Go to Homepage   John Rhys-Davies: Traveling the Great Circle

 
Why did it have to be snakes?" a young girl in an Indiana Jones fedora asked actor John Rhys-Davies following his Sept. 1 panel at Dragoncon. (Photos by Jean Marie Ward unless otherwise noted.)

They say actors work less than six months a year. John Rhys-Davies gives the lie to that cliché. He could easily work 20 months a year or more. Looking at his credits -- from Budgie to Raiders of the Lost Ark to Lord of the Rings, on stage and in cartoons too -- you might think he already does. Rhys-Davies claims his size, Everyman looks and loud voice put him in a seller's market, but it could be that people just like to hear him talk. A conversation with Rhys-Davies shuttles easily between Stone Age burials and moon walks, Tolkien and sly meditations on philosophy and history expressly designed to provoke.

At Dragoncon 2001, Rhys-Davies talked to Crescent Blues about his role as Gimli in Lord of the Rings, his 30 years as an actor and his plans for the next hundred years of his life. The performance proved so entertaining and so expansive, Crescent Blues will run the interview in two parts, concluding next week.

Crescent Blues: When you challenged the audience at today's panel to create a recipe for success, you reminded me of my college philosophy professor.

John Rhys-Davies: Oh, so you hated your philosophy professor too.

Crescent Blues: How did you get from being a radical student to being a radical teacher?

John Rhys-Davies: It's called growing up isn't it? I'm not so sure. I suppose it's radical now but in a slightly different sense. We do not question enough, and all the time, if we're not careful, we end up just repeating platitudes, just repeating banalities and going with the consensus. Wherever there is a consensus you should be suspicious. It could well be right. Sometimes, all the people are not wrong. But sometimes, all the people can be wrong.

Theatrical poster for The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring (All Lord of the Rings images courtesy of New Line Cinema.)

Crescent Blues: Do you see fiction as a bridge to the future?

John Rhys-Davies: I think there is an extraordinary thing that happens in fiction -- particularly in science fiction, where in truth, the imagination of the artist arrives before the technology does. I was talking to Harlan Ellison last night, and he said, "I invented the fax." He mentioned a short story that he had written in which a man is driving his car, and a message comes through the thing onto paper in his car, years before the fax was invented.

The imagination of man sometimes precedes the actual event by hundreds of years. People are very dismissive of Leonardo's drawings and sketches, saying, he got this idea from that guy and the helicopter from this guy. But the synthesis is a great repository that continues to inspire four to five hundred years' after his time.

I love science fiction.

Crescent Blues: So you read science fiction yourself; you don't just act in it.

John Rhys-Davies: I do read science fiction. I don't keep up with it as much as I should, but then you see the volume of other stuff you should keep up with. My old headmaster used to make me cringe, because he used to say you can't really call yourself educated unless you read at least two books a week outside your subject. By that he meant your subject of special interest or your profession. How many of us can actually master a hundred serious books a year?

Crescent Blues: They have to be serious?

John Rhys-Davies: Deadly serious. Actually, he meant taking the serious stuff along with the light. Then you look back and think, what did I read last year that was actually of any use and value? The odd bits will come -- often fiction.

The last novel I read that was just wonderful is by Thomas Keneally, the man who wrote Schindler's List. It's an earlier book of his called The Playmaker. The book is set in Australia and based on contemporary historical documents. It tells the story of the first shipload of convicts sent to Australia and how got the convicts to put on [George] Farquhar's Recruiting Officer as a play. Amazing sort of incongruity of these guys on short rations -- almost starving -- with a toehold on this vast, dark continent of Australia, and putting on a comedy about fops. I just thought it a wonderful piece of writing.

The great secret of life is to get other people to pay for what you would do for free.

Crescent Blues: Speaking of plays, you mentioned earlier how much you enjoy the energy of performing live. Do you find acting on the stage more rewarding than your film work?

John Rhys-Davies: The great secret of life is to get other people to pay for what you would do for free. I would willingly work on stage for free. I would equally do television or film for free. The performance is free; they pay me for the waiting, when they keep me sitting around.

There are times when I bitterly regret not having done more stage work. There are other times when I just like being prepared and walking on to a film set without having made any decisions at all. You walk on the set the first day, and you have a few words with the director, and you talk with the other actor, and you just open yourself and listen. And if you're listening right, the performance will work out right -- assuming the script is well written. The 94 times a day that I am a very bad actor are the times when I have stopped listening.

So, it makes no difference if it's stage or television or whatever.

Crescent Blues: Speaking of television, let's get off on a little tangent. When my assistant editor Teri Smith was researching your career she came up with the credit for "Laughing Spam Fritter"…

John Rhys-Davies: [In accent.] Laughing Spam. Lud, dear me. Right television show called Budgie.

[Returns to normal voice.] Do you remember Adam Faith? A sort of rock-n-roller from England in the '60s -- a very nice man, a very sweet man. Adam created a character called "Budgie" -- Budgie Bird -- because he talked too much. Budgie was a minor East End villain, who was constantly being manipulated and bullied by Charlie Endell, who was [assumes Endell's accent] sort of pseudo-Scottish with a slight overlay of posh.

