John Rhys-Davies: Beyond Mordor [Full Interview Transcript]

(Interview Conducted March 22, 2019)

You are best known for your roles in The Lord of the Ringsand Indiana Jones, two timeless movies. Which role in those two movies did you find more satisfying?

I’ll answer that when you tell me which of your daughters is your most favorite. In a way, what you create is it’s like a bit of a child. There’s something marvelous about Sallah, you know? He has that sense of him being his own thinking man. Then there is Gimli, of course, who is adored worldwide. This is not because of me, but because of the character. I suppose Gimli is the more complex, or least that we see more of that. I think Sallah is actually a very complex person too.

You turned down Sallah in the last Indiana Jonesbecause it was such a minor part and really didn’t give the character his dues, as far as a sendoff goes. Is there a chance that we’ll see him in the fifth Indiana Jones?

I don’t know. I mean there certainly have been no covert messages, or saying to keep my schedule free for 2020, or anything like that.

It’s all up to the geographic location. It’s basically the story line. If the story is set in in the Arctic winter, it would mean that it’s probably not necessary to involve the best digger in Cairo. But I would do it. I’d like to get one more time to try getting it right and just kind of send him away on the right foot.

Hopefully we will be able to see that in the near future. Looking back on your time on the Indiana Jonesset, what would you consider your fondest memory?

There are a few that I don’t share, just magical moments. What I remember of the first one is how effortlessly Stephen created it and how he was able to incorporate or discard ideas from all of us.

We would give suggestions and he would just weave together, making a film that actually still stands up years later. I guess it has been what, almost forty years now?

Has it really been that long? You are making me feel old now. I mean, I grew up with Indiana Jonesand I’m only thirty-three.

Well you know, I love going to fan conventions because they teach me more about humanity than I ever thought. The other day I had three men come up to me. One was a bit younger and I don’t know how old his dad was, but I know that his dad was there too. He had seen Raiders when he was about 11. Around that age was when he had also taken his son to see Raiders in the cinema. They had just taken the third generation this year.

That is awesome. It is definitely a special thing, being able to withstand that amount of time. You mentioned your love for humanity. Like Indiana Jones, you have done a ton of traveling. You have just about traveled the world.

There are a few “Stans” that I haven’t reached yet. My career has taken me to traverse the world. I have a stack of used passports that are about three inches or four inches high.

And you essentially lived on two continents just during your childhood.

I grew up in Tanganyika, as you know, in East Africa. I had an idyllic, “lonely boys” world there. I could hunt and do all that. Then, I got sent back to an English public school and was absolutely feral, a delinquent if ever there was one. My school was accustomed to dealing with delinquent, colonial boys who had not really learned to play. Our life was play, but not with others.

I could see how, in that scenario, it would be a prevalent issue.

Yeah, and they gave me Shakespeare. Once I had Shakespeare, I had the language with which to articulate my teenage rage. I loved it.

Going back to that, you were in England, Africa, and Wales growing up. Those are pretty extreme in regards to the differences in culture. How did you fare as far as transitioning to the cultures?

It was absolutely a schizophrenic background. I went from the privations of an English public school down in Cornwall, with its discipline and “dog eat dog” until you establish the pecking order attitude, to colonial Africa where they had four acres and five servants.

It was life in the raw, in a different sort of way. I sat gazing at the brains of a man for the first time when I was about seven. I’ve seen a lot. I saw a lot of dead bodies and bodies with leprosy. I saw men whose hands had been cut off because Tanganyika used to be a German colony. The Germans had adopted Islamic law for thievery.

From there I went to my grandmother or my auntie Maggie’s cottage in Wales. They were two working class people with two-up two-down cottages that had tin baths in front of the fire. It was just completely and wonderfully schizophrenic, which is essential for an actor.

 You’ve kind of experience everything.

I have worked in every class and with every authority in a different way. As a boy you are judging, looking, and comparing. At the same time, you are learning the tricks to pass within that society or to define yourself within the parameters of those three differences.

