‘Raiders of the Lost Ark’ and ‘Last Crusade’ Co-Star John Rhys-Davies on (Literally) Almost Dying to See ‘Indiana Jones’ Achieve Immortality (Q&A)

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Although his character is, alternately, a formidable ally and a bit of comic relief, John Rhys-Davies’ Sallah remains one of the most memorable – and important – characters in the Indiana Jones universe.

His scenes in Raiders of the Lost Ark and Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade rank among some of the most memorable in the series’ history, and provide its main character with a counterpart who offers more than blind complicity.

Rhys-Davies, meanwhile, has provided precisely that sort of support in films and television shows for decades, including appearances in the Lord of the Rings trilogy, the miniseries Shogun and the cult TV show Sliders.

The actor recently spoke with Celebuzz about his experiences on the Indiana Jones films, which are being released this week on Blu-ray in the new Complete Collection.

What life-threatening ailment did Rhys-Davies survive in order to see Raiders to completion?

“I’ve just been looking at the behind the scenes additional material,” Rhys-Davies told us. “And it just strikes me how extraordinary it really was.”

“You had the young genius of Steven being assisted quietly by his friend [George Lucas] in the background, and he’s just effortlessly creating these images,” he continued. “And what comes across even more in the behind the scenes stuff is how Harrison is very deliberately sculpting this iconic character. I mean, it’s not a flash in the pan; it’s real. He’s thought about it, he’s refining it. It’s almost sometimes almost co-directing the scenes to get the hard edge of this iconic figure. It’s wonderful to watch.”

Celebuzz: When you started working on Raiders of the Lost Ark, did you have the sense that this was going to turn into the cultural phenomenon that it has become?

John Rhys-Davies: If you read the first script, it was certainly unlike any script I’d ever seen. It read more like a comic book – there were pages and pages of scene description, but there wasn’t that much dialogue. Much of the dialogue arrived pretty much the day that you arrived on the set, or maybe you’d rehearsed it a few days before or something like that. But it was really very much a work in progress all of the way through. But did one have an idea that it was so oddball? I remember an exchange I had with my marvelous old agents, and I remember them saying to me, “Well, what did you think?” And thinking of Steven’s critically unacclaimed 1941 which had just preceded it — I mean, now we look back on 1941 as pretty much a masterpiece in its own right, but at the time it was, “Oh, the boy wonder has shot his wad – he’s run out of steam.” But I said to him, this is so unusual – it’s either going to be the biggest disaster of all time, or it’s going to set a new fashion in filmmaking. And it sure did [laughs].

CB: Looking at the character in the two films, were you grateful or disappointed to see him as more of a humorous character in Last Crusade? Because he’s different in the second film.

JRD: In a way I prefer the character of the first one to the second. But you knew that you had the accumulated power of Sallah from the first one, so you have that character established, and then you need to service the situation with this new set up with the new family with Indy and his father in the thing. It makes a different balance, and in a sense Sallah wasn’t as important in that. He’s there to make up numbers in a way, but he wasn’t quite as integral as I think perhaps he was in the first one.

CB: More importantly, how was it working with the monkey? He was surprisingly important to the plot of that film.

JRD: Vital. But it’s very difficult working with monkeys, because in order to demonstrate your lack of hostility to me, you smile, and when you smile you bear your teeth. But when a monkey smiles, he’s bearing his teeth as a sign of aggression. And you’ve got to think monkey as well [laughs]! So it’s very hard – I mean, it’s a small monkey surrounded by bigger monkeys, who all are showing signs of aggression by bearing their teeth. You’ve really got to do what you can to keep them calm and show nothing that they would perceive of as aggression, because they will respond with fear or counter-aggression.

CB: Looking at the supplemental materials on the new set, was there any behind the scenes material that you had forgotten?

JRD: I had forgotten bits where the cook gets to see me and he comes out to shoot me and I get captured after the Well of Souls. There are a couple of deleted sequences where he is given the order to tie me to a tree and shoot me and he can’t – he raises the rifle and he can’t do it and lets me go. But at that particular time, I recall – this is sort of disgraceful – we had the worst case of dysentery I ever had. I’ve never been so ill in my life, and I had tunnel vision. I couldn’t really do much at all, and I remember Steven saying, “John could you get just down a bit lower to give them a better eyeline?” And as I got down to give him a better outline, I filled my djellaba [an Arab tunic] in front of 200 people – and I didn’t care [laughs].

CB: Did you really have to act through that or were you given time to recover?

JRD: Well, it was going through the whole company, and 24 hours later I’m lying in this bed into which I have vomited and excreted, and I’m dying. My temperature is way up, there 105, at least, and I tell you I lost 22 pounds in two days. If you lose ten percent of your body weight, you can enter into a spiral of sort of irreversible kidney damage, all of that sort of stuff. You die. But it wasn’t quite ten percent of my body weight. I was a bit heavier than that, so I just got away with it. But with antibiotics and hydration, that changes it all. Once you can rehydrate someone they can make a pretty quick recovery.

CB: Having gone through that experience, was it ultimately worth it?

JRD: We have the ethos anyway, the show goes on. And unless you are literally unable to get out of bed – I mean, if they’d have called me that particular day, I could have died. But unless you’re dying, you get on and do it, and we cheer at that. That’s what we expect of each other, and it’s part of our tradition. But I love it anyway. If an actor gets a chance of being part of one great thing in his life, he’s lucky. I mean, the chance to do Raiders of the Lost Ark and Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade and Shogun and Lord of the Rings and Sliders and a few other bits and parts, in a way it sort of cobbles together in a kind of not too shabby career, does it?

CB: You mentioned Lord of the Rings. Was there ever any chance Gimli might have turned up in the Hobbit films?

JRD: I think I put the kibosh on that very early on because I’d had so much trouble with my [make-up]. I mean, I’ll go back and grovel now that I see he’s extending it to three, but I really couldn’t take that prosthetic again – it just really sort of wipes my face out. It takes all of the skin around my eyes, and I couldn’t really do that again. But I would love to work with him again. I would love to work with both of them, actually.

Watch a behind-the-scenes clip from the new Indiana Jones: The Complete Collection Blu-ray.

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