Dwarf Gimli (John Rhys-Davies, middle) and Hobbits Merry (Dominic Monaghan) and Pippin (Billy Boyd) in The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Rings, scheduled to open Dec. 19. (Photo by Pierre Vinet for New Line Cinema)

[Back to normal.] Charlie was a sort of villainous mastermind. I was his sidekick and henchman, Laughing Spam Fritter. [Resumes East End accent.] Laughing S. had to discipline Budgie from time to time, make sure he didn't step over the mark, you know. You know? You con my con? You know wha' I mean? You get my drift, right? 'Cause sometimes, you gotta draw a line. You know wha' I mean? Sometimes, you gotta enforce a bit of discipline. Sometimes, you gotta take a 'ammer to a guys knees. Sometimes, you gotta make all their trousers 'ave to be shortened to the knees. Know wha' I mean? Be nothing personal, mind. It's in the line of duty, in it?

Crescent Blues: Who played Charlie Endell?

John Rhys-Davies: Iain Cuthbertson. He died a few years ago, alas, and what a great loss he was. [See note.] His finest performance was in Armstrong's Last Goodnight, which was a fine West End play by John Arden.
I think your greatest fear will be accident…and of course, murder.
Johnny Armstrong was a sort of a [Scottish accent again] piratical and trouble-making Highlander, and a big, burly pirate of a man. The king sent up one of his mistresses to deal with him, and this woman ran him 'round her little finger. In one of the great exchanges between them, where he, baffled by the quickness of her mind, he says [in accent], "You're a whore."

"Aye, but I'm not yours."

Wonderful, wonderful actor.

And Adam [Faith] -- lovely man, sweet man. Haven't seen him for about four or five years. He came and had dinner with me once in Los Angeles a few years ago. His career had been on the up-and-up, and he had a few downs and a few ups and a few downs, but I would imagine he's on the up again, because our life is like that, you know.

Crescent Blues: Yours seems to be…

John Rhys-Davies: On a desperate, spiraling, spiraling trajectory that pilots know as a flat spin. A flat spin is one that you can't get out of. The aeroplane is so dynamically balanced that you can't put any forward forces to get the nose down to be able to accelerate and dive out of it. It's a dead man's spin.

John Rhys-Davies

Crescent Blues: But you intend to keep it spinning for another hundred years at least.

John Rhys-Davies: Oh, you listened to my theory today about us living to be a hundred and fifty. You, I would say, would almost certainly make it. I'm marginal, because I know what I'm looking for. I think that I might just make it. Do you have children?

Crescent Blues: Not yet.

John Rhys-Davies: They will make it. The technology is falling into place quite sharply. The odds are we will be able to grow new lungs and things like that. We actually will be able to deal with tumors. You will go to your doctor, and when he says the terrible words, "You've got cancer," you will go: "Oh, damn, that's really inconvenient for that holiday I was going to take. My breast has to be removed? OK, we can do that immediately. I guess I'll have to wear a falsie for at least six or eight months until we can grow a new breast and graft it into position."

Liv Tyler as Anwen in The Fellowship of the Ring. (Photo by Pierre Vinet for New Line Cinema)

It will be your own skin. The organ will function as well as the original. There will be no taking drugs to suppress the immune response. I think your greatest fear will be accident…and of course, murder.

Crescent Blues: There's always that.

John Rhys-Davies: Yes, indeed, and it's very interesting, because of our social responses. We will, I think, become more cautious in certain ways, and at the same time, I think we will be very hostile towards those that take life and damage life irretrievably.

Crescent Blues: I can easily see the regeneration of soft tissue organs. They've already done that in certain places. It's not really an issue. I see the problem as maintenance of the brain tissue with its memories.

John Rhys-Davies: There's a drug that Allen Pharmaceuticals are in trials with at the moment. They claim it will act like a vaccine against amaloid plaques in your brain. They allege these amaloid plaques are the actual cause of Alzheimers Disease and similar conditions.

I did, however, read a disconcerting observation the other day that beta amaloid has a positive role to play in the body and in the brain. It might well be that by destroying these darn things, we're not necessarily doing ourselves any good after all.

Childbirth is the great eliminator.

These are early days, but I'm pretty darn sure that the more we know, the likelihood is that we will be able to vaccinate against things like Alzheimers.

Crescent Blues: That would be thrilling thought, because having very elderly parents…

John Rhys-Davies: How old are they?

Crescent Blues: My father's 87 going on 93. My mother's 85 going on 64. I see the difference between them is partially physical, but it is largely mental.

John Rhys-Davies: I think part of the problem is that men don't keep quite as physically active as women do. Women do things around the house all the time. My mother at 86, was still cooking dinner for me whenever I got home. Whereas my father, after retirement, did less and less. Actually, he was encouraged to do less and less by my mother who wanted him tidy and well-behaved in many ways. He was allowed to sort of vegetate and rot. That's partly it.

The other thing is that Alzheimer and the problems of extreme old age are problems that we've only recently developed in human history. Were you there when I was talking about Stone Age burials?

The thesis was that if you look at Stone Age burials you will find male skeletons in their thirties, forties, fifties and, occasionally, in their sixties. You never find a female skeleton over the age of 30. The average age seems to be around 21, 22 for females. Childbirth is the great eliminator. So it's really very rare that the consequences of aging ever have to be faced. Once you take away the perils of childbirth, women have an evolutionary advantage over men.

Crescent Blues: Out of curiosity, what did you study in university?

John Rhys Davies - Continued