‘David Bowie had seven pairs of socks down his tights’: Warwick Davis on reboots, relationships and rock stars

George Lucas wrote Willow for Warwick Davis after seeing him play an Ewok in Star Wars. As the actor returns as the baby-saving sorcerer, he talks about Val Kilmer pep talks, the Harry Potter shoot – and channelling a Ricky Gervais sitcom

Warwick Davis is, by some distance, the most commercially successful supporting actor in the history of cinema. Thanks largely to playing an Ewok in Star Wars and a Hogwarts professor in Harry Potter, Davis is partially responsible for a worldwide box office haul of more than $14bn. But this week, Willow launches on Disney+. And he plays Willow, so he is very much in the spotlight.

“It’s a weird moment,” he says, ensconced in a plush London hotel, surrounded by the full-bore machinations of the Disney promotional industry. “You feel like you’re on the edge of a cliff.”

Willow is the long-awaited follow-up to the 1988 film of the same name. Created by George Lucas, directed by Ron Howard and co-starring Val Kilmer, it was a lighthearted fantasy epic in which Davis plays the titular reluctant farmer who has to undertake a perilous quest to save a magic baby from an evil queen. If you’re roughly the same age as me, and had a similarly limited selection of VHS tapes as a child, the film has been permanently burned on to your brain stem through sheer repetition.

“It’s a very cherished part of my career,” Davis says of a film that’s such a huge source of pride for him that, years later, when he came to launch a management company for short actors, he named it Willow. “It was a real stepping stone, because I went from being an actor you never saw, never recognised unless you were a real Star Wars fan, to having my face out there.”

You remind me of the babe … A 17-year-old Davis in the original 1988 film.
You remind me of the babe … A 17-year-old Davis in the original 1988 film. Photograph: Photo 12/Alamy

In one sense it was inevitable that Willow would be turned into a TV show, because Disney+ loves to repurpose old intellectual property to capitalise on nostalgia. Fortunately, though, the new series is good. Better than good, even. It has a perfect cast – including the likes of Erin Kellyman (Top Boy, The Falcon and the Winter Soldier), Ellie Bamber (The Trial of Christine Keeler) and Tony Revolori (Flash Thompson in the recent Spider-Man movies) – that fizzes with youthful energy. After labouring through the self-importance of The Rings of Power and House of the Dragon, watching Willow is like jumping into a swimming pool on a summer’s day. “I have so much admiration for them,” Davis says of his young co-stars, before sniffing. “Slightly annoyed at their energy levels, though. When you’re 52 and you rock up at 7:30 in the morning, it’s like, ‘Oh my God, you guys had too much coffee! Quiet!’ I was the old curmudgeon on set. I was the equivalent of Michael Gambon on Harry Potter.”

This, to some extent, shows in the series. The Willow we meet here is older, grumpier and beset with regrets. “His life hasn’t panned out the way he expected,” says Davis of a plot that’s a continuation of the film (but which doesn’t require you to have watched the original). “He’s still stressed out, still worries. He has the weight of this quest on his shoulders. He didn’t want to do this. He wants to be back with the villagers in the village.”

The show is the brainchild of Jonathan Kasdan, a screenwriter (and son of long-time Star Wars writer Lawrence) who has previously worked on Freaks and Geeks and Solo: A Star Wars Story. Kasdan apparently envisioned the series as a hybrid of the movie Willow and one of Davis’s other projects – which isn’t exactly the most obvious inspiration for a fantasy drama.

“Jon would often use Life’s Too Short as an analogy,” says Davis, referring to his shortlived Ricky Gervais sitcom. “‘Let’s go more Life’s Too Short here’, he’d say. He meant make it as fun as you can, say whatever you want. That’s a really lovely, free way of working.”

Wand in the Willows … Davis as the titular sorcerer in the Disney+ series.
Wand in the Willows … Davis as the titular sorcerer in the Disney+ series. Photograph: Lucasfilm Ltd.

Was that an odd experience? “It was weird at first, because Willow in my mind is a certain person who does certain things a certain way. So going outside those boundaries was a little uncomfortable. But once I’d done it a couple of times, it became really liberating.”

