If you weren’t jam-packed into the Randwick Ritz at Popcorn Taxi’s Raiders of the Lost Ark screening with John Rhys-Davies earlier this September, then you missed the chance to see ‘Sallah’ up close and in a talkative mood. Luckily for us, Adam Bustin was at the Shangri-La Hotel in Sydney beforehand to get a Sci Fi Show look at Professor Maximilian Arturo from Sliders and Gimli in the Lord of The Rings Trilogy. If you’ve never read a John Rhys-Davies interview before, gird your loins for a meeting with a remarkable mind and find out just what it was like to work on THE greatest action adventure film of all time.
AB: Hello John, it’s a pleasure to meet you.
JRD: Glad to be here.
AB: Well, I think the first thing I talk to you about ought to be Raiders of the Lost Ark (1980). With Raiders, Steven Spielberg would have been coming straight off of 1941 (1979) which you could say was a humbling critical and commercial response.
JRD: Yes I think it had been. I mean, we look back on 1941 now and think ‘Wow. That really is a very good film.’
AB: It is. I revisited it a couple of weeks ago and it’s very funny and contains Spielberg’s penchant for visual gags in spades. But I guess what I’m saying is that with Raiders, Spielberg has said that he was looking to cement himself as a director and show everybody that he still had what it takes.
JRD: There was that feeling, that the whiz-kid had reached his zenith and now it was all downhill. It was nonsense of course, but people – particularly the British; we only like a limited amount of success in a person. It’s a miserable characteristic. Australians tend to delight more in the success of their guys and not want to diminish them in any way. It’s a consequence of the Norman invasion of England, I think (laughter). Anyway, you’re right. He came from 1941 and was spending his friend George Lucas‘ money and wanted to shoot it quick and fast. He wanted to get a freshness and immediacy out of it – like a painter slapping paint on a canvas without overworking and reworking it.
AB: Was that sense of determination evident on set?
JRD: Yes, it was. He actually said those very words to us on set. So we did have that. But we also had a very great sense of the energy allowed for us to make creative suggestions and input. A lot of it ended up on the cutting room floor – not because they were bad, but because the film was just so damn rich anyway. You couldn’t squeeze it all in.
AB: It’s an example of very lean filmmaking.
JRD: It’s joyous. They understood so definitively that the best way of succeeding at the box office was to give every viewer fifty dollars worth of entertainment for the five bucks they spend at the box office. And that’s a pretty sure guide for all of us – whether it be the writers or actors or anybody. Treat your audience with love and respect.
AB: And they’ll come back in droves.
JRD: And they’ll come back in droves. I mean, they may not do it immediately. But in the end – if what you give them is good value for money, they will identify that and hopefully seek you out.
AB: Excellent. Now, with a character like Sallah or even Gimli, I’d say that these characters are not unrealistic, but fantastic in the literal sense of the word. I was wondering if you get a certain sense of joy in embodying characters that you’re able to play up as opposed to other roles you may have done that you might call more naturalistic or down to earth.
JRD: Sometimes it is the necessity of the script that determines what you do. The reason that I got Raiders of the Lost Ark was because I had done Shogun (1980) and Steven had seen it.
AB: I believe he changed the character of Sallah precisely because he had seen you in Shogun.
JRD: That’s right. I had read the script and read the book for Shogun and I was thinking about what my function was and realised that the problem for any actor playing the hero was that he is reacting all the time to what is going on around him. He doesn’t understand what is being said. He is a passive hero in some ways. One of the things we expect of our actors is the ability to help pace the scene. When you’re reacting all the time, it’s very hard to control the pace – particularly when you have the problem of a lot of the dialogue being in a language that nobody else understands either. He doesn’t understand what is being said and neither does the audience. It’s a huge problem and over a twelve hour miniseries, it’s an actor’s nightmare.
You think ‘How the hell can I keep the rhythm of this thing going? How do I keep the power and the pulse going through this thing?’ And so I realised that my function, the function of Rodrigues and the way I can best serve the film was by coming in with twice the amount of energy and twice the amount of bravura, so that my arrival in the scene would be like a sort of mini hurricane happening. The pace of the scene would go ‘WHOOMPH!’ up in the air and would allow Richard to underplay.
He longer had to be responsible for the pace of the scene. He could allow me to handle the pace of the scene for him and then underplay and score those subtle observational points that the character needs.
Secondly, the effect of that would be to have injected energy into the piece that would last for a few further scenes along. So the part is partly characterised by the understanding that I have to provide energy in order to serve it. So there is a mechanistic determination there along with just the character in the book and what the actor wants to do. Gimli is slightly different.
AB: Well, something I wanted to ask you about Gimli was whether his humour was something that you actively discussed with Peter and something you had input toward?
JRD: Very much so. It was very deliberate discussions that he and I had because the structure of The Lord of the Rings is not filmic. In fact if you analyse it, it’s just a deepening darkness, isn’t it? Things are okay and then something bad happens. Then there’s a little skirmish and then things look worse. Then there’s a fight and things look a lot worse. Then another skirmish and now things look really rather bad. Things just keep getting worse and worse.
