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The Independent Critic

 The Independent Critic Chats with John Rhys-Davies 

John Rhys-Davies stars in "Winter Thaw," airing on Thanksgiving Night on BYUtv

To much of the world, John Rhys-Davies will always be known as Gimli the Dwarf from "The Lord of the Rings" films or, perhaps, as Sallah from "Raiders of the Lost Ark" and "Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade." The simple truth is that John Rhys-Davies is one of "those" actors, an actor whose presence is instantly recognized and whose filmography is so extensive that he has become one of the world's most legendary and beloved character actors with nearly 250 IMDB credits to his name along with a number of other stage and television credits. 

In Indianapolis this past weekend for the world premiere of his latest independent film, "Winter Thaw," John Rhys-Davies attended the film's Heartland Film Festival screening and, in his typically charismatic fashion, enthralled local writers, movie fans and even the staff at the AMC Theatre where the screenings were held. 

I had done enough research prior to my interview with Rhys-Davies to know that he held strong political and social opinions, opinions that had attracted their fair share of negative press within the last couple years as the British actor, who openly admits having supported the U.K.'s exit from the European Union, or Brexit, openly expressed thoughts and beliefs in an interview or two that are increasingly held yet seldom spoken out of political correctness. 

Political correctness is not John Rhys-Davies' greatest virtue. Rhys-Davies, perhaps out of awareness that he was present to promote a rather extraordinary film of which he is very proud, intentionally and with great care avoided the potential for controversial subjects not out of political correctness but out of respect for the cast and crew of "Winter Thaw," a film based upon a short story by Leo Tolstoy currently screening at the Heartland Film Festival and scheduled to air on broadcast television on Thanksgiving night on BYUtv. 

I had made the decision to not go into the interview with an agenda. I researched, but I set no agenda and, in fact, had no written questions. We talked. I listened. He listened. Rhys-Davies has one of cinema's great voices, a bold and commanding voice capable of tremendous vulnerability and even more tremendous playfulness. The same transparency that may, on occasion make him say something that gets him in trouble is also the transparency that makes you absolutely value every sacred minute with him. 

Born in Wales and raised in England, Wales, and Africa by a mother who was a nurse and a father who was a mechanical engineer and Colonial Officer, Rhys-Davies has long credited an early exposure to classic literature for his decision to pursue acting and writing. Indeed, while Rhys-Davies has a remarkably diverse filmography, his greatest and most memorable roles have been in sci-fi, fantasy, the classics and in faith-inspired cinema and the 72-year-old actor's career spans over 50 years. John Rhys-Davies was nominated for an Emmy in 1981 for his work in "Shogun," while his ensemble work in the "Lord of the Rings" film has been recognized with multiple awards. 

After the world premiere of "Winter Thaw" and a post-screening Q&A and screening party, I sat down with John Rhys-Davies at his hotel after he'd finished a long night of shooting followed by traveling to Indianapolis and attending the screening. Despite the fatigue, he was stunningly gracious and open and warm and most wonderful. 

THE INDEPENDENT CRITIC

I really do appreciate your time. I know you've had an extraordinarily long day. I won't keep you for very long. 

JOHN RHYS-DAVIES

Oh my dear boy, you do whatever you need.

THE INDEPENDENT CRITIC

Well, I just really appreciate it. So, how's the experience been with the film so far? I know that's a generic question. 

JOHN RHYS-DAVIES

Well, this is the first time I've seen it. 

THE INDEPENDENT CRITIC

Oh, is it? I didn't realize that. 

JOHN RHYS-DAVIES

Yes it is and I like it very much. For various reasons, I think the production came out a little bit darker than I believe they wanted. It sort of gives you a window into the extraordinary grinding poverty of Czarist Russia and the only thing holding people together is faith. I love Thoreau's great observation "Most men live lives of quiet desperation." It is true. In its own way, it's as true today as it was in Tolstoy's Russia. 

THE INDEPENDENT CRITIC

It seems like today there's such a huge gap between what I suppose we could call the "haves" and the "have nots." 

