TheOneRing.net staffer and regular contributor Treebeard was lucky enough to have the chance to chat with Graham McTavish (Dwalin) about his role in The Hobbit.
Treebeard (T.B.) I am here with Graham McTavish, interviewing him for TheOneRing.net about his upcoming role as a Dwalin in The Hobbit. Hi Graham!
Graham McTavish (G.M.) Hello.
T.B. Did you have any interest in the works of Tolkien before you auditioned for The Hobbit?
G.M. Yes. I’d read “The Lord of the Rings” probably when I was about eighteen, all three straight through, and like most teenagers that encountered the books for the first time, it allowed me to disappear into a whole different world that I always looked forward to going back to while I was reading it. I hadn’t read “The Hobbit,” but I did, very quickly, when I was asked! [laughs] It’s very interesting for me the difference between the two books, I suppose, being that “The Hobbit” seems to me a much more straightforward, linear adventure story. I’ve be interested to find out, when I’ve told people that I’m doing this, a lot of them prefer “The Hobbit”, in some ways. And, also it seems to be amongst every man I’ve met, the first book they ever read.
T.B. In “The Lord of the Rings,” were there any characters that you really liked?
G.M. Oh, wow. Yeah. Aragorn I think for me; for me. When, you know, the first appearance of him as Strider I was just like, wow, this guy is so cool. He’s just fantastic. And that, as somebody coming to see the films, and this is… I hadn’t read “The Lord of the Rings” since I was eighteen when I went to see the films, but it totally took me back to reading the books. It was such an accurate rendition, I thought, of the books. He was exactly how I imagined Strider, right. Everything about him was remarkable; absolutely remarkable.
T.B. And yet, in terms of, obviously you can’t duplicate a book..
T.B. You’ve spoken in past interviews about how reverent one should be to the source material.
T.B. and, you know, there’s a balance to be struck…
G.M. There is. There is. I think you have to allow the artist who is making a film, or interpreting a role, some latitude and freedom to actually give their own mark on that. It’s the same with, you know, Shakespeare, and when I’m doing Shakespeare: if you get too hide-bound by other people’s interpretations, or how people think it should be done it stifles the very thing you’re looking for which is something very spontaneous and real. So, hopefully, in the case of “The Hobbit” it’s important that we, as a group of people, and as the director and everybody, collectively bring all those characters to life. And, it’s through our creativity that that will happen. It’s not through just saying: “it has to be exactly like this,” or exactly like somebody else has told us it should be like. Yeah.
T.B. That’s very good. Well, how did you end up auditioning for “The Hobbit?”
G.M. My managers and agents had set the meeting up – the original one. And, I went in, and everybody, I believe, this is, I think pretty common in terms of other actors I’ve spoken to who went up for it, everybody read Thorin as a kind of test I suppose. And, what was interesting is that you were never aware that it was a test, which I kind of like, actually. And, you know, I read Thorin and it went pretty well. And, uh, the casting director asked me to come back almost straight away to read for Dwalin, and, um, which I did. And, um, I had a really good reader. He should get a lot of credit, actually. The guy who was reading with the actors, I’m ashamed to say I can’t remember his name, but he was great. He was great. Because, so often in audition processes, you were really let down by the quality of the reading of the other people [laughs]. But, if you’ve got somebody good, it totally raises your game. You inhabit the part so much more fully if the person opposite you isn’t just sitting there kind of going: ” blah..blah..blah…blah” you know, because, you kind of feel almost embarrassed for them. If they’re really rubbish, you’re like: “oh dear.” But, this guy was great. And, so, we did it again and it went well. Uh, it was one of those auditions, one of those auditions where I did it once and the casting director said: “well, I don’t think you need to do it again,” which to and actor, really could mean something like: it was so bad, we just need you to leave now.
G.M. We don’t want to waste any more tape. It’s, um, thanks for coming. Don’t slam the door on the way out. And, you know, you’re sitting there and you go: but, I’m really happy to do it again. And the casting director was very nice and said: “yeah, sure. Yeah, okay, let’s do it again; why not. And I did it again, and if I do say so myself, it was a little better the second time, and, uh, he was very gracious about it, and the reader was very nice, and by the end of it you, unlike a lot of auditions, you felt like there had been a connection made between the people in the room which was very heartening to me. And, then I left, and then there was a nerve-wracking wait.
T.B. The Great Silence.
G.M. The Great Silence. That’s exactly right. You’re thinking: what? Are they all on holiday? Have they lost the tape? Have they disconnected all their phones? You, know, what’s happening? And, I started sharing.. my manager was giving me little, little rumors that, you know, oh, this had been seen by some people, they quite liked it, blah, blah and, as an actor, you hang onto those things literally, like a rope from a sinking ship.