You haven’t got the ebb and flow to manipulate feelings in the course of this wholly undramatic book. It was a very deliberate thought that I, Fran Walsh, Phillipa and Peter had. I said ‘Look, we have a chance of using Gimli as a lightning conductor. We can be true to the character in the book and at the same time make him a scene lightener.’ Because the humour of the character comes from the incongruence between what he thinks he is and what we know he is.
AB: He thinks he’s big, even though he’s small.
JRD: He doesn’t know he’s small and that is funny!
AB: I understand that you recently paid a visit to all of the other dwarves in Wellington.
JRD: Yes I did.
AB: I’m not going to ask you if you’re in The Hobbit.
JRD: Alas, I’m not.
AB: Well I understand that you used to have a problem with the adhesive used for all your prosthetics. But upon seeing them all, was there a small part of you that wanted to get back into costume and be a part of that world again?
JRD: It was very much like going back to a school where you had once been a very senior and important person and suddenly realising that time has moved on. It’s a different bunch now. It’s a very odd feeling.
AB: Do you prefer to work in film or television? You have done a lot of work in both.
JRD: I think I prefer the freedom of film. But television can be so useful and so important sometimes. The great advantage with film is that if it turns out to be crap, you can see it pretty early on and resign yourself to it and think ‘Oh well, I’ve got another three weeks on this. I’m doing the best I can, but it is what it is.’ With television you have those battles. You see, I’m really a rather stupid person. I believe that you and I for instance, are here to do the best interview that we can. I respect what you’re doing, you respect what I’m doing and we’re going to make this the best interview that we can possibly do.
JRD: That forms a very easy and comfortable brotherhood between us. It’s when you get to the point where we’re all in the room together and we’re all saying ‘Alright, this is what we’re going to do’. I expect you to say ‘John, we’re going out to dinner. We’re going to be seen together. You cannot just wear your underpants. You have to put your trousers on.’ I can accept that.
What I can’t accept is the guy who says ‘Yeah well, we’ve got to go out and have dinner and all that, but it’s not really important because what we’re doing now isn’t really important, but what the other guys are doing is. We’ve got to pace this, be nice to this guy, know we’re carrying him and do this because I owe a favour to somebody’ etc. You know? I’m not interested. Let’s make the best we can. And I found that with Sliders, for instance.
AB: I did want to talk to you about Sliders.
JRD: I should not be angry about that show. I’m not angry about a number of crappy shows that I’ve done that you would mention and make me go ‘Oh, I’m sorry!’, but I’m still angry about Sliders. Sliders could have been the Fox Network’s Star Trek franchise. We could still be doing spin-offs of Sliders now. We could go anywhere in space and anywhere in time.
AB: I remember that upon revisiting Sliders, I realised that when it first started it was almost like The Twilight Zone, only with the benefit of continuity through its characters – which was something remarkable and something that no other show had in terms of narrative leeway. But I think that as it went on – particularly towards Season 3 and the exit of Professor Arturo, this steep decline came where it became more reliant on Sci Fi tropes.
JRD: I was so disappointed with it. You know, I had worked with real writers. There was a time when – at least once a week, I would receive a script from a young man at NYU or USC and it would be perfect. I would take it to the line producer and say ‘Look! Read this. It doesn’t need a word changed. It’s a damn good script.’ And he would take it home for the weekend, read it and say ‘You’re right. It’s a great script. It’s original, it’s fresh, it doesn’t need a word changed and we don’t yet have a script for the end of the week. But the writers will not yet allow anyone else to come in.’ It was just heartbreak.
We did a copy of everyone else’s damn thing. We did the Tremors (1990) episode, we did The Night of the Living Dead (1968) episode. We actually used the masks from The Island of Dr. Moreau (1977).
AB: Oh, geez.
JRD: We did the Twister (1996) episode – except instead of the twister getting small at the beginning and big at the top, ours was backwards. Well that makes a difference, you see? (laughter) I went into the writers room once and saw them looking at the new home release for Species (1995) and heard them say ‘You know, we could take a little bit from that..’ This is not writing. I mean, you can have a tribute to somebody and that’s fine because there are a number of times where you think ‘You know, I like that story, but they didn’t find the real point of that story. The real point of that story is what happened there.’
Science fiction is rich enough to take a number of themes that are never properly developed in one story and allow them to be developed a different way. That’s a different thing. It’s not ‘Oh, we’re going to do Tremors this week.’ Then to have somebody turn around to me and have them say ‘Look John, what we want to do is have you play the bad scientist in Lost in Space.’
AB: It’s unfortunate. I think they’re asking me to finish up, so I have one final question for you: You have worked with both Steven Spielberg and Peter Jackson on these adventure series and now both of those men are working together co-producing and both directing instalments of this Tintin trilogy – also set in the 1930s and plays very much like Indiana Jones. Is there a place for Sallah in this trilogy?
JRD: They haven’t said so, so I guess not.
AB: Time to tap somebody on the shoulder.
JRD: Nobody is watching the damn things anyway.
AB: Did you see the first film?
JRD: I did see it. To be honest, I never much cared for it as a cartoon. But ‘quot homines tot sententiae.
AB: My latin is rusty.
JRD: I think it basically says that there are as many opinions as there are people.
AB: It’s been an absolute pleasure talking with you.
JRD: The pleasure was all mine.
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