Graham McTavish is a Scottish film and TV actor, whose long career includes roles such as Commander Lewis in Rambo, Sir Lachlan Morrison in The Wicker Tree and Dwalin the dwarf in Peter Jackson’s The Hobbit films. Starburst caught up with him at Sci-Fi Weekender 5 to learn more.
Starburst: What brings you to the Sci-Fi Weekender?
Graham McTavish: Apart from them very kindly inviting me, I love meeting the fans at these things. I really do, they’re always so warm and lovely to you. They have stories to tell you and they want to know about the experience that you’ve been through. Especially when you’ve worked on something like The Hobbit. It’s a shared experience with the audience and I feel not exactly a duty but a responsibility to share that experience with them.
What can you tell us about Outlander?
I’m loving doing Outlander. We’ve got a great cast and we’re up in the Scottish Highlands. Diana Gabaldon has written a series of these books and this is the first one, Cross Stitch, that we’re making into a sixteen episode series for Starz in America. It’s big budget, they’re spending a lot of money on it. They’re going for a very gritty and realistic portrayal of the Highlands and I play Dougal MacKenzie, the War Chieftain of Clan MacKenzie. As that implies, he’s quite the serious character. There’s lots of political intrigue, there’s romance, there’s adventure and action and there’s time-travel.
Many of your roles are adventure fantasy. Are you worried about being typecast?
No, I’m not worried about that. The thing is that I enjoy these stories myself. So to be able to bring those to life, the more the merrier as far as I’m concerned, I love it.
There is extraordinary footage on the Hobbit DVD of a Maori ceremony performed at the start of filming. Can you tell us more about that?
The Pōwhiri? It was done to bless the sound stages. These particular sound stages, F and G, had never been used, so in Maori tradition it’s important to bless those things to make sure that good things happen in them. So the local Iwi got together and we were told that this was going to happen. We arrived at dawn and Richard , because he was the leader of our group of Dwarves, was chosen to receive the greeting. The greeting in that situation is a threat as well because what they’re doing when they’re laying down the spear is this; if you don’t pick it up then it’s on, you’re going to have a fight.
But with Richard picking it up and presenting it back to him, that was a way of saying “We’re here in peace.” I don’t know if you’ve ever seen a haka up close; I’d only ever seen it on TV during All Blacks games. To be honest with you, when I saw it I always thought it looked vaguely embarrassing, but when you see it for real it’s terrifying. The hairs on the back of your neck go up. These are frightening people.
We’re trying to get a haka organised for the final premiere of the third Hobbit film so the cast perform the haka. They’re always written for people; I couldn’t just go up and start performing the All Blacks’ haka, that would be very disrespectful so this, if we’re able to do it, would be written especially by the local Maori for us to perform. That’s the plan; logistically it’s just getting us all together to rehearse it. We really want to do it.
There was a lot of physical training for The Hobbit. Had you ever done anything like Dwarf Boot Camp before?
When we did Rambo, I did weapons training with Thai Special Forces for a couple of weeks. You needed to be fit to do Rambo because it was very hot and humid and it was all action. So we did training like that. But this was three months of continual training.
What does something like that do to the acting process?
Oh, it bonds you as a group. The skills that you learn along the way; as a group you become one. For a film like this where they are a company of thirteen dwarves going on an extraordinary journey it was important for us all to establish that bond before we started filming.
It’s a huge cast. Were you ever worried about being lost in the crowd?
No. It was to Peter’s credit one of the challenges of the film, to create thirteen, or if you add Bilbo and Gandalf, fifteen, leading characters who are all on a journey together. He did it with nine for The Lord of the Rings and this was an even greater challenge. We spent a lot of time working on the individuality of dwarf characters.
What project of yours are you particularly proud of?
There are a lot of different things. Some of the stage things that I’ve done have been particularly satisfying. I wrote a play about Vincent Van Gogh that I performed around the world in the late eighties, early nineties and that I’m very proud of because I created that from scratch. On stage as well, Long Day's Journey into Night in Scotland; that was one of the best ever productions of that play there has ever been, I was very proud to be part of that.
There are so many different things; I was a fan of Monty Python and I got to work with Terry Jones and John Cleese on Erik The Viking. I was a fan of The Lord of The Rings and I got to work on The Hobbit. I was a fan of 24 and I got to work with those people and so for those things to have happened, you pinch yourself when you’re on those sets.
If you were stranded on a desert island with one book for company, what would it be?
The Wind in the Willows
Simpsons or Futurama?
Dwarves or Hobbits?
Dwarves! Of course!
Star Trek or Star Wars?
Truth or Beauty?
Photo credit: Anne Davies