JOHN RHYS-DAVIES

Didn't I see something the other day, and I'm not sure of the exact figures, but it was along the lines of the top 173 or 178 of the richest people in the world have a net worth that matches the total net worth of the lower 3.4 billion people. These disparities have to be addressed and they have to be managed. We have the ingredients of real anger and real war. This absolutely unrelated to the film, but I'm very persuaded by Robert Gordon, the economist, who is saying that our expectations that the economy will continue to rise and that our standards of living will rise and our children will do better than us is wrong. He points out that between the fall of the Roman empire in 410 A.D. and 1300, the standards of living did not rise. I mean, income per capita did not rise. From 1300 to 1700, it doubles. In 400 years, it doubles. It's in that transformative period from 1870 to 1970, basically the period surrounding electricity, where there's a confluence of really changing technology that could actually transform people's lives. It's certainly from that point that people do better than their father's did and their children do better than they did. That sort of peak really does change everything. The new technologies, though they are profound, do not transform society as radically. What Gordon is saying is that high peak is a freak in the long-term thing. What he's saying is that it's possible that now we're looking at very small percentile increases in the growth of real wealth which is another complication, of course, in the managing of expectation. I notice that worldwide, not just in America, but in Europe and Britain and New Zealand, Sweden, and Australia that there is a sense amongst ordinary people that globalization is really a means of enabling wealthy capital, to export jobs, and to maximize profit from lower wages. That is the root of all this anti-establishment feeling and if it is going to be linked with the fact that we are facing a new era of wealth then income per capita is not going to rise significantly. You add it to mass migration and you've got a really explosive thing. I think the ruling elite is so far behind what the real fears and the real pressures are. They are being given shocks left, right and center. 

THE INDEPENDENT CRITIC

Do you think that's globally? Or just an American thing or a European thing?

JOHN RHYS-DAVIES

Globally. I'm amazed how when I talk about Brexiting in Europe how many ordinary ones say "Oh, it's the EU." The EU is a corrupt, inefficient, and undemocratic governing body. There are flashes of individual animosity against Britain because we've always been spoilers in Europe in a way, but there's also a lot of the real concerns...the anger in South Wales in the steel industry is exactly the same thing I see in West Virginia. In Waiuku in New Zealand, steel mills there are under the threat of closure because of the production of cheap steel in China. Because China is now in the World Trade Organization, they're flooding the market and destroying the industry. Big organizations can't react as quickly as smaller individual bodies do.

I'm sorry, that really has nothing to do with why we're here.

THE INDEPENDENT CRITIC

That's quite alright. I had a feeling we would divert.

JOHN RHYS-DAVIES

But to get back to that original point about the grinding poverty in Russia.

THE INDEPENDENT CRITIC

You spoke about that a little bit during the  Q&A when you talked about the poverty in Lithuania where the film was shot. See, I'll get us back to the film! Was that grinding poverty evident there? 

JOHN RHYS-DAVIES

Yes. They're physically very beautiful people. They've evidently selected for intelligence. I find them to be people who are in their own ways quite profound. They have managed to keep their nation together despite being incorporated into the Soviet empire. This is not a new Soviet empire. It is a criminal empire. It is seriously and dangerously corrupt and works because it is reclaiming the old Russian area empire. Russia itself is in a terrible state. That's partly our fault. We won the Cold War and then we lost the peace. We did not take care of Russia. 

THE INDEPENDENT CRITIC

What do you mean by that?

JOHN RHYS-DAVIES

If you give people an interest concerning the status quo, then you will have a more peaceful society; as we should have done with Iraq. The rationale for invading Iraq was really considerable...I mean, there is an extremism that is dangerous enough to be exported around the world or at least the Middle East. So, let's take a country that's right in the heart of the Middle East that's got a tradition of secularism like Iraq under Baathism and the largest middle class in the Arab world and with an almost limitless economic potential. If you could have set up a secular, democratic capitalist society we could have grown that country so that it could have been an absolute paradigm for the rest of the Arab world. I think it was in 2002 that the U.N., in fact, declared that it would take the average Arab 140 years to double the standard of living. The way to do it was through the oil. The way to have done it was simply to say "We've gotten rid of Saddam. Here's what's going to happen now. 51% of all the royalties and wealth that come from oil will go to the central government. 49% of it will be distributed in each household in Iraq as a regular check." If they had done that, the interest of ordinary people in securing a peaceful, stable status quo could have been achieved. I'm not even sure that it's not too late now, but if we had done that... I'm sorry, this is digressing again. 

THE INDEPENDENT CRITIC

I understand. I had read some other interviews of yours and I know that you have a strong interest in these matters. It's hard, I think, to not talk about them and to not consider them even in the context of the films we make and the films we see. I think even if you don't have a mind that necessarily processes the wider scope of all the issues, as I would say about my own, I think it's hard and maybe impossible to not contemplate it all...especially during these times as we're having here in the U.S. and as you've been having in Britain. 

JOHN RHYS-DAVIES

I don't want to get involved in American politics, but I'll tell you now that the ordinary bloke has a more certain sense of unease about the way things are going than the people who are calling the shots and that is why there is throughout the world a sense of "We're going wrong." These people are walking us blindly off the edge of a cliff and there will be social consequences. 

