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Size matters: Warwick Davis is no small talent

The actor has starred in Star Wars, every Harry Potter film, and now his very own Ricky Gervais-scripted BBC comedy series

Gerard Gilber
Wednesday 26 October 2011 12:36 BST

Let's sort the terminology first. Cumbersome expressions such as "people of restricted height" or "vertically challenged" will henceforth only make it into my copy if specifically requested by Warwick Davis, the dwarf actor who has been a mainstay of two of the great movie franchises of modern time, the Star Wars and Harry Potter series. Did I just write 'dwarf'? Is that allowed?

"Some people don't think it's right to say the word 'dwarf', and the word 'midget' is held by some to be quite offensive, but I don't feel that," says Davis, springing up into a chair the same size as the one I have just plumped down on in the bar of the beautifully refurbished St Pancras hotel in London.

"I'm not part of that PC brigade... I think so many people are afraid to talk to me in case they say the wrong thing. I'd much rather people talk to me and if they say the wrong thing, at least we've had the conversation."

Still, it has its funny side, all this determination not to give offence, not to say the wrong thing. "When people talk to me they will accidentally say things relating to size more than they normally would," says Davis. "So the word 'short' and 'small' comes up in the conversation and I'm thinking, 'That word doesn't really fit there' ... You can see their faces and they're sweating."

It's precisely this minefield of anxiety and embarrassment that Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant find so fruitful. In The Office it was Brenda, the employee in the wheelchair, who was blithely abused by the wrong-headed David Brent, and now it seems it's the turn of dwarves, midgets or whatever. Gervais and Merchant's new BBC sitcom, Life's Too Short, 'documents' the fictionalised life of Davis, whom Gervais has described as "pound for pound ... one of the funniest men I know".

In short (I've got to stop this), Davis plays a comic version of himself, a former Ewok in Star Wars who had a movie, Willow, written specially for him by George Lucas, chased a then-unknown Jennifer Aniston around in Leprechaun (hilarious – check out the trailer online) and had a role in each and every Harry Potter movie. And like the real Davis, 'Davis' runs his own agency for actors under five feet tall (Davis's is called Willow Management, after the Lucas film). Wasn't he worried about placing such a close facsimile of his life in the hands of two famously mischievous comedians?

"I was the least worried out of everyone because of the way that they handled Julie Fernandez's character in The Office... the lady in the wheelchair," he says. "The laughs are at David Brent, not at Julia." But did he ever think Gervais and Merchant had gone too far with their scripts for Life's Too Short? "No. They both know where the boundaries are and what's good taste and bad taste."

Some of the A-listers sitting through Gervais's hosting of the Golden Globe awards earlier this year might dispute that last statement, but then Davis is made of sterner stuff than most self-regarding Hollywood types. Water off a duck's back might not exactly fit the bill, but he's obviously level-headed and realistic. Born 41 years ago with a rare form of dwarfism, spondyleopiphyseal dysplasia congenital, to average-sized parents and one average-sized sister (it's all right to say 'average-sized', says Davis, it's 'normal-sized' he finds odd), his upbringing couldn't have been more, well, 'normal'.

His father was an insurance broker and they lived in the leafy suburbia of Epsom, where outer London finally surrenders to Surrey, and he went to regular school.

"My parents were great," he says. "There was no special treatment at home, I was expected to do as much as anyone else. If I needed something off the shelf then I had to get that thing off the shelf, which was great because it prepared me for the world, because the world isn't there to help you."

It was the 11-year-old Davis's grandmother who, listening to the radio one day in 1981, heard that the makers of the Star Wars franchise were looking for short actors to play Ewoks in the upcoming third instalment, Return of the Jedi. "It's like these Sliding Doors moments," he says. "It's amazing isn't it, if she wasn't in the room at that moment... all of it's different... all of it's different." How different? "My dad's an insurance broker and I would probably have followed in his footsteps – his dad was before him, so..."

Not that young Davis had an eye on a film career – in fact, he was happy to be living what would have been a fantasy for any child of the Star Wars era. "It wasn't so much being in the film as being able to say 'hello' to Luke Skywalker and Hans Solo and Princess Leia and spend time with them. And fight a stormtrooper. It was back to school after that."

And then about a year later he was approached to play an Ewok in a TV spin-off series. "But, you know, there's never been a moment when I've thought, 'What I want to be is an actor' – I find myself here today and it's what I do. The career discovered me rather than me going after it."

Davis owed a lot at this stage to George Lucas, the Star Wars creator even going so far as to write a film, Willow, specifically with the actor in mind – Davis's first role with his face not covered by an Ewok mask. His co-star was Val Kilmer, and Davis ended up sitting next to Princess Diana at the film's Royal Premiere.

"However, I still had to audition," he says. "George had written it for me, but George had trusted Ron [Howard] to direct and his prerogative was to find the best man for the job – and he auditioned many other dwarves all over the world. I think I auditioned about three or four times and then proved I was indeed the right man."

