Warwick Davis talks ‘Willow’: the film, the legacy, the belly tattoo

Philip Yu
This Week on DVD/Blu-ray

Warwick Davis has traversed the realms of many a sci-fi/fantasy franchise, from the galaxy far, far away of "Star Wars" to the hallowed halls of Hogwarts in "Harry Potter" to the perilous maze lorded over by David Bowie in "Labyrinth." He's also quite the horror icon after no less than six appearances as the ever-rhyming Irish demon in the "Leprechaun" series, which took him from the farmlands of North Dakota to the mean streets of the 'hood and even all the way into outer space.

Davis made his feature film debut at the age of 13 as Wicket W. Warrick, one of the most resourceful and, well, excitable Ewoks in "Star Wars: Episode VI - Return of the Jedi" (1983). He reprised the role in two made-for-television spinoff films, "The Ewok Adventure" (1984) and "Ewoks: Battle For Endor" (1985), and it was on the set of the latter that George Lucas first hinted that he may have an even bigger project in mind for the young actor, one that will put him center stage (and without a mask).

That project ended up being "Willow" (1988), a grand fantasy epic directed by a just-getting-started Ron Howard (the "director of 'Cocoon,'" as he was described in the teaser trailer). "Willow" tells the tale of Willow Ufgood (Davis), a farmer and amateur conjurer who finds himself on a dangerous quest after he's tasked with protecting an infant prophesied to end the reign of the evil Queen Bavmorda (Jean Marsh), an adventure that teams him up with the swaggering warrior Madmartigan (Val Kilmer).

We spoke with Warwick Davis upon the 25th anniversary Blu-ray release of "Willow" about the project's origins, memories of '80s summer movie seasons, some rather impressionable fan experiences and, of course, Disney's resurrection of "Star Wars."

BRYAN ENK: Somehow "Willow" is now a 25-year-old movie, which blows my mind. How did this project come about -- was it something that George Lucas was hinting at while you were shooting "Return of the Jedi" or did it come up later?

WARWICK DAVIS: George hinted at it during the time of the Ewok movie, "Caravan of Courage," around 1983 or '84, he mentioned it to my mom that he had an idea in mind. He didn't say anything more specific, but he did say at that time I would be a bit young to do it, but he would want to do it when I was a bit older. That turned out to be the movie "Willow."

BE: It's such a great role -- you get to be the main protagonist, you get to fight the bad guys, you get to argue with Val Kilmer. Do you remember your initial reaction when you first read the script?

WD: It was a weird process. I remember I got invited up to meet George and [director] Ron [Howard] at the famous Elstree Studios, which is where George had done everything prior to that -- all the "Star Wars," Indiana Jones. So I got asked to go up there and meet them both and they introduced me to the idea of this new film "Willow," but it wasn't sort of cut and dry that I had the part at that point -- it was really left up to Ron to make that decision, even though George had kind of been inspired by me when I was 13, 14. So I started going through a series of auditions to sort of win the role.

I don't remember having a reaction when sitting down and first reading it although I was very relieved when I was finally offered the part because I could see that it was going to be a great opportunity for me to do something where I wasn't hidden under a mask this time -- this was going to be something of a departure for me into the realms of proper acting. It was great that Ron Howard decided to have me go through with that.

BE: "Willow" could be seen as the closest thing to a prelude to the "Lord of the Rings" movies that we ever got, not just in terms of production value and having a talented cast and crew but by having a sense of class and gravitas to it -- it's not "goofy" like some other '80s fantasy films. Was that a conscious decision on the part of the production, to kind of truly raise the bar on the genre?

WD: I think any time you make any kind of genre film you want to of course make the best film that you can and obviously you want to do better than previous films in the genre -- I think that comes with the territory. But Ron Howard, he's a brilliant filmmaker and at that point was kind of in the early part of his career, and having George as your boss, he's keen to make a good impression and make a great film. And what great resources he had around him!

It's important that you have humor in there, but you're right, it was never goofy -- it was taken rather seriously. There are two sorts of fantasies, aren't there -- ones that take themselves seriously and ones that are very goofy, but "Willow" went that first route and was all the better for it. We talk about it being 25 years old and talking about it today -- people tweet me every day and say, "I just caught up with 'Willow' after all these years," it's a film that still stands up and people look back on with fondness as one of the "classics" of that genre from that era. The '80s did produce some classic films and amongst them some great fantasy films and "Willow" is amongst those. It's a good thing to be remembered so fondly like that.

