[INTERVIEW] John Rhys-Davies: Beyond Mordor

John Rhys-Davies, who portrays Gimli in The Lord of the Rings series, may have trekked to Mordor in the cinema, but his journey to the big screen is just as remarkable. His career has spanned almost five decades, often portraying characters from around the world. When you grow up on two different continents, you tend to acquire some unique insights that set you apart. It doesn’t take much to see the impact it has had on his personal life and career.

I was able to catch up with John last weekend at the Texas Pinball Festival to find out more about the legendary actor. Some celebrities place themselves on an ivory pedestal, but it was easy to see that this was not the case with John. He immediately greeted me as if we were long lost friends, questioning me about my family and showing off pictures of his daughter. His lighthearted personality shone through his iconic voice and laughter. How could an actor of his magnitude stay so levelheaded and humble? I was about to find out.

John was born in Wales to a nurse and Colonial Officer. He spent much of his childhood overseas in eastern Africa where he hunted, played sports, and found ways to cause mischief. A future in acting seemed inconceivable, but being thrust into polar opposite worlds at such a young age inadvertently prepared him for what was to come.

As a boy you are judging, looking, and comparing. At the same time, you are learning the tricks to pass within that society or to define yourself within the parameters of those three differences.

It was absolutely a schizophrenic background. I went from the privations of an English public school down in Cornwall, with its discipline and “dog eat dog” until you establish the pecking order attitude, to colonial Africa where they had four acres and five servants.

It was life in the raw, in a different sort of way. I sat gazing at the brains of a man for the first time when I was about seven. I've seen a lot. I saw a lot of dead bodies and bodies with leprosy. I saw men whose hands had been cut off because Tanganyika used to be a German colony.

From there I went to my grandmother or my auntie Maggie's cottage in Wales. They were two working class people with two-up two-down cottages that had tin baths in front of the fire. It was just completely and wonderfully schizophrenic, which is essential for an actor.

It is no surprise that John struggled to adapt to the diverse lifestyles. Full of anger and frustration, he often found himself in trouble at school. Little did he know, education would play the most essential role in his career. His transformation began with something simple, a book.

They gave me Shakespeare. Once I had Shakespeare, I had the language with which to articulate my teenage rage. I loved it.

He pursued his newfound passion in college by studying theatre and the rest is history. After almost ten years of acting, his role as Sallah in Indiana Jones catapulted his career. Like the adventurous Doctor Jones, John found himself traveling the world to work on various projects, absorbing the history and culture of each destination. While this worldly knowledge has given him an advantage in acting roles, it has also come at a personal cost. Unlike most of Hollywood, John is a professed conservative. This fact has cost him friends and even jobs.

I get mocked for saying this, but I've lived in countries where civil war has broken out. I've heard women weeping, who have been gang raped, because they are of the wrong religion. I've seen bodies and what happens with tribalism when I was a boy in Africa. The extent of the tribalism that's broken out in Africa is far beyond anything that we imagined. I was in Croatia during the Yugoslav War and I had a very personal interest in it.

My conservatism has been strengthened by seeing what happens when societies collapse. All societies are held together by some sort of glue whether it's a strong man like Tito or the tradition of democracy like in Britain. In part, it is held together by the absurdity of the monarchy. Is it absurd? Is it antediluvian? Is it anachronistic? Yes. Yes. Yes. But, it holds the four tribes together and they would split apart without it. In your case, it's the Constitution. Every time you see people reaching to modify even just a little bit of the Constitution, you should be very suspicious.

While his political views do contradict much of his colleagues's opinions, they have not always been this way. As a matter of fact, John was a radical leftist during the 1960s. He regularly voiced his discontentment with conservative policies by protesting. How can someone’s political views change so drastically over their lifetime?

As Margaret Thatcher once said, “The problem with socialism is that, eventually, you run out of other people's money.

It’s alright, as a student, to lap up all that leftist nonsense about needing to crack an egg if you're going to make an omelet. I've seen what the eggs look like when they're cracked, when they are human eggs. You better be sure that what you want to put in its place is so much better before you even go that way. The human cost of untested, contemptible ideologies or even contested ideologies can be immense.

We are so cosseted and so much the beneficiary of an indulgent, democratic society that we can talk freely about these things. When you are 15, 16, 17, or 21 you do talk about it and think that what we need is revolution. That's because the adolescent mind, the whole business of adolescence, is a period of insanity between childhood and being grown. That insanity can continue for a long time because we know the way the brain develops.

Today, he is known for standing up for his beliefs and those of others. It can be difficult maintain a viewpoint so different from popular opinion, but his strong conviction has not wavered. His resolve is much stronger than his willingness to appease. His character Gimli, from The Lord of the Rings, shares some of this determination.

One of the reasons we're attracted to him and identify with him [Gimli] is that he actually represents all that is worst in us. You know? The xenophobia, the hostility, the aggression, the suspicion. Those are elements that we recognize in ourselves. But, he also possesses the qualities that we wish we could have. The ability to change our minds, the ability to discover that his foe is his friend, the ability to be loyal, the ability to protect… He has that absolute fearlessness that if you know your purpose and you’re on the right path, you do it.

Regardless of his political stance, John’s career continues to progress. He is working on multiple projects and even planning on opening a production studio of his own. John showed an eagerness to return to his role of Sallah in the upcoming Indiana Jones sequel, but admits that there has not been any indication of that (yet). Whatever the case, you can bet that he will continue to forge his own path in the industry. After all, he has already proven to be stronger than the fires of Mordor.

Want to hear more about our visit with John Rhys-Davies? You can find our full interview by clicking here. We discuss important matters like what he thinks of the upcoming The Lord of the Rings series on Amazon, which blockbuster role he found most fulfilling, and what souvenir he will be taking back from Texas.