VIRGINIA BEACH — Underneath his Stormtrooper gear, Josh Ward is — much like a “Star Wars” villain — “just a simple man trying to make his way through the universe.”
The 40-year-old cosplayer from Newport News is a member of the 501st Legion, a group of about 12,000 people nationally who dress up as “Star Wars” villains. But instead of trying to turn everyone to the dark side, the 501st Legion harnesses “the force” for good.
With the motto “Bad Guys Doing Good,” the 501st Legion raised more than $889,000 for charities like the Make a Wish Foundation in 2016. Members of the 501st dressed up as Stormtroopers, Darth Vader and Jawas and went out to perform in what the group calls “troops” at charity events, donating about 182,000 volunteer hours to raise the money.
In Hampton Roads, the 501st Legion participates in community events like the Neptune Festival parade and the Virginia Beach Polar Plunge.
“When kids see us and they light up and then their parents light up because they remember seeing ‘Star Wars’ back in the day, it’s a great feeling,” Ward said. “During hospital troops I feel really happy that I’m in a helmet so you can’t see me cry.”
Once, Ward was in a troop that was invited to get on stage with “Weird Al” Yankovic while he sang his song “The Saga Begins,” which is a “Star Wars” themed parody to the tune of Don McLean’s song “American Pie.”
Ward and his wife, Tanya, have been members of the 501st Legion for more than two years as a Stormtrooper and Jawa respectively. They are part of the Garrison Tyranus roster, which encompasses all of Virginia and has about 263 active members. About 60 of those people live in Hampton Roads, Ward said.
To join the 501st Legion, members have to hand build their own cosplay costumes. It took Ward about 45 days — and $1,200 — to hand-cut a plastic kit he ordered into a Stormtrooper outfit that fits the specifications of his 6-foot-frame.
“Each member makes their own costumes. They can get help from others, but they can’t just buy it off the street,” Ward said. “It’s daunting when you first see a pile of plastic and think ‘I’m going to make this into something that looks screen accurate.'”
Ward’s costume is based off of the scene when Luke Skywalker and Han Solo dressed up as Stormtroopers and infiltrated the Death Star to rescue Princess Leia.
“They are wearing ‘hero kits’ which are supposed to look better for filming,” Ward said. “They are made for close up photography. They are a little bit more detailed and look a little bit more ‘science fictiony.'”
Ward fell in love with “Star Wars” when he was a kid and first saw “Episode IV: A New Hope.” With cutting-edge special effects that beautifully told stories in the universe beyond Ward’s earth-bound body, the movie captured him.
“It resonated with me,” he said.
Ward has seen the series more times than he can count, but every time he watches one of the movies he catches new details. Lately he’s been paying special attention to the costumes, which has come in particularly handy in his year-long quest to build himself a Darth Vader uniform, which is more expensive and complicated than his Stormtrooper gear.
Currently, Ward is getting ready to suit up for the Thursday premiere of “Star Wars: The Last Jedi.” He will be one of about 10 legion members who will be at the Cinemark City Center 12 theater in Newport News to take pictures with excited moviegoers.
Later that night when the Stormtrooper gear comes off and he enters the movie theater himself, Ward will return to being a regular “Star Wars” fan ready to embark on the next chapter of an epic journey with his favorite heroes and villains.
“I’m very excited about seeing the new one,” he said.
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