Growing Up is Optional: John Rhys-Davies on Raiders of the Lost Ark

The man who was Sallah reveals stories from the set of Indiana Jones, and why he's glad he turned down Kingdom of the Crystal Skull.

William Bibbianiby William Bibbiani


Indiana Jones is back in theaters, and finally premiering on Blu-ray in Indiana Jones: The Complete Collection this very day, which means fans new and old will be watching the adventures of John Rhys-Davies as Indy's boisterous Egyptian companion Sallah Salah, who helped uncover the Ark of the Covenant in Raiders of the Lost Ark and assisted in the discovery of the Holy Grail in The Last Crusade. John Rhys-Davies has had an impressive movie career, including Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings franchise, but we were on the phone to talk about Raiders, and the "classical act-or" had no shortage of wonderful stories from the production, including an amusing but respectful explanation of why he turned down a cameo in Indiana Jones and The Kingdom of the Crystal Skull


CraveOnline: What did Steven Spielberg and/or George Lucas tell you about Sallah when you were cast in the role?

John Rhys-Davies: I never got to meet George Lucas at all until we were well into the shooting. Steven had seen “Shogun,” in which I played a character called Rodrigues. “Shogun” was a defining moment of television in America. Next to “Roots” it was the most successful mini-series of all time. “Shogun” is the reason why you eat sushi now. Nobody ate sushi in America before that. The streets of New York were cleared on the nights that “Shogun” was screening, because everyone was at home and saying “Iie,” and “Wakarimas Ka” or “Wakarimasen!” Things like that. It was great, great insight into Japanese culture and samurai culture. As a result of that, when I saw him, Steven said, “You realize that more people have seen Rodrigues and ‘Shogun’ than have seen my films in the cinema.”

So I said, “Well, yes, but the character is actually supposed to be a 5’2” skinny Egyptian, and I’m 6’1” and about 260 lbs. Certainly not skinny. What would you recommend, surgery?” And he said, “No, no, no, no, no. What I want you to do is a combination that would incorporate some of Rodrigues and his energy, things like that, and something of Falstaff as well.” And the rest I sort of made up as I went along.


Were those all Sallah’s kids in Raiders?

All Sallah’s kids? I think he probably stopped counting whether they were all his. I mean, yes, probably. I think Sallah’s the sort of guy who loves children. He loves the noise of them and he loves the making of them too, I would imagine. Yes.


In some respects I always felt like Sallah was the kind of person Indy would be after he grew up a bit.

[Laughs] What a lovely thing to say. You do know what they say of men? That growing old is inevitable, growing up is optional. [Laughs]


My Dad would agree with you.

I think that the Sallah of the first film is a pretty three-dimensional character. You have the sense that the film has, that those characters have a life off the screen. They’re in the frame for a few minutes, really, because they’re not part of the central story that they contribute towards, but there is a life beyond that. I think that good character creation is about that. It’s about having that sense that the television screen or the film screen isn’t encapsulating all that is there.


Sallah sings a lot. I was wondering if that was in the script the whole time.

[Laughs] That script… It’s of course my last scene in the piece, [which] was of course, in the perverse logic of filmmaking, was the very first scene that I did. I turned up to do a scene that said, “Indy and Marion say a sorrowful goodbye to Sallah.” That’s the scene I turned up to do, to find Steven sitting cross-legged on the dockside, typing… tap-tap-tap, tap-tap-tap… and I looked over his shoulder and said, “What’s this?” He said, “I’m writing your words.” I looked at him, I said, “Well, I don’t think he’d say that. I think he’d be more inclined to say, ‘Da-da-da-da. And da-da-da-da-da-da.” And Steven gave me that sort of, “Who The Hell Are You” look, and said, “Alright. Da-da-da-da-da, da-da-da-da-DA. There you are!”

“You remember when I said on the plane, I asked if you could sing? Here’s the thing. Sallah, when he’s high or happy, he bursts into Gilbert & Sullivan. Incorporate that at the end of the scene, would you?” To which I pulled myself up to my full 6’1” and started to say, “Mr. Spielberg, I am a classical act-or! I require weeks and weeks to prepare!”

And I said… “Alright.” [Laughs] There you have it, you see?


Did they ever ask if you wanted to show up in Kingdom of the Crystal Skull?

Yes, actually they did ask me. They offered to send the second unit director over to do a bit of blue screen, where I come in, sit down on a chair, smile and clap. They were going to cut that into the wedding sequence at the end. But I just thought that would be a bit of a cheat for the fans, really. Because I think Sallah’s a little bit more interesting than that, isn’t he?


Yes, I think so.

And judging, he said meanly and maliciously, judging from the response of the audience, it was a smart move to say “No, thank you.” [Laughs]


I would concur. I know that Raiders was a difficult shoot. If you could go back in time and give yourself some advice before production, what would you have said?

“Do what Karen Allen did,” and that was, think to take a couple of crates of Tab in with me. We drank the bottled water in this wretched hotel, and they had the habit of pre-opening the bottle for you, which of course meant you were paying for bottled water but you were getting tap water. My guts have never been the same since. We all suffered that. [Laughs] Other than that, I would say, “Oh, bring it on. Let me do it again. This time I just might get it better, and maybe even right for a change.”