Forced to my knees with a gun pointed at my head, I have to admit this isn’t how I expected today to go.
“You’re in a lot of trouble Sir,” a modulated American voice tells me from behind as I nervously eye the crowd taking pictures in front of me. I idly think that I never expected a career in entertainment journalism to land me in such straits, but here I am – surrounded by armed, uniformed guards with my hands behind my head. In a gym in Reading.
Perhaps appropriately, the spell is broken with the words “What have you done, Harry Potter?” in a shouted insult that may be directed at my glasses but could also be a genuine mistake about my outfit – because right now I’m surrounded by people who dress up for a living.
Well, not exactly a living. I’m at a comic-con in Reading at the invitation of a group called the 501st Legion, a costuming group who build and dress up in movie-accurate Star Wars ‘villain’ costumes (mainly stormtroopers) in their spare time for fun, charity work and all-round Star Wars appreciation. That’s who has me on the floor, actually – a stormtrooper and Kylo Ren.
Founded 20 years ago on a small website called Detention Block 2551, the group now boats 10,000 ‘active’ members worldwide (meaning they take part in costumed events, or ‘troop’, at least once a year), a semi-official partnership with the studios behind Star Wars, spin-off organisations and even appearances in the films themselves – but it all started with just two men in the summer of 1997 who fancied some stormtrooper armour.
“The internet was just forming at that time, and we got to talking about stormtroopers and how much we liked them, those really stood out,” 47-year-old 501st co-founder Albin Johnson tells me over the phone from his office in Carolina.
“And we got this crazy idea that maybe we could make your own armour.”
Accordingly, Johnson and his friend Tom Crews tracked down an obscure usenet group where they managed to buy some old, second-rate stormtrooper outfits from a man in California, just in time for the rerelease of the original trilogy in cinemas.
“I was there for the premiere of the Empire Strikes back rerelease, and it was exciting and everybody was very amazed at what they saw,” Albin tells me. “But I really noticed a difference when Tom got his armour, and we appeared as a group, if you will, or a pair, a duo.”
Clearly the power of seeing stormtroopers in formation in real life was something of note, and also something others wanted to be a part of. Albin’s passion evolved into a website where people first posted pictures of themselves as Imperial soldiers and then saw more people joining him in costume events in what he began to call the 501st Squad. As numbers grew over the years, that Squad became a Legion.
“We originally started as a group of Star Wars fans who enjoyed Star Wars, we shared the love of Star Wars, we shared a love of costuming,” Legion archivist and historian Cheralyn Lambeth tells me.
“And we basically started as a small handful of fans who came together, and started doing events together. As our numbers grew people grew very interested in the type of work that we did and the costumes we had. They brought in their own costumes and their own contributions and the group has grown.
“At the moment it’s mostly men, of course,” she adds wryly, “but we do have a very strong contingent of female troopers who really enjoy making their own armour and participating in this, myself being one of them.”
Speaking to various members I’m able to get a bit more detail about the 501st’s activities, which largely involve large groups of besuited members being invited or booked to various film openings, charity events, hospital visits or conventions (mostly organised through their website). Sometime, they’re even flown around the world at the request of LucasFilm to help with official events (including premieres for the new films and orchestral concerts of John Williams music), with a mix of local branches also filling in where needed.
American 501st members remove their helmets at the Tournament of Roses parade in 2006
The average 501st appearance sees them march around, wave their guns at passers-by and NEVER break character – to the extent that they ask me not to take photographs of them changing into their armour, lest it ruin their mystique.
“It’s kind of weird, because when you’ve got it all on you have to hold your body in a certain way to make it sit right, and you get used to that over time,” 43-year-old member Kat tells me. “And you almost forget that you’re wearing it.
“But then, when you actually walk past a window or a mirror and you catch your reflection, every single time – I’ve been doing it for five, nearly six years – every time I catch my reflection I still kind of go ‘Woah yay cool yeah!’ Even to myself. It never stops being exciting.”
“It’s very liberating to put on a mask so that you can be that character,” Albin adds, “especially since not all of us have Hollywood good looks.”
Later I get to experience a little of this myself, trying on both stormtrooper and Rebel helmets – I’m advised to avoid borrowing someone’s full costume because the body stockings can get quite ripe, as Harry Potter star Tom Felton apparently discovered while making a documentary a couple of years ago – and there is definitely something liberating about putting on the gear. I was half tempted to stride around the comic stalls barking orders and missing easy blaster shots myself.
