Why John Wayne’s grandson is The Mandalorian’s secret weapon
For Mandalorian actor Brendan Wayne, there’s a clear distinction between the helmet being on or off. “When it’s Din Djarin [the character’s actual name], that means the helmet’s off,” he says. “I’m never gonna be that guy. I’m this other part.”
Indeed, while Pedro Pascal is the star name – the voice and sparsely-seen face of the Mandalorian – Brendan Wayne is one of several men who play the character when the Mando helmet is very much on. “There’s a couple of us who throw on the gear regularly,” he says. Other Mandos include stuntman and martial artist Lateef Crowder and actor Barry Lowin, who played the Mandalorian across the first two seasons. Now, with the third season streaming weekly on Disney+, Wayne and Crowder are finally getting credited alongside Pascal – after two seasons of being buried in the credits as a “double”.
If The Mandalorian is a Western in space – and it is – there's a reason that Brendan Wayne is such a good fit for the armour: he’s the grandson of John Wayne. But he didn’t know what he was getting into when he pulled on the Mando gear for the first time. Quite literally. Wayne, then a jobbing actor and bartender, got a call to try on a costume for an untitled Star Wars project. Having worked with The Mandalorian creator Jon Favreau before, on 2011's Cowboys & Aliens, he thought little of it. “I’ve done so many of these favours!” he says. He imagined having to put on a Jar Jar Binks head. His only question was, “Am I getting paid?”
Wayne signed an NDA and was ushered into a room. “There’s a carry box – it’s big, like 4ft long and 3ft deep” he recalls. “They pop open the box. I look down and say, ‘Boba Fett!’ They’re like, ‘No it’s not Boba Fett.’”
The suit, originally made for a stunt actor Richard Cetrone, fit perfectly. “I think you’re gonna be the guy!” the team told him. “I’m thinking, what are we talking about here?” says Wayne. “I started to realise there are bigger stakes here.”
The helmet was the clincher. “They put on the helmet and said, ‘This is the true test… How is it? Can you see? No complaints? You’re gonna be him!’ I’m like, ‘Who’s him? I came here for a payday!’ They look at me like you’ve got no idea…”
Wayne, 51, grew up a Star Wars fan. He queued for 12 hours to see The Empire Strikes Back, 18 hours for Return of the Jedi and had an early affinity with Mando-kind. “I was the youngest of eight kids,” he says. “I only got toys once everyone else had chosen theirs. So, I got Boba Fett [then the Galaxy Far, Far Away’s only Mandalorian]. Everyone else was mad at him because he froze Han Solo. I ended up loving him.”
Wayne was initially cast alongside Lateef Crowder, a phenomenally gifted martial artist. Born in Salvador, Brazil, Crowder performed stunts on Batman v Superman among numerous other films. Crowder is responsible for Mando’s stunt work. Scenes of him flying on a wire, for instance, are “100 percent Lateef”, says Wayne.
“On the first season, it was Lateef and I trying to figure him out,” says Wayne. “Jon [Favreau] wanted a very western, gritty, physical style, mixed with the things that Lateef could do.” Wayne looked back at the physical performances of Yul Brynner in Westworld and Arnold Schwarzenegger in The Terminator. “My job is to radiate whatever I can, almost kabuki style,” he says. “Every movement counts and has a meaning – very similar to samurai. Every time a sword comes out, it comes out to kill. Same as the Western and a gunslinger. If the guns come out, it’s not a threat, it’s the end of the sentence. That was my mindset – that’s my creed.”
Wayne points to a scene at the beginning of the third season, in which Mando comes face to face (well, helmet) with a band of pirates, as he leans – John Wayne style – against a tree. “It’s cowboy language, physically,” he says. “When you pop the lean, you’re in action. Like when you pull your gun, you’re in action. When I come off that tree with the pirates, it translates in cowboy language as, ‘Oh, you have my attention. I’m ready. Are you?’” (Mando is indeed ready and shoots several of them.)
With so many contributors – including the men-behind-the-Mando, Brendan Wayne, Lateef Crowder, and Barry Lowin; showrunners Jon Favreau and Dave Filoni; and top-billed star Pedro Pascal – the character is born from collaboration.
Barry Lowin joined shortly after filming started on the first season. Lowin – a former gymnast and long-time performer with Cirque du Soleil – also grew up a Star Wars fan. His dad used to wake him up using a Darth Vader “I am your father” voice.
Lowin, 44, filled a gap between the physical specifications of Wayne and Crowder. “I think at the time they needed a combination,” he says. “No one can match Lateef. He’s so talented and stylised. I think they were looking for a little bit of both – someone who could do some of the physicality and the acting.”
Lowin’s credits have changed across seasons. He was first credited as “additional double” and then regular “double” alongside Wayne and Crowder. Multiple Mando actors allow the production to have two – sometimes three – units shooting at once, using separate but interchangeable crews in perfect sync. Mando actors are similarly in sync.
