When I was in high school, bitching and moaning about having landed the latest role equivalent to a spear-carrier in whatever insipid musical we happened to be doing that year, my drama teacher assured me that “there are no big parts, just big actors!”
This is especially true of the classically-trained John Rhys-Davies, who began with Shakespeare but nowadays makes a name and a living for himself in a lot of science fiction and fantasy roles. As big a part as his role as the dwarf Gimli - in The Lord of the Rings - may be, Rhys-Davies is much bigger than that: he stands at 6"1' – taller than most of the rest of the film’s cast.
Whilst awaiting my chance to interview him, I heard Rhys-Davies do all the ‘bits’ – the carefully rehearsed (through the constant repetition of countless interviews) ad libs – that pertain to his roles. The best one was his answer to the standard “but you’re so tall; how could you possibly play a dwarf?” Pausing for dramatic effect, Rhys-Davies replied that it involved him being on his knees a lot – “and that was after I had accepted the role!” Despite cuing such answers with perfect questions, I couldn’t get him to repeat the same lines into the microphone. There were a couple of moments when I wanted to scream, “just do the bits, okay?!” Of course the end result was much better because it didn’t consist of the standard bunch of grabs. I came away, for example, as one of the only journalists he offered to kill. Lucky me. (Not with the twin-bladed battle axe he wields in the film, though, unfortunately!)
Convention-attending anoraks might also wish to hasten my demise, seeing as I lay into them a bit. Truth is, I’m a train-spotting geek about a heap of other stuff, so I don’t mean any real disrespect - particularly when I set Shakespeare up as the antithesis of scifi and fantasy. Thanks to the work of Joseph Campbell, the parallels between Shakespeare and things like Star Wars, Tolkein and any number of enduring fantsies are well documented.
At this point, I should mention the Friends of Science Fiction who host John Rhys-Davies’ first appearance on this “wretched continent”. An edited (naturally) version of the interview was broadcast on ABC NewsRadio on Saturday 4 September, and if I get around to it, I might link to an MP3 file of it - but as I seem to be going way over my allocated memory allowance, it will not be happening in the near future!
Demetrius Romeo: John, your career began with Shakespeare, and you’ve trained with the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art, and yet, you do a lot of science fiction. Is science fiction a bit of ‘relief’ between the more serious jobs, or is it something you approach as seriously as the other drama?
JOHN RHYS-DAVIES: I’m not sure that ‘seriously’ is the word. You take every job with some attention and some dedication, I think. I like science fiction because I like speculating about the future. I’m one of these guys who actually do believe that the sooner we get off this planet, the better. In fact, it could be summed up, I suppose, as “environment? Ah, screw that! Use the planet, move on”.
That might be a little bit of a travesty of my opinion, but … ooh, I upset a lot of people then, didn’t I! Let’s leave the slow ones behind and move on to Mars.
You see we could transform Mars in about four years. What we need on Mars is what we’ve got a lot of on earth: ozone! What we want to do is we want to pollute Mars extensively. We can make an atmosphere in about four years, you know. Trap heat. Melt the permafrost. Get an atmosphere. Yes, you know, there may be a lot of things we over-run and destroy and all that sort of thing, but you know what? We could have people living there within fifty years.
Demetrius Romeo: So what you’re saying is that science fiction is something that you’ve thought about!
JOHN RHYS-DAVIES: Yes, I love science fiction. I like science, actually. And I like the contradiction between what scientists promise, and what they deliver. Which is frequently a huge gap! We tend to label all scientists with the same label, you know: ‘He’s a scientist!’ I’ve been privileged to meet really earth-shakingly great minds who are scientists. I’ve also met some very mediocre people who use that label with as much authenticity as I do to being a conductor of a symphony orchestra. I have no knowledge. I mean, I listen to music, but I can’t conduct and I really have no idea what happens. We should separate between the two. One of the ways scientists get grants is by speculating and attracting attention by hyperbole. You know:
“GLOBAL WARNING! TA-DAAA”
“Oh, give ’em money, give ’em money, give ’em money.”
“Oh, thanks, that’s my career.”
I mean, the damage that a man like Paul Erhlich did in the 70s and 80s is monumental. He was one of these sort of ‘the future shock’-type people who predicted that by 1976 we’d be completely out of oil and completely out of minerals, that sort of thing and therefore added bucketfuls of regulations to every economy of the world, you know, slowed the economy of the world down and really retarded the prospects of getting so many millions of people out of poverty – but all in the name of the environment.
That’s not to be cynical about the environment – but you should be very, very, very wary about making any prediction about things like global warming. Is there global warming happening? I think there probably is, but to the extent that human activity is involved, I think there’s still a question. If we stopped every form of human activity, would the global warming continue? I suspect that just might happen. I think it’s something to do with sunspot activity, and that’s governed by cycles which are within cycles which are within cycles.
Demetrius Romeo: Let’s take it back a few cycles, back to you and your acting.