Does he have a challenger as the go-to guy for leading movie dwarf? What about Verne Troyer, Mini-Me in the Austin Powers series – do they have a rivalry, friendly or otherwise? "Verne is a friend of mine, but I don't know whether acting is his first love, whereas it is mine," says Davis. "He enjoys the celebrity and, you know, being Verne Troyer basically.

"Within a smaller marketplace, as it were, with less roles for short actors, then I suppose we are competitors. Then there's Peter Dinklage, who was in Game of Thrones; I worked with him on Narnia, he's an excellent actor." In fact, Davis must know more or less every short actor in the business, having started Willow Management in 1995, now the largest talent agency in the world for actors less than five feet tall. They also have a dozen seven-foot-plus actors on their books ("otherwise they have nowhere else to go").

His co-founder at Willow is Peter Burroughs, now his father-in-law. "He's a short actor as well," says Davis. "We were talking one day about how dissatisfied he was with his agent, and how tired he was of not being recognised for his talent as a performer, and just really being recognised for being four foot six." And then there was the money. "The agent at the time would always ask, 'How many do you need?' 'Oh, that will be 300 quid for eight...' Like fruit, or a commodity."

That would be the Seven Dwarves and an understudy, then. Actually, it was while appearing in pantomime (Snow White, naturally) in Cambridge that Davis first got together with his future wife, his business partner's daughter, Samantha Burroughs, who has the more common form of dwarfism, achondroplasia.

Unbeknownst to the newlyweds, the combination of their conditions came with a high risk of health problems for any offspring. "We weren't aware initially of that – and then our first son, Lloyd, died of inheriting both of our genetic conditions," he says. "That was a horrible shock to us, but also it made us aware and it was a question of trying to learn as much as we could. We were introduced to an amazing professor at the University College Hospital in London, who was pioneering testing in the womb, and another doctor who is trying to discover the gene for SED, the condition I have. He did some tests on me and they actually found the gene. Anyway, so now we're very lucky to have Annabel and Harrison."

Both children appeared in the latest Harry Potter film, but it's Harrison – so named because Davis thought Harrison Davis would be a good name for an actor – who seems to have inherited the performing gene, and has already clocked two movie parts at the age of eight ("He teases me that I didn't get my first film till I was 11"). Davis would argue, however, that the drive to perform has less do with genes than with the exigencies of being born little.

"Being short has determined my personality to a certain degree," he says. "If I'd been average height I don't think I'd have been quite so outgoing, and I see it in my son... you tend to amplify your personality a little bit, just so as you're not forgotten."

The family live in Peterborough and they tend to spend their weekends at home because going out means Davis is, as he puts it, "on duty". In fact, it was his domestic life that first inspired Life's Too Short. Davis had the idea for the sitcom and eventually took it to Gervais and Merchant, having worked with them on Extras. "There was a period a few years ago when I was getting approaches from documentary companies wanting to do a kind of 'Follow Warwick Davis and his family' – and I was kind of 'No, I'm an actor, that's what I do, the family thing that's our thing'.

"And then I thought it would be fun to manipulate the reality here, and the more I started to think about that, the more it became funny and then... You have to keep a little black book and I kept Ricky's number, and I wondered what he thinks..."

Described by Gervais as "a cross between Extras and Curb Your Enthusiasm and One Foot in the Grave, but with a dwarf", the seven-part Life's Too Short is, among other things, a very funny primer to the problems of being a short person. There's a simple scene in the opening episode, for example, where Davis tries to speak into a front-door intercom, although he says his real bête noire is the cash machine. "Not everything is set up for people like us."

The sitcom comes with a stellar guest list that includes Johnny Depp, Sting, Steve Carell (from the American version of The Office) and Helena Bonham Carter, while in the opening episode Liam Neeson gives a splendid turn as a painfully unfunny actor wanting to do comedy.

"I know Liam quite well from working with him before, and Helena Bonham Carter from working with her on Harry Potter. Johnny – we've kept in touch since we worked together..."

One movie franchise that eluded Davis was the Lord of the Rings series, in which director Peter Jackson made the controversial decision not to hire short actors, but to digitally reduce average-sized ones instead.

"I kind of understand why Peter Jackson did what he did – there wasn't the range of short actors to fill the roles," says Davis. "I did go in for an audition, for the role of Gimli that went to John Rhys-Davies, and I joked with [him] about being lynched by a lot of little people, and I think I might set that up really – lots of little people in balaclavas..."

At the end of our meeting, Davis jumps off his chair, and there's a slight jolt as the man with whom I have been on eye-level with for the past hour disappears to below waist. Isn't it a bit galling, I ask him before we part, that so much of our interview has been about his stature?

"I know what you're saying but I don't find it frustrating," he says. "Initially, that's what gave me my opportunity. It's very important that I'm short – it's made me who I am as well, it creates my beliefs, my attitude and everything."

'Life's Too Short' begins in November on BBC2

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