“Brendan, Lateef, and I were working together to make sure we were bringing the same character to life – that we weren’t doing different versions,” says Lowin. “Brendan might say, ‘I don’t think he would do this’, or Lateef would say, ‘this is a better way to do this’. There are plenty of shots where you could potentially see all three of us in one scene and not know it. I don’t think any of us was necessarily doubling anyone. It was just making sure the character stayed true and in form throughout the series.”
Wayne says his approach wasn’t “do what I do” but “do what you do best, but maybe add this and minimize everything else”. He’s written a bible on how Mando moves – even how he would flick the ignition in Mando's former ship, the Razor Crest. The Mandalorian armour also dictates the character. “Once you’re in, there’s just enough weight, just enough restriction,” says Lowin. “You’re forced to become him.”
Pedro Pascal, talking to Empire, also described how limiting the Mando gear is. “It’s like putting on a head-to-toe glove with weights on it,” he said. “It’s ironic that you can’t see any facial expression because it puts you in the world so completely, and instantly makes the character feel real – but you can’t see s–––!”
With all his mask-offery, Pascal has arguably the easier acting job. In the first season, he was partly tied up with a production of King Lear. Bryce Dallas Howard, a regular director on the show, said she didn’t work with Pascal at all on her first episode. Wayne would see Pascal on set, though Lowin didn’t see Pascal at all during the first season – then just occasionally during season two.
“I know he wanted to be more involved and at least try playing the character a little more,” says Lowin about Pascal in season two. “But I guess maybe to our credit – my, Brendan, and Lateef's credit – you can make something look easy that’s not. I’ve had to do both – acting where I’m using my face and voice, and acting where I’m not using my face and voice. You have to convey the same emotions without those things, with lots of subtle movements. I remember Pedro saying he was frustrated because he didn’t know how to act and perform without using his face. I think the more he attempted to try it, the more respect and appreciation he had for us playing the role.”
“We have a trust,” says Wayne about Pascal. “I think he trusts me. I think he trusts Jon and Dave. There is a freedom for him to do The Last of Us.”
As all the Mandos discovered, there are particular challenges when acting under the helmet. “You can never look up,” says Lowin. “If you’re in Razor Crest and you need to hit a switch, the eyeline doesn’t work. You never look down at your feet. You can only look so far to your right or so far to your left. You have to change how you move. Once you’re in a suit like that you become the character. There’s a lot of human movement he would never do.”
And like the actual Mandalorians, each Mando actor has their own helmet – necessary for maintaining the illusion. “Brendan and I are very close in proportions,” says Lowin. “Even so, the helmet has to sit just right. Between, let’s say, your collarbone and the chin of the helmet, it has to be an exact measurement. Jon is really specific about that and doesn’t like anyone to really be aware that there’s more than one person playing the role. We have different padding inside our helmets so that it sits in just the right place.”
For Brendan Wayne, the variety of Mando helmets in the show are like cowboy hats. He’s also specific about crediting the right actors beneath the helmet. “If you bring me a picture, I’ll know without a doubt if it’s me or not – there are very tell-tale things,” he says. “If it’s not me, I won’t sign it – I’ll give you another picture with me in it. We’re artists. If we cannibalise each other, we become less.”
Wayne pursued acting in his late 20s. His mother warned him: “If you’re gonna do it, you have to really learn how to act. You’re John Wayne’s grandson. They’re gonna expect you to be able to do everything you possibly can.” He was sceptical at first but came to appreciate the weight of the legacy. “I realised that if you’re gonna write a cheque with that name on it – John Wayne – and I’m trying to carry it into the room, you have to cash it differently than if Peter O’Toole’s kid walks into a room.”
It's interesting to think that the highly imitable John Wayne – the walk, the talk – is being channelled through Mando. Brendan wasn’t doing it intentionally, but Jon Favreau slowed down his movement so much that it gave him a natural wobble. “Jon’s slowing me down and I hear these giggles behind the camera – ‘It looks like your grandfather walking!’” Wayne recalls. “There are moments where it’s like if I go any slower, I’m going to go backwards.”
To Brendan Wayne, “The Duke” was simply “Grandaddy” – the man who taught him how to fish and used to put clingfilm over the toilet for a practical joke. He was also a powerful screen presence – especially at 6'4", 250lbs.
During one Mandalorian battle scene with Carl Weathers, Wayne had to charge up a ramp but couldn’t get it right. Weathers – an action icon in his own right – said: “How would your grandfather go up this ramp?” When Wayne explained that The Duke would lead with his shoulder, Weathers responded: “Well, do what he’d do!” Wayne realised it wasn’t a case of imitating his grandfather, but John Wayne's way was just the best way to move and carry oneself physically on screen.