THE INDEPENDENT CRITIC

This film, I'll get us back to the film, I want to first say that I loved the film. I was in attendance at the screening and rather glad I didn't see you directly after it as I was in tears. It was quite lovely. You were very good in this film. One of the things I find that you do really well, and you certainly were able to do so in this film, is that you are able to take characters that could easily be interpreted as one-note characters and you find their little nuances. 

JOHN RHYS-DAVIES

That's a very generous, kind thing to say. Thank you. I suppose in a way it comes back to "Most men live lives of quiet desperation." If you get the chance to celebrate that life, the nuance and despair are there and should be observed and honored. I find to my horror that the older I get, the more I tend to love my fellow man. It's not meant to be the way it should go. You're meant to be filled with love for your fellow man when you're young and idealistic. I was a self-envisioned, Byronic hero I suppose. The older I get, the more I just like people and the more you study them. The courage of ordinary people is extraordinary. 

THE INDEPENDENT CRITIC

There's a strong moral component, I would observe, to your films. It's evident in the way you think, the way you speak. It's evident listening to your beliefs and ideas. I don't want to look for labels, but I looked at your filmography and was amazed at how common that thread is in your film work. Is that intentional? I think I saw on IMDB alone 245 acting credits to your name and I'm sure not everything is listed. 

JOHN RHYS-DAVIES

There's a fair bit there. There's a lot of pages there. Actually, it doesn't even include the plays and it's a bit more than that. 

THE INDEPENDENT CRITIC

You do sleep, right?

JOHN RHYS-DAVIES

(Laughing) I love working. One of the great parts of being an actor is that you don't have to retire. I mean, one day the phone will stop ringing and I won't know that it's over. My way of coping with that is to assume that every job is the last job. You go to work as you can. You look after your fellow actors and the crew, so that if it is the last one then at least they can say "You know, he was very good in that. He wasn't difficult to work with...he was okay." 

THE INDEPENDENT CRITIC

As you get older as an actor, do you ever consider such things when selecting projects? Do you ever think to yourself "What if this is my last role?"

JOHN RHYS-DAVIES

I don't do it that way. The reasons you do roles are so diverse. With something like this, Winter Thaw, I remember reading the story at university and it's such a lovely story. I both love and am horrified by Tolstoy. He is a monster, but a great monster. I'm a Welshman and the Welsh are as sly as the Russians and that sort of great sweep of emotion. One moment, we're profoundly and suicidally depressed and depressing and the next moment we are talking to God and feeling the full elation of the spirit. We're temperamentally very similar. I like the Russians ... shiftly lot that they can be. That's my own people, as well. There are wonderful stories and wonderful scripts and when you get offered them you grab them. Then, there is the script where you think "You know what? I can actually make this work." Then, there are ones you do dedicated to doing your part to help pay off Mr. Obama's indebtedness. I've done a few of those, too...clearly not enough. 

THE INDEPENDENT CRITIC

I wondered about that. For example, I wondered about the Uwe Boll film that you did, In the Name of the King: A Dungeon Siege Tale. He and I are friends in social media, so I'm not disrespecting him. That would just not necessarily be a film I'd expect to see you do. 

JOHN RHYS-DAVIES

One of the reasons I did that was that I like the guys who take on Hollywood. I just love that. I'm all for the guys who have the balls to say "I'm going to take it on." You want them to succeed. It's very important for actors to try and do everything. Filming a game is very hard, because games don't work with the same narrative or as the same storytelling. It's just very satisfying to me to wake up in the morning and think "How can this work? What do I have to do today to make this work?" One of the things I am most proud of as an actor is that I am willing to fail. I don't mind failing as long as you're being ambitious. There are some problems that you cannot solve. One of the biggest failures of my personal career is playing Treebeard in Lord of the Rings. I have not done it right. I do not know how to do it right. I do not know that it can be done right. I still wake up at night thinking "I got it wrong. I don't know how to do it." That's part of the joy of it. I like solving problems actually. I like the sheer intricacy of not only having to deal with a scene, but maybe problems the qualities of the actors around you are bringing or the demands of the director or producer or things like that. Given the fact that that crew member there is homesick. He's away from home. He's never been away from home. He's not really doing his level best and this is a really trying set and a really trying set of physical circumstances...just the sheer complexity of human management and just trying to incorporate all that into the right way to say your particular words with the right thought. It's like playing chess in a way and I'm not a very good chess player. It's marvelous. People are marvelous. If you can find the way to unlock your own creativity and unlock theirs our potential is limitless. 