Turns out you have to put stormtrooper helmets on sideways then twist it to get it over your head – who knew?
Still, it’s not all about dressing up for public events. Many members spend years crafting their costumes, moulding real metal blasters and trying to meet the 501st’s high standards before their outfits are signed off and given registration numbers, and there’s also a strong social aspect to the group that slightly resembles a traditional church congregation. Members meet up multiple times a week away from official troop business, give space in their homes to visitors from overseas garrisons and rally to their fellows when they suffer tragic loss – as was experienced by founder Albin Johnson when his 7-year-old daughter Katie passed away in 2005.
“I’m utterly grateful for the love and support that [the 501st] gave to me during that time,” he says now. “The emotional support, the monetary support, the gifts, the attention they paid to Katie, and activating celebrities and other people to reach out to her and make her feel good.
“For me, it put charity almost front and centre as what we do. Because I experienced firsthand what that love and that charity can do for you.”
“One thing that I really love is that I could go all over the world and find another 501st member, and you’re immediately family,” Cheralyn adds. “All of us can travel to different parts of the world and the 501st members will take them and open their homes to you, show you around their country.
“I’ve had the good fortune to be able to travel to Japan, to South Africa, to Germany, working on various Star Wars-related things, and everywhere I go I have of course met my fellow 501st members.”
“Instantly, you have something in common,” UK Garrison leader Gary Hailes says. “And I don’t wanna sound too cheesy, but there’s a kind of like ‘brothers’ thing.
“It’s a secret handshake without the handshake,” suggests Matt Mulcaster, a 35-year-old member of the group who also leads sister club the Rebel Legion (they dress in good guy costumes instead, basically).
“Over the last 40 years, traditional Western religious faiths have been increasingly less influential,” cultural historian and anthropologist Matthew Kapell suggests when I ask him about the quasi-religious aspects of the 501st.
“But that doesn’t mean that religion is not important. So people reach out and find meaning wherever they can. And I think that’s exactly what’s happening here.
“And the beauty of fandom is, you can do it the way you want to do it. Right? There’s no bishop telling you that you can’t do that.”
Perhaps the most compelling religious parallel comes from the group’s charity work, which UK boss Gary tells me makes up around 80% of their activities. A week before I meet them at the convention, the UK 501st presented a seven and a half thousand pound check to Great Ormond Street Hospital at Birmingham comic-con, while a week before that they’d given 15 grand to the Royal British Legion. Not bad work for the Evil Empire.
“I never got into this for charity ever,” Gary tells me backstage at the Reading convention. “I got into this because I wanted to be a stormtrooper.
A 501st member on a hospital visit in Madrid, Spain
“However, the upside is that you can go out and do these things and make a difference, and REALLY make a difference.”
Albin openly admits that the charity aspect was never really supposed to be part of the group to start with – “at the beginning, we were trying to find excuses to go out and do things that would justify being in that armour,” he says – but now the majority of people I speak to cite it as one of the defining reasons they’re a part of the 501st.”
“You find sometimes that it’s the small events, it’s the times when you go and meet the kids who are really sick at the hospital ward visits,” Matt tells me. “They’re the ones that really resonate with all the members.”
“There was one kid in hospital who knew I was there or heard I was there,” Gary recalls. “We heard him from two corridors away, the sound of excitement as he ran, and you could hear him charging towards us. It was just phenomenal. I’ll never forget that, ever.
“And we’ve had the other extreme – we’ve attended funerals where people wanted us to attend as a guard of honour if you like, and in one instance myself and a couple of other stormtroopers carried a young boy in his coffin in the chapel. And that was a very moving experience.”
“It’s really easy to get a bunch of people together to go to a hospital and make kids feel good,” Kapell says. “Which to me is a far more inclusive kind of religious expression. To a certain extent we’re just talking charity work, but charity work is one of those things that revolves around humans being human together.
“There’s a tradition in Western religion to bring new people in, and that’s the kind of tradition that’s working very nicely for the 501st. It’s very easy to say ‘Hey we’re all getting together this weekend, you should join us because I know you like Star Wars too.’”
