John Rhys-Davies talks Indiana Jones: The Complete Adventures Blu-ray, in stores now!
John Rhys-Davies has had an illustrious career, appearing in such iconic films as Shogun, The Lord of the Rings Trilogy, and The Princess Diaries 2: Royal Engagement, while also voicing many of today's most popular animated series. But he will perhaps be most remembered for his role as Sallah, loyal best friend and sidekick to the greatest adventurer of all-time, Indiana Jones.
Indiana Jones: The Complete Adventures Blu-ray will be arriving in stores this Tuesday, September 18th, and to celebrate, we caught up with John Rhys-Davies to reminisce about Indy and Sallah's past adventures, as well as look to the future.
Sallah first appeared in Raiders of the Lost Ark, where he helps Indiana Jones get the Ark of the Covenant safely on a steamship, away from the Nazis. He then returned to help Indy in his quest to find the Holy Grail, with Indiana Jones & the Last Crusade. Both movies have never looked better, appearing on Blu-ray this week for the first time. We chatted about that, as well as the possibility of Indiana Jones 5, where Sallah's many kids would be at this point in the series, and the truth behind Indiana Jones and the Temple of the Forbidden Eye!
Join us for our conversation.
Even at ten years of age, when I first saw Raiders, I recognized that Indy and Sallah had a pretty textured and storied relationship. You see that as soon as you and Harrison Ford are on screen together. What did it take between the two of you, as actors, to find that relationship, and bringing it out as a subtle, palpable thing?
John Rhys-Davies: It's a trick that some actors have. You have this sense that they exist in the real world, that it is three-dimensional. That it extends far beyond the literal moment of the script, and the scene. That 3D life that some people can have, that some actors can have...I like to think its more than just a gift of nature...But not all actors have it...Not all actors need it actually. Because they have other strong suites. For me, I like to start my characters in geography, or in the geology and the history of the land where they come from. I can probably write a dissertation on Sallah's background, and his upbringing. Things like that. Because that is what you do to bring the character alive! The extraordinary thing about Raiders of the Lost Ark is that its just crammed...Its like one of those extraordinarily rich cakes, with every bit of confection packed into it. It's steeped in good rum, or good Brandy, to make a wonderful, thick fruitcake. It's just rich. The richness is an imaginative richness, and a creative richness. These are creative young men at the height of their powers. The evolution of Lawrence Kasdan...He doesn't figure visibly in the behind-the-scenes stuff...But the genius of George Lucas, and the genius of Steven Spielberg, and even the genius of Harrison Ford himself. I love the little details. Like the apple for the teacher, and the "Love You" on the eyelids of the girl. Things like that. Every little bit is so rich. And that is the secret. When you have to see the film three or four times to get everything, its like great symphony...Every time you listen to it, you hear new things in it. And you just marvel. You can't take it all in. And that is what we should expect from our great directors and our great films. I used to say, "If you want to succeed consistently, always give them fifty-five dollars worth of entertainment for seven dollars at the box office." If you do that consistently, the public will love you, and you will be a major producer, director. I am a pompous old fart, aren't I?
Not at all! Now, "Bad dates". When you first read that line, did you know it would become one of the more iconic lines in cinematic history?
John Rhys-Davies: (Laughs) How can you tell? I think that it is those great lines that sometimes define a character. Yes. If you get it right...Most of the time, in life, we get things wrong...If you get things right once or twice, its wonderful. (Laughs)
What was your first impression of walking onto the Well of Souls set, and seeing it that first time?
John Rhys-Davies: It's just wonderful working with professionals that know what they are doing. It was just extraordinary. We were at Pinewood for that set, weren't we? We had the services of a great director, producer, and actor. It was Steven Spielberg's vision. You turn up to do a scene, and you have seventeen hundred snakes, and two thousand bits of wriggling rubber...And Steven Spielberg says, "That's not enough! We don't have enough snakes!" So you retire, and two weeks later you come back. And there are five thousand pieces of wriggling rubber and four and a half thousand real snakes. We took up the licensed import of these snakes for something like 18 months, two years a head (laughs). Those snakes were everywhere. A wooden stage is riddled with holes, so they would find their way in. They were disappearing. Every moment we went back to get them, the number of recovered snakes was dropping rapidly. I believe they are still breeding in bits of Pinewood, there. If they haven't been eaten by the crows in wintertime, or whatever.
As this Blu-ray set comes out, it spans three, going on four, generations of fans, and its not seen as a film that has become outdated or old. That really is a testament to the storytelling on display in all four films...
John Rhys-Davies: That is the key, isn't it? We are all suckers for a great story. And your remark...Seriously enough, I mentioned in another interview right before you...I was at a convention in Toronto, and two families approached me. Dad had seen it, and was bowled over by it originally. It was one of those great hand-on moments when he took his son to see Raiders of the Lost Ark. Then, together, they brought on the next generation of young males in the household. All three were there. It had become one of those farther-son-grandson kind of bonding moments. It's quite extraordinary.
Was there a particular film that Steven Spielberg had seen that made him consider you for the role of Sallah?
John Rhys-Davies: Shogun. Do you remember Shogun?
