John Rhys-Davies interview: The Shannara Chronicles

As The Shannara Chronicles comes to the UK, we chat to and Lord Of The Rings and Indiana Jones actor, John Rhys-Davies…

Interviewing John Rhys-Davies is like trying to alter the flow of a mighty torrent with a teacup. Scoop as hard as you like in any given direction, and on it gushes with tremendous force, following its own course and making a wonderful spectacle as it goes.

Best known for his role as Gimli, son of Gloin in Peter Jackson’s Lord Of The Rings trilogy, Davies’ six decades-long career includes the roles of Sallah in the Indiana Jones films and Professor Arturo in FOX’s Sliders, a show he didn’t depart from happily after a network-orchestrated change in writing personnel.

I met Davies in the offices of Channel 5 to talk about his role as Eventine, King of the Elves in new MTV fantasy series The Shannara Chronicles, but conversation soon ranged. Parallel universes. Max Tegmark. Neutron stars. Feeding naan bread to Hobbits. The parliamentary petition he’s keen to get signatures for. What was behind his rage as the permanently incandescent Gimli. Breaking his back on set. What he and Shannara creator Terry Brooks talk about when they get together. The consolations of science and the disappointments of science-fiction.

Davies tells stories as if we’re sitting around a fire chinking whiskey glasses instead of counting down the minutes at a junket slot. He’s an erudite, experienced performer with a terrifically thespy voice and a bark of a laugh. He’s also not averse to swapping his natural Welsh accent for a bit of fan-pleasing Dwarvish…

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So, King of the Pointy-Ears! Whatever would Gimli say?

He would say [in Gimli’s voice] ‘My, my, but haven’t the family come up in the world? Don’t forget your Dwarvish nature!’

He’s very different, Eventine. He’s a brilliant fighter, a strategist, he has united the Four Kingdoms, he’s probably one of the most successful kings in a thousand years, but it has been at a cost, and that has worn him out. He is coming towards the end of his kingship, he’s going to pass the title on and retire and mind his soul when the series starts.

Unfortunately, his chosen heir—his first-born son—has been murdered and the choices that remain are poor. The second son is passionate, he’s committed, he puts the time in, he’s a good worthy fellow but he just lacks wisdom, judgement, the ability to look at the long game. And his second son’s a drunk and a wastrel. The granddaughter, who should really be behaving herself is a bit of a wild card, but she has some of the old Shannara fire in her. Eventine recognises his younger self in his granddaughter.

Is it important to you to play admirable characters? You’ve said that your aim with the Professor Arturo on Sliders was to glorify intellectual pursuit.

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What I was trying to do in Sliders was to say, look, of all the passions that you can experience in life, do not neglect the one that we seem to be most shy about: intellectual passion. And it cripples our children if they do not see that some people are so delighted with ideas, are so delighted in trying to find the truth that they can advance an argument and be delighted when the counter-argument is better than theirs!

Which explains that copy of New Scientist sat on the table in front of you.

I’ve read New Scientist virtually since it first came out, I think in 56 or 57 when I was a little boy. I can’t say I’ve read every issue, because I travel around the world so much that sometimes I miss subscriptions but I get it wherever and whenever I can.

It’s an interesting combination, the high fantasy films and TV you’ve been a part of, and the scientific mind. Science led to destruction in The Shannara Chronicles, it’s been replaced by magic. What do you make of the collision between those two elements?

I count myself a rationalist and a sceptic—and yet I’m pilloried for having voiced a documentary on Creationism. The first thing I would say is that an actor’s job is to do the work that he offers and accepts. Last year, I had the privilege of working with the Nova Scotia Symphony Orchestra, this does not make me a classical musician. I had the opportunity to work with a marvellous heavy metal band called Metal Acapella, this [voice rising] does not make me a rock and roll musician.

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You don’t espouse the views of the roles you take, you’re saying?