It's quite hard to get to that point, because we are egotistical. Actors have to be egotistical. Anyone who is going to succeed creatively has got to have an ego the size of Washington state. The trick is to keep all the benefits that you gain from having that ego and that power and just get rid of all the other things and just find that set of master keys that makes me go "Okay" or "Now we're talking" or "Okay, so what you need is for me to feed you and you're feeding me, thank you..." The older you get, I suppose human management becomes more of an interesting problem. I think the most gifted people that I know are gardeners of other people. Some of them do it with such extraordinary skill that you just marvel at them. How do you do that? How do you get these raging egos around you to actually come together and suddenly there's a moment of stillness and something of beauty is born with such resonance and power. 

I'm prattling on. It's this film. I love this film. 

THE INDEPENDENT CRITIC

That kind of happens in this film. You spoke briefly in the Q&A about the Lithuanian actors, most of whom were relatively inexperienced or completely inexperienced prior to this film. Yet, there's a cohesiveness throughout this ensemble that is pretty remarkable and beautiful to watch. 

JOHN RHYS-DAVIES

That's partly good directing, as well. It really is. To be able to find who they are and find what they can bring. It may not necessarily be what you'd originally envisaged, but a good director, and Adam (NOTE: "Winter Thaw" director Adam Thomas Anderegg), is a great director, is able to use what he has in a way that makes more of a statement than the script originally seeks to attend. With the boy in the market, you know that society. That society is real. They're all poor. Some of them are good, some of them are bad. Some of them are cheats. Clearly, some of them have taken more than they'd ever lost. That boy, oh that boy, just touches your heart. Doesn't he? The skill with which the director or the producer and the camera actually shows you them. You know them. You know exactly what it must've been like to live in that little town where everybody knows everybody. 

THE INDEPENDENT CRITIC

I like that it was portrayed realistically, especially that scene with the boy in the market. I mean, not like it was super harshly but it was realistic. I mean, it's going to be on BYUtv. You're not going to get super hardcore cinema, but the scene itself unfolds with a realism and edge to it that made it real. 

JOHN RHYS-DAVIES

There's a rawness in the story. You have the essence of suffering there really without necessarily any modifiers or any distractions. It's that Tolstoyan focus from pain, sacrifice, suffering, and redemption with no prettifying. 

THE INDEPENDENT CRITIC

Which makes the redemption resonate more authentically...that closing scene with the son, for example. 

JOHN RHYS-DAVIES

Yes. Yes.

THE INDEPENDENT CRITIC

I don't like to cry in films by the way. (He laughs). Actually, you know I think it was pretty special. As a film critic, you can get distracted by the role you're in and then you're sitting there thinking "I've got this interview" and 'Oh yeah, the star of the film is right behind me and the director's back there." When a film can make you let go and forget all of that, it's a really special experience and Winter Thaw did that for me. 

JOHN RHYS-DAVIES

That's very gratifying to hear. When you do a film like this, it does just revive your jaded soul. We all need that from time to time. There are marvelous films being made. 

THE INDEPENDENT CRITIC

So, you knew Andrew's work?

JOHN RHYS-DAVIES

Not beforehand. 

THE INDEPENDENT CRITIC

Oh, okay. 

JOHN RHYS-DAVIES

This is a damn good film. I think it will find a bigger audience. 

THE INDEPENDENT CRITIC

I've reviewed some other films from BYU. They have a tremendous film program. 

JOHN RHYS-DAVIES

Yes, absolutely. I'm just very touched that they should use me. I'm not Mormon. I don't really even call myself Christian. I was obviously brought up in the Christian tradition. I'm too failed...and I mean this in absolute sincerity. I'm not a person to really call myself a Christian...

THE INDEPENDENT CRITIC

Well, you know. It's never too late...

JOHN RHYS-DAVIES

(Laughing and in a loud booming voice) Ask thee for repentance...AHHHHHHH!!!!! I shall prostrate myself before the Lord and beg He forgive my sins!~ Actually, this is how it's going to be. I'm in the bosom of the family. My breath is harsh. I shall bless each one of them. I shall make one last profound pithy, memorable statement. I shall close my eyes and give my last breath. There will be silence filling the room broken by the occasional sob from my daughter. Then, I shall open one eye and say "I'd like to try it one more time." 

THE INDEPENDENT CRITIC

(Both laughing) YES! That's great. I kind of want you to really do that. 

JOHN RHYS-DAVIES

Spike Milligan's famous epitaph "I told you I was sick." On the whole, I'd sooner be in Philadelphia. 

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