Interview: John Rhys-Davies (Indiana Jones, Lord of the Rings)

Interview: John Rhys-Davies (Indiana Jones, Lord of the Rings). By Simon Miraudo.

If you’re ever embarking on a grand adventure, there are a number of fictional characters who you’d want by your side. Near the top of that list is Indiana Jones’ Egyptian buddy Sallah, Frodo’s trusty Dwarf warrior Gimli, and, perhaps significantly further down but certainly not struck off, professional Slider Maximillian Arturo. If our chat with the charming and erudite John Rhys-Davies is any indication, he’d be just as wonderful a companion as those he’s portrayed on screen. With Indiana Jones: The Complete Adventures out on Blu-ray, we spoke to Rhys-Davies about the experience of shooting Steven Spielberg’s Raiders of the Lost Ark (during which he claims to have come down with a nasty case of cholera before accidentally relieving himself in front of 200 extras) and the “most unpleasant process” of playing Gimli in Lord of the Rings, as well as asking why he turned down appearances in Kingdom of the Crystal Skull and The Hobbit.

SM: What’s it been like to see yourself in high-definition?

JRD: It’s astonishing, isn’t it? I mean, the quality of this Blu-ray stuff is quite amazing. It’s even more so amazing to me because you’re talking about a man who’s still got an old square screen – 525, 625 – television set.

SM: You’ve not updated yet?

JRD: Well, we’re a little bit behind the times, lad! My wife keeps telling me we have to enter the 21st century at some stage, but, you know, nag, nag, nag.

SM: The century is still young. There’s plenty of time for that.

JRD: Exactly.

SM: Well, going back to the end of the last century and Raiders of the Lost Ark, I’ve read that Sallah was originally meant to be five feet tall, and had been offered to Danny DeVito. How did you convince Steven Spielberg and George Lucas that you were the right man – and the right height – for the role?

JRD: The Danny DeVito thing was something that came along quite late on, I believe. I’m not sure that that story’s absolutely true, because it was a bit before Danny was an established success and that sort of thing. Steven had seen Shogun. Shogun had been – and still is, I believe – the second most watched mini-series of all time. Shogun actually was the reason Americans took up eating sushi. There were very few Japanese restaurants in America before Shogun. He’d seen that, and I’d been well accepted – I actually got an Emmy nomination out of it – and he asked me to come along. It did say a five foot one skinny Egyptian, and I was a six foot one and certainly not skinny Welshman. He said, basically, “We want the energy of Falstaff, the character that you played in Shogun, and he’s Egyptian.” There wasn’t much of a script to go by. I read it. There wasn’t much dialogue in it. It was all scene description. I said to my agent, “This is either going to be the biggest catastrophe of all time, or, it is so extraordinary it might just set a new fashion in filmmaking.”

SM: We know the answer to that now. George Lucas, on the set of Star Wars, he famously had low expectations because it was sort of a disastrous shooting process. When you were on the set of Raiders – when you were actually working on the film – did you have any inkling that it was going to be this magnificent success, or were you still holding onto those concerns?

JRD: No, no. We went with the flow. There was such an energy, and such creativity around, that it was a blast anyway. When I actually saw the film in the cinema, I was pretty blown away. I realised it was going to be good; I hadn’t realised it was going to be that good. In those days, I did not have the experience I’ve had now of being around the ‘great’ productions, you know? Sometimes with the ‘great’ ones, you just get the smell of success. For instance, when we got to Lord of the Rings, I was pretty sure we were heading for disaster. I went to New Zealand; I spent two and a half weeks there checking things out, checking Peter Jackson out, and I experienced a 180-degree turn. I’m very proud to have been the very first person on record to have actually stood up in front of a very sceptical audience of journalists saying, “You have no idea what is happening here. Three predictions: One, these films are going to be bigger and be amongst the biggest box office films of all time. Then, they’re going to be bigger than Star Wars,” – at which point Peter Jackson buried his head in his hands – “And thirdly, when you look back on the great films of your lifetime, in twenty, thirty years’ time, Lord of the Rings will be there.” By then I’d had the experience of having a hundred or so minor, disastrous, pretty good, pretty reasonable films behind me, and a few moments where you think, “Major, major stuff. This is serious, this is extraordinary.”

SM: Speaking of that major stuff, and as you said, with Lord of the Rings and of course the Indiana Jones films among others, was there a particular day on set – on any of those sets – where you thought, “This is all too much; the elements are too hard,” and it was just one of those days when nothing worked?

JDR: [Laughs]

SM: I’m sure there were many, but was there one in particular?

JDR: Well, there are always those days. The great shoots are often very hard. They’re hard on the body. We all came down with some form of dysentery. Actually, I think I had cholera; somebody actually said, “I think you have cholera.”

SM: Goodness.

JDR: When you’re going to the toilet forty, fifty, sixty, seventy times a day, and you’re just dehydrating so colossally, you can get dangerously ill. There was a piece that was never in the final cut, where Steven said to me, “John, can you just bend down to give me a better eye line?” As I bent my knees, I filled my djellaba in front of two hundred people, and I didn’t care.