Of course you don’t, but what I do espouse is a willingness to look at the universe in a different way. I’m innumerate and my degree is not in the sciences, but it seems to be that there is a real irreconcilability between the Einsteinian macro universe and the quantum universe. There’s a dissatisfaction bubbling there that people like Max Tegmark and Roger Penrose and David Deutsch and a number of others are trying to address. They would be horrified to hear me put their views in this way, and I’m not, but the sense of what I’m getting is ‘look, the way we’re looking at the universe is wrong’.

We live in what, an eleven to twenty-five or twenty-six dimensional universe, we perceive four of those dimensions. We live in a universe where, in our galaxy, the Milky Way, there are between one hundred and four hundred billion stars. There are between one hundred and four hundred billion galaxies in our universe. The number of universes, if we accept the multi-universe concept, used to be one to the five hundredth power, that’s a number bigger than all the atoms in our universe. The new number of possible alternative universes seems to be something of the order of one to the thousandth to the ten thousandth power. Once you get into big numbers like that, not only is anything possible, actually, it’s probable!

I can see now why you had difficulty on Sliders!

[Laughs. Heartily]

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It’s seems obvious talking to you, why the wasted potential of a series like that and the direction it was taken in didn’t sit right.

[Sighs] When you’ve got three neutron stars entering the solar system, you have to say, ‘You do understand what a neutron star is? It is immensely dense.’ ‘Yeah, but you could have clusters, we’ve checked with the scientists’, ‘Yes [voice rising] when they’re talking about a cluster, they’re saying that within a hundred million lightyear range, there might be three of them! They’re not saying you can get them in the same… DO YOU UNDERSTAND just what even a slightly massive object would be entering our solar system? End of it all.

It’s not just a question of fiction getting the scientific detail right, is it? That doesn’t always serve the storytelling. Part of your problem with Sliders seems to have been a perceived lack of commitment to that storytelling by the network?

Yes. But more than that. Science is science. Once you can actually go to magic and bring the hero back from death by magic, you suck all the real tension out of the thing because you know these people can’t die.

Did you have any reservations about re-entering the world of high fantasy with The Shannara Chronicles?

No. I like getting up in the morning thinking ‘yippee, I’m going to work!’ I’m on my fourth film in four months and there are times in an actor’s life when everything he touches goes wrong, just everything he touches—I’ve seen it in my fellow actors and I’ve seen the despair in their eyes—but there are also times in actors’ lives when the ball comes to the sweet spot of the bat and right at the moment, it’s doing that. With a bit of luck, it’ll continue to do so for a while.

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People tend to be less snobby about the fantasy genre now…

Yes.

No doubt thanks to your friend Peter Jackson.

Genius. Genius.

And fantasy has served you well in this stage of your career.

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I think so, yes. I like ideas. I like alternative ways of looking at how we could live, or should live. The great disappointments for me of science-fiction is the extraordinary predictability. These aliens come from millions of light years away, they come to Earth and we have to fight them…

I look at great film-makers, like [James] Cameron for instance, but the predictability of his vision is just… It’s always big business as the villain or the military is the villain. The us and them-ness is so elementary and such a denial of the real complexity of life.

Cold War sci-fi had the Russian or Communist threat as its masked villain, a political ‘Other’. That’s different now, you feel?

Yes. We do need villains in the piece, but you switch these things on and it’s ‘Oh, I get the premise’, there’s nothing of this that is worth watching because it’s predictable. It’s Cops and Robbers, it’s Cowboys and Indians, dressed up with some other garbage around it. It really bores me and annoys me. There is so much extraordinary stuff out there that we could be exploring and it’s a waste of time that we don’t.

Which is why it’s a good thing that Terry Brooks didn’t follow the advice he was given early in his career to ditch the fantasy and start writing legal thrillers?

I like Terry. To be honest with you, I’d not read any of his novels before I took the job, but I like the man.

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You’ve met him?

Oh yes. We get on rather well actually! We’re probably the older two of the team, so we often sit together. He’s bright and he’s sharp and he’s creative.

What do you talk about together?

Actually sometimes we talk about science. And writing. The technical art of writing and what it is we’re trying to do.

