It's rare when you get to speak with someone who has seen the modern age of filmmaking develop firsthand. John Rhys-Davies first came to the attention of American audiences as Indiana Jones' friend and excavator, Sallah. He is more recently known for voicing Treebeard and starring as Gimli the Dwarf in the The Lord of the Rings series. He has had a legendary on-screen career, while also providing voices in classic shows, such as Batman: The Animated Series, SpongeBob Squarepants, and Gargoyles among others.
We were lucky enough to get the chance to sit down with legendary actor John Rhys-Davies and talk to him about science fiction, The Lord of the Rings, Raiders of the Lost Ark, and even a little bit of world history.
PoG: What were the films that inspired you as a youth? What inspired you to get in it?
John Rhys-Davies: Well, the very first film that I ever saw was When Worlds Collide. And it was 1952 and I was meant to go and see it. My father had promised to take me and I was hugely disappointed that he didn't take me. Because the cinemas closed. I grew up in Africa. Tanzania, as it is now. And the cinemas had closed because King George had died. Throughout the British empire, it was a national day of morning. But I did get to see When Worlds Collide...When I was eleven, I discovered science fiction. It was one of those summer holidays where you had to write down the title and description for every book you read. And I don't know whether I've still got it, but I counted 111 science fiction books. I mean I read Bradbury and Asimov and all those great science fiction writers. I mean I'm still a dreaming boy...
PoG: What are the last few good science fiction movies that you have seen?
JRD: Last good one...That's a little bit tricky. I like that one that George Clooney did. Gravity. That was pretty good. I like The Hunger Games, which I suppose is sort of science fiction. The truth of the matter is I'm really uncritical. I just love watching science fiction. I can be terribly picky and critical sometimes, but when it comes to science fiction, I'm going, "yeah, yeah...that's possible." I'm back to being a child again.
PoG: Have you ever done a shoot as long and possibly as grueling as The Lord of the Rings?
JRD: Not really I suppose. Long ones yes. I was in War and Remembrance and that was 18 months of principal photography, around the world. But I got chopped fairly early and died rather magnificently I rather thought. The Lord of the Rings was a tough one for many reasons, largely because of the prosthetics. Every time I took it off, it took a little skin off from around my eyes. Which is not very good. But Shogun was a tough shoot. Raiders of the Lost Ark was a tough shoot. We shot it in Tunisia and the last oasis before the true sahara. And I think on a couple of days, the temperature got up to 129 degrees. You know, at that sort of temperature when you walk your pulse rate doubles. When you try to run and carry something. Then there was the endless dysentery which made life pretty miserable. Pretty terrible. You know a lot of filmmaking is tough. It's a hard and sometimes dangerous industrial environment and you have to look after yourself and fellow actors and workers.
PoG: You have been around the world in film and you have played almost every culture...
JRD: That's right! It's great fun. I'm a Welshman and I know of my immediate ancestors three or four hundred years back in that small part of Wales. But the Welsh are really, the Romano Britons, don't forget Rome ruled Britain. As far as we are from the Jamestown colony, to put it in our terms. To be a Roman was a great thing. You might not be a Roman, but you joined the Roman Army, because at the end of your time you got citizenship, you got your pension, you got the loot that you acquired from campaigning, and you got a grant of land. A decent hunk of land. Unfortunately it was never from the country that you came from. You now knew about military tactics , you were now an able, accomplished 25 year in the army survivor. You were as tough as nails, smart as a boot, and lethal. "I'm not sending you back to where you are from, soldier. You are now a Roman citizen. You were raised in North Africa, we will put you in Spain, or Britannia." The great thing about being a Roman citizen is that your children can never be enslaved. You would then marry in the local aristocracy. Everyone began to think that it would be nice to have a Roman in the family that way your family wouldn't be enslaved. And that's why after four centuries the Romano Britons were a pretty mixed lot. There would be North Africans, there probably would have been some Palestinians, Spaniards, Cyrenians, there would have been Germans all that sort of thing. And they were all now Roman citizens...The word Welsh itself is an Anglo-Saxon word. It means stranger or foreigner...So that's why I can probably pass for a lot of different nationalities. Because in that ancestry years ago, there was probably some black, some brown...They say of Britain if you go back to 1300, only 700 year ago, everyone in Britain has a common relative. If you go back 2400 years everyone in the world has a relative in common. If you go back 70,000 years ago, when something catastrophic happened, when the population was reduced to anywhere between 1000 to 10,000. We are all descendents of them...
PoG: You've seen the evolution of film first-hand. Do you feel movies are getting better than ever or worsening with advances in technology?
JRD: No, see there are good, bad, and indifferent films. It's all based on a great story and a great script. At heart, no matter how sophisticated we claim we are, we are all a sucker for a good story. It comes back from the days when we would sit around the campfire and the clan and the tribe were there. [Oral tradition.] Absolutely! And we would look at the stars in the night sky. Don't forget our ancestors lived half their lives in darkness. And we'd be looking at this incredible sparkling things up there and say, "What the hell are they? They seem so close. Are they fireflies?" Sometimes in modern civilization we forget what life is about. There are all sorts of people who will say life is about this and this. You can't make those statements without offending half of your audience. Because there is a breakdown in what our common value systems are, which is culturally catastrophic. In the end what I come up with is this. I will tell you what life is about. Life is about one...surviving. No matter what happens, survive. That is your first responsibility. The second is to do better than your father and mother did. Why? Because they want you to do that. And thirdly, make sure that your child, the children of your family, the children of your clan, the children of your nation, the children of humanity are equipped to do better than you did. That's how we've got to this extraordinary position that we have. And in our background, there will be mothers who have eaten mud in order to survive. So that child, that is your ancestor and my ancestor, survived. And we should honor them because they survived and we are here. And all that existential bull**** that "life has no meaning." Well life has a meaning. Life is live. And do better than they did, because that's what they want us to do.
Well said. It's all of our responsibility to continue telling and supporting good stories, while constantly improving on what has come before. We want to thank Rhys-Davies for taking the time to sit with us and wax poetic on a wide range of topics. You will be able to see him in a variety of film and TV projects in 2015, so stay tuned.
Let us know what you think of what John Rhys-Davies career on the comment boards!
Source: Point of Geeks