T.B. They liked it.
G.M.: Yes. Yes, they liked it. And, sure enough, I went in for the third meeting which was with Phillipa and Fran. And Peter, sadly, was in the other room. He wasn’t well. But, he certainly heard my audition. And, we did it two or three times and chatted about it, and I was immediately.. one of the great things about that meeting, because it was obviously the culmination of a series of meetings, there was obviously nervousness on my part, you know, you’re like: okay, this is it. This is your shot to get this part, and they put me completely at my ease. They were just lovely. They were lovely. They talked to me like a friend right from when I walked in the room. And, there was no sign from them, you know there was none of that, dare I day, that Hollywood ‘stuff’ that goes on where it’s like posturing: “I have the power. You need me,” all this stuff going on, and there was none of that. And, uh, we just sat down and talked about everything including the book, the film. And then we did it, and then we talked a bit more, and then I did it again, then I tried something different, and it was great. And, I left and the reader was very nice. And I turned to him, because I kind of felt I got to know him, during the process.
T.B. You had a real connection?
G.M. Exactly. So I turned to him as we were walking toward the elevator. I said, so how do you think it went? And he said: “Well, if I was a betting man, I’d say you definitely got the part. And I was, so, I can’t tell you how happy I was, for him to say that.
T.B. Well, that’s one question I know the fans are really interested in, is: what does this represent? Getting this role. You’ve had leads in films. You know, your career has really been exploding doing fabulous work. But, what does it mean to be in this production?
G.M. I think that I would be very lucky indeed if ever again in my career, I was offered an opportunity that was going to be so iconic in its influence and scale with regards to “The Hobbit.” I can’t think of anything comparable. And, from a personal point of view, I’m a great fan of Peter’s work, I’m a great fan of New Zealand, my wife’s from New Zealand, and so many things are perfect about it: the time it’s happening in my life, and all the rest of it. And, um, and I love doing those kind of, you know, I came out here from England. And, one of the reasons I came out here is because it allowed me the opportunity to do the kinds of things that I’ve always wanted to be doing. And this is one of them. And, I know that a lot of people were cast in England. But, personally, I think I needed to be here. But, for me, and that’s not necessarily a reflection on, you know, people who were casting in the U.K. or whatever. I just needed .. I needed to have been here, gone through the experiences I’ve gone through here, to be ready. And, that’s another thing I think about films like “The Hobbit,” I hope I’m not being premature in saying this: but I think you need to be ready to do those kind of things, and I’m ready now.
T.B. Did you, in fact, meet with Peter?
T.B. So you have yet to meet him?
G.M. I have yet to meet him. I have had phone conversations with Phillipa. Um, and I have had, sort of, ‘by proxy’ conversations with Peter. But, no, not… which is an interesting process.
T.B. Yes, it is. And, I’d like to reserve, at that time, whenever you do get a chance, to tell us what your impressions are.
G.M. Yes. I certainly will.
T.B. I think they would love to find out. But, I’m very happy you got to talk to Fran and Phillipa about it.
G.M. Yeah. They’re great.
T.B. Okay. Here’s one where we should have some fun. How are you preparing for the role?
T.B. And, second question, are they asking you to learn Dwarvish?
G.M. [laughs] Yeah. I’m, yeah. Well, so far I haven’t been asked to learn Dwarvish. But, I am subjecting myself to a fairly rigorous training regimen. In fact, I have a friend who’s a personal trainer, and he’s trained all sorts of quite high profile people. He’s very good. And literally, I think, well I spoke to my manager first, obviously, when we got the offer, I then spoke to my wife, I then spoke to my personal trainer, literally in that order. And, I arranged to go in the next day to start training because..
T.B. Is this on you own, or..
