Slight Size Can't Slow Tiny Actor
21st November 2001
'Believe in what you're doing'
As Professor Flitwick, Harry Potter's instructor in the art of magical charms at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, Warwick Davis could wave his wand and effect all manner of miracles. But at home in the town of Peterborough in the Midlands region of England, Davis, like most of us, has to rely on professional help when a pipe backs up in the kitchen and watery chaos erupts in the house he shares with his wife, actress Samantha Burroughs, and 4-year-old daughter, Annabelle.
"Can I call you back?" Davis asked during a first scheduled phone interview, sounding very polite and calm and oh so British, despite the domestic disaster burbling in the background. "We're having a bit of a problem here."
The next day, plumbing problems solved, the 3-foot-6 Davis was better able to talk about his roles in such films as Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone and the George Lucas-produced Willow, which makes its digital debut Tuesday in a "Special Edition" DVD from 20th Century Fox Home Entertainment.
Although his face is often hidden behind elaborate fantasy makeups, Davis, 31, may be the most recognizable and popular "short actor" in movie history, thanks to his appearances in blockbuster movies like Willow, Return of the Jedi, Star Wars: Episode 1 - The Phantom Menace and now Harry Potter, in which he plays the scary-looking head goblin bank teller in addition to Flitwick.
"It feels fantastic to be in a movie that is causing so much excitement," Davis said, in a phone interview conducted last week. "It's a great honor, especially to be playing Professor Flitwick. It's a role I wanted to play."
Indeed, the part of the "Charms teacher" seems tailor-made for Davis. In the original novel, author J. K. Rowling refers to Flitwick as "a tiny little wizard who had to stand on a pile of books to see over his desk. At the start of their first class he took the roll call, and when he reached Harry's name he gave an excited squeak and toppled out of sight."
If there's one place the globe-trotting Davis has rarely been, it's out of sight. Despite his diminutive stature, Davis was hard to overlook as a child because "I'm the only short person in my family." He said his particular form of dwarfism seemed to be caused by "a genetic hiccup - not anything that can be traced."
When Davis was a boy, his grandmother heard a radio announcement calling for people under 4 feet in height to try out for Return of the Jedi (1983), the final film in George Lucas's initial Star Wars trilogy. She took the then 2-foot-11 Warwick to the audition, and the youngster ended up playing "Wicket," the lead Ewok.
Davis reprised the role of the teddy bear-like forest warrior in two made-for-TV movies, The Ewok Adventure (1984) and Ewoks: The Battle for Endor (1985). He also appeared at about that time as "Bumpot," one of David Bowie's goblin minions in the Lucas-Jim Henson collaboration, Labyrinth.
In 1987, Davis was cast as the title character in the elaborate fantasy adventure Willow, directed by Ron Howard from an original story by Lucas, who produced the film. The location shooting took Davis to New Zealand, Wales and California.
"It was a stepping stone in my career, because up to that point I had only done roles behind a mask, so this was pretty different for me because the camera was pointed at my face," Davis said. "I changed my style of acting, and Ron Howard and I talked at great length about the importance of being very natural. He asked me to study the work of James Stewart."
In Willow, Davis plays Willow Ufgood, a big-hearted farmer and amateur magician of the "Nelwyn" (little people) race who is forced to become a hero when fate delivers a lost "Daikini" (big people) baby into his hands.
In 1987 Davis was cast in his first non-mask-wearing role. Willow, which makes its digital debut Tuesday, marks the first time a "short actor" had the lead in a major film. The baby is a princess whose existence threatens the reign of the evil Queen Bavmorda (Jean Marsh). Soon, Willow finds himself in battle against the queen, accompanied by the cocky Daikini swordsman Madmartigan (Val Kilmer), a pair of doll-sized comic warriors called "Brownies," and a good witch who has been turned into a possum (!). At the film's climax, the infant princess is almost sacrificed, but of course, good ultimately triumphs. (Davis says that after Princess Diana saw the film at a special screening for the royal family, she told him: "You give us princesses a rough ride.")
Willow was the first film to make extensive use of the computer-generated special effects technique known as "morphing," which is used to create smooth onscreen transformations (in Willow, the witch magically evolves from a goat to an ostrich to a turtle to a tiger to a woman in just a few seconds). Other effects highlights cooked up by the magicians at Industrial Light & Magic for the film include a duel between sorceresses, the transformation of a legion of soldiers into pigs, and a battle royale inside a castle courtyard that involves knights, wall-crawling trolls and a two-headed, fire-breathing dragon. The DVD includes two documentaries about the making of the film, and a very entertaining and informative feature commentary track from Davis (who points out his future wife and future father-in-law, Peter Burroughs, among the Nelwyn extras).
Davis was only 17 when he starred in Willow, even though his character was a husband and father of two. To prepare for the role, he took lessons in sword-fighting, horse-riding and "hardest of all," as he says on the DVD commentary, "I had to learn parenting skills, which taught me how to hold a baby correctly, how to feed a baby, and worst of all, how to change a nappy, or diaper."
Willow not only provided Davis with his first starring role but the film marked the first time a "short actor" (the term Davis prefers) had been the lead character in a major motion picture. As the movie's trailer proclaimed: "Heroes come in all sizes!" Or, as Davis defines the movie's message during his commentary: "It doesn't matter how short you are or whether or not you have a physical disability as long as you believe in what you're doing."