SM: Perhaps that’s good not to have in high-definition.

JDR: [Laughs] My God. And can you imagine that happening on a set today, with everyone with their digital phones and things like that. Doing extra photography on the dance scene as well. It’d be around YouTube or Facebook – ‘Bottombook’ would perhaps be more appropriate – in a flash. You’d be eternally apostrophed the actor who filled his pants whilst shooting a film.

SM: Well, it’s definitely a good idea to save that revelation until you’ve established a firm career like you have, where it won’t go on to define you. Now on the set of Raiders, did you and Harrison Ford get to spend much time together to refine your camaraderie?

JDR: Obviously, we’re stuck in the desert together, yes. So, we dined together, we talked together. The extraordinary thing – and I always sort of knew it but I never really, until now, finally put it together seeing the behind the scenes stuff on this Blu-ray that it really hammered it home to me – how much, right from the word ‘go,’ this actor who’d really sort of stolen Star Wars in a way, grasped the opportunity that he had with Indiana Jones. He’s there, and he knows exactly what he’s making. He knows the hard lines of that character. He’s putting in the dark and the light and the shades of the character. But he knows he’s creating an icon. I have never known, and I do not believe there is any other example in cinema history of an actor so deliberately creating an iconic character so successfully. When you think about it, that shadow on the wall alone is enough to tell you who that character is. Indiana Jones is one of the great, iconic figures of the 20th century. That is, in itself, extraordinary. The fact that actually Harrison knew what he was trying to do and was so determined and actually did it puts his achievements into quite a different area.

SM: Absolutely, and I think the success of even Kingdom of the Crystal Skull three decades later is a testament to his performance and the whole franchise’s ongoing, beloved legacy. Sallah has sadly passed away by the time of the fourth film. I understand you turned down the opportunity to cameo in it?

JDR: Has Sallah passed away by the fourth film?

SM: Oh, OK, maybe not.

JDR: Had he? Is there any evidence that he’s dead?

SM: Well, there’s a photo looked at mournfully, but I’m perhaps inferring too much here. Were you offered the opportunity to pop up there?

JDR: I was offered the chance to sit in a blue-screen studio with a second unit director. To walk in, sit down in a chair, and clap. And they were going to cut that into the wedding sequence in the end. I said, “No”, a) because I didn’t have much time, but b) I thought it was cheating the fans a little bit. I think Sallah deserves a bit more than that.

SM: I think so too, that’s definitely the case. If there’s a fifth one, perhaps he’ll return there.

JDR: [Laughs] Well, there are all sorts of reasons why…I would not rule out the possibility of a fifth one. I can see many reasons, however, why Sallah would not be in it. Partially because of the geography of where its set, geographically, is a matter of concern. But the other thing is [pause] there’s a wonderful innocence and a shared camaraderie between Harrison and Sallah; between the Americans and the Arabs. And I’m not sure that that camaraderie exists any more, or can exist anymore. The fact that I can even say that speaks buckets for the way the world has gone. It’s taken a turn for the worst. I hope that it’s not true, and yet I feel it is. I think the world is a darker place now then it was, but perhaps because the world has become a darker place we should insist more that Sallah comes back; that there is the loyal, intelligent, warm-hearted noble soul who can be a friend and ally of the great, iconic American hero again.

SM: You’re right. That certainly is a tragedy, and we’ll all pray that Indy and Sallah can bridge the gap and bring everyone together in a  – maybe – fifth instalment. The Hobbit recently wrapped filming. I understand you didn’t want to be involved in that because of your allergies to the facial prosthetics.

JDR: Well, it isn’t a question of not wanting to be involved.

SM: Of course.

JDR: A) my character doesn’t really exist in it; he’s a three-year-old, I think, at the time. I could have, I suppose, been another dwarf, but when you’ve been one of one, why would you want to be one of thirteen? The other thing is, it wasn’t a question of being allergic to the prosthetic. The glue, the adhesive, we used was a hypoallergenic medical adhesive. Really wonderful stuff. It does stick you together. The only snag is, it really isn’t designed to be put on and taken off on a daily basis, and the skin around your eyes – particularly under your eyes – is the thickness of two cigarette papers. And the abrasion that takes place when you try to get that damned stuff off slowly wears away the skin, and I ended up losing all the skin around my eyes. Partly because of the irritation of the thing, and when I was sleeping I’d start scratching and stuff like that. I looked like a bleeding panda. You know those panda eyes? Mine were just wet. Limp, moist, wet. Of course, the face would swell as well. When you’ve got an open wound, the body is trying to get as much lymph there to get it better, so the whole face swells. I looked hideous, and I felt very self-conscious about it as well. It was maybe the most unpleasant process that I’ve ever endured in making a part. And I think, to be honest with you, the company was wonderful and tolerant and they all had a great time, and there was only one ‘asshole’ on the whole show, and I wore his boots every day, I’m afraid.

SM: It added to the texture of the film, I assure you.

JDR: He’s a great character.

Indiana Jones: The Complete Adventures is now available on Blu-ray.

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