Warwick Davis arrives at the bar in the New Wimbledon theatre and puts on a pair of sunglasses with round, blue lenses. “These are part of my props,” he says, referring to his return to the pantomime stage in a matter of days. He pushes the frames up his nose to look at the room’s Edwardian features through an azure hue. “I was going to wear them when I came in so you’d be thinking, ‘Oh yeah, he’s affected’,” he postures like a luvvie, “’he’s an affected actor’, but I won’t sit here like this because maybe it’s a bit weird.”
I tell him I’ve recently seen Queen Elizabeth wearing a similar pair in a Reuel Golden photograph in a book commemorating her diamond reign. “Oh, errrm,” he says, taking them off. “Now it’s definitely a bit weird.”
It is a typical poke at the muddy waters between expectations and reality. Davis is three feet and six inches tall. He suffers from a rare genetic disorder called congenital spondyloepiphyseal dysplasia. Doctors said it would kill him by the time he was a teenager. You could argue he has plenty to whinge about. But in case you’ve missed the 42-year-old actor’s output over the last few years, he’s become an icon of self-deprecation, the punchline to his own politically incorrect jokes. The recent release of an app that lets you dress him up as, among other things, a frog, and carry him around in your pocket is just part of a long list of what he calls “taking what separates him from the crowd, keeping an ear out and seeking opportunities”.
Comedy is very powerful. An old lady in the car park the other day grabbed me and gave me a big cuddle
Even if it encourages people to point and laugh? “That’s me. That’s what I do,” he says with enormous enthusiasm. “If ever I do live stage work, I’ll start by belittling myself, which means I’m okay with this you guys, it’s okay for you to join in and laugh about what I’m going to talk about for the next hour. If I don’t do that, there’s no permission given.”
That came to the fore in Life’s Too Short, an awkward, challenging mockumentary co-created with Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant, where Davis showed enormous faith that the challenges of his height would make people laugh. It came about after he got fed up with filmmakers asking if they could point cameras at his family as “some sort of reality circus”. Instead he decided to build a show around his own experiences – such as using a mop to reach higher shelves in supermarkets – in order to make everyone cringe. It left critics affronted on his behalf.
“I never understood that,” he says. “I was actually slightly offended by people being offended for me. It was as if I couldn’t speak for myself and wasn’t totally aware of what was going on somehow. That Ricky had written this comedy series and that I’d sort of been pushed into doing it against my will. It was ridiculous. I was a co-creator. A lot of the stuff in it comes from my life. That’s what people found hard to take, that they were seeing themselves in it, and were made uncomfortable by their own attitudes.”
In his latest project for television Davis stars alongside Karl Pilkington in another of Gervais’ creations An Idiot Abroad. Now in its third series, the show is pitted as a fish-out-of-water road trip where Davis and Pilkington face extraordinary circumstances as they retrace Marco Polo’s footsteps from Italy to China. Putting Pilkington’s trademark, inane complaints during a priceless opportunity aside, is Davis worried audiences might accuse him of relying on dwarfism as his shtick? As a gimmick? In the press material Pilkington says: “Honestly. Edmund Hillary had that Tenzing fella, Ben Fogle had James Cracknell. I’ve been given an Ewok.”
That can’t help with the circling naysayers.
“But Ricky being Ricky, we’re aware of that,” Davis says. “He wants to create those divisions. When Karl and I were sat on the plane we looked at each other and were saying how did this happen? What are we doing? It was one of those things that was never really discussed particularly in depth. It was more like, bam bam, tickets, passports, do it.”
He adds that, because they aren’t acting, the audience sees how an odd couple really rolls with the punches. The spontaneous comedy allows Davis to further test our perceptions about disability.
“I’m totally cool with who I am and totally accepting of the fact that I’m short no matter where I am. Comedy is very powerful. You can reach more people with comedy than you can with drama. And it’s harder to do. I’ve been grabbed by people in the street. An old lady in the car park the other day grabbed me and gave me a big cuddle,” – and here he grits his teeth and hugs himself tight – “that’s the impact”.
The sentimentality reminds me there’s a reason why we’ve met at the south London venue – panto. Davis is starring as Prof the chief dwarf alongside Priscilla Presley in the New Wimbledon’s production of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. Even though Cliff Richard’s Mistletoe and Wine is bubbling in the background, is it good to be back?
