In ‘Willow,’ Warwick Davis Revives the ‘Role That Gave Me Everything’
LONDON — In a hotel suite overlooking a darkening 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 was there attending the London premiere of “Willow,” a swashbuckling comedy-adventure movie directed by Ron Howard with a story by George Lucas, who executive produced. It stars Davis and Val Kilmer as sorcerer and scoundrel, the bickering protectors of a baby princess with magic powers.
Davis remembered being seated 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 give us princesses a rough ride.’”
“Willow” remains a standout role for Davis, 52, who is a stalwart of sci-fi, horror and fantasy franchises including “Star Wars,” the “Leprechaun” films, and “Harry Potter.” He has been immortalized in plastic many, many times. “I hold the record for the most mini figures of characters I’ve played,” hesaid 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 middling reviews and was perceived as a rare misfire by Lucas, the architect of the “Star Wars” and (with Steven Spielberg) “Indiana Jones” franchises. But it left a mark on a then eight-year-old Jonathan Kasdan, the creator of a eight-episode TV sequel that premiered last week on Disney+.
In a phone interview, Kasdan, whose father, Lawrence, co-wrote some of Lucas’s most celebrated films, including the original “Star Wars” trilogy and “Raiders of the Lost Ark,” described “Willow” as “a giant, very tactile adventure, with this small person at the center of it.” He added that Davis, as the kind, clearheaded Willow, a farmer who learns sorcery, was “an incredibly relatable movie star.” The TV series, set roughly 20 years after the events of the movie, sees the return of an older, wiser and altogether more reluctant Willow, this time shepherding a found 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 creature costumes 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 quaint” until a McDonald’s arrived on the high street. Davis, who has spondyloepiphyseal dysplasia congenita and is 3-foot-6, had various medical issues as a child but said his parents, who were average sized, “let me do everything I wanted.” As an adolescent, this included riding “a mini motorbike” and throwing himself around in various ways.
“I should never have done any of those things because I have an instability in my neck due to my skeletal dysplasia,” he said. “I could have paralyzed myself.”
The big, fun-loving personality Davis developed, he said, is partly a result of his size. “When you’re shorter than average at school, the conversation is happening two feet above you,” he said.
“You become louder and funnier so you get noticed,” he explained. “I became this larger-than-life character, just so I wouldn’t get left out.”
That joyful persona is genuine, said Joanne Whalley, who also starred in the “Willow” film and reprises her role in the series. “He’s a lover of life,” she said in a phone interview.
Davis began acting at 11, donning a furry suit and mask to play the 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 reprise the character in several made-for-TV spinoffs, and during filming for “Star Wars: Ewok Adventures,” Davis said, Lucas told his mother about an idea he had for the actor once he was older.
Filmed when he was 17, “Willow” offered 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’s 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 chat her up, but she said I did,” he said. “She said, ‘You kind of wooed me that night.’” Davis began to cry as he told this story, then paused and cleared his throat. “I get emotional talking about that.”
Despite the mixed reviews, “Willow” was profitable, earning over $110 million worldwide (the equivalent of around $270 million today), and it had a long afterlife in home video. But for Davis, it gave way to a five-year lull in which “there were no scripts, 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 “infinitely dull” and relentlessly soundtracked by the Chris de Burgh 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 offered Davis a chance to prove that “I can do more than be a nice, happy sorcerer,” he said. “‘Leprechaun’ was a chance to really go crazy.” It went on to become a cult hit, and Davis reprised the role in five more movies, 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 knowing sense of humor, something that colleagues say infuses many of his performances. “There’s a weary sarcasm at the heart of what Warwick can do,” Kasdan said.
In person, this quality emerges in the deadpan asides that Davis drops into the conversation. He is 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 tell you about the first time he got drunk.”
(For the record, Davis’s first experience with alcohol was drinking margaritas during the original “Willow” shoot in New Zealand. “At 17, I was pure of heart and soul,” he said dryly, adding that his co-stars Kilmer and Whalley “did corrupt me a little bit.”)
Davis, who grew up watching “Laurel and Hardy,” loves physical comedy, particularly when it’s at his own expense. He built self-deprecating slapstick into “Life’s Too Short,” the showbiz satire series he created with Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant, which starred Davis as a fictional version of himself.
“If I fall over or drop something, I will laugh at that,” he said.
His sense of humor exists alongside a seriousness of purpose. In 1996, he set up Willow Management, an agency representing actors with dwarfism. He has continued his advocacy as he has racked up credits in some of Hollywood’s biggest franchises — he appeared in all of the “Harry Potter” films and most of the “Star Wars” ones since “Jedi” — founding the charity Little People UK in 2012 with his wife and creating the Reduced Height Theater Company.
“I thought it’s about time these guys got 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 “have another go,” 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 human’s life — and “to make sure the path it takes is a good one, the right one as well.”
Davis brought another thing to the sequel that he didn’t have the first time around: a veteran movie star’s confidence. Kasdan said, “I had this very clear image in my head of him, with this graying long hair, and how powerful that could be.” He was convinced that it would be the best Davis had ever looked onscreen.
Davis said that when he finally donned Willow’s wig, he could only agree.