You see them at movie premieres, at fan conventions, any place the subculture we call “fanboys” gathers.
They are obsessed devotees of this TV show, that comic book or movie, people so enamored with the fantasy that they dress up as their favorite characters and role-play, in costume, in public — Vulcans and Romulans and Sand People, oh my.
But the fanboys and girls all know that you can dab on the perfect shade of green or twirl your hair into the grandest Princess Leia twist: Nobody will give you a second look when the phalanx in white and black — the Star Wars stormtroopers — march in.
“You get characters from every anime movie or TV show under the sun” at conventions like MegaCon or FX,” says Rick Stafford, Clone Trooper TC 7425, from Orlando. “When we show up, everybody turns and goes, `I have got to get a picture with you!’ ”
Stafford, 37, is a personal trainer and dive master at Disney by day. But on weekends, he suits up. So does Ismael “Esh” Velazquez, 31, who teaches digital media at Valencia Community College.
Role-playing fans such as these have long been ripe for mockery, a view aspiring filmmaker Jay Thompson of Greensboro, N.C., says he shared when he first encountered them. “They seemed to be just average, run of the mill sci-fi geeks,” Thompson says. They were children of the ’80s, like himself. They grew up on the Star Wars movies.
“From the moment in the first  film where these guys bust through the door into Princess Leia’s spaceship, they all said, `Man, I have got to get me a suit like that!’ ” Thompson says, laughing.
But Thompson figured out, quickly, that these were geeks with connections. They knew how to get their hands on the means and molds to make the plastic armor. As Thompson started to film and follow stormtroopers around, he realized that they had the nodding approval of copyright-crazy LucasFilms, producer of the movies.
And the troopers themselves were organized. Since 1997, the “Fighting 501st Legion” has been a recognized part of the Star Wars universe, a worldwide club with several thousand men and women with stormtrooper gear.
But they were more than a club of like-minded Star Wars “geeks.” Thompson realized that the 501st Legion, a group founded in 1997 by Albin Johnson in Columbia, S.C., were shock troopers with a mission. That’s how Stafford found them and how he came to join the Fighting 501st, to wear the armor of an Imperial stormtrooper.
A dark side of life
On a weekend in late March of 2005, passers-by might have wondered just what was going on at Baldwin-Fairchild Funeral Home in Orlando. Scores of stormtroopers, Death Star flag officers and Boba Fett look-alikes milled around the chapel on Lake Ivanhoe.
Rick Stafford’s son, Christian, was 8 years old. He had inherited his father’s love for “everything and anything to do with Star Wars,” his father says. “Toys, Legos, lightsabers, all of it.” But Christian had leukemia. Rick had seen troopers at Disney’s Star Wars weekends and had wanted to hire them to come visit his son in the hospital, “maybe take him out of this awful reality he was living in and into this fantasy world he loved, just for a little while.”
He found out who they were but couldn’t hire them. They would come for free, they said. But Christian took a turn for the worse and died before the visit could take place. On that late March day, stormtroopers from as far away as Miami and Jacksonville came, strangers all, to the funeral of a little boy they had never met.
“We were coping with Christian’s death and trying to set up this service to celebrate his life,” Stafford recalls, still emotional about what he saw that day. “And the leader of the Orlando squad, Esh Velazquez, said `You work on your stuff. We’ll take care of the rest.’ ”
They suited up and served as ushers and an honor guard for Christian. They made Christian an honorary stormtrooper, TC 1219 (“A clone trooper, just like his dad, who protected the Jedi in Attack of the Clones,” his father says.). At day’s end, Florida’s members of the 501st presented Stafford, 37, with “this huge box, a plastic kit, and they said `You seem like the sort of guy who shares what we’re about,’ ” Stafford remembers. “I was invited in, right then and there.”
He thought about it. Then he put the kit together. Often that’s done at an “armor party,” where folks with heat guns and Dremel tools trim and bend the plastic to match the trooper they’re outfitting. If you don’t get the fit right, you get “armor kisses, armor bites” from the plastic pieces at the joints. Stafford finished his and made a promise to himself and his dead son.
“I will wear it as long as I can march.”