During the first season, Wayne continued to work as a bartender. When it came to the second season, he didn’t initially get a call to return. “I think everybody thought Pedro's not working on Broadway,” he says. “I think he thought he was going to have a lot more time than he did.” But it dawned on the producers how crucial Wayne was. “They realised, this suit… he’s done something in it. We need him,” says Wayne.
When he got the call, however, he was recovering from a ruptured appendix and torn intestine. In hospital for 40 days, Wayne was in intensive care and flatlined. But he played down how sick he was so he wouldn’t lose the job. “Lateef was texting me saying, ‘Where are you, bro?’ Pedro’s saying, ‘Are you OK? I think you’re sicker than you’re saying,’” Wayne recalls. “I was saying, ‘I’m fine!’” Two weeks after getting out of the hospital he was back on-set and in the Mando armour.
Just as Wayne makes the distinction between Din Djarin and Mando, it's important to make another distinction: Wayne, like Lowin, is not a body double; he’s an actor. He also insists that he’s not a stunt performer, as he’s credited on IMDb. “I am not talented enough to be a stuntman,” he says. “Lateef is exceptional at his craft.” If there’s any doubt about the acting prowess of the men beneath the Mando helmet, consider that the series wouldn’t work with the emotion and levity of the central relationship between Mando and Grogu – an incredible feat considering that one hides behind a helmet and the other is a puppet that talks gibberish.
Wayne insists on calling Grogu – aka Baby Yoda – by a more Western-like moniker: “The Kid”. (As we talk on Zoom, there’s a Grogu doll in the background – alongside a display of Mando artwork and an Arsenal scarf.) Grogu was key to the Mandos’ performance. “We wanted to create an arc,” says Wayne about how the character has evolved. “From being robotic to The Kid bringing out some humanity. If I did it right, you’ll see that physical difference.”
The puppet itself is a reliable co-star. “I give a lot of credit to Legacy Effects [the FX firm that built Grogu],” says Barry Lowin. “Oftentimes you don’t see the puppeteers. If he’s on a table, there’s somebody underneath and there are three other people using remote controls. From my perspective, he looks very much real. There’s not a lot of post-production effects that are added because they did such an amazing job. Even the little hairs on his head – those are put on one by one.”
The Mandalorian is, of course, shrouded in secrecy. But what is the Mando actors’ security clearance? What kinds of Star Wars secrets do they know? “I know what season four could look like,” says Wayne. “That’s the wonderful thing now… people will talk in front of me as if I’m not there, which is really cool. They’re like, ‘Don’t mind the man behind the curtain!’”
“There are times when everything is coded,” says Lowin. “Our dressing room doors have code names. The scripts have code names. The first season was called Huckleberry. I didn’t know what I was auditioning for. More than once they’ve put out a fake schedule for the day – if they’re filming something really important and secretive, so there’s no chance of spoilers. Often the first assistant director will say, ‘Hey, did you read the lines?’ I’ll say, ‘No one’s given me a script!’ And if things are sent digitally, it’s like you’re logging into national security to get access to anything.”
Neither Mando actor was privy to the second season’s climatic surprise: the return of Luke Skywalker. Played by a body double – with Luke’s Jedi-era face added in post-production – the showrunners told everyone it was going to be the squid-like Jedi Knight, Plo Koon. Even the cast and crew were surprised by the Skywalker reveal. “Plo Koon is Dave Filoni’s favourite Jedi, so I bought into that,” he says, laughing. “I thought, yeah, why would they lie to me? That makes sense!” Wayne did find out before the episode streamed on Disney+. “I wasn’t aware until I was aware, and [the showrunners] didn’t make me aware – someone else did,” he says. “I can’t give up my source!”
There’s one detail that fans will want to know: with Din Djarin now redeemed for previously removing his helmet, will we ever see his face again? Will Pedro actually appear in season three? Neither Wayne nor Lowin can reveal what they know – if, indeed, they know anything – about season three.
Lowin has now stepped down from Mando duties but continues to play other characters. He also played Garfalaquox in The Book of Boba Fett. Another Mando has taken up the helmet, too – Brent Walker, who’s credited as “photo double”. “He’s a real deal cowboy,” says Wayne. And though Wayne has no idea why the decision was made to now credit himself and Crowder alongside Pedro Pascal – it's a producer's decision – Katee Sackhoff, who plays Mandalorian princess Bo-Katan, celebrated them on Instagram. “The boys represented,” she posted. The Mando actors are perhaps like the Mandalorians – faceless heroes of the galaxy.
But is it true that Mandalorians can really never take off their helmets? Even in private? Is the young boy who was just initiated (the one whose big moment was interrupted by a sea monster) now doomed to an entire adolescence with helmet-induced acne?
Barry Lowin can only speculate on what Mandos do behind closed doors: “I think that they get to have their helmets off...”