October 11, 2000
Rings 'Tall Dwarf'
English actor John Rhys-Davies' career is poised to reach new levels.
He has been in New Zealand for more than a year, living and breathing The Lord of the Rings.
He believes the Peter Jackson trilogy of movies will be a defining point in cinema.
The larger-than-life 1.85m-tall veteran of 80-plus movies plays one of the key characters throughout the trilogy of movies, dwarf-lord Gimli.
How Jackson manages to reduce a man comparable in stature to Orson Welles, and physically almost twice the height of the tallest of the hobbit characters, to dwarf size is something he cannot divulge.
"I think you'll find me small enough," he said.
Needless to say, when this man says Lord of the Rings is destined to make cinema history, he is convincing.
Maybe it will even make movie merchandising history.
Yes, there will be a Gimli doll.
Hardly a measure of success for Rhys-Davies, whose biography modestly describes him as an Isle of Mann farmer.
He already made it to doll-dom. His roll as Indiana Jones' sidekick Sallah in Raiders of the Lost Ark was immortalised in plastic.
Rhys-Davies has moved on. Now he's seriously into silicon.
Starting at 5am every day he and two make-up artists spend intolerable hours sharing personal space.
"They are this close to my face for four hours," he said, hovering his index finger centimetres from his chin.
The silicon facial prosthetic completely changes his face, he said.
"The only bit you see of me is a tiny bit of my lips and my eyes."
Once his big red eyebrows, an enormous plaited beard and long red hair are in place, he is ready to slip into some 40kg of costume which it takes two assistants to carry. The helmet alone weighs 6.8kg.
Add the chain mail and a great deal of fierce pride and it creates Gimli, son of Gloin.
"The sheer weight slows you down, it's enormously top-heavy."
Behind the unbearable prosthetic which begins to itch savagely five or six hours into a 12 to 13-hour filming day Rhys-Davies is having to act so hard his face hurts.
"You have to do enormous overacting just to get anything on your face ... it's very hard to act in."
He comes home at night scratching his face, which in turn plays havoc with his social life, but he's loving it.
"It's glorious and I get paid lots," he said.
He is actually delighted to transform himself into a slightly inhuman but dignified and thoroughly respected Tolkien character.
Plus the part allows him to draw on his vast Shakespearean repertoire something he finds he does with every role he plays.
He is convinced a few Gimli phrases will be quoted for the next 25 years.
Rhys-Davies predicts the trilogy will also project Peter Jackson into the super league.
"If you guys are smart, you'll organise a campaign to get Peter Jackson a knighthood. You have no idea how exceptional he is."
He described the dishevelled-looking director as a resourceful, unflappable, tireless legend in shorts.
"If this is successful it will have an enormous impact on tourism in New Zealand. Crocodile Dundee brought an extra 2 million tourists to Australia."
Rhys-Davies is not rattled by what the success and inevitable cult following could bring him.
"I've already received a couple of proposals of marriage. There's fan-dom then there's fanaticism."
He loves fans; the others are just embarrassing.
The need for secrecy during filming has been genuine, to ensure the full success of the trilogy.
"It's not to do with pushing people away. You can't put the egotism of one or two people on the internet above the over-exposure of the film."
The investment is large. So is the risk.
"There's a lot of eggs in this basket," he said.
When Rhys-Davies does eventually return to the Isle of Mann, he will take a couple of very big reminders of New Zealand with him.
Between projects 25 Shakespearean productions, 11 other stage plays, 80-plus movies and countless television roles including Shogun, The Untouchables, I Claudius, Star Trek, Murder She Wrote and War and Rememberence Rhys-Davies collects cars and flies aeroplanes.
Anything with an engine will do.
During his year in New Zealand he has bought a Cook Strait crayfish catamaran for messing around in the Irish Sea and (negotiations going well with a bloke from Ashburton) a $600 steam engine.
"It works," he said in defence.
Rhys-Davies and fellow cast and crew will continue filming in the Queenstown area until the end of the month.
The main filming in New Zealand will end this year with the release of the first movie expected by December 2001.