Like Thompson, the budding filmmaker, Stafford had discovered the thing that makes this corner of film fandom special. The men and women of the 501st Legion are ordinary, anonymous folks who put on black leotards and white plastic chest, back, knee and thigh plates and big, scary helmets they call “buckets.” They pop up at conventions, sure. But more often, they visit hospitals to spread a little sci-fi joy to children going through the worst experience of their lives.
Thompson’s documentary, Heart of an Empire: The Life and Times of the Fighting 501st, is about them. It will have its Southeastern premiere at the Orlando Science Center on Saturday at 6 and 9 p.m. Upwards of 80 Storm Troopers will be there, “but it’s not really for us,” Stafford says. “We know what we’re about. This is for everybody else, so that they know we’re not just fans dressing up in costumes.”
Thompson, 31, fell into this story as a collector of movie props and prop replicas. He bought a stormtrooper’s helmet, “and it came with a full suit. And the guy who sold it to me told me about this Web site,” 501st.com.
Thompson met Albin Johnson, the founder of the 501st. He started filming — an event here, a mocking TV news mention there (Orlando’s The Daily Buzz takes a swipe). Then, Thompson filmed a hospital visit.
“It was pretty obvious to me that these people were relieved, after visiting a burn ward for children, to be wearing helmets,” Thompson says. “They’re respectable people in their daily lives, and I think they get a kick out of the anonymity of the costumes. But the helmet keeps kids from seeing them cry when they do the visits.”
Sometimes, Stafford admits, “the bucket just fills up with tears.”
When you ask him why he puts himself through this, Stafford just says “Why do Shriners squeeze into those little-bitty cars? To bring a little joy into a child’s life.”
Velazquez, who leads central Florida’s Makaze Squad of the 501st, says that “it feels great to be able to do good for people . . . a weird and random way of giving back to the community.” But it’s also some of the “hardest but most rewarding things” he does.
A force of good
In the movies, the stormtroopers are almost always villains. The sneering scowl on the visor, the down-turned mouthpiece, make them almost comical. They’re inept. They can’t run worth a darn, and plainly can’t shoot straight. And they’re helpless in the presence of Jedi.
Stormtrooper: Let me see your identification.
Obi-Wan: [with a small wave of his hand] You don’t need to see his identification.
Stormtrooper: We don’t need to see his identification.
Obi-Wan: These aren’t the droids you’re looking for.
Stormtrooper: These aren’t the droids we’re looking for.
Still, there were times, Thompson says, when he was interviewing “a particularly good Darth Vader — you know, tall, big, with the breathing and all — and I’d get this scary chill, just the way I did when I was a little boy.”
Sometimes, Stafford says, hospital administrators worry about that fear factor.
“They don’t get that, to kids, it’s like they’re interacting with this big, walking talking doll, a toy,” he says. “I’ve never seen a child scared by one of our visits.”
One visit that Thompson captured for the film was a particularly grim day for a boy and his parents, Thompson says. The child had just gotten out of exploratory surgery for a brain tumor.
“The kid was down, out of it. The parents were as upset and stressed-out as you could imagine.
“And then in marches Darth Vader and a couple of stormtroopers. The kid came to life, right before our camera.”
Stafford has seen that happen himself.
“It’s this 15-minute escape, a little vacation, when the parents and the child don’t have to think about anything that’s going wrong, or the worst that can happen,” Stafford says. “I can say, having gone through that experience with Christian, that something like one of these visits is a blessing, a real gift.”
Having such a personal connection to the mission of the 501st makes for hard days for Stafford, he says. Perhaps the hardest was his first trip in uniform, to the ward at Wolfson Children’s Hospital in Jacksonville, where his son Christian spent his last days.
“Lot of tears in the bucket that day,” he says.
Filming the unique alliance
Heart of an Empire focuses on this side of what these costumed fans do. By pointing his camera in this direction, Thompson “goes beyond the expected” to reach for “a fuller understanding of the people behind the masks,” says a Reel.com review of the film. The filmmaker realizes that his movie is not as funny or as commercial a film as say, Trekkies, a 1997 documentary about Star Trek fans. Thompson got too close to the material to mock the 501st. He also realized the heart of the story was their mission and the irony that some of those involved in these visits would have sick children of their own.