wArwick Davis is, by far, 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 gross of over $14 billion. But this week, Willow is launching on Disney+. And he’s playing Willow, so he’s in the spotlight a lot.
“It’s a strange time,” he says, ensconced in a luxury London hotel surrounded by the machinations of the Disney promotional industry. “You feel like you’re standing on the edge of a precipice.”
Willow is the long-awaited sequel to the 1988 film of the same name. Created by George Lucas, directed by Ron Howard and starring Val Kilmer, it was a lighthearted fantasy epic in which Davis plays the reluctant titular farmer who must embark on a perilous quest to save a magical child from an evil queen. If you’re around my age and had an equally limited selection of VHS tapes as a child, the film has been permanently etched into your brainstem through sheer repetition.
“It’s a very important part of my career,” Davis says of a film that is such a source of pride to him that, years later, when he came to launch a management company for short film actors, he named it Willow . “It was a real stepping stone, because I went from being an actor you never saw, never recognized unless you were a true Star Wars fan, to having my face out there.”
It was kind of inevitable that Willow would become a TV show, because Disney+ loves to repurpose old intellectual property to capitalize on nostalgia. Fortunately, though, the new series is good. Better than good, too. 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 films) – who it fizzes with youthful energy. After dealing with 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 her young co-stars, before taking a sniff. “Slightly annoyed by their energy levels, though. When you’re 52 and you get up at 7:30 in the morning, it’s like, ‘Oh my god, you guys had too much coffee! Silent!’ I was the grumpy old man on set. I was the equivalent of Michael Gambon in Harry Potter.
This, to some extent, shows in the series. The Willow we meet here is older, grumpier, and full of regrets. “His life hasn’t turned out the way he expected,” Davis says of a storyline that is a continuation of the film (but doesn’t require seeing the original). “He’s still stressed, still worried. He has the weight of this research on his shoulders. He didn’t want to do it. He wants to go back with the villagers.
The show is the brainchild of Jonathan Kasdan, a screenwriter (and son of longtime Star Wars writer Lawrence) who previously worked on Freaks and Geeks and Solo: A Star Wars Story. Kasdan apparently envisioned the series as a hybrid between the film Willow and one of Davis’ other projects, which isn’t exactly the most obvious inspiration for a fantasy drama.
“Jon often used Life’s Too Short as an analogy,” Davis says, referring to his short-lived Ricky Gervais sitcom. “’Let’s go more. Life is too short here,’ he used to say. He meant to make it as funny as possible, say what you want. It’s a really lovely and free way to work.
Was it a strange experience? “It was weird at first, because Willow in my mind is a certain person who does certain things a certain way. So getting out of those borders was a bit uncomfortable. But once I did it a few times, it became really liberating.
Though Joanne Whalley reprises her role as evil child hunter Sorsha in the new show, one figure who doesn’t make an appearance is Val Kilmer. Due to his recent ill health, he hasn’t been able to reprise his role as a mercenary swordsman who aids Willow in her search, which seems to weigh heavily on Davis’ mind. “Not a day went by during the shoot that I didn’t think about him,” she says sadly. “What a good boy he was. When you’re 17 in a huge movie 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 cheering me up, saying, “Come on, you can do this,” you know, physically grooming me. I owe him a great debt of gratitude for that.”
There is, of course, one other major figure missing from this iteration of Willow: her creator, George Lucas. I wonder aloud if this puts Davis in a difficult situation. On the one hand, Lucas is essentially 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 close that at one point Davis boasts that he used Industrial Light and Magic technicians to help him with his school projects, which seems a bit like cheating.
On the other hand, ever since Disney bought Lucasfilm for all the money in the world in 2012, Lucas has found himself left out of creative decisions regarding his old job; something he will intermittently complain about in public. Does Davis know what Lucas thinks of the new Willow?
For a moment, Davis seems terse. “We’ve been removed from George, you know, he’s not part of this project,” he begins. “George is very opinionated about everything that’s been done since the deal, as we’ve seen with Star Wars. So they rarely ask his opinion, because they know…” He breaks off, deciding it might be more diplomatic to approach the matter from the other angle.
“If it’s something that’s your own creation, and it’s so dear to you, obviously you’re going to have an opinion about handling someone else’s making it,” he says. “So if this series will be what he predicted? I do not know. She’s often talked about it being something for TV, similar to the way they did Young Indiana Jones years ago. He could see her that way. I’d be interested to know. We’re still in touch, so I’ll ask him.
Davis has been famous almost all of his life. He started acting at the age of 11, when his grandmother listened to a radio interview looking for short people to appear in Return of the Jedi, and has worked steadily ever since, progressing from acting to hosting the daily ITV gameshow Tenable, co-running the 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 watch fans. Especially within science fiction and fantasy—the genres in which he predominantly works—there’s a sense that viewers feel more like owners of the franchises than ever before, with some waiting to rewatch anything they don’t like. Having had roles in every Star Wars film of the Disney era, has he noticed a change in attitude?
“Not all actors feel this way, but I think the fans are basically the reason you’re successful,” he says. “You kind of owe them a debt, but you don’t owe them your whole life. It’s strange. I mean, once Willow came out, I was suddenly recognized as against being behind these masks. But every thing you do there is a new level. When I did Life’s Too Short, I was recognized a lot more, plus they started thinking they knew me, even though I was playing an imaginary 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 reuse of old Lucasfilm properties means it’s now constantly hard at work. A second season of Willow hasn’t been formally announced, but plans appear to be afoot. “I saw Jon in the hallway earlier and he was like, ‘Hey, I just had a great idea that we can do for a second season!’” Davis says. “If Disney opens the door, we’ll go through it.”
Despite all of this, there is an older project of his that has yet to be reviewed by Disney+. “Has there been a Labyrinth TV series proposed anywhere?” she asks as we begin to wrap up. “They did Dark Crystal, but I haven’t heard of Labyrinth.”
It’s a surprise there isn’t a new Labyrinth project, I say, as I’ve dated women whose entire sexual awakening stems from the first time they saw David Bowie in that movie. “Those stockings were a little too tight, weren’t they?” he says. “By the way, he was very, very down to earth on set. I wanted to pass as Dave, despite this huge wig and seven pairs of socks in his tights.
Willow is on Disney+ from Wednesday 30 November.