is done for you and we had to do our own. I'll never forget turning up for a job and the photographer handed me packs of false eyelashes and some scissors and showed me a photo of a model with chopped up bits of lash stuck along her top lid, a new fad that had just arrived. It looked great but I hadn't done it before and I nearly had kittens trying to achieve the look with little pieces of gluey eyelash. I now sometimes work with other older models ... being happy couples and groups in holiday settings ... and recently did a job in a casino with a small group with younger models. It was a good time and the photographer was happy.
I'd like to finish with a few questions about the fan experience.
You attended your first fan convention in 2004. I'm sure by this point, you were aware of the cultural phenomenon that Star Wars had become. Were you at all surprised once you experienced it firsthand? What would you consider to be your most memorable fan moment?
Well seeing all the thousands of fans queuing round the block and beyond at C3 waiting to get in, in pouring rain, was a sight to behold and some had waited for hours. I had done a couple of shows before that in the UK and Holland and in every case I was astonished by the fans interest.
As you just mentioned, you were at the biggest Star Wars convention of all, Celebration III, in Indianapolis in 2005. How did you enjoy that experience?
Yes, C3 was a tremendous experience and I met some lovely fans and actors I hadn't met before or hadn't seen for years. I loved the Bad Girls panel I did and we all did have fun at parties and restaurants, bars etc. I remember having an amazing prime rib at St Elmos Steak House. My suitcase broke when I was packing to go home and I had to rush helter skelter to the nearest mall to get another with little time to spare!
At the conventions, you must also see many familiar faces from both Star Wars and other projects you have appeared in. Do you keep in touch with many of the other celebrities you have worked with, and do you have any stories you'd like to share?
You do get to know some of the others quite well and its always great to meet up and have a meal or a drink at shows in the evening, otherwise we sometimes have e-mail contact.
I'm sure that in your convention appearances, you are asked about the possibility of a Brea Tonnika action figure ever being made. One rumour that circulated years ago was that there was a legal issue that prevented the production of Tonnika Sisters figures. It certainly cannot be a lack of fan interest as numerous fan polls have consistently shown the Tonnikas to be among the most wanted figures to be made. Have you ever heard of or have any information pertaining to this?
The action figure or lack of! Any questions about this must be directed to the other sister. Everyone knows the fans would like a figure or figures, as I would, but I personally can comment no further on this one. A fan in Germany made me a lovely figure - I think he used Han Solo's legs and Princess Leia's body.
Do you have any final thoughts or comments you would like to say to your fans that will be reading this interview?
I would like to say I have enjoyed meeting the SW fans over the years and thank them for their interest and support - long may it continue.
Thank you ever so much for your time. Best of luck with your continued career in both modelling and acting.