Go to Homepage   John Rhys-Davies: Traveling the Great Circle (Part 2)

 
John Rhys-Davies at Dragoncon 2001 (Photos by Jean Marie Ward unless otherwise stated)

Actor and raconteur John Rhys-Davies quickly transforms an interview into a conversation that ranges from '70s British television to the nature of heroism to what he really planned to do when he left university. In part two of his Crescent Blues interview, Rhys-Davies focuses on his work in Lord of the Rings.

Crescent Blues: Did you choose Gimli or did Gimli choose you?

John Rhys-Davies: [Laughs.] I wanted to be Barliman Butterbur. I wanted to go to New Zealand (a country I'd never worked in before) spend maybe two, three, four or five weeks, maybe a couple of months, on the film, have a jolly nice time and get back and get on with other things.

In fact when I was offered Gimli by my agent, I said, "You're joking. I'm not going to spend six hours a day in make-up."

"Oh, no, they'll get it down to an hour. They promise that."

I said: "A: they are not promising that. B: if they did they would be liars. And C: you have no idea what's involved to do this properly. This is just a nightmare job."

Gimli (John Rhys-Davies) battles against an Uruk-hai attack in The Fellowship of the Ring. (Photo by Pierre Vinet for New Line Cinema. All Lord of the Rings images courtesy of New Line Cinema.)

My agent turned around and said, "Well, if you're going to turn this down, I don't think I can be your agent any longer." Which is ironic, because he was fired from his agency within six to eight weeks of me starting the job.

But my son -- my eldest and beloved son, Benjamin -- said, "Dad, come on. Are you nuts? You can't turn this down."

I said, "Son, why is that?"

He said, "Dad, think about it now. Calm down. Think about it. For the last forty-five, fifty years, almost, in every bookshop in the reading world, there has been a two-foot space dedicated to [J.R.R.] Tolkien. Do you know how many readers that is? Do you know how enormous this is going to be? Come on, Dad."

[Rhys-Davies growls.]

"Dad."

Crescent Blues: That sounds almost Dwarvish.

John Rhys-Davies: [Laughs.] I love him to death. He's such a bright, sweet lad. I love him so much.

I think Steven [Spielberg] is the greatest master of telling a story through images."

Actually, it really was Benjamin that me think, "You know what, you've really got to bite the button. How long is it since you took a major studio picture, something that was really quite significant?" Because if you wait for a really good script to come along, you'll only work once every ten years, and you have kids to feed and other problems to pay for.

Crescent Blues: In this evening's panel, you compared [Steven] Spielberg to Mozart and Peter Jackson [the director of Lord of the Rings]. Could you expand on this a little?

John Rhys-Davies: Both of them I love. There are times when I'm wholly besotted by Mozart, and years go by, and I really don't want to listen to anything but Mozart. Then suddenly, I'll hear a piece by Handel again, and I'm wholly infatuated by Handel.

I guess what I'm trying to say, really, is that at a certain level of excellence, how do you make a choice? You know, when we were teenagers, it was very important to know who was the greatest composer. "It's Beethoven. It must be Beethoven, mustn't it?" And your old music master would say: "Bach."

Crescent Blues: I was thinking in terms of the way they handled a script, the way they prepared a treatment. For example, I consider Mozart the king of the fast, pointed dart.

John Rhys-Davies: Yes.

Crescent Blues: And Handel as going for exultation. I wondered if that bore any relationship to what you saw on their respective sets -- not a judgment call of one being better than the other.

Ringwraiths gallop after their prey in The Fellowship of the Ring. (Photo by Pierre Vinet for New Line Cinema)

John Rhys-Davies: Oh good! I think Steven is the greatest master of telling a story through images. That I've ever known, certainly. I think he's unique in that. He can tell a story with pictures in a way the silent masters would've marveled at. I don't necessarily think he finds it easy to get great words and great scenes written for him to make great movies out of. And P.J., I think, in a way, can.

Mind you, it's pretty smart starting off with a sort of masterpiece. I mean, you can do a Schindler's List, because it's a damn good book. And you can do Empire of the Sun, because it's a damn good book. So in a way, when you start out with a literary classic, you've got 40 percent of your work done anyway.

But P.J. is just a very quiet terrier. You do something, and he'll say, "Yeah, yeah, OK. Well, we'll keep working on that." There's no confrontation or anything like that. Just, very quietly, P.J. will keep going until he's satisfied with the performance. And I think that's true with every department.

Well, I spent a long time on my knees and, as the gag goes, that was after getting the job.
And the logistics -- the intellectual logistics of holding these three damn films together with all the things that were going on. You should go around the costume department or the armory there. The smithy work, the detailed inlay, the leatherwork, the endless stitching of costumes, the endless creation of these molds for the Orcs and the Uruk-Hai -- all slightly different. Sometimes very different.

