Mark Spence broke his codpiece, and it does not feel good. He also has a torn ligament which, given the acrobatics it takes to don his costume, shocks no one.
Welcome to the making of a middle-aged clone trooper, genus Tampa Bay. Mark is one of the newest additions to the Tampa Bay Squad of the Florida Garrison of the 501st Legion, a group of Star Wars fans who dress as characters from the Dark Side.
Mark first saw Star Wars when he was 10.
“It changed my whole life,” he says. “I remember walking in at the Horizon Park 4 at Hillsborough Avenue. My dad and I walked in as the big ship was coming across.”
A teenager saving the galaxy in the space of a week! That's what he remembers thinking the first time he saw the movie.
He was hooked.
Three years later, now a teenager himself, Mark camped out to get tickets for The Empire Strikes Back. But by the time Return of the Jedi premiered, when he was 16, he felt he had to conceal his obsession. He saw the movie opening day, but didn’t tell his friends.
“I was trying to hide my geek side,” he says. “My friends didn’t know I liked that stuff.” He pushed Star Wars from his mind, joined the Navy, and married Nicole, a curly-haired, all-American girl. He was 25. A few years later, the prequels started hitting theaters, and Mark fell in love all over again.
“I remembered that thrill from when I first saw Star Wars, and it reignited.” He hadn’t told Nicole about his teenage obsession.
“She does not dig geeky stuff at all,” he says. A few years ago, he learned about the 501st and asked her if he could join.
“She said, ‘Not if you ever want to have sex again,’” he says.
Nicole insists she was joking, although she admits “Gosh, that sounds like a swell use of your time and our money” was not her first reaction. When we told her we wanted to write an article about what motivated her 48-year-old husband to dress like a clone trooper, she responded, “If you find out, please let me know.”
Mark and Nicole joke about Star Wars geekdom, but she understands the kinship Mark feels with clone troopers. As a Desert Storm veteran (he was an operation specialist with the Navy), he can relate to their internal conflicts.
"They are war machines that battle between feelings of humanity and doing their primary mission of fighting for the Grand Army of the Republic. I've had to wrestle with my own humanity while trying to do the job I was trained for," he says.
When Mark’s job responsibilities changed last year (he now works for Apple tech support), he and Nicole decided the time was right to build his dream: a clone trooper costume.
Building a costume might sound thrifty, but doing so isn’t cheap. It's also the only way to get a 501st-approved costume. Mark spent just under $2,500 (and nine months) constructing it.
“I started working on that first to see if I was capable of doing this,” he says. He trimmed the plastic, fit it to his head, painted it, and weatherized it.
Once he finished his bucket, he spent $400 more for armor. The armor arrived as a box of plastic costume pieces from Affordable Troop Armor (ATA), a fan group that sculpts armor to resemble that used in the movie.
After work, he’d Bondo his costume, spray paint it, assemble it and distress it. Clone trooper costumes must look as if they’ve been through battle.
“They have to be movie-accurate when they’re done,” Mark says. “That’s the only way to be in the 501st Legion.”
Last month, he finished and, after submitting photos of himself in costume, the 501st approved his costume.
The 501st Legion is called “Vader’s Fist.” To join, Mark had to align himself with the dark side (metaphorically speaking, we hope) and commit to maintaining an accurate costume. For Mark and other self-described “costume enthusiasts,” the 501st isn’t just about dressing up and playing Star Wars (although, who are we kidding? That’s a huge part of it). Joining the 501st means lots of charity work, too.
Aside from fighting Rebel insurgents (the Rebel Legion is the yin to the 501st’s yang and consists of what most call the “good guys” in the Star Wars universe), the 501st visits sick and terminally ill children, makes charity appearances and does fundraising.
With The Force Awakens opening this week, Mark’s definitely one of the cool kids now, but he remembers the teenage boy afraid to be himself. Now he hopes to send the message that it's all right to embrace your inner geek.
Mark's dad died unexpectedly when Mark was 29, and he cherishes the memory of seeing Star Wars with him. Thursday night, he’ll repeat the experience with his teenage daughter, Taryn. She's president of her sophomore class at Boca Ciega High, skates in a competitive roller blade team — and she’s starting work on her own Star Wars costume next year. For her dad, Thursday night promises to be epic.
“The idea of being able to make a kid see what I saw when I walked into that movie theater when I was 10, years ago… It’s really touching to me.”
CORRECTION: A previous version of this story stated that Affordable Troop Armor (ATA), the company that made the armor molds, was licensed by Lucasfilm. The company is not licensed by Lucasfilm.