Interview: John Rhys-DaviesMarch 19, 2019
Recently we had the chance to talk with actor John Rhys-Davies while he attended Toronto Comicon March 15th-17th at the Metro Toronto Convention Center. We discussed how he got into acting, the wonderful roles, movies and TV shows he’s been a part of and how conventions have had such a huge impact on his life.
How did you find your way into the acting world? Was it something you always wanted to do?
John: I was a lonely, little colonial boy, sent back from Africa to a boarding school in England. I was nine, I didn’t know how to play and didn’t have many people to play with. I was homesick for Africa, I wanted to be a District Commissioner, and I would have been a very good one I have to tell you, but I got the talk from my father at age eleven where he said ‘son, there is no future for the white man in Africa, understand that now’ and how smart he was. I went off to boarding school and I really was a feral youth. I decided I wanted to just go back to Africa, I was an African, a Welsh-born African, at least I certainly considered myself one for many years. My boarding school knew about us colonial boys, knew we were slightly odd, slightly outsiders so then the hunt was on, to find something the boy likes or is good at, and quite by accident they put me in a little play and I was good at it, then they gave me Shakespeare and once I had Shakespeare I had the words to articulate my teenage rage.
I failed to get into Cambridge and then had an exhibition offer in Manchester, I didn’t want to go, no one wanted to go to Manchester, but UEA (University of East Anglia) was just beginning so I got into UEA as a founder student, there were one hundred and six of us at the start of the university, founded the dramatic society, stole all the best parts and worked at the local dramatic society. I waited for my wife to graduate so I taught for a year and got into RADA (Royal Academy of Dramatic Art). It’s extraordinary how a life bounded by ignorance can actually have any success at all. Why did I go to the theater? Simply because I didn’t know how to get into the theater and I’d only heard of RADA and if I had known how hard it was to get into RADA…ignorance is such a splendid piece of armor for a young man. So I went to RADA, left RADA Sunday night, started work in Belgrade Theater Coventry on Monday morning. The idea was I was going to be a writer, the masterpieces in which you now be interrogating me with sort of bated breath. They were going to be done during the time that I was out of work, learn the craft, doing it, you practice it…I had seven weeks out of work in the first five years, and that was basically because I wanted to stay at home and spend some time with my children instead of doing blasted pantomime. Interestingly enough, when I broke my back on a film set in 2002 and wanted to know in 2003/2004 that I was still up to it, I chose to go back and do pantomime.
I remember the first time I saw you act, it was on the TV mini-series Shogun, based on the James Clavell novel. What was that experience like for you?
John: It was absolutely extraordinary. Japan was then, and may still be to a certain extent, a completely different world for British actors, can’t imagine it’s changed that much. Everything was right, a brilliant story, I think one of the most popular books of that period and a great example of why you should read a physical book instead of scrolling through a piece of technology. You’re anxiety increases, things get worse, how are we possibly going to get him to be Shogun, whereas you don’t get that when you’re scrolling, you don’t have the physical sense that the story is coming to an end. It was a brilliant production, from top to bottom, just wonderful. I got an Emmy nomination for Shogun, can you believe that?
It was about a year after Shogun that Raiders of the Lost Ark came out. How did you get the role of Sallah?
John: It was a bit later than that. I got asked to do Victor, Victoria first, the Blake Edwards movie with THAT cast. It was very odd because when I looked around at that cast I thought if I can hold my own in this company maybe I’ve got a chance…maybe. Blake came up to me and said, Steven’s got a project, I’ll give him a call, he’s a got a part and you’ll probably be right for it, and that led to me being a part of Raiders of the Lost Ark. You know, in the end, it’s just luck. There is no real career structure, you get lucky, you work at it, you assume that you will get a measure of talent and success but let’s face it, a bad notice from Macbeth in the Theater Royal York is not necessarily going to be a guarantee of universal worldwide success. Bad notices, they’re fun, aren’t they? I must have had a lot of good notices in my time but I can’t remember any of them. Every bad notice is engraved in my brain, but I can’t remember the good ones. (Laughs)
It’s very hard to explain to people that in our profession there is no career structure. One day the phone will stop ringing and you won’t know your career is over, you’ll never know. People ask me about that, they say well, don’t you find that a bit uncomfortable, a bit scary, and I say well of course, in a way it is very scary. But the way to do it is to assume the job you’re doing is the last job you’ll ever have, so I’m going to behave well, I’m going to be nice to people, I’m going to do the job well so if it is my swan song I’ve sung it well. It’s interesting, I wonder what will be the last job I do? A small favor for a friend, a day’s work on something, maybe I’ll get back on the boards, something like that. I mean, the actor’s dream, of course, is to do a key part…you get halfway through the first act, have the heart attack and say to your son, you must finish the play for me, that’s the way to go.
When you got the role as Gimli for the Lord of the Rings trilogy, did you also know at the time that you’d be doing the voice for Treebeard as well?