The scenes in the Nelwyn village involved some 225 "short actors" from all over Europe who spoke 13 different languages. Also in the cast was the legendary American performer Billy Barty, who played a gray-bearded wizard. Barty, who died last year at the reported age of 76, was something of an elder statesman among his peers. He was one of the few "Little People" (Barty's term) to achieve a certain name recognition in the movies, along with Harry Earles (The Unholy Three), Angelo Rossitto (Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome) and Michael Dunn, the Laurence Olivier of short actors, who is best known for his role as "Dr. Loveless" on TV's The Wild, Wild West.
Davis's experience with short actors on Willow and his interest in helping his fellow performers led him to found his own casting agency, Willow Personal Management Ltd., which he runs with his father-in-law.
"It's now the biggest agency in the world for short actors," said Davis, who said about 30 of his clients appeared in the goblin bank sequence in Harry Potter. "We've got 70 or so actors under 5 feet - we don't have anybody over that. Unless they're over 7 feet - we've also diversified a bit to encompass tall actors as well."
Is there much demand for short actors?
"At Christmastime over here," Davis said, "we have the traditional pantomime season, and Snow White is one of the most popular stories. And then there are all those Santas with their elves, so we find there's actually a shortage of dwarves."
Another source of employment for short actors is as bouncers, believe it or not. "They'll have short bouncers at the door," Davis said. "It's all the rage for big expensive parties for the aristocracy, so that's a great source of employment."
Just don't call Davis's clients "pint-sized." Said the actor: "One thing that really annoys me is - and it's more of a British tabloid thing - the term 'pint-sized.' 'Pint-sized Warwick Davis Gets a Part in Star Wars.' They always write 'pint-sized.'"
A man of many faces, Warwick Davis, 31, is known for his role in the "Leprechaun" horror series. The 3-foot-6 actor began his career as the lead Ewok in Return of the Jedi.
Although Davis appeared on an episode of Seinfeld, most of his acting roles have been in fantasy films. He was the swashbuckling rat Reepicheep in the BBC production Prince Caspian and the Voyage of the Dawn Treader (1989), based on one of C. S. Lewis's "Narnia" chronicles. He also appeared as Glimfeather the owl in Lewis's The Silver Chair (1990), and he was Lucky the leprechaun in A Very Unlucky Leprechaun (1998). In The Phantom Menace (1999), he played four characters, including Yoda in some long shots.
Davis also is well-known for his role as the evil, greedy ("I want me gold!") title Irish imp in the campy, gory "Leprechaun" horror series, which began with Leprechaun in 1993 (a film that featured a pre-Friends Jennifer Aniston) and has continued up to the it-must-be-seen-to-be-believed Leprechaun in the Hood (2000). The five "Leprechaun" movies recently were packaged together in the Leprechaun Pot of Gore Collection DVD box set from Trimark Home Video, which could make the perfect surprise holiday gift for that movie fan who thinks he's getting The Godfather DVD Collection.
"That's the question I'm asked most frequently, 'When is Leprechaun 6 coming?' " Davis said. "Those movies are very popular. You kind of sit there and put your brain in the fridge and just enjoy them. It's something I've considered, actually getting the rights and doing the next one myself. It's guaranteed to be successful."
Davis said being typecast to some extent as a nonhuman doesn't bother him because he is aware of the realities of the business and he is grateful for the opportunities available to him. "It's not something I particularly mind, because I just love to work, and if it is in the fantasy world, so be it."
The work can be demanding, however. Davis had to endure a four-hour makeup session each time he was transformed into Professor Flitwick or the goblin banker in Harry Potter. The makeups, designed by Nick Dudman (who also worked on Willow) weren't particularly comfortable. As a goblin, for instance, Davis had to wear "huge contact lenses that actually covered my entire eyeball, and these big dentures with pointy teeth. But it was worth it because it was a cool character."
Although Davis isn't onscreen much in Harry Potter, he said he worked for 28 days in makeup on the set. "They always shoot way much more than is in the movie. There's a whole section of me watching the Quidditch match that's gone. I'm sure you'll see some of it in some sort of director's cut on DVD."
He said the $125 million production, directed by Chris Columbus, was the most elaborate of his career. "If you're doing a Star Wars movie, you have to imagine a lot that will be added with a computer later, but with Harry Potter, it was all there. The only thing that wasn't was obviously the enchanted ceiling in the great hall. The set was that big and impressive.
"Some of the dining hall scenes, we'd have to chat away in character. Zoe Wanamaker (who plays Madame Hooch, the broomstick-flying instructor) would be saying 'Where are you going on holiday?' and as Flitwick I'd have to say where I'd go on holiday, and say what a wizard might say. These feasts took two or three days to film, each one of them."
Davis said working with the film's child actors, including Daniel Radcliffe (Harry), Emma Watson (Hermione) and Rupert Grint (Ron Weasley), was a treat. "They were familiar with Willow and Star Wars, so they were kind of excited about that. And they were very professional. I've worked with some child actors in the past and it's kind of a tough job to get the performance from them, but these ones were as prepared as the adults."
Davis said he doesn't mind doing interviews and public appearances to promote his movies. "It's really exciting. It comes as part of the job. You work on the movie for months, and then it's a treat at the end when you get to see people enjoy it."
But when the acting assignments are over, he said, it's a pleasure to spend time with his family, puttering about the house and updating his Web site at http.www.warwick davis.com "When you sort of 'play Hollywood' for a couple of months, it's nice to know you can come home and just be you."
Unfortunately, the enormity of the Harry Potter phenomenon doesn't allow the professors at the Hogwarts School much time off.
"I'm all set to do the second movie," Davis said. "They start filming in January."
By John Beifuss for The Commercial Appeal