Impulse Gamer Interviews John Rhys-Davies - -

A Conversation with John Rhys-Davies
by Andreas Wong

I could hear John’s profuse laughter, muffled by the partition between the living room and bedroom. I was sitting on the sofa of his hotel room at The Shangri-La, located a short distance from Circular Quay, waiting, along with Jonathan, the Paramount Australia publicity manager, and Leah, John’s publicist. I was told earlier on that he was in the middle of a phone interview. I went over my notes: a list of handwritten questions assembled in the form of a tripartite flow chart. I took inspiration from Dignan’s godly agenda in Bottle Rocket. Jonathan, perhaps impressed by my flow chart, wandered over to inspect it, before he suddenly had to answer his cell. My anxiety must have been transparent as Leah gave me assurance that John was really easy to talk to. It would be like a conversation with grandpa. I reflected on my planned questions for a few more minutes before John’s tall figure emerged from the other room. In studying John’s past interviews, his solemn, voluble and discursive speech frequently caught me by surprise. His evident erudition strongly contrasted with the frivolous characters he popularised: Gimli and Sallah. His deep voice always filled up the room he was interviewed in. I was prepared for that. What I had not anticipated was the sheer force of his physical presence. I was in awe. He looked me square in the eyes and courteously requested my name.  

“Andreas”, I offered. 

He noted to himself that Andreas was a variation of Andrew. 

“Tell me, Andreas, are you a saint?”  

“Not quite”.

Jonathan and Leah laughed. John’s eyes were buried in thought as he motioned to sit down on the chair opposite me. 

Before I could begin the interview, John asked me about what work I did. I told him I was an arts honours student doing a little film journalism on the side. From there, we proceeded to discuss the film industry.  

He said, “There’s no guarantee that your first or tenth film will be successful, but if you’re known as a man who gives value for money, the word slowly spreads, and one day you win an audience. The audience is where we are aiming at. We need an audience because they pay our bills. We serve the audience. Remember that great aphorism: “the drama’s laws, the drama’s patrons give, for we that live to please, must please to live”. Can you tell me a story? Can you make it worth my while? Can you astound me, move me, amaze me, make me laugh, make me aware of the human condition in a way that I’ve never been aware of before? If you can do that, you’re there.  So, do you write? Are you a writer yourself?” 

“Not at the moment, no. I don’t think I’ve experienced life enough to comment on it”.

He grinned before saying, “That’s a very humble way of saying things. Obviously that’s very true in a way. I am probably better able to write now than when I was twenty, but you can also tell stories. If you can tell a story well then you have a right to say, ‘I want to tell a story that hundreds and thousands and millions of people can see’”.

I said, “I’m interested in your childhood and perhaps how it contributed to your acting because my fiancé’s brother is in year eight and wants to be an actor.  He is like a mini Sidney Poitier. I’m just wondering what you were like as a child. Were you theatrical?” 

 “I was a lonely child and I had a schizophrenic childhood - which was wonderful. My father went out to Africa in the Second World War and we started off living in tents. He ended up as a policeman living in Tanzania. I had pet monkeys, I had pet dogs, I had my own rifle by the time I was eight, I shot my first buffalo when I was eleven. It was four servants and five acres. I went to a school that was mean and tough but intellectually demanding. The first play I saw at my school was Oedipus Rex, which at the age of twelve is the most crucial time you could ever encounter great drama, and that changed my life. In the holidays, I spent my time with my grandmother and my Aunt Maggie, who were both widows to Welsh coal miners. They had very small cottages in Wales. A tin bath in front of the fire and that on a Friday night. I was very unhappy at my boarding school and one of the ways my school coped with my dysfunctionality was by allowing me chances to act, so by the time I had left I had played Othello, Volpone, Ulysses in Troy and Cressida.” 

He continued, “I went to a new university, the University of East Anglia, its very first year. I founded its dramatic society. I did a lot of amateur acting in Norwich. I even did my very first professional job while still at university: I taught for a year waiting for my wife to graduate. I then won a scholarship to the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art and left drama school on a Sunday night at the end of a production and started work Monday morning in the professional theatre. So, I had about twelve or thirteen years of doing play after play. Did a lot of standard English television but I worked. If you’re Brad Pitt you can be very selective about the work that you do but for most of us, we should take on almost anything that comes and see if we can make it work. It’s the challenge. You think, ‘what the hell am I going to do with this?’, ‘how do I solve this problem?’, ‘I can do that. I can do that’. It’s the engagement of the curious mind that makes for interesting acting”.  

I used his answer to segue into the question of whether or not he helped Steven construct Sallah’s character. 

“Yes, I did, in a way. He knew what he wanted. Harrison certainly knew what he needed to do and wanted. But they gave me a lot of creative space and sometimes I would throw out ideas and Steven would say ‘no! no!’. Sometimes he would say, ‘okay let’s turn it upside down and do it that way instead’. But it is one of the rights of the actor to say ‘what about?’ or ‘what if?’ but it’s still the director’s job to be able to say, ‘interesting but not the picture I’m making’ and you respect that and good directors don’t mind suggestions. In fact, it is the richer, the creatively rich directors, who just have a mastery and have such a creative fluency that is interestingly them – they are the people often who are most happy to have ideas.” 

“Was Steven like that?” 

“Oh yes, particularly in that film, at that particular time. We experimented. There’s a lot of behind the scenes stuff that never got in the final cut where we were just trying things. We were shooting quickly, we were shooting fast, we were really sort of sticking to the schedule. Sometimes we could throw three pages out. And we did try to throw a lot of Tunisian pages out. It was physically quite a hot day to shoot. I had the sense that at the time Steven was at his most creatively free, in his own way.”

“Did the studios give him much creative freedom because -? 

“It was George’s money”.  

“Oh, I see.” 

“You know most of us have to defer to the studios because they make the big pictures. Most of us, in our hearts of hearts, know that sometimes there are one or two people in those studios making decisions. They understand, they love and they’re there to create. Equally, the studio system is often about finding reasons to not seem to have done the wrong thing. It is better to say “No” than to say “Yes”, and be proven wrong. I’m not sure that a studio would have allowed Raiders of the Lost Ark to happen”. 

“Staying on the topic of Raiders, I understand that it was filmed in Tunisia. How was that like? I read that many of the crew members succumbed to illness and -?” 

“Tunisia was a very hard shoot. We were shooting in just about the last oasis before the true Sahara begins. We were right on the edge of the true Sahara. Fresh water was an issue. In theory, you have bottled water but in fact, the hotel workers - they were so poor. They would take the money for the bottled water, fill an old bottle with tap water and put the top back on - (laughs) – and it was hard for you if you didn’t have a bottle opener. We all got ill. It was a really physically tough shoot, as they often are.” 

At that point, we were told that we both needed to wrap things up. 

“As for your girlfriend’s brother, be born lucky is the advice that I would impart.” 

That time it was he who was putting things in a very humble way. 


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