That was just in your childhood. Since then, you’ve lived in US, New Zealand, and everywhere else under the sun. What have you learned from all your traveling?

The first thing is that most ordinary men and women are warm and welcoming. At their best they are magnificent. I’ve always had a special fondness for the United States because you are our cousins really. I have ancestors who migrated here. Like most families, we can squabble like hell, but we have inspired you and you have inspired us. Your tradition of democracy is extraordinary. To have had elections every two years since 1776 and to be have a presidential election through world wars and civil war… That is a democratic legacy that no country in the world can manage. The ideas of liberty that we were developing, you formulated better than the French Revolution.

It’s important that we both remind each other about democracy. Look at Britain at the moment. In one way this is this is chaos, but in another way it’s about democracy and the way democracy works. If it is chaos and we get an outcome, that’s democracy too. The real threat, of course is that. Is that we do not get a democratic result. That is a far more subversive and dangerous outcome than anything the Brexit may bring.

I agree. I think the same could be said for us as well due to the extremes that our political parties are now headed.

Dangerously so, yes.

I get mocked for saying this, but I’ve lived in countries where civil war has broken out. I’ve heard women weeping, who have been gang raped, because they are of the wrong religion. I’ve seen bodies and what happens with tribalism when I was a boy in Africa. The extent of the tribalism that’s broken out in Africa is far beyond anything that we imagined. I was in Croatia during the Yugoslav War and I had a very personal interest in I. My conservatism has been strengthened by seeing what happens when societies collapse. All societies are held together by some sort of glue whether it’s a strong man like Tito or the tradition of democracy like in Britain.

In part, it is held together by the absurdity of the monarchy. Is it absurd? Is it antediluvian? Is it anachronistic? Yes. Yes. Yes. But, it holds the four tribes together and they would split apart without it. In your case, it’s the Constitution. Every time you see people reaching to modify even just a little bit of the Constitution, you should be very suspicious.

It’s funny you mentioned that because I read that you were a radical leftist in the 60s.

Very much so.

How did you transition from that kind of that mindset to the way you are today?

As Margaret Thatcher once said, “The problem with socialism is that, eventually, you run out of other people’s money.

It’s alright, as a student, to lap up all that leftist nonsense about needing to crack an egg if you’re going to make an omelet. I’ve seen what the eggs look like when they’re cracked, when they are human eggs. You better be sure that what you want to put in its place is so much better before you even go that way. The human cost of untested, contemptible ideologies or even contested ideologies can be immense. We are so cosseted and so much the beneficiary of an indulgent, democratic society that we can talk freely about these things. When you are 15, 16, 17, or 21 you do talk about it and think that what we need is revolution. That’s because the adolescent mind, the whole business of adolescence, is a period of insanity between childhood and being grown. That insanity can continue for a long time because we know the way the brain develops.

 I love that you said that because I once read a quote that said something along the lines of, “If you aren’t a liberal before the age of 25 then you have no heart, but if you aren’t a conservative after the age of 35 then you have no brain.”

That’s right. It may even be Churchill that said, “If you’re not a socialist when you are 20 then you have no heart, but if you are after the age of 30 then you have no brains.” That is true. One of the ways that people try to manipulate societies is by reducing the voting age because that will give them the upper hand. It’s wrong. Basically, we should think about raising the voting age to about 26 because we know that the brain is not fully matured before then and there is now some evidence that some parts of the brain take even longer than that.

It’s awesome listening to you open up on your opinions and you’re you’ve been known to be very vocal about them. That’s not too unlike the character you play in Lord of the Rings. Gimli essentially vocalizes his every thought and whim. How do you see yourself in comparison to that role?

To Gimli? One of the reasons we’re attracted to him and identify with him is that he actually represents all that is worst in us. You know? The xenophobia, the hostility, the aggression, the suspicion. Those are elements that we recognize in ourselves. But, he also possesses the qualities that we wish we could have. The ability to change our minds, the ability to discover that his foe is his friend, the ability to be loyal, the ability to protect… He has that absolute fearlessness that if you know you’re purpose and you’re on the right path, you do it.