As time has gone on, the Legion’s good work has begun to attract the attention of the Star Wars mainstream, with the 501stfirst written into the series universe for author Timothy Zahn’s 2004 novel Survivor’s Quest and then name-dropped as a unit of clone troopers in 2005 prequel movie Revenge of the Sith. In that film, the 501st’s self-proclaimed fictional backstory as Darth Vader’s elite troops (they sometimes refer to themselves as ‘Vader’s Fist’) was paid homage to by having them under the command of Anakin Skywalker as he purged the Jedi temple (see video below), and references to the group have continued in subsequent Star Wars TV, literature and other media projects.
And believe it or not some real-life members of the 501st have made it into the movies as well, including UK Garrison commander (and no. 2 in the worldwide 501st) Gary. Short and stocky, Gary isn’t exactly what you’d expect from a near full-time stormtrooper (he says Princess Leia’s famous “aren’t you a little short for a stormtrooper?” line is “the bane of [his] life”), but that didn’t stop him making history when he and other members of the group were slipped into 2015 Star Wars revival The Force Awakens.
“Lucasfilm came over at one point and attended one of our events, unbeknownst to us,” he tells me. “They were scouting, shall we say. They’d had the idea of including the 501st as an homage to what we do and who we are.
“We were kind of in the group scene things. Can I pick myself out? Yeah, I think so. Was it cool? Yeah it was cool. I got to be in Star Wars as a stormtrooper, and wow – that’s pretty much the pinnacle of any fan’s dream.”
But of course, life as a 501st member isn’t all glamour, film cameos, exciting foreign trips and meeting new people. While cosplaying as sci-fi characters has become far more mainstream in recent years, many members still keep their involvement secret to avoid ridicule, while press attention hasn’t always been kind.
“As people discovered my hobby, and they find out what you do and don’t do, you’ll get people ridiculing, and playing the ‘aren’t you a bit old for that?’ thing,” Gary says. “I know there are some people who keep it hidden at work for fear of ridicule and what have you. That’s cool and I understand it. Their 501st membership is their secret identity, I guess in some ways.”
“I’ve been called a fascist, I’ve been called a racist, I’ve been called a neo-nazi, I’ve been called a fanatic,” Albin says bitterly. “There are people who think we’re taking the hobby too far and we don’t meet our life responsibilities, or they think that we’re trying to turn it into some sort of fascist exercise where people are stripped of identity, and devote themselves to power.
“I mean, it’s the healthiest thing in the world to have a great hobby and to role-play and to imagine and give to others! I challenge people who are critics of the hobby to say what they have done productively for society, for mankind as a whole in their hobby.
“If you’re a sports fan that’s great, there’s nothing wrong with that. But have you brought smiles to children’s faces or inspired anyone or raised money for charity? If not, then you really don’t have much of a leg to stand on.”
501st troopers at the US Capitol in Washington, DC
Still, in the small, stuffy confines of Reading comic-con as UK Garrison stormtroopers stride past Colin Baker, Clive Russell and a man who claims to have played a Cyberman in Doctor Who, there’s no sign of such negativity. Hidden behind masks and in their element, this might not be the 501st’s strongest showing – apparently they had 200 at an event the week before – but it’s still a good demonstration of the head-turning effect they have on passers-by, with nearly everyone they pass whipping out their phone for a picture.
“I have to go and find a Jedi. I had one with me but he wandered off. Typical,” Mark mutters as I walk past, while children gasp and point at the gleaming white figures. Shyly walking up and asking for photos or hiding behind their parents as they ask instead, they’re just excited to meet the galaxy’s greatest baddies in real life – and who can blame them?
“I’m very proud of the men and women who’ve made the 501st as amazing as it is today, and I’m very gratified that enough people went along with my very crazy idea and very bad planning to let it grow,” founder Albin says now. “And I credit Star Wars for that – because it teaches people to imagine.
“I’ve always said it’s ironic that the stormtroopers are faceless, cookie-cutter characters with no free will, no creative thinking and a slavelike obedience that are out to unleash potential violence and evil – because we’re made up of the most colourful people, the most spirited people, the most goodwilled people that want to stand out and be unique. So it’s an interesting contrast.
“You can’t imagine the real Empire doing a lot of Make–A–Wish.”
Star Wars: The Last Jedi is in UK cinemas on the 15th December