JOHN RHYS-DAVIES: Oh, that! That’s boring stuff! Nobody’s interested in actors. This is the story of actors: “Oh, look at me, look at me! Do you know how much I’ve suffered for my art? Do you know how much pain that make-up cost to put on, so that I could give you this wonderful performance? Oh, poor me, poor me. I’m over-paid; I get to travel freely; people will treat me nicely; people come up to me all the time and say, ‘gosh, you are so good!’ But that’s the life in which I have to endure and suffer.” It’s bullshit!
Demetrius Romeo: Tell me a bit about the endurance and sufferance. I understand that in order to put the make-up on to be Gimli in Lord of the Rings, you actually had to endure a bit of hardship.
JOHN RHYS-DAVIES: Oh, god! If I have to repeat this story yet again, I think I might just kill myself. Or probably you, actually; I think that might be the better thing. I developed a reaction to the make-up; I got a topical eczema and every time it got put on, it used to do a skin-peel for me, around the eyes. That’s probably why I’ve got this youthful skin around the eyes now! You know what? There are people with real pain, real suffering, who don’t get any of the attention or approval or the opportunity to bitch and moan and complain about it like I do.
Demetrius Romeo: Okay. So you’re in Australia to attend a few science fiction conventions…
JOHN RHYS-DAVIES: To cast a few incendiaries in front of audiences!
Demetrius Romeo: … Are conventions the necessary evil for actors who do fantasy or science fiction films?
JOHN RHYS-DAVIES: Gosh! I don’t think so, I think they’re great fun. When you’re working on the stage, you’ve got feedback from the audience all the time. When you’re working in film or television, you never do, and it’s very easy to get so off-target. In the end, it’s about burning energy and convincing people that the character you’re playing is real; that the situation that he is in, is real; and if you’re not in contact with real people, and you can’t enter the sensibility of real people, you’re acting will get false… although I must say, I never try to tint my acting with any hint of naturalism! [big, ale-quaffing in a tavern-type thespian laughter] Aah yes, what’s that wonderful line? Walter Savage Landor wasn’t it.
Nature I loved, and after nature, art. I warmed both hands before the fire of life. It sinks, and I am ready to depart.
It’s so pretentious and pompous, it’s wonderful! I love it, I love it.
Demetrius Romeo: So you’re saying that when you go to a convention, you’re dealing with the real people that you wouldn’t otherwise have contact with. But let me ask you then – are they real people that you’re dealing with?
JOHN RHYS-DAVIES: [Sharp intake of breath.] Hmmmmmm.
Demetrius Romeo: I mean, don’t you ever get that feeling where you want to say, ‘come on, people, it was just a film’?
JOHN RHYS-DAVIES: I did get a very extensive letter the other day from a gentleman who had loved Sliders. Sliders was a television series I did with Jerry O’Connell a few years ago. The little ‘telephone’ channel-changing device that we used to sort of jump from universe to universe – he was very interested in that. He wants my help in developing it commercially. He sent me his drawing of how it should look, but there is this slight problem of how it works inside. I had to pass on it. Clearly he thought that I, as a professor of cosmology and ontology, and a Nobel Prize-winning scientist – or of that order, anyway – should be interested and able to help him. Unfortunately, parallel universes are not something I’m working on right at the moment.
There are times when you do meet real lunatics, but what I find about science fiction conventions is that you also meet such an extraordinary range of rather bright people. I’ve met real rocket scientists, real physicists. There are a number of computer guys – and they like to call themselves ‘computer geeks’ – bank managers, firemen, prison officers, the occasional man from the Inland Revenue – it’s true! – and some soldiers and sailors and airmen, vets. There are some pretty dishy girls who come along as well, and that’s always a plus. But at these conventions we’re going to see a brighter audience than most. Anyone who comes, I think, will find themselves in the company of people who are just a little bit out of the ordinary.
Demetrius Romeo: Does it ever make you wonder why there isn’t that sort of mass adulation and people willing to change their lives when you play a character from Shakespeare on the stage, for example, rather than a character from a science fiction film?
JOHN RHYS-DAVIES: I think Shakespeare was the most popular artist of his time. I think people did gain a huge amount from watching him at that particular time. I’m sure that there were a lot of people who wanted to grow up to be like Prince Hal, to be that chivalrous noble leader of military terms, or like Hamlet: introspective, withdrawn, philosophical, and yet a man of action as well. Isn’t that so like you or I? [big thesp laugh again]
Demetrius Romeo: In The Lord of the Rings you play a dwarf, and yet in real life you tower over that dwarf’s size. How did you effectively portray the character?
JOHN RHYS-DAVIES: I had an awful lot of help: great make-up; great filmmakers; great costuming; great supporting actors; a director of real genius; a basic story that was a pretty good tale; a grand script; thanks to all of that, I was able to create something that, clearly, some people have liked. I would like to say that it was purely my genius. In fact I used to say to Peter Jackson, when we were trying something, “now Peter, you understand, these are the rules: if this works, it is down to my genius as an actor. If it doesn’t work and they hate it, blame the director”. He said, “John, I’ve got it.”So, if it works, god what a good actor I am. And if you didn’t like it – BLAME THE DIRECTOR!
Demetrius Romeo: John Rhys-Davies, thank you very much.
JOHN RHYS-DAVIES: Thank you very much, and do come to that science fiction convention that’s going to be all over this wretched continent.