“Certainty of death. Small chance of success. What are we waiting for?”

Another reason we love Gimli is that he doesn’t realize he’s small and that’s what makes him funny.

Which did you dread most, the hours of makeup for Gimli or having to run in his armor?

There are always challenges with a part. One of the reasons why I didn’t want to do it was because I wasn’t confident, at the beginning, that Peter Jackson had any idea what it was getting himself into.

My manager said that they would have the makeup down to an hour by the end. I said, “You don’t understand what this involves. This is going to be four or five hours every day.” In the end, we got it down to about four or five hours, but there were always touch ups. They say that I reacted to the makeup, but I did not. We were using medical adhesive. It’s hypoallergenic and you don’t react to it, but it bonds to that outer layer of the skin. When you take it off it takes a little bit of skin with it. The skin under your eyes is some of the thinnest skin on your body and about the thickness of two cigarette papers. I looked hideous because of the face swelling.

I think I’ll stick to being hideous without the hours of makeup. I heard that Amazon will be creating a Lord of the Ring series. What are your thoughts on it?

When a journalist mentioned this to me in an interview, they said they’re going to remake Lord of the Rings. I said, “Well this is bloody stupid. Absolutely, completely stupid.” I shot off not realizing what Amazon was actually wanting to do and I got it wrong.

They want to actually do that whole area that’s around those two books, The Silmarillion and The Lord of the Rings. There’s a whole recently published prehistory that goes with origins. I think it’s a great and worthy ambition that will be greeted by Tolkien lovers around the world. Obviously, I will not be doing it.

Right, this is prior to your character’s timeline. I was curious as to what you really thought about the series.

Somebody just out of the blue said they’re going to do a remake. I just wish I wish I had said nothing and checked my facts.

I had actually heard the same thing initially and had the same reaction you did. It hasn’t been near long enough to be doing a complete reboot of the series.

Absolutely! I was kind of thinking the same thing.

I looked and saw that you have about seven or eight different projects in post-production right now. What all do you have going on?

I am so tired right now because I was doing a little film in Sacramento yesterday. It’s a fun little project and I got practice my Southern accent which I don’t typically deploy.

I don’t think I’ve ever heard that from you before. My family came over with the first group that established Texas as a country.

Very good. I’m going to get that T-shirt for my daughter, “Don’t Mess with Texas”. She said, “Can you get me a few more hoodies daddy?” And I said, “You bet.” So, now I am collecting hoodies.

I go to London on Monday and will be doing a sci-fi film in York called G-Loc, which looks very good. At the end of the week I have a recording for the voice of the older son, Patrick. It’s a book about the history of Patrick where I read the story. I don’t know whether I should be employing my Irish accent or my Welsh accent because Patrick was a Welsh.

When I come back, I’ve got a little movie to do in Michigan where I will be a senile old man. After that, I hope I’ll have collected enough pennies to be able to go back to New Zealand to see the wife and daughter. I also want to shoot a little bit more of a teaser for my film. So, what I need to do now is to learn how to shake the money tree.

I’m setting up a film company with two other friends of mine on the Isle of Man, something I intended to do when I first moved there in 1980. I never found the right people.

I thought David Armstrong was just a sound recorder, but it turns out that he is multiply talented in every area. He is dependable, reliable, and is one of the partners. Another man named Alistair, who is just about become one of those very important international screenwriters, is also a partner. We’ve done a few little projects together. Instead of bitching about other people’s work and opportunities, we’re going to be doing it ourselves.

That sounds great. I look forward to seeing what you have coming up in the future. We’re at a pinball convention, so I have to ask. You are an amazing actor, but how are your skills at pinball?

Well, I’ve been known to tilt a bit! I actually had no idea why they invited me at first. Apparently, Raiders of the Lost Arkand Lord of the Ringsmachines were regarded as being dramatic in a way that had not been done before. Instead of just having a voice that congratulates you whenever you win the jackpot, it is Sallah congratulating you with an elaborate message. I love meeting new people and am looking forward to getting to.

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