Although Joanne Whalley reprises her role as evil baby-hunter Sorsha in the new show, one figure who doesn’t make an appearance is Val Kilmer. Due to his recent ill health, he was unable to reprise his role as the mercenary swordsman who helps Willow on his quest – which seems to weigh heavily on Davis’s mind. “Not a day went by while we were filming where I didn’t think about him,” he says sadly. “What a cool guy he was. When you’re 17 on a huge film like that, playing the title character, there’s a lot of pressure, physically and mentally, to do a good job. Val was always there with a joke. Kind of picking my spirits up, saying, ‘Come on, you can do this’, you know, physically geeing me on. I owe him a big debt of gratitude for that.”

There is, of course, another important figure missing from this iteration of Willow: its creator, George Lucas. I wonder aloud if this puts Davis in a tricky spot. On one hand, Lucas is basically responsible for his entire career. After all, his big break was playing the Ewok Wicket in Return of the Jedi, and Willow was apparently written explicitly as a Warwick Davis vehicle. The pair were so tight that at one point Davis boasts he used to get Industrial Light and Magic technicians to help him out with his school projects, which seems a little like cheating.

On the other hand, since Disney bought Lucasfilm for all the money in the world in 2012, Lucas has found himself shut out of creative decisions regarding his old work; something he will intermittently gripe about in public. Does Davis know what Lucas thinks of the new Willow?

For a moment, Davis looks terse. “We’re removed from George, you know, he’s not a part of this project,” he begins. “George is very opinionated about anything that’s been done since the deal, as we saw with Star Wars. So they rarely ask his opinion, because they know … ” He tails off, deciding it might be more diplomatic to attack the question from the other point of view instead.

A quest awaits … Davis and Graham Hughes in a scene from Willow.
A quest awaits … Davis and Graham Hughes in a scene from Willow. Photograph: Lucasfilm/Disney+

“If it’s something that’s your creation, and is so dear to you, you’re obviously going to have an opinion about someone else’s handling of it,” he says. “So whether this series will be what he envisaged? I don’t know. He often talked about it being something for TV, similar to the way they did Young Indiana Jones years ago. He could see it that way. I’d be interested to know. We’re still in touch, so I’ll ask him.”

Davis has been famous almost his entire life. He fell into acting aged 11, when his grandmother heard a radio interview looking for short people to appear in Return of the Jedi, and has worked steadily since, graduating from acting to hosting daily ITV gameshow Tenable, co-running charity Little People UK, and working to raise awareness of sepsis after his wife Samantha had a close brush with death in 2019. That’s a long time to be famous, and to observe fans. Especially within sci-fi and fantasy – the genres he predominately works in – there’s a sense that viewers feel more ownership over franchises than ever before, with some waiting to review-bomb anything they dislike. Having had roles in all the Disney-era Star Wars films, has he noticed a change of attitude?

“Not all actors feel like this, but I feel that fans are basically the reason why you’re successful,” he says. “You kind of owe them in a sense, but you don’t owe them your entire life. It’s weird. I mean, once Willow came out, I was suddenly recognised as opposed to being behind these masks. But each thing you do there’s a new level. When I did Life’s Too Short, I was recognised a lot more, plus they started to think they knew me, even though I was playing a fictional me. But then you’re on ITV doing Tenable, and people feel like they really know you because you’re in their living rooms every day.”

These are good times to be Davis. Disney’s repurposing of old Lucasfilm properties means he’s now constantly in work. A second season of Willow hasn’t been formally announced, but it sounds as if plans are afoot. “I saw Jon in the corridor earlier, and he goes, ‘Hey, I just had a great idea we can do for a second season!’” says Davis. “If Disney open the door, we’ll be running through it.”

Despite all this, there is one old project of his that has yet to be given the Disney+ overhaul. “Has a Labyrinth TV series been mooted anywhere?” he asks as we start to wrap up. “They did Dark Crystal, but I haven’t heard any talk about Labyrinth.”

It’s a surprise that there isn’t a new Labyrinth project, I say, given that I’ve been out with women whose entire sexual awakening stems from the first time they saw David Bowie in that film. “Those tights were a bit too tight, weren’t they?” he says. “He was very, very down to earth on the set, by the way. Wanted to go by Dave, despite this huge wig and seven pairs of socks down his tights.”

Willow is on Disney+ from Wednesday 30 November.


Stuart Heritage

The GuardianTramp

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