“Nothing beats live theatre,” he grins. “Panto audiences are really up for it. There’s this energy and excitement among the kids and the adults.”
He says he also feels quite a duty to be on point for youngsters who are probably experiencing theatre for the first time. “You’ve got to make that a memorable thing so they’ll continue to support theatre throughout their lives,” he adds.
It’s also another battleground in the war against modern technology. “Of course pantomime is that next step of interactivity because it’s real. You can shout at the characters on stage and they will respond. But we have to be one step above everything else – bigger, brighter, fuller, louder.”
Which is why he was shouting his lines outside the room before the interview started? “Well, yes, don’t worry about that, I’m the storyteller introducing the story – that segment will be recorded for the performances.”
“Priscilla?” he hesitates. It’s as if he’s been warned to broach the subject tentatively. “This is actually Priscilla’s stage debut and she’s taking on a lot. And Jarred Christmas [comedian and fellow co-star] has never done panto before. In fact I don’t think he’s even seen one.”
So do they look to him, Davis the seasoned pro, for guidance. “They have been a little bit, yeah,” – he stretches excessively to betray a sarcastic false humility – “I don’t want to blow my own trumpet, but err…”
As for his impression of Presley, he says: “Oh, yeah, she’s so graceful and elegant and she makes the perfect Wicked Queen.”
There’s nothing loaded in that?
“No, no. I wasn’t nervous meeting her. Yeah obviously I’m very respectful of people like that. I mean, it’s amazing to think she was married to Elvis. I still have to remind myself of that fact, but she’s very humble and very down to earth, you know.”
By now, Davis must be getting used to rubbing shoulders with A-listers. Johnny Depp, Liam Neeson, Helena Bonham Carter – they’ve all been co-stars on Life’s Too Short and he probably has their mobile numbers in his phone. His career has progressed from a breakthrough part as Wicket the Ewok in Return of the Jedi to this ongoing success with Gervais, and for that it’s obvious the force of ambition is strong with him. But what about time for a normal life?
In 1970 Davis was born in Epsom, Surrey, to ‘average’ parents of ‘average’ height at a time when having a small child was incredibly difficult. He once told an interviewer that: “The first thing the doctor said to my dad after my mum gave birth wasn’t ‘Congratulations’, it was: ‘Please stand up’. My dad stood up, and the doctor said, ‘You’re not unusually short are you?’ and my dad asked why, but the doctor just mumbled, ‘It’s just your son…’ Then he left.”
This might explain why his father placed so much onus on confidence, resulting in Davis’ bullish personality. “I wasn’t bullied at school because my outward attitude was confident, and that helps. If you hold your head down and are slightly ashamed or embarrassed or shy you become a target, but I never was shy,” he says.
Is that something he hopes to instil in his own children? He has a son, Harrison, nine, and a daughter, Annabel, 14, who were both, like him, born with SED. Davis says they both share his robust outlook on life – “my parents didn’t mollycoddle me and we don’t wrap them up in cotton wool” – but he’s concerned his workload threatens the time he spends with them. “Trying to maintain a home life but be able to take work? I’m still like The Stage’s readers. If you get a job offered you, it’s very hard to turn it down. Unless there’s some sort of moral reason that you shouldn’t do it, there’s no other reason. But then if you keep saying yes, time is strangled from one thing to the next. I’m doing three jobs at the same time – film set Monday, panto rehearsals Tuesday, promoting [Idiot Abroad] the rest of the week. It becomes really hard.”
Clearly, then, Davis is first to admit work isn’t all fun, fun, fun. Does that make the pursuit of comedy more difficult? Davis is investing more time in factual TV, starting with a documentary about the Ovitz family – a travelling group of dwarfs known as the Lilliput Troupe. They toured Eastern Europe as entertainers before the Second World War, were captured as Jews and interned at Auschwitz. They survived. “But the most inspiring thing about them is that they weren’t just people who were short who were taking advantage of that and singing as a novelty,” says Davis. “They were brilliant performers, they built their own props, their own sets, their own costumes, they did plays, musical acts, they were managed.”
So do inspirational stories like this make fighting the good fight for short people easier?
“Seven short entertainers, yep, give me a ticket, but when you saw them that was forgotten. That’s my ethos – I got my lucky break because I was short, but you can’t rely on that because it’s a one trick pony – you’ve got to prove you have other strengths.”
Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs runs at the New Wimbledon Theatre, London, until January 13. Read our review here.