by Steven Eramo
Stop and think for a moment about the trust you place in the entertainment industry when you turn on your television or queue up at the local movie theater. Is this the much hyped new television show or supposed blockbuster film all that it is cracked up to be? For actor John Rhys-Davies giving audiences what they have come to expect is a big part of responsibilities as an actor.
“They say that success is unpredictable in Hollywood. I always thought that was nonsense,” says the actor. “Yes, there’s a huge element of luck but the truth of the matter is that if you consistently give audiences $35 of entertainment for the seven dollars they give you at the box office, then one day you will be wholly appreciated. That investment, of course, is not in how big the production is or the amount of money studios spend. The core of the projects success is in the imaginative investment. If you look deeply and honestly into your imagination and try to give people the best value you can, then, with luck, in the end you will be rewarded. It’s about doing all you can to give them not only value for money but richness for spending part of their short lives watching you. It’s a great honour and privilege.”
One recent piece of acting Rhys-Davies is particularly proud of is his work as Italian artist and all-around genius Leonardo da Vinci in the first half of Star Trek: Voyager‘s third season cliffhanger Scorpion. With his dignified stature and rich voice it is not surprising that Trek producers chose him to play such an important historical figure. “When you reach a certain point in your career you really aren’t required to read that many parts. It’s just taken for granted that you’ve been doing it for 30 years and have gotten away with it that long then you must know what you’re doing,” he laughs. “Funnily enough, when I told my oldest son about it he said, ‘Gosh Dad, you’re doing Star Trek? Well, I’ve never said this to you before, but all the other things you’ve done have been pretty good, I guess. If you’re going to do Star Trek, though, you’ve arrived in my book.’ I couldn’t agree with him more.”
In Scorpion Voyager’s journey home comes to a standstill when they encounter the Borg. They locate an area of Space appears void of Borg activity, but when they attempt to traverse it they are faced with an even greater threat. With her options dwindling, Captain Janeway retreats to the holodeck with the hopes of being inspired by da Vinci.
“Janeway’s creatively exhausted. She does not see any way out of her current dilemma, so she conjures up Leonardo in the holodeck and he basically talks to her about the problems of creativity,” explains the actor. “How do you get the juices flowing? How do you come up with the ideas? For example, as a writer there are extraordinary times when the ideas just bubble out of you. It’s as if you’re being given them. The question is how to order them quickly enough and put them down on paper before they can go all over the place. There are also times when all you see are the problems and no solutions.
“When you’re an officer in command like Janeway the weight and responsibility of the lives you’re entrusted with is overwhelming and to come up with a strategy that might work is a nightmare. So it was lovely to have her talk to, I suppose, one of the greatest creators of our time and to be told that there are times when even he fails. It is in their relationship her own mind is able to relax and for a solution to emerge. Much as the illusion of the holodeck becomes a reality for the participant, so the idea forms out of the illusion. “Kate Mulgrew is a gifted actress and a wonderful person,” enthuses Rhys-Davies. “It was a delight to work on the programme. The writing was solid and the direction very sensitive, especially within the constraints of being the last episode of the season and everyone wanting to get away for break. Still, one has the time to make it work and it’s these moments when actors are most satisfied. You go home and think, ‘Well, I don’t know what it’ll turn out like, but, by God, I feel good about it,’ and one so needs those restoratives from time to time.”
While some films and television programmes paint a bleak picture for the human race, Star Trek gives its viewers hope that people will eventually learn to work with instead of against each other. This is a vision Rhys-Davies feel is particularly important to today’s younger generation and he is proud to have been a small part in such a programme.
“Star Trek is a very important series,” he says, “Obviously, it is the dream of many people that we can get off-world one day and that Humanity will spread out among the stars. These dreams are kept alive with the help of good science fiction fans Star Trek at its best is going to be the stuff all those young, and I use the word in the real sense, Space cadets are going to be watching. They might laugh at some of it but the overall impression they will take away from the programmes of Humanity standing by the ideals, acting morally and trying to corporate with whatever species of life it encounters in the universe. These are the things that people of the future will remember about Star Trek.
“One way or another the show will continue even if they do the terrible Hollywood thing of parasitizing the earlier stories and revamping them with new people. It’s important that a series such as this is done well for the future of our species. Those of us who write or perform such a grand scale as present day technology gives us, whether in films or on television, are helping to dream for Humanity. it is these dreams which will be invested in the generations to come.”
Prior to guest-starring on Voyager Rhys-Davies had spent the past two years portraying Professor Maximillian P. Arturo in Sliders. A brilliant scientist who over the years been ignored by his peers, Arturo conceals his feelings of anger and rejection by projecting an air of conceit and superiority. He gets the opportunity to put his talents and experience to good use when he joins his student Quinn Mallory (Jerry O’Connell), computer technician Wade Welles (Sabrina Lloyd) and musician Rembrandt “Crying Man” Brown (Cleavant Derricks ) on a never-ending trip through alternate dimensions.
Sliders was canceled after its first season but brought back as a mid season replacement thanks to a protest campaign by its legion of loyal fans. In September 1996 the programme returned for a third season but without its co-creator and executive producer Tracy Tormé, who left due to other professional commitments and his overall dissatisfaction with the direction in which the show was heading. The latter was also of great concern to Rhys-Davies, who departed later in the season.