Crescent Blues: Were the monsters done mostly with actors or with CGI?

John Rhys-Davies: Very, very much with actors. There were some CGI things, but some of those battle scenes have nine hundred or a thousand people involved. When you have that many people involved, you can use clever camera placements and really create these massive armies of the bad guys -- and the relatively small armies on the side of virtue and good.

Crescent Blues: What was it like being under all of that make-up and armor?

John Rhys-Davies: About three or four hours into the make-up the itch would start. Just there. [Points to his nose.] A tiny itch, but of course, you can't actually touch it, because that would spoil things. Then it slowly spreads around there, then really starts there, just under the eyebrows.

There's a certain mask that goes under the thing. Then there's the make-up that goes on top of that, and then there's the under-eye bags and the over-eye bags -- they were the ones that gave me trouble. Then, of course, you'd have the beard and the wig.

John Rhys-Davies

Crescent Blues: And the trying to be short.

John Rhys-Davies: Well, I spent a long time on my knees and, as the gag goes, that was after getting the job.

There were a lot of physical problems. By and large, after the age of forty, most men's knees are fairly shot anyway from playing rugby and all that sort of nonsense. Not that being overweight has anything to do with it. [Chuckles.]

Crescent Blues: But you really spent time on your knees.

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

John Rhys-Davies: Yes, a lot of time on my knees. But there are lots of ways you can get the relative difference in heights -- forced perspective and things like that. Some of the tricks work so well that you can't believe it. You do not know how it happens that two people in the same shot can be such different sizes, when you know their true relative heights. They're holding hands, and you do not know how the hell one is that small and the other one is that tall.

Crescent Blues: Were you ever in scenes where you were taller than the actors playing normal-sized people?

John Rhys-Davies: I think, without exception, that I am the tallest member of the Fellowship of the Ring. I am. Of course, as a dwarf, I'm taller than the hobbits anyway, and shorter than the elf, who should be, theoretically, shorter than the two men. And Gandalf, the wizard, should, possibly, be the tallest of the lot. All those things have to be kept in perspective.

You can deal with the hobbits as a unit, and you can deal with the men as a unit. And the only poor bastard who didn't quite fit in has got to be the elf. But with the hobbits, because I was taller than them, that sort of worked in a way. But once I was dealing with the elves, either I had to go in a trench or they had to go on a platform. I was constantly spending time looking up, which is unusual.

Crescent Blues: I bet it was.

John Rhys-Davies: I can't tell you how completely devoted the cast and crew were to the project and to Peter. He did march us up hill and down dale. What am I saying? Up mountain, down valley. Just an extraordinary effort and a marvelous, active leadership. Even at the last day of this very taxing thing, we're all there going: "Yeah, OK, Pete, we'll do that." Great chemistry.

Even if he has to sometimes take a man and twist his arm to make him understand that pain is pain.

Crescent Blues: Do you think that chemistry will come across on the screen?

John Rhys-Davies: I believe so. The bits that I've seen don't remind me of any other film that I've ever looked at. I've not actually seen the whole thing yet, but I'm pretty darn confident that episode one will hang together as a film, that episode two will hang together as a film, that episode three will hang together as a separate film. My bet is that, over all, there'll be an arc that will hold all three together.

The fact that we made them all at the same time really does help, because it isn't a question of people having grown older in the fifteen years between making the first one and making the second one. An extraordinary experience. Every single department, every single area of this film, in my experience, was of the highest possible quality. I cannot remember any other film that I could, hand on heart, say that. Just amazing.

Crescent Blues: Given the breadth of your filmography, your stage credits, is there any role that you really want to play that you haven't had the chance to play yet?

John Rhys-Davies: I suppose the glib answer to that is: "The next one."

There was a marvelous character created by Anthony Burgess in a book called Earthly Powers. It's the story of a man who marries the sister of an extraordinary Italian priest who ends up becoming a pope. He is the most extraordinary priest that you can ever imagine.

I'm probably too old for it now, but I would love to have a crack at that role. The paradoxes of it and the down-to-earthness of it. Yet at the same time, the priest possesses an absolute iron sense of principle. He is a prince of the church, and he knows what is right and what is wrong, and he will not compromise on those things. Even if he has to sometimes take a man and twist his arm to make him understand that pain is pain.

Crescent Blues: And spiritual pain is as real as the physical pain you happen to be experiencing now.

John Rhys-Davies: A wonderful character. The thing I have noticed as the years pass -- which probably just means I'm getting old -- is…

John Rhys Davies (Part 2) - Continued