John: Are you kidding me? No. I mean, to begin with, I really didn’t want to do Gimli. I didn’t think this little chap in New Zealand had any idea what he was letting himself into. He’d done a few small four handers, six handers but guess what? Anyone can direct a four-hander or six-hander if you’ve got a month or two to do it, even six weeks. He’d done them well but when you’re talking 14 months of principal photography, 21 principle characters, a cast of thousands, a crew of two hundred, do you know what that involves in a place with no infrastructure, like New Zealand at the time? If something goes wrong and you get behind you never get out of that hole. My first two weeks when I was there I went to every department just to check out how bad they really were and in every department, I found a level of expertise you would only expect to find in the great film capitals of the world. You suddenly realize that yes, this is a big deal and yes, these people know exactly what they are doing. Then I watched Jackson direct and thought yes, this guy’s got it. He knows how to handle his crew, has all the answers, he’s clearly built up a team around him that know him, like him and trust him.
The real test came some months later when we found ourselves in Queenstown. We arrived with a crew of two hundred, horses, stuntmen, all the nine members of the Fellowship, and it’s been raining. It’s three miles between the production office and the center of town and the rain has wiped out both lanes. Now we have a single track, a winding stretch of nineteen miles, to get between the two, and that was the first time I needed a ladder to get into my hotel because the entire first floor was under water. That was the time the call sheet went out and it said, there will be no filming tomorrow because the lake is under water, and not only the lake but about one hundred square miles around it. The following day we had a movement order, so we moved to another part of New Zealand, picked up filming somewhere else and returned a few months later to film there.
So when did you find out you were going to be doing the voice of Treebeard?
John: One day Peter came to me and said John, I’d like you to play Treebeard the Ent, and then it began. How the hell do you find a voice for a walking, talking tree? I tried everything, trying to for a sound like the squelch of roots coming up, we tweaked it down to almost a whale noise type of thing but in the end, we went back to something fairly simple. A gentle voice, something that was the opposite of the size of the creature but you can’t do it, it’s impossible to do. You can convey the slowness of time in a book, the mind will manipulate time when you read it, but you can’t actually show that on a screen. Of all the parts that I have ever played, I still wake up at night thinking about that one, because I don’t think I got it right. This is one that I still wake up and think, I don’t know how to do it, I still don’t know how to do it. It’s my biggest failure really, I think, not getting that right.
How did you get involved with Soldier of War? Do you like mixing things up, doing small films, movies, voice work, or do you simply go where the good scripts take you?
John: You know, I’m not a Daniel Day Lewis, I can’t afford to do just one film a decade. Acting is a muscle and I like trying things I haven’t done. Once you try something and show that you can do it, for instance, the character in that is senile and one of the things I’ve been offered is a man with dementia, which I’m going to shoot in Alberta in about a month’s time, and that should be a harrowing experience. I like a good yarn and Soldier of War really resonates with me. My father was in restricted service, he couldn’t join the army because he was an engineer, but he used to tell me stories about when Dunkirk happened. He was driving buses down there and picking up these guys…you talk about the victory at Dunkirk, he said I’ve never seen a more beaten lot of men. We were that close to an invasion and Churchill did organize these groups and we didn’t know about them until the late 90’s, they all kept quiet. They were only given fourteen days rations because that’s as long as they were expected to live. They’re job was to terrorize the enemy, kill, terrorize, resist and the cell groups were completely separated. The film was originally called Aux, for Auxiliary, but no one knew what it meant so they renamed it Soldier of War. It’s a nice little horror picture, good cast, well directed, good script but somehow, because it has that layer of secret history underneath it, it gives it something extra that your standard horror film doesn’t have. I’m quite proud of that one and that’s what I mean, if you just wait for the next Raiders of the Lost Ark or Lord of the Rings, you’ll miss out on so much.
I was pretty tired yesterday because I had to take the red-eye from Salt Lake City because the day before I was doing an improv for Brigham Young University. They have their own television channel there and for the last two or three years they’ve had an improv group there and they broadcast these productions where the audience selects the genre, we had science fiction, and the pick a couple of words you have to put in. We had pancakes = life and you go from there and these young improve actors, they were wonderful and you know that going in, but I hadn’t done improv since RADA fifty years ago, this is what actors should be doing. You’ve got to put yourself in a place where it’s not your comfort zone and with this you’re live, you’ve got to survive in that atmosphere. They were brilliant, so confident and so supportive as well, it was wonderful. Actors have the most privileged life on the planet, don’t waste a day of it.
Here you are at a convention in Toronto. Is it the fans that keep you coming back, keep you interested?
John: More than that, they have changed me. When I was a younger man I didn’t like people, and the idea of going to the convention, I was like, not a convention, why don’t these people get a life and you know what, they do have a life. The more you listen to people, the more you ask them about what they do, how they are doing, things like that, you will get some amazing responses. I can’t tell you how much these people give me, not only about their own lives and experiences, but how real men and women are experiencing life. I have changed, I might be just heading toward senility, but I like people more and more and I really attribute that to these fan conventions. The technical bit of giving someone an autograph is ok but the real gift is just for a moment sharing people’s lives. You can’t do that all the time but by god, you meet some extraordinary people. It’s funny, a minor celebrity, who says the right thing at the right time, can have more effect on someone they we do as parents. It’s wonderful when you get something right, most of us blunder through life, but these moments are just magnificent. Fandoms themselves puzzle me, they really do, but the people…I love them, just love them.
I want to thank John for taking the time to speak with us