“In the end Sliders became a disappointment because it has an infinite opportunity to explore every parallel situation or universe but fails to do so because there is no real moral position. Also, the whole idea of what the show is about changed week-to-week because some of those involved had no vision themselves as well as having no understanding of science or Science Fiction,” he explains. “If you cheat your viewers by compressing the ideas of others or using plots from recent films, ultimately you will be repaid by a lack of interest. If there is anything that is happening in network television is that year after year the audiences fall off because it is not worth watching. The real investment has to be intellectual and imaginative best, putting value for money on the screen. If you’re asking people to put up with 18 minutes of adverts per hour then the rest of the time should be packed with richness. There is no excuse, particularly with a show like Sliders where you can go anywhere in the universe.
“Basic mistakes were made,” continues the actor. “There’s a difference between the Science Fiction audience and the Sword and Sorcery audience. We started picking up numbers last year and then we did a show that was a rip-off of the film Dragonslayer where, in fact, Arturo kills Quinn and he is then brought back to life by a woman using magic. Any Science Fiction fan who saw that suddenly thought, ‘Oh, wait a minute. I get it. It’s a kid’s show and not Science Fiction after all.’ So next week, of course, we drop three points and never get those viewers back. It just fills me with grief because this franchise could be another Star Trek. It could have been one of the best shows on television but you cannot evolve these things if what you’re doing is, “Ok, the network wants a grand concept. So we’ll do a Twister episode but our twisters will be different because they’ll be big at the base and small at the top.” Night of the Living Dead, a couple of H G Welles things, Mad Max, Species — you name it, we did it. You cannot get to the heart of the matter when what you’re doing is grafting someone else’s scenes and scenarios with a bit of a twist so it doesn’t quite look the same. you’re trying to graft characters into a situation that is already artificial instead of trying to set up a premise.
“All good Science Fiction really starts off with the simple premise of, ‘What if?’ What you should then see are the rational minds as well as the irrational fears of the characters trying to come to terms and cope with the situation. It is from this experience that we, the curious human apes, shall learn. We may emerge humbled, but our visions will have expanded. With Sliders these extraordinary possibilities were sadly just thrown away. So many of the apparent contradictions and questions in the show which our intelligent viewers saw and pondered were simply, well, they weren’t the result of advanced calculated slight deceptions and future planning. They came about purely because, ‘Well, we tried that and it didn’t work and, yes, that wasn’t resolved but, never mind, because we’ll try this.’ It was hugely irritating and very frustrating.”
Arturo makes his exit in the series in the two part adventure Exodus in which he and his friends slide into a militaristic America soon to be destroyed by a deadly pulsar. The professor is killed after an altercation with the deranged Colonel Angus Rickman, played by Roger Daltrey. Ironically, the premise for this story came from Rhys-Davies himself. Although had become disenchanted with Sliders, the actor felt sadness about leaving behind his fellow cast mates.
“That was extremely difficult,” he says pensively. “All actors get somewhat sentimentally attached to some of the people in the group, but I love these people. One thing I can say for us, and if you ask any of them they’d all echo my sentiments, is the thing that made going to work a pleasure is the fact that you’d be working with them. Every day we’d go in and be delighted to see each other. We were unselfish and we all cooperated and collaborated and were able to turn an awful lot of straw into some sort of bricks.”
After its third season Sliders was canceled this past spring by the Fox Network. Recently, however, it was announced by the Sci-Fi Channel that it would be picking up the series and commissioning 22 new episodes for the 1997-1998 season. Rhys-Davies is somewhat dubious as to how the show will fare. “It’s a hard position to go from now, especially when you read remarks on the internet like, ‘Oh, God, let this series die in peace.’ When you see that you know you’ve lost an awful lot of your long suffering audience. On the surface the prognosis for the show is not good but, oh boy, I would be the first person to cheer if I were proven wrong and I would watch it with great delight. As for Cleavant, Sabrina and Jerry, dear friends, I cherish them and wish them so well with it.”
Rhys-Davies makes an appearance this fall on an American television comedy called Genie, a Nineties version of the old I Dream of Jeannie series. It features a male genie who complicates the life of a divorced mother of two. Initial reports indicated that the actor would be a regular on the series but this really was not the case. “I’d never done a half-hour sitcom,” he explains. “Genie was a brilliant script. I had a very charming part and because it was a non-continuing role I said, “Yes, I’ll do it.” I did so and immediately afterward the part doubled in size and now they’ve asked me to come back.
“When you’re part of a pilot that becomes a series I think it’s incumbent upon you to do everything you can to help the series make a go of it, but I personally don’t see myself as a full time regular and I’ve told them that. So it just depends. If it’ll work for them without having me full -time I’d be more that happy to do a batch or two or three, take time off and then come back and do a couple more. I had such a painful time towards the end of Sliders that I’m keeping away from series at the moment unless something wonderful happens.
“I myself want to spend more time writing and I found a wonderful play in Argentina when I was there a month ago that I would like to see done. Of course, that means getting off my backside and attempting something that I’ve never done before. I would say that almost certainly the probability of success is down there three or four percent. Nevertheless, there comes a time when you sort of begin to know what you’re doing and you have to start laying it on the line because life is short.
“Sometimes I’ve felt as if I’ve cheated my audience because I’ve worked on things that have not been worthy of their time. So I’m going to try to be more selective and attempt a few other things. At the moment I’m turning down an awful lot of stuff but I’m sure a project will turn up and I’ll say, “Oh, it’s only one scene but, yes, I like that.” Eventually, I hope something will turn up so one can say, ” Oh, what a magnificent piece. I will sell my children to play this part.”
“If not, hell, I guess I shall just have to wait until the pennies have totally run out and I come groveling back,” laughs the actor heartily.
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