Actor John Rhys-Davies shares his experiences with hidden treasure and battling for Middle-Earth
To any fan of film, John Rhys-Davies’ name brings to mind dreams of buried desert treasure, Russian espionage, and of course, an axe stained with Orc’s blood clutched by a short-tempered dwarf.
I was able to chat with Rhys-Davies before his appearance at this year’s Edmonton Comic & Entertainment Expo. I began our conversation by telling him that he and Harrison Ford were the reasons I wanted to be an archaeologist as a kid, after seeing them act as Sallah and Indiana Jones in Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark.
“Isn’t it amazing. This makes it about 253 of people and professional archaeologists who have told me that I was one of the reasons they became interested in archaeology,” Rhys-Davies says. “Those are great films. Of course archaeology isn’t done that way these days. Indy found more of a loot and scoot school of archaeology.”
As a skilled excavator, Sallah, in Raiders of the Lost Ark, Rhys-Davies battled Nazis while attempting to find and restore the Ark of the Covenant, a chest that is said to contain the Ten Commandments.
But his archaeology exploits don’t stop there.
In real life, Rhys-Davies has narrated archaeology documentaries and has been in to actual excavation sites.
“I was at a dinner in Jerusalem the other night and a man turned around, introduced himself and next thing I know, I’m on a site just outside the Lion’s Gate in Jerusalem,” Rhys-Davies says. “The site is being excavated and they just got down to the tops of the Roman cellars which have been filled in by the Byzantines. Down there are the fragments of the Roman temple vessels. In any square foot, there would be at least 100 pieces of pottery, Roman mosaics, and quantities of tesserae lying around. They think that under the Roman stuff they’re going to find Age of Kings.”
This is not the first time Rhys-Davies has been invited to a dig. It’s a perk to being a movie star.
“You do realize you’re talking to one of the archaeological legends of the 20th century. With Indy, I actually found the Ark of the Covenant and the Holy Grail. How many people can really say that?” he says.
Rhys-Davies has had an extremely successful career. To date, he is the only known actor who has been in all three of the James Bond, Indiana Jones, and The Lord of the Rings franchises.
“I’ve been a lucky son of a bitch, haven’t I? I always tell young actors you have to be prepared for anything. Your preparation will in turn perhaps lead to the next job or defining job,” Rhys-Davies says. “My first film was a Michael Caine film. I never actually met Michael Caine. I got blown up before the main titles, but it was an introduction to the world of film.”
Rhys-Davies’ most well-known character is has to be Gimli, the dwarf of the Fellowship in The Lord of the Rings trilogy. The funny thing is that he never actually wanted the part.
“I had no confidence that this little chap in New Zealand had any idea what he was getting himself into,” he says. “The books were unfilmable and having spent 30 years trying to be recognized. Why would I want to immerse myself in a prosthetic?”
Rhys-Davies had two nudges that “influenced” his decision to take the part.
“My present manager who was an agent at the time said, ‘If you don’t accept this part, well frankly, I don’t think we can continue to represent you,’” he says. “The other defining thing was my eldest son who said, ‘I think you’re nuts turning this down.’ He said ‘Just think, in every bookshop anywhere in the world there’s at least two feet of bookshelf dedicated to Tolkien.”
After taking his son’s advice, Rhys-Davies journeyed to New Zealand, still thoroughly skeptical, and checked out what director Peter Jackson was working on.
“Within two weeks I realized this was going to be one of the great motion pictures of all time,” Rhys-Davies says.
He and Jackson saw the character of Gimli as not only a warrior very capable of slaying Orcs and Uruk-hai, but also a comic foil to the darkened tone of The Lord of the Rings. The core reason the books are unfilmable is because Tolkien used a “Nordic saga type structure,” meaning some events happen in the past with things continuing to worsen until there’s an end-all battle.
On film that would not only drag on, but be rather depressing. The audience needs some comedic relief every now and then.
“The great secret about Gimli is that he doesn’t realize he’s small,” Rhys-Davies says. “He’s a giant in his eyes and that wonderful slightly misplaced sense of self is always comic. There’s also the wonderful paradoxes of the character. The narrow insular xenophobic nature of the dwarves which is combined with an extraordinary capacity for love, loyalty, and friendship when gained. If you set him on his own with a 1,000 Orcs advancing, with the certainty of death, he’ll shout [in the Gimli voice], ‘What are we waiting for?’”
Rhys-Davies also voiced Treebeard, the eldest of the Ents, in The Lord of the Rings films. Though many fans quickly fell in love with Rhys-Davies vocalization of Treebeard, he still believes it to be his greatest failure.
“I still wake up in the night thinking about how I got the character wrong. We tried everything to create this creature that has no lungs. He’s the oldest living thing on the planet. How do you create the sound that is a walking, talking tree giving the essence of the character,” he says. “I tried everything from ultra-slow vibrations, almost down to whale or dolphin type sounds. But, you have to get the rustle of the leaves in the pattern of talk and the squelch of the feet. In the end, we back to very subtle things. I feel my stomach tighten as I talk about it because I didn’t get it right and I don’t know how to.”
Rhys-Davies is excited to appear for all three days of Edmonton’s upcoming Comic & Entertainment Expo. To him, meeting his fans is the most important part of his career.
“I meet the people who have put my bread and butter on my plate for the past 50 years,” Rhys-Davies says. “I was at a fan convention the other day and I was talking to a man who was ex-French military who had been in Afghanistan. To make a connection, I thanked him for his service and said, ‘It’s a mad world.’ He said, “Yes. And you are important because you allow us to dream.”
Fri., Sept 22 -– Sun., Sept 24
Edmonton Comic & Entertainment Expo
Edmonton Expo Centre
Tickets at Edmontonexpo.com