It’s very interesting because writers and actors have the same care-group that they have to look after: the audience. I never tire of repeating it, I think it’s Dr Johnson’s line, “The drama’s laws the drama’s patrons give/ For we who live to please must please to live”.

That’s it. My job is to enrich and satisfy and feed the audience, and if I lose sight of that, if I suddenly imagine [self-important, thespian voice] that ‘You know who I am? I am a star. I am more important than you people!’ If I ever get to that point, please shoot me, because I’ll have missed the basic point of it all.

That’s why it’s worth enduring arduous prosthetics and difficult stunts and uncomfortable filming experiences, because actors “live to please”?

Yes. Filming’s not easy. It’s always a twelve hour day, it’s frequently a thirteen, fourteen, fifteen, sixteen hour day. If you’re lucky it’s a five day week, but it’s generally a six-day week.

Next week I shall be outside for six days in the snow in Lithuania and that’s going to be hard. Just surviving that so that you’re fit enough and well enough to be able to do the rest of the show in the studio is going to be a tough challenge. I shall be cold, I shall be wet and… I shall be so delighted by doing it! [claps his hands, laughs].

Filming The Shannara Chronicles mustn’t be as isolating an experience as you had on Lord Of The Rings, because it’s not a matter of being green-screened?

Lord Of The Rings ended up being something I did after everyone else went home, basically. I was then the tallest member of the fellowship [at 6ft 1] and they needed lower eye-lines and so my stand-in, who was a small fellow, ended up getting all the lines bowled to him while the continuity lady gave the answers back, and then at the end of the day, I would come in and do my bit. Part of the joy of film-making, of theatre, is your fellow actors. It was actually the loneliest job I’ve ever done.

I think Sir Ian McKellen said the same thing about his role.

Yes, because the technology had so advanced! I went down and I saw Ian in one room and these very tall dwarves in the other room, and they were just dialling the proportions in – one lot of cameras there, one lot of cameras there – and interlaying them. But he was working very much on his own, and that’s tough.

Mine was compounded by the fact that I was so ugly because –well, I’m never good at the best of times!—but I was hideous. Medical adhesive is wonderful, it’s hypoallergenic, you don’t have an allergic reaction to it. But it binds to the surface of the skin and it’s not designed to be taken off and put on on a daily basis. The skin around your eyes is about the thickness of two cigarette papers, and it just abraded. So then the face becomes puffed with fluid, as it tries to repair. I looked hideous. I was so hideous that my then-girlfriend actually said to me ‘Sweetheart, I don’t know how to say this to you, but I can’t bear to look at you. I’ve just got to go back to L.A. until you’ve finished this.’ And she was right to do it, I did look hideous. I felt disgusted with my appearance and it’s very hard to work under those circumstances. But that’s what you have to do, it’s part of the business of being an actor, you focus on what you’re doing.

But I think there’s a bit of real human rage that comes through old Gimli sometimes!

Are you on a horse at any point in The Shannara Chronicles?

I have a nine and a half year old daughter who is horse-mad. One of the reasons I took this part was that I was going to get to ride on a nice, big, white stallion who was stunning. They kept cutting the scene and saying ‘no, we’re going to keep that as an inside scene’ and I ended up not riding at all. I want my money back! [Laughs!]

Because one of the most memorable scenes in Indiana Jones And The Last Crusade, of course, is the tank vs. horse rescue scene.

Oh yes.

Do you have any overriding memories of filming that one?

I don’t know about particularly that one, but I seem to remember one Rocky Taylor and Greg Powell, two master stuntmen who are now very serious co-ordinators or may even have retired, but I can’t imagine they ever will. I remember we were filming in Israel once, or maybe this was on Raiders, but I took the horse out to give it a little gallop and I’m galloping along and suddenly these two appear on either side of me ‘How’s it going, John?’, ‘Great, fine, how are you?’, and they come closer and they bend down and they pull my legs out of the stirrups! Bastards! Ha! [Claps and laughs].

Were you injured?

