John Rhys-Davies Interview For WAR OF RESISTANCE!

Talks about his new World War II drama and gives us some great insights into the working life of actors, directors and screenwriters.

For those of you who don't know him (and if you don't, shame on you!), John Rhys-Davies has appeared in some of the most popular franchises of all time. He is probably best known for his portrayal of the dwarf Gimli in Peter Jackson's adaptation of J.R.R. Tolkein's The Lord of the Rings trilogy and as Sallah in Raiders of the Lost Ark and Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (and criminally not brought back for Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull) but has also turned up in the James Bond saga (The Living Daylights), the Star Trek series (he played Leonardo Da Vinci in Voyager!) and Batman (voiced a character in the Animated Series). And who can forget his Prof. Maximilian Arturo in the awesome sci-fi show Sliders! He's got a full and fantastic career behind him and this week I had the pleasure of speaking to him while he was in New Zealand (possibly filming a cameo in The Hobbit, I wonder... but couldn't get it out him!) about his new film, War of Resistance, available now on DVD. He's a splendid chap and a fascinating man to interview - he spoke much more about his career than just the one film I was asking him about and he had some great insights into the working life of actors, directors and screenwriters. JH: So how did you get involved with War of Resistance?
JRD: Friends of mine put in a few words for me to the producer and they got in touch and said €œWould you like to come do this in Holland?€. I read the script and I was so impressed with it. I like stories about good and evil, I guess. And the Second World War really was a remarkable war in which, Nazis actually were pretty clearly bad, and we were the good guys and we got it right, and we were almost highly successful in that fascism was destroyed and defeated in Europe and it€™s not come back €“ and I don€™t think it will, to be honest with you. I mean, it will probably always exist, but fascism is broken. That said, anti-Semitism is clearly on the rise again, which I find quite extraordinary. When I was a student at University in the sixties, if there was one anti-Semitic movement in the University, in the entire year, it would be frowned on and commented on and thoroughly despised. These days, you know, there are two or three hundred a year in British universities and I find it very disquieting.
JH: Did you do any research into Jewish beliefs and traditions to get into character?
JRD: I€™ve done some in the past, many years ago I did a series called War on Remembrance, based on the book by Herman Wouk. So yes, I have done that, but more than that I wrote history and I even taught history for a very brief while and obviously I have many Jewish friends, some of whom really went through it all. And when you€™re playing the part, you€™ve got to ask yourself your questions, such as €˜Why didn€™t they fight back?€™ and €˜Is there anything in me that could be turned into a Nazi Guard, one of these extraordinary and vicious Nazis?€™. You always have to look for the beast in yourself. And those are private examinations that moral people just have to go through at times, and be honest with themselves.
Me: Yeah€ moving on, what was it like working under the helm of Peter C. Spencer?
JRD: Oh, very very very very very good. They were a very nice bunch of people to work with. You have to understand though that I was only there for a very short period of time.
Me: Yeah, I guessed as much from the amount of scenes you had€
JRD: Yes, so I was in the Amsterdam sequences. But actually, packed in that tiny little wall, that actual hiding place, it gave you a real sense of the fear and the claustrophobia that they must have gone through. I mean, I cannot emphasise enough how much these real people were so remarkable. We described them as the €˜Great Generation€™ €“ and in a way they were.
Me: Did you make any dialogue changes to your character?
JRD: We improvised a little bit.
Me: But it was mostly by the script?
JRD: Well, when you€™re served a script, you always try and give the director what he wants. And when he€™s got what he wants, you can say €˜You know what? Can I just change this a little bit?€™. When you work with a director over a long period of time, like when I worked with Peter Jackson, when he got what he wanted, he used to say to me: €˜Alright John, I€™m cutting you loose now. Let it rip for a bit, will you?€™ And I would improvise, and when I heard him chuckle, I knew there was something in the first cut; there was something that should€™ve been in there! We had a few moments that made it into the final film as well. Obviously, some scripts are just so good, I mean, when I did Shogun many years ago, you could not change a word in a line €“ you could not take a line out of a scene, and you certainly couldn€™t remove a scene from the whole without sending ripples either backwards or forwards €“ it was that tight and that well-written. I think Eric Bercovici, the man who wrote the screenplay, he and I fought over five words in the five months that did. He let me win twice €“ and twice I conceded that he was right. And once we did it both ways and we printed it his way. **laughs** But just a word in a scene. Now, not all writing is that intense, and not all writing is that precise. And sometimes, the writer will €“ knowing his actors €“ he will basically set a framework, knowing that he is going to direct it, and knowing that is going to be involved in it, and he€™ll use that as a starting point. Sometimes you have to change things because the actor you were really writing it for, you didn€™t get him, you got somebody of very different qualities, and you know that you can€™t make it work for what you€™ve written, but the actor himself has got qualities that you haven€™t thought about before, for the scene. And a good director is able to take it to the actor and get a marvellous performance out of them.
Me: Last question €“ what€™s next on the horizon for your film work?
JRD: Do you know, I really don€™t want to talk about it, because all I can say is if every job I€™ve been offered this year happened, it would have been an extremely successful year! The thing is, we are in such a financial crisis that one cannot be certain about anything €“ even studio pictures you can€™t be certain about. What I say to all the young actors that I meet and talk to, when they say €˜Oh god oh god I€™m never gonna work again€™, you just have to explain to them that there are far few films being made this year and there are virtually no films being made for television because there are no advertisements for them €“ there aren€™t any commercials being made. So film actors who would never normally do a television series are taking television leads and the people that used to take television leads are now taking supporting roles and it€™s pushing down all the way so all I have to say to them is: €˜Trust me, I€™ve seen it happen before, with all honesty, not quite to the scale it is happening now, I think we are in a very serious risk of a real recession now€™. And it€™s the problem of all these economies entering it at the same time, and make no mistake about it, I think we€™re very close to a thirties-type depression. So my advice to all my fellow actors is: €˜Sit tight, shut up, and if you€™re working, no matter what you€™re doing, if you€™re grumbling about the money, then never mind. Never mind. Just stay working. Get your physical and mental muscles ready for acting work again. Just survive and things will eventually come right.€™
Me: So basically, keep calm and carry on?
JRD: Yes, I think so! Yes, just survive, full stop. Now is the time for survival for most actors.
And then, a few minutes after the interview was wrapped up€
JRD: Now, look, try and put some punctuation in my sentences, would you?
Me: Oh, I€™ll grammar-tise it up, don€™t worry about that. I€™ll put semi-colons and commas and full stops and everything.
JRD: Good God, you€™ve got a whole keyboard there! Incredible.
John Rhys Davis stars in War of Resistance, available on DVD now.
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Half-man, half-tree and with a penchant for hats, Josh spends his free time writing opinionated rants on the internet, rocking out on guitar in desolate bars to crowds reaching as much as twelve and a half people, and drinking endless cups of tea to sustain himself. His favourite colour is purple.