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[This story contains spoilers for the first two episodes of Willow.]
It’s been 34 years since Warwick Davis last played the Nelwyn sorcerer Willow Ufgood, but now he’s back to lead a new generation of heroes on another world-saving adventure in the Disney+ series Willow. Davis first joined the Lucasfilm family as Wicket, the courageous young Ewok in Star Wars: Return of the Jedi, and his Star Wars collaborators would ultimately inspire his latest performance as an older Willow.
Specifically, Davis referenced Mark Hamill’s portrayal of Luke Skywalker in Rian Johnson’s Star Wars: The Last Jedi.
“The one thing I took note of in particular was Mark Hamill returning to Luke Skywalker [in Star Wars: The Last Jedi] and how he went about the approach for that,” Davis tells The Hollywood Reporter. “I thought he was really interesting, and it wasn’t the expected approach, certainly. He came at it from quite a different angle, and I also did the same. I noticed that Mark didn’t try to play the character younger. He just leaned into his more mature years, and that’s really what I did as Willow.”
In a recent conversation with THR, Davis also discusses his family’s roles on the show, before recalling a moment of improv from the 1988 film involving Val Kilmer’s beloved rogue, Madmartigan.
Congratulations on the return of our greatest sorcerer.
Thank you very much indeed.
So did Jonathan Kasdan start gauging your interest in this revival during your time on Solo: A Star Wars Story?
He did indeed. We were on the set of Solo, and I was looking very much like an older version of Willow, with my long hair as Weazel. And he started talking about how much he loved Willow and the fact that he’d been inspired by the film as a young writer. But the thing that really pushed it into high gear was when Ron Howard came on to direct Solo. He and Jon then chatted about Willow, and Jon again said what a huge fan he was of the film. So Ron and Jon hit it off immediately, and they started talking about the future of Willow. “What could it be? Another movie? A TV series? Where could it go?”
And John then started writing and coming up with ideas. Every so often, he’d give me a call and say, “Hey Warwick, I’ve come up with this great idea. What do you think of it?” So that’s how the project developed, really. For me, it was always something that was on the horizon, but until you start your first day on set, I’ve learned that as an actor, you should never take these things for granted that they’re going to happen. Development of TV and film projects are notoriously very slow and very unreliable, but this came together and worked out.
There’s been talk over the years, of course, but did it ever gain any real traction prior to this?
I don’t think there’d necessarily been any talk at higher levels. It was really the fans who started shouting a lot louder. They’d always be the ones asking me, “When are we going to see a sequel to Willow?” So that generated Internet buzz about this sort of stuff, but I’ve never really known of any chats happening at high levels. I’ve mentioned it to George Lucas and Ron Howard. I said, “There’s a huge fan following for Willow. Do you think we could ever make a sequel?” But these things need to be thought out carefully because Willow wasn’t a huge success, theatrically. It didn’t make a huge amount of money, and to make a sequel of a property, you usually have to have box office success to back it up. So Willow certainly didn’t have that, but it had the fan base and the love, which is not always enough to make a sequel.
Having watched your fellow Star Wars collaborators revisit their legacy characters after several decades, did you learn anything from their examples that helped shape your return as Willow?
The one thing I took note of in particular was Mark Hamill returning to Luke Skywalker and how he went about the approach for that. I thought he was really interesting, and it wasn’t the expected approach, certainly. He came at it from quite a different angle, and I also did the same. I noticed that Mark didn’t try to play the character younger. He just leaned into his more mature years, and that’s really what I did as Willow. I’m 52 now. The first time I played the character, I was only 17. So I thought, “Well, let’s not deny the fact that you’re 52. Let’s use that to make this character more interesting, more grounded and more well-rounded as well.” Within this series, the world that we find Willow in is a different one than we last saw him in. He’s quite troubled. He’s had a lot of dark experiences in his own life, so he has to take all that on. And as an actor, I have to add all of that knowledge into the character’s situation and use that to reflect out in my performance.
Did it take a minute to feel like Willow again?
It was like an old sweater or a comfy pair of slippers. As soon as I got the wig on again and the blue tunic, I looked in the mirror and said, “Well, Willow is back.” So it was relatively easy to step back into those shoes. It’s been 34 years, but it feels like only yesterday.
To bring your own family into this world after all these years, how would you describe that experience?
It was a real pleasure to have Annabelle [Davis] and Harrison [Davis] involved, and also my wife [Samantha Davis], who’s a Nelwyn villager once again. She played a villager in the movie, so things have come full circle. But my daughter Annabelle is an established actor in her own right, and her playing Mims was a real joy for me. It’s really fantastic. And Harrison, my son, he’s kind of the unsung hero of the series in the fact that he was my stunt double. He’s somebody you shouldn’t really see or shouldn’t even know about. So he isn’t able to take the praise as Annabelle is, but nonetheless, he did a very important job for me.
What’s your most vivid memory from the making of the film?
A vivid memory would be how difficult it was at times to work in the snow and the ice. There were very difficult conditions in New Zealand. But the standout thing for me was the other people that I worked with, namely Ron Howard and Val Kilmer. Without the two of them, I certainly couldn’t have achieved what I achieved on the film. I was very young, very naive, very inexperienced, but between the two of them, they allowed me to mature as a performer and also get through the physical endurance of doing a film like that. They helped me shoulder the responsibility of being the title character in such a huge project. And Val’s humor, energy and advice as a performer was really invaluable to me.
I always loved that moment when Willow falls in the snow and Madmartigan (Val Kilmer) picks him up and places him on his shoulders. Was that scripted?
I don’t think it was. I actually fell over, and Val, being the actor that he is, used that to do a bit of improv there. It felt like Madmartigan would indeed do that, but yeah, it was amazing, wasn’t it?
In episode two, there’s a flashback between Willow and Sorsha (Joanne Whalley) that’s just heartbreaking. They disagree over how to raise Elora Danan (Ellie Bamber). Do you think he’ll ever heal from that?
I don’t think so. She tells him, “You’re not a great sorcerer and you never will be.” I mean, those words really cut to his core, literally. For him, it was like being punched. Those words are like a parent talking to their child, trying to encourage them to do something. Sometimes, you have to deliver the reality to spur somebody on, and for Willow, her saying that makes him understand that perhaps he shouldn’t continue to live off his past successes with Bavmorda. At the end of the film, he hoodwinked her into thinking that he was performing actual magic when it was only sleight of hand. So [Sorsha’s words] inspire him now to go forward and achieve. They inspire him to really hone his skills as a real sorcerer and save the world.
So we caught up with Willow’s daughter, Mims (Annabelle Davis), but where’s his son, Ranon, at this point?
Well, we don’t really know where Ranon is at this point where the series picks up. He is out there somewhere, but we don’t know where he is. Some stuff has happened to Willow that only I know at this point. It’s stuff that Jon gave to me so that I would have some foundation for where Willow is when we find him at the start of the series. So there are still some stories to tell.
Willow is now airing on Disney+. This interview was edited for length and clarity.
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