No, I stayed on for goodness’ sake. We played games with each other. It’s part of the fun.

You’ve been seriously injured on a film set before though?

Piece of crap for Disney called La Femme Muskateer. Filming in Croatia, we were in this beautiful location, not far from Rijeka, it was actually the ravine where Dante got the idea for Inferno. We’d put up this temporary wall to block off one view, so we had a castle and things like that. It was 55 foot long and 12 foot high and then it had 8 feet of Mediterranean roofing tile on the top of it. And because they were inexperienced filmmakers they tied it off on the fenders of trucks, on the bumper bars. Which is fine until you move the truck, and if you do that once or twice, slowly you forget to re-tie them.

November in Yugoslavia, or Croatia, is a time when these vast, powerful winds come through—in fact, that particular day, a train was derailed because of the wind—and I was called to the set and the first AD said ‘We’re not quite ready for you yet John, we’ve just got to put this rig up, don’t go away will you’ so I stood around. There was a passing couple and their children who came up and had a photograph with me then went off and then, suddenly, I heard that scream that actually is monkey-talk for ‘There is something falling out of the sky’, it goes something like WOOOOOOAAAAAHHHH—that’s monkey-talk for ‘disaster is about to happen’. I thought, ‘God, they’re going to drop that rig on me and I turned back and put my arms up and I saw they weren’t looking at the rig, they were looking behind me at… BANG! Broke my back in five places, broke my arm…

It was a tough one, that one. I’ve played rugby, I was vigorous in my youth, I’ve had a few hidings, but when the scrum collapses on you there’s generally just a tiny bit of wriggle room so you can get a breath in, then, I couldn’t get any breath in. I was just at the point of passing out when they managed to lift it off me. I had to say ‘Whatever you do, don’t move me’ My back’s broken, I think my pelvis has gone. I think my knees, my arms, everything, everything hurt.

You’d take tipping over a canoe in New Zealand over that any day then, I’d imagine?[Appox. 1:30 in this The Fellowship Of The Ring DVD extra]

[In Gimli’s voice] I want to set something right about this tipping of the canoe! There was a certain elf, who got into a canoe with a dwarf, and, the canoe capsized, and the elf blamed the dwarf. Later that afternoon, the elf and a hobbit got into a canoe and it tipped over again! There was only two capsizes and the common factor was NOT THE DWARF! [Laughs]

Now you’ve said that, I have to ask, have you heard Dominic Monaghan’s impression of you he does on one of the DVD extras?

No.

It’s pretty good, and all done with great fondness and respect, obviously. He’s describing a meal that you all went out for when you, quite expansively, ordered for them all.

Look, you go out to dinner with ten, twelve, fourteen people for an Indian meal, and if you’re going to wait for everyone to say what they’re having, it’ll be all night. ‘Right, so this is what we’ll have! We’ll have twelve naans, we’ll have ten Peshwari naans, we’ll have four of the lamb bhuna…’

The one thing about Hobbits is they’re endlessly, perpetually hungry. Feeding a hobbit is rather like having a big hole in your garden and throwing five pound notes into it.

We’re being asked to wrap up, so I have to ask. Indiana Jones 5 is coming, I understand that you turned down a Sallah cameo in Indiana Jones 4?

Yes, there wasn’t enough to do. They were going to green-screen it, I was going to walk in, sit down, clap, and they were going to cut it into the wedding scene. I think the character is worth more than that. He’s a great character.

As an actor, do you feel the trend for reboots and bringing franchises back was a good thing because it meant more work from jobs you might have thought were over?

What it is is a general failure of the creative imagination. The desire to make a remake of something that was successful is a cheap way of going about things. It’s almost borrowed valour, in its own way. I’ve worked with real creative people, and the difference between hacks who just want to try and remake the same old thing and real inventive filmmakers and writers is the difference between working with zombies and working with real people. I hate it, but my job’s to survive.

John Rhys-Davies, thank you very much!

The Shannara Chronicles starts in the UK on Thursday the 25th of February, at 9pm on 5STAR.