It was an epic adventure unlike anything moviegoers had ever seen on the big screen in the ‘80s. In producer George Lucas and director Ron Howard’s 1988 dark fantasy adventure “Willow,” Nelwyn farmer-cum-aspiring sorcerer Willow Ufgood (Warwick Davis) grudgingly embarked on a perilous journey to protect infant empress Elora Danan from the dark sorceress Queen Bavmorda (Jean Marsh) that the baby was prophesied to vanquish.
Helping Willow accomplish his mission were cocky mercenary Madmartigan (Val Kilmer) and the queen’s warrior daughter Sorsha (Joanne Whalley). But 34 years after the cult classic was released, Willow (with Warwick reprising the role he first portrayed when he was only 17) must lead a group of heroic misfits on a harrowing rescue mission.
Set some 20 years after the events in the film, the TV series “Willow,” which premieres on Disney+ today, sees the world being threatened once again by evil forces who descend on the kingdom of Tir Asleen, now ruled by Queen Sorsha (Joanne, also reprising her role).
When one of Sorsha’s children, Prince Airk (Dempsey Bryk), is kidnapped by sinister creatures, Willow and his team set out to retrieve the prince. The group also includes Airk’s lesbian sister, Princess Kit (Ruby Cruz); her secret lover, knight-in-training Jade (Erin Kellyman); Graydon (Tony Revolori), the nerdy prince that Kit is betrothed to; Boorman (Amar Chadha-Patel), the thief who joins the quest in exchange for his freedom; and kitchen maid Dove (Ellie Bamber), who is Airk’s love interest.
Explaining how the TV series came about, Ron said, “Over the years, ‘Willow’ has been this project that people just wanted to talk to me about. George has always wanted to develop it further on television, believing that a serialized approach to ‘Willow’ would make sense.”
Along with the birth of its sequel came the perfect opportunity to introduce the wonder of “Willow” to a whole new generation of viewers. In the press con graced by Warwick, Ellie, Tony, Ruby, Dempsey, Erin, Amar and writer-showrunner Jon Kasdan, Warwick said that he was continually hounded by fans, who wanted to know if they could expect a sequel to one of their favorite movies.
“For years, it’s been talked about, not by anyone official, but by the fans,” Warwick shared. “They have constantly pestered me, saying, ‘When are we going to see a sequel?’ But it’s a question I could never answer … until I met Jon, who I understood was also a fan.
“I wondered on the set of ‘Solo: A Star Wars Story’ who had let Jon onto the set [since] no fans were allowed there (laughs) … because he was obsessed with ‘Willow.’ I thought, ‘Surely, we should be concentrating on making this ‘Star Wars’ film, shouldn’t we?’
“So, that was the catalyst for this project, and it happened very quickly in Hollywood terms. It wasn’t years and years of development. Before I knew it, I was already sitting on the set in Wales for the very first day of filming. And I was once again looking just like Willow did, but slightly older, more mature and better-looking. And much sexier!”
Back in the ‘80s
Kidding aside, returning to the world of Willow transported Warwick to how things were back in the ‘80s. “Certainly, for me, among the most enjoyable things about the series were those callbacks to events that had happened in the film—and they’re something that the fans will get a kick out of.
“We went back to locations and environments that we’d already been to in the film, particularly Nockmaar. That really gave me the shivers! You know, there I was standing or sitting where Bavmorda would have sat, and I still felt her presence. That just shows you how powerful the film, those settings and Jean Marsh’s performance were.”
Jon explained, “There certainly was the impulse between Ron, Warwick and me to continue this story. I came at it as a fan, and they both came to it as creators … who had found a champion in me.
“I kept fighting and hoping we’d get a chance to come back, and my ace was that Warwick would be back, and he would look so attractive, and America and the rest of the world would really fall on their knees for him.” But Jon wasn’t the only one thrilled at the prospect of bringing “Willow” back to life.
“I’m not as young as our younger cast members, so I have to hold my hand up and say I was alive when the movie came out,” Amar said, chuckling. “I first watched it when I was about 7 or 8 years old. It sort of fit neatly into my upbringing, in the sense that I grew up on escapism and fantasy, like ‘The NeverEnding Story’ and ‘The Princess Bride’—that’s my childhood.
“So by osmosis, I had imbibed the quality of that kind of film, and it was always a part of me. Then, I rewatched it again when I got cast.”
With his tongue firmly in cheek, Tony turned to Amar and playfully quipped, “You look phenomenal for someone who’s 59, Amar (laughs)! (The actor is only in his 30s.) In my case, I actually watched it with my parents and brother, and I fell in love with it. So when this opportunity came around, I was excited and honored.”
For Ruby, just sharing scenes with Warwick taught her a lot in terms of how to treat scenes, whether they’re light or emotionally challenging.
“Honestly, just being in Warwick’s presence was like a lesson in its own right,” she explained. “Being around someone who’s so good at what he does has taught me to be able to switch it on and off … which is something I really struggle with.
“Warwick would just waltz on set, then suddenly, you’d see him in a most emotional state. Or he’d be cracking one-liners the entire time, while everything is going to disaster! So, it was just cool seeing him in his element.”
For Warwick, however, revisiting “Willow” hasn’t been as easy as it looks. He admitted, “The physical requirements of the role were more challenging now. I remember the first time around when I was 17, it was already quite challenging, moving through difficult terrains and the harsh conditions in the mountains of New Zealand.
“This time, though, I’m not 17 anymore … I’m 52! But the young cast helped me get through the whole process.”
How much input did George Lucas have on “Willow”?
“I’ve been getting this question a lot today,” Jon mused. “Warwick was actually present on the day that I had my one and only conversation with George about this project. He visited the set of ‘Solo’ because he is devoted to Ron, and they are dear, dear friends in real life. “And they told us that George was going to come for just a moment, and we shouldn’t make direct eye contact or ask him any direct questions. Instead, George ended up staying for six hours and answering all our questions. He was nothing but lovely.
“I sort of said to him ‘in the moment’ when I found myself seated next to this ‘god of my childhood’ that I thought Lucasfilm should really seize the opportunity to tell more ‘Willow’ stories. And he kind of smiled wryly and said he couldn’t agree more. It’s that sort of faith or excitement or boyish enthusiasm that was really critical to feeling like this was something we could go off and do.”
While we’ll be seeing Warwick, Joanne and Kevin Pollack reprising their roles, it looks like we can’t expect Madmartigan—or Val Kilmer—to drop by in any of the episodes anytime soon. Wasn’t it tricky to address Madmartigan’s absence in this sequel?
“It wasn’t tricky at all,” Jon answered. “It was always going to be a story that focused on so many of the show’s young characters and their search for identity. But the search for Madmartigan or the question of what had happened to him is right at the heart of the story we’re telling.
“We knew that it would be woven into this quest in a fundamental way… to see where he was and what had become of him, or what he’d given up.
“And one thing that happened, because Val himself wasn’t able to come out to Wales and work with us, was that we added this [narrative device of introducing a] friend of Madmartigan, who could give us clues about his whereabouts—which only deepened the mystery surrounding his absence.
“It was very satisfying. It provided an opportunity for us to add an unexpected new element to the show. So, yeah, Madmartigan is still out there, and he is out there to be found, should the day arrive. And both Warwick and I would love to see him pick up that sword again!”