In ‘Willow’, Warwick Davis revives ‘the role that gave me everything’
LONDON – In a hotel suite overlooking a dark Leicester Square, the actor Warwick Davis picked up a pair of opera glasses and pointed them in the direction of the Empire Cinema. In 1988 he attended the London premiere of Willow, a spectacular comedy-adventure film directed by Ron Howard with a story by George Lucas, who himself produced. It stars Davis and Val Kilmer as wizard and villain, the bickering protectors of a baby princess with magical powers.
Davis recalled sitting next to another princess, Diana, sandwiched between her and Prince Charles.
“I was holding the popcorn,” Davis joked, adding, “Diana said to me at the end of the movie, ‘You’re giving us princesses a rough ride.'”
“Willow” remains a standout role for Davis, 52, who is a stalwart of sci-fi, horror and fantasy series including “Star Wars,” the “Leprechaun” movies and “Harry Potter.” He has been immortalized in plastic many, many times. “I hold the record for the most minifigures of characters I’ve played,” he said with mock seriousness, dressed that day in a tailored blue velvet blazer.
As this newspaper reported upon the film’s release, “Willow” was not a hit despite its illustrious pedigree. It received mediocre reviews and was perceived as a rare misfire by Lucas, the architect behind “Star Wars” and (with Steven Spielberg) the “Indiana Jones” series. But it left a mark on a then-8-year-old Jonathan Kasdan, the creator of an eight-episode TV sequel that premiered last week on Disney+.
In a phone interview, Kasdan, whose father, Lawrence, co-wrote some of Lucas’ most famous films, including the original “Star Wars” trilogy and “Raiders of the Lost Ark,” described “Willow” as “a giant, very tactile “. adventure, with this little person at the center.” He added that Davis, as the kind, clear-headed Willow, a farmer who learns sorcery, was “an incredibly relatable movie star.” Set roughly 20 years after the events of the film, the TV series sees the return of an older, wiser and overall more reluctant Willow, this time shepherding a foundling family of ragtag misfits (portrayed by Ruby Cruz, Erin Kellyman, Ellie Bamber, Tony Revolori and Amar Chadha-Patel) in search of a kidnapped prince.
For Davis, the TV show allowed him to return to what is arguably still his signature character, the one that proved a young actor used to performing in costume could be the face of a Hollywood epic.
“It was the role that gave me everything,” he said.
Davis grew up just south of London in the 1970s, in Epsom, Surrey, a commuter town he described as having been “very charming” until a McDonald’s arrived on the high street. Davis, who has spondyloepiphyseal dysplasia congenita and is 3-foot-6, had various medical problems as a child, but said his parents, who were of average height, “let me do anything I wanted.” As a youth this included riding “a mini motorbike” and throwing himself around in various ways.
“I should never have done any of these things because I have an instability in my neck because of my skeletal dysplasia,” he said. “I could have paralyzed myself.”
The big, jovial personality Davis developed, he said, is partly a result of his size. “When you’re shorter than average in school, the conversation takes place two meters above you,” he said.
“You get taller and funnier, so you get noticed,” he explained. “I became a larger-than-life character just so I wouldn’t be left out.”
The joyful person is real, said Joanne Whalley, who also starred in the “Willow” movie and is reprising her role in the series. “He loves life,” she said in a telephone interview.
Davis began acting at age 11, donning a furry suit and mask to play Ewok Wicket W. Warrick in the “Star Wars” sequel “Return of the Jedi.” (His grandmother had encouraged him to audition after hearing a radio ad looking for short performers.) He went on to portray the character in several made-for-TV spinoffs, and during the filming of “Star Wars: Ewok Adventures,” Davis said, Lucas told his mother about an idea he had for the actor when he got older.
Filmed when he was 17, “Willow” gave Davis his first opportunity to “pop out” from behind a mask and be a “proper actor,” he said. It also changed his life in ways that went beyond his career.
Davis’ future wife, Samantha, was an extra on “Willow,” and Davis approached her at the premiere after party at the Waldorf, in London’s West End. “I didn’t actively talk to her, but she said I did,” he said. “She said, ‘You kind of proposed to me that night.’ “I get emotional talking about it.”
Despite the mixed reviews, “Willow” was profitable, grossing over $110 million worldwide (equivalent to about $270 million today), and it had a long afterlife in home video. But for Davis, it gave way to a five-year hiatus where “there was no script, none at all”. During that period he made a living as a videographer – “filming people’s wedding ceremonies”, he said, a job he described as “endlessly boring” and relentlessly soundtracked by Chris de Burgh’s power ballad “The Lady in Red”.
Then, in the early 1990s, the script for the horror comedy “Leprechaun” landed on his desk. A twisted subversion of the mythical Irish creature, the film gave Davis a chance to prove that “I can do more than be a nice, happy wizard,” he said. “‘Leprechaun’ was a chance to really go crazy.” It went on to become a cult hit, and Davis reprized the role in five more films, even rapping and getting high with his co-star Ice-T in the fifth installment, “Leprechaun in the Hood” (2000).
His performance in the “Leprechaun” films is characterized by a sense of humor, which colleagues say infuses many of his performances. “There’s a tired sarcasm at the heart of what Warwick can do,” Kasdan said.
Personally, this quality shows up in the deadpan since Davis drops into the conversation. He’s also a gifted storyteller, a skill Kasdan credited to Davis’s “memory for everything he’s experienced” and to an “amazing voice that makes it feel like you’re listening to John Houseman telling you about the first time he got drunk. “
(For the record, Davis’ first experience with alcohol was drinking margaritas during the original “Willow” shoot in New Zealand. “At 17, I was clean in heart and soul,” he said dryly, adding that his co-stars Kilmer and Whalley “corrupted me a little.”)
Davis, who grew up watching “Laurel and Hardy,” loves physical comedy, especially when it’s at his own expense. He built self-deprecating slapstick into “Life’s Too Short,” the showbiz satire he created with Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant, who played Davis as a fictional version of himself.
“If I fall or lose something, I’ll laugh about it,” he said.
His sense of humor coexists with a serious purpose. In 1996, he created Willow Management, an agency that represented actors with dwarfism. He has continued his legal practice while racking up credits in some of Hollywood’s biggest franchises – appearing in all the ‘Harry Potter’ films and most of the ‘Star Wars’ since ‘Jedi’ – founding the charity Little People UK in 2012 with his wife and created the Reduced Height Theater Company.
“I thought it was time for these guys to do something important, instead of just dressing up and playing elves,” he said.
When Kasdan approached him about reviving “Willow,” Davis was keen to “take another chance,” he said. Now a father of two, he said he was armed with a parent’s understanding of what it means to be responsible for another person’s life – and “to make sure the path it takes is a good one, the right one too.”
Davis brought something else to the sequel that he didn’t have the first time around: the confidence of a veteran movie star. Kasdan said, “I had this very clear image in my head of him, with this graying long hair, and how powerful it could be.” He was convinced it would be the best thing Davis had ever seen on screen.
Davis said that when he finally put on Willow’s wig, he could only agree.