[Related: See Warwick Davis in an exclusive clip from 'Willow']

BE: I read somewhere that someone made the argument that 1988 was the best-ever year for summer movies -- you had "Willow," "Die Hard," "Who Framed Roger Rabbit," "Coming to America," "Midnight Run." Do you have a particular memory or experience from that summer either movie-related or otherwise?

WD: The thing is, back during that period and in the UK, we used to get films about six months after the United States did. We got "Willow" in December '88, so it was not a "summer movie" where I was living. I can't recall what summer movies we had then but they were probably the ones you had that previous Christmas. [laughs] Obviously everything lines up a bit better now with worldwide distribution and the States all synchronized.

I do have memories of seeing movies the previous summer when we were filming "Willow" in America in Marin County near ILM. The movie experience for me during most of the '80s was all about seeing them in America -- it was fantastic to be able to see these films and then come back to the UK and be able to tell all my friends that I had seen all these films that they hadn't even heard about at that point. My favorite film memories during that time were seeing the fantasy films of that era -- "The Goonies" is a classic of that time, and "Labyrinth," which I was lucky enough to also have been in.

Films like that, you don't get them any more -- films now, I think, they're trying to be too clever and as a result sort of distract the audience from what they're trying to do, in a sense. Instead of just telling a story, which is what George is really good at, and of course Ron, and that was the case with "Willow" -- it's about the story and about the characters and not about the special effects, which are there to enable the story to be told and to put the audience and characters in the setting. But I find that there are far too many films now that ... I'm distracted by the spectacle, and I'm taken away with that more than the characters, do you know what I mean?

But something like "Life of Pi," they get that exactly right, because not only is that a spectacle and an amazing film to watch but you're also enthralled with the characters. That's the ideal, that balance.

BE: I assume you're sworn to secrecy with anything involving "Star Wars: Episode VII," but what was your reaction to the news that Disney is going to do more "Star Wars" movies? I thought it was a hoax for at least two days.

WD: [laughs] Well I would've thought the same as you, I think, but I had an email from Lucasfilm just before the announcement that kind of let me know what was going on so I was kind of forewarned of it ... you know, basically that I was going to get phone calls about it and people asking me about it, so they wanted me to have the knowledge first-hand, as it were.

But I was amazed to see it! It completely came out of the blue, I did not expect that was going to happen. I think it's terrific ... it's a testament to George, he's sort of hanging up his filmmaking hat but he's allowing others to continue with his legacy there. That takes quite a brave person to do that, to let something go that has always been so close to him, you know, for all of these years and to sort of hand that over to somebody else, to entrust it to somebody else like that is quite something.

Hearing that J.J. Abrams is going to be directing it, that's quite an interesting choice of director; his films have been really great, I've certainly enjoyed them. Yeah, well, I'm going to say that because I want a part in it as well [laughs], but I also mean it genuinely.

BE: You've been a part of a lot of big movies -- "Star Wars," "Harry Potter," "Willow," "Hitchhiker's Guide," "Leprechaun" -- do you have a favorite fan experience, and if so which of those films did it involve?

WD: Oh my goodness ... there are favorite fan experiences, and then there are the scary ones. The fans throughout all of these films, the "Star Wars" fans are very, very loyal and a terrific bunch of people; "Harry Potter," they're a completely different bunch of fans but nevertheless equally as loyal.

The "Leprechaun" fans, they're fewer and farther between, but the ones there are are very loyal to the length that they will go to ... I mean, they'll tattoo themselves ... which actually reminds me of a guy, he was a fan of "Willow," he walked up to me and he said, "I love 'Willow.'" And I said, "Oh, great, thank you very much," and he pulled his shirt up and -- face to face with me -- tattooed on his belly was a picture of me as Willow, looking at me, and his belly button was somewhere in the middle of that. And I went, "Ah, terrific!"

I don't really know what he wanted me to say! I was almost speechless, I think I went, "Ah ... that's great." And he was like, "Yeah. I love that movie." But, you know, people, they're passionate about what they enjoy and so that's great that he felt the need to do that. [laughs]

And then yesterday, somebody tweeted me the name of somebody's house, they called their house "Willow," on the wall outside they had a plaque that read "Willow," but it was actually in a piece of stone carved in exactly the same font as the movie with those dots in-between. It was really, really cool.

And just to let you know I have an app out called Pocket Warwick, and to commemorate the release of the "Willow" Blu-ray, we're introducing some "Willow" items into the game. You'll be able to address your Pocket Warwick as Willow and be able to decorate your environment, my living space, with posters and wallpapers and stuff like that, so that's a special treat for the fans.

Watch the Blu-ray trailer for "Willow":