G.M. There was no sense of, “oh by the way, we want you to start training straight away.” But, I feel that it’s very important for a number of reasons for me to be as fit, and as good a shape as I can to start; partly to protect myself from injury and, more importantly, to be truthful and realistic in the part. There’s nothing I hate more than watching people, either with guns or with swords or whatever, that just don’t look like they know what they’re doing. And, we were talking about Michael York earlier, and he’s a perfect example of somebody you completely believed that that man, in The Three Musketeers, was an expert swordsman. And, you need to believe it to be carried along in the journey of the story. And, similarly with Dwalin, when I do it I want people to think: yeah, I wouldn’t want to have a fight with him, when he’s carrying a weapon, or without a weapon. So, I’ve been training for three months, and, um, and I’m in pretty good shape now and I’ve got two more months before we start principal photography, and I’ve been very dedicated, and I’ve taken it very seriously. I’ve changed my diet. I train five days a week, and the training sessions are brutal. They are.. they are the work of a cruel sadist. They really are. He.. there have been moments when I’ve been crawling on my hands and knees for water, unable to get up. But, he’s really whipped me into shape. Importantly, apart from the aesthetic that, you know, you go for in films, I think it’s very important that someone who’s playing a warrior looks like a warrior. And, that doesn’t mean muscle-bound. They need to be athletic and look like they would be able to move fast. And that’s what those people look like. And, I’ve been interested in that kind of thing for years, anyway just personally; stories of people from history and how they lived and how they conducted themselves. So, I very much want that to be the case. When Dwalin enters: okay, yeah, he’s a warrior. He’s not a guy that just sits and drinks lattes and goes out and has beers and all the rest of it. So, yeah, it’s meaningful
T.B. Alright. Well, here’s a question I’m particularly interested in. Many of your roles in the past have been tough military characters, in Rambo and Lost, but you’ve also done some comedic roles: Pushing Daisies, Ghost Whisperer. How much humor vs. action do you think you’re going to be bringing to the role of Dwalin; at least your guess.
T.B. Because, clearly they want to make a film that will fit into The Lord of the Rings; this milieu that they’ve established..
T.B. Which means making as shift towards, sort of less childlike, perhaps, than the original way The Hobbit was written. So, I’m curious what you feel you might bring in those terms.
G.M. Well, I think, and to be truthful about any character, they have to be three-dimensional, and the toughest of men have a sense of humor. I think it’s important that, you know, as much as I can, I’m allowed portray that. Not every day with someone who’s a fighting guy is fighting. You know, there are moments of levity. And, I think it also helps somebody be likeable and vulnerable. Because, I think vulnerability, when it’s combined with a sort of masculine portrayal, is very attractive and interesting, and you don’t feel bludgeoned by this sort of relentless: oh, he’s just so tough. That’s the kind of thing I like to see, and hopefully that’s exactly what I’ll be able to bring to the role; not so much the character from Ghost Whisperer.
G.M. I don’t think he would really fit in so well into the realm of Middle-earth.
T.B. A little flamboyant for a dwarf.
G.M. [laughs] Yes, a little bit, yeah.
T.B. Yes, a little bit, yeah.
T.B. Okay. This is sort of a geeky question that I think the fans would be interested in.
G.M. Oh, okay.
T.B. In the appendix of The Lord of the Rings..
G.M. My God.
T.B. ..the character of Dwalin and his brother, Balin, are both identified as direct descendents of Durin, the father of the race of Dwarves. Like Thorin Oakenshield, they are Dwarvish royalty…
T.B.. …as opposed to other members of the group. Do you think this will inform your performance in any way?
G.M. Yeah, I guess so. I guess so. They would have a certain bearing to them that may set them apart from others. But, I think the important thing from a character point of view is not to get too bogged down in that kind of stuff. Whenever I’ve played royalty in a stage situation, your status is always conveyed by the other around you. And, so, I think the one thing you want to avoid is ‘acting’ like royalty. I’ve never met royalty, but I think they just are who they are. They’re not : “I am a royal person so I’m going to behave in a certain way.” And I think that’s a mistake from an acting point of view. I think the most important thing about them is they are real, well-rounded, human and three-dimensional and subject to all of the things that everybody is familiar with, you know: jealousy, rage, happiness, whatever. And, that applies to someone whether they’re royal or not.
T.B. That’s wonderful; a wonderful answer to that. Here’s a little side question. In your upcoming film, The Wicker Tree..
G.M. Oh, yes.
T.B. ..can you tell us if you had any scenes with Christopher Lee, who also played Saruman in Lord of the Rings?
G.M. That’s interesting. Sadly, not. My character has a scene with him, but it’s my character as a young boy and he is my grandfather effectively.
T.B. He’s the lord of Summer Isle?
G.M. Summer Isle. Yes, he’s my grandfather. But, I’m not.. I met him very briefly at the cast medical.
G.M. [laughs]. Yeah.
T.B. Listen, we love stories about Christopher Lee, so..
G.M. Yeah, yeah. So, that was.. sadly, I wish I had spent more time, because I know that he’s a fascinating man with an extraordinary life, right from being a commander in the Second World War to everything else.
T.B. Well, it’s just a matter of time before someone makes a film about Lee’s life.