John Rhys-Davies: That wonderful tale, which really introduced sushi to North America. You guys wouldn't be eating sushi today if we hadn't done Shogun. The streets of New York were deserted on those nights when Shogun was screening, because everyone was home watching it. It was a masterpiece of a thing. I think Steven said to me in an interview that Shogun had been seen by more people than any of my films combined, playing in theaters. He was obviously enamored of it. He basically said, "Look, what I am hoping you do here is a cross between Vasco Rodrigues in Shogun and Falstaff." When you look back at it, you do see those elements. The strong minded, but loyal and helpful man who you can picture, far away, has an actual real life of his own. Its very different from Indy's life, but you have to paint him in such a way that you realize the picture is bigger than the ones you see on the screen. There is this character, and he actually has his own life. All of these characters have their own individual lives. It all gets focused in this story that we are telling.
The question always comes up...Where were you in the last film? Couldn't you have at least showed up at Indy and Marion's wedding?
John Rhys-Davies: (Laughs) Well, Sallah was actually in Hungary at the time of the wedding. I don't remember what he was doing. But they did offer to send someone over to do a bit of blue screen with me coming in, sitting down, and clapping. To be honest, I thought there was a bit more to the character. That would have been a little bit of a cheat on the character.
There has been talk about an Indiana Jones 5...Would you even hesitate to come back?
John Rhys-Davies: You see, I am in a slightly uncomfortable spot. Aren't I? (Laughs) I would have thought that the distributing companies would have been sending very expensive Christmas parcels to Mr. George Lucas, Mr. Steven Spielberg, and Mr. Harrison Ford every year saying, "Have you even thought about Indy 5 yet?" I would imagine...I would more than imagine that Indiana Jones 5 is being contemplated. As to what it would have, theoretically, in it? I have no idea. Would there be a part for Sallah? Is that what you're asking? The truth of the matter is, he is a character born of a location, really. And if the location doesn't cover it, then he is surfaced to those requirements...So, very much, the answer might be no. The problem the producers have is that he is a very loved character. He is very attractive to an audience. There must be a temptation to bring him back. You also have to account for the fact that times have changed. Perhaps the Sallah type character is no longer theatrically viable.
What do you think became of Sallah's nine children?
John Rhys-Davies: (Laughs) In reality...Nine children, what did become of them? They would grow up, seven years later, Farouk was overthrown. Egypt became part of the third world of soviet blocks in supporting the people. The wars against Israel, which Egypt had a good tasting...Essentially, the military remaining in power, right up until recently...The history of Egypt is not a happy one. The tragedy for Egypt is...It looks like most of the Muslim brotherhood has Israeli digging in deep, and expanding its power. They are already apprised to rip down the pyramids as being idolatress things. Egypt is a land of enormous architectural importance. The thought of losing that richness must now be a worry.
That sounds like a good jumping off point for a story in itself.
John Rhys-Davies: Yes, I guess it is. But I don't think it's for an Indiana Jones film (laughs). Once you get into that area, you get into one of those polarizing, seismic divisions of mankind. The world is a different place. That is perhaps one of the reasons the Sallah's of the world will not be included in Indiana Jones 5, or any of the other movies going onward.
You made the short film for the Disneyland ride, Indiana Jones and the Temple of the Forbidden Eye...
John Rhys-Davies: Oh, yes! Wasn't that fun!
How did that all come together? I've been stuck in that line so many times, and I have seen that short over and over...I'm interested in the history of how that came to be...
John Rhys-Davies: (Laughs) Well, they needed someone that was accessible, and who wasn't busy at the time. I think that was probably me. I'm glad that you've gotten on the darn ride. The two times that I've tried to ride it, it's been down for servicing. I've never gotten a chance to ride on it. One day, one day...I don't know...They wanted a bit of me in it. You do these things in downtime. You think, "Oh, that will be fun!" But the material side of you says, "I don't mind that bit of extra publicity, because I'll be seen by all those people standing in line." You remind them that you were in that film. It does no harm. I am not the holy sort of actor. The sacred actor who can only do sincere, devote artistic things. I'm a jobbing actor. I need to make a living. I love the work. I need the practice.
I don't think you understand the importance of that short film. Standing in line at Disneyland? I'd wager that more people have seen it than Raiders...
John Rhys-Davies: (Laughs) You are probably right! The function of an actor is to entertain. At best, sometimes we can rise to being craftsman. But basically all we are doing is pushing the wagon from town to town, helping people dream for a few hours. That is all!
They couldn't find a place for you in The Hobbit?
John Rhys-Davies: You know? I said, "No!" Definitively, very early on. When I went down to the studio and saw them shooting last year, I saw those thirteen dwarves...And they had a tenth of the amount of make-up on that I'd had...I was miffed! (Laughs) Look, I was one of one...Why would you want to be one of thirteen? Sometimes, its time to let go, and let things move on. But I did go in, and there was a red-bearded dwarf there. I went up to him and hugged him, and said, "Daddy!" (laughs)
Thank you for your time!
John Rhys-Davies: Don't forget to mention that this is a fantastic Blu-ray set, and even for techno-ignoramuses like me, the difference between seeing it on Blu-ray and anything else is about the best thing you can have in your own home!
Raiders of the Lost Ark was released June 1st, 1981 and stars Harrison Ford, Karen Allen, Paul Freeman, Ronald Lacey, John Rhys-Davies, Denholm Elliott, Alfred Molina, Wolf Kahler. The film is directed by Steven Spielberg.
Indiana Jones & the Last Crusade was released May 24th, 1989 and stars Harrison Ford, Sean Connery, Denholm Elliott, Alison Doody, John Rhys-Davies, Julian Glover, River Phoenix, Michael Byrne. The film is directed by Steven Spielberg.