G.M. Oh, yeah, yeah. He’s remarkable. Yeah, I wish I had. I’ve seen the film and that scene, it’s just a small scene, but it’s wonderful. That voice, you know, when he starts speaking
T.B. And the impact he has on that child.
G.M. Ohhhh! Sure. Absolutely. I certainly listened to what he had to say as a child and acted accordingly as an adult. But, he’s wonderful. He’s wonderful. He looks great as well.
T.B. I’m really looking forward to it. Do you have any idea when that’s going to be coming out?
G.M. I believe next year. I’ve just been talking to one of the producers, actually, and yeah, they’re talking next year. So, hopefully.
T.B. The timing would be good.
T.B. That’s very nice. Well, are there any other actors who’ve been cast that you happen to know or you’ve worked with before?
G.M. Well, Andy Serkis. I don’t know whether or not he’s been cast, but I’m hoping..
T.B. We’re all hoping.
G.M. But, if he is, indeed, reprising his role, I did my first amateur production of Romeo and Juliet with Andy back in 1983, just before I worked with Michael York, and he played Montague and I played Mercucio and we had a ball. And still, I’ve done Romeo and Juliet three times, and that’s still the best production by far. By far. And, he’s a great, great guy. I met him again, he directed me in a video game called Heavenly Sword, and I did it in the U.K. five years ago, I guess. And, I saw him again then and he was just lovely. And he talked about the [Lord of the Rings] production as well. It’s one of the first things he talked about. About how much he enjoyed the production. He’s a wonderful man. Um, Ian [McKellen], again if he ends up doing it, I met him at a press night for a play I did in the Royal Court and we had a great laugh. He’s a very funny man. So, I know him. James Nesbitt, I’ve worked with twice. I did some work on Murphy’s Law that he did, and I was in Jekyll as well with him. But, other that that..oh, actually, technically speaking I’ve also worked with Martin [Freeman]. I did the Ally G movie which Martin was in. We didn’t have any scenes together, but yeah, we were both in it.
T.B. Is there anyone you’re really looking forward to working with?
G.M. To be honest, I’m very much looking forward to getting to know a group of people on the whole, I know nothing about. I really don’t. Because I’ve been away from the U.K. I’m not familiar with Richard’s work because I just don’t watch those shows. One of the things about this whole project that I find, you know, exciting and daunting is getting to know a group of people exceptionally well. You know. I’m sure they’ll know things about me by the end that they wish they didn’t. [laughs]
G.M. But, it’ll be an amazing bonding experience with those people. So.
T.B. How are you feeling about the potential use of prosthetics and beards? Is that something you feel pretty comfortable with?
G.M. Yeah, I’m not worried about anything like that. Depending on which way they go, my first film job was something called Life Force by Toby Hooper in which I had to wear full prosthetics for the entire shoot and there were night shoots as well, so it was doubly unpleasant, drinking your food through straws for weeks on end. And, so, anything compared to that will be a breeze. [laughs]
T.B. Well, we know John Rhys Davies had a very terrible, terrible allergic reaction to those things,
T.B. but he weathered through that.
T.B. There seems like there will be a lot of hair flying around amongst thirteen dwarves.
T.B. Okay. In light of your very significant and successful career so far, how do you rate your casting in the Hobbit? Is this sort of a career highlight?
G.M Oh yes, definitely. Yeah. Completely. For all the reasons I’ve already spoken about: it’s the experience, the profile of the film, the subject matter, the part, all of those things. Being involved in a project that’s going to be such a wide-ranging period of time is of massive significance. In a life sense and in a career sense. It will be one of the most important life experiences that I think I will ever have, never mind up till now. And, for that reason, it’s incredibly exciting.
T.B. Well, here’s my last question. Is there anything special you’d like to communicate to the fans before you embark on this long journey?
G.M Oh, God.
T.B. But, it’s interesting if nothing else, we’re doing this now, before you go start to just , have a sense..
G.M Well, there’s so much that will happen between now and when the first film and then the second film come out obviously in terms of the making of it and the experiences that we go through, and I suppose all I hope is that when people sit down in the cinema when they come out and I appear or the film starts, that they believe in what I’ve done and that the experience in some way matches the expectations they have as fans of the story. That’s the best I could ever hope for.
T.B. Well, thank you very, very much.
G.M. No, no. My pleasure.
T.B. This has been a great pleasure. I know everybody at TheOneRing was thrilled when you were cast.
G.M. Oh, great.
T.B. Because, for so many reasons it makes sense, and it’s amazing.
G.M. Yeah, no, it’s very exciting and it’s nice to say that about something and really mean it.