Jonathan Pryce on Game of Thrones, rhubarbing with Bruce Willis and why 40 years as an actor is enough to make anyone angry
'It is Listen Up Philip, isn’t it?” says Jonathan Pryce, a flicker of uncertainty crossing his face as he sits down. That is what we’re here to talk about, but the hesitation is forgivable: after all, we’re meeting in the offices of the Globe theatre in London, where he’s due on stage in a few hours for another performance as Shylock in The Merchant of Venice. The television show Game of Thrones, in which he plays a crusading priest called the High Sparrow, has just begun broadcasting its fifth season
And Listen Up Philip, a barbed American comedy film in which he channels “all the s--- people that I’ve known” to portray a loathsome elder-statesman novelist with an unkind whiff of Philip Roth about him, is also on the point of release. Small wonder if it’s all a bit of a jumble.
But this kind of variety is what Pryce has always done best, to an extent that makes giving a potted summary of his career nearly impossible. His performances on film and television range from the put-upon bureaucrat Sam Lowry in Brazil to the polo-necked Bond baddy in Tomorrow Never Dies, from the jut-bearded, cut-glass-voiced Lytton Strachey in Carrington to the mandarin Cardinal Wolsey in Wolf Hall.
He’s done unapologetic bread-and-butter work in American blockbusters (three Pirates of the Caribbean films, two GI Joes), has performed in musicals from Miss Saigon to Evita, and has given stage performances (including a riveting, possessed Hamlet from 1980) that are still cited as some of his generation’s best. At 67, he remains as busy as ever, and he certainly looks well on it: smooth-bearded and soft-spoken, with a striking facial resemblance to Pope Francis and greenish eyes that gleam under satirically lowered lids.
You’re more angry about the critics who don’t get it. And the praise, when they praise you, is never enough
Pryce’s dry humour in person is – thank heavens – a world away from his role in Listen Up Philip, an independent feature written and directed by the 30-year-old Alex Ross Perry, which applies the droll tone of Woody Allen’s early films to a harsh and modern comedy of hipster manners. It follows a young New York novelist called Philip Lewis Friedman (Rushmore’s Jason Schwartzman) who cheerlessly lays waste to the feelings of his loved ones while preparing to publish his second novel.
His book catches the eye of Ike Zimmerman (Pryce), an ageing titan of 20th-century literature who invites him to stay at a country house in upstate New York. But Zimmerman turns out to be another dreadful figure, with a long string of broken marriages and scorched-earth friendships behind him.
“I’m not Zimmerman,” says Pryce when I tell him how arrestingly awful the character is, “but I recognise his cynicism about the world he moves in. Forty-odd years of being an actor, that’s 40-odd years of critics’ reviews, and 40-odd years of people either getting it or not getting it. You’re more angry about those who don’t get it. And the praise, when they praise you, is never enough.” He laughs quietly. “I found it fun to be that horrible.”
Much discussion of Listen Up Philip has concerned the extent to which Pryce’s character is supposed to parody the writer Philip Roth. The surname certainly appears designed to evoke that of Nathan Zuckerman, Roth’s most famous literary alter ego, while the string of perfectly-pitched cover designs that throng his shelves are visible mickey-takes of Roth’s output from the Sixties and Seventies Taxed with this, Pryce offers an elusive smile.
“It is very much a Philip Roth kind of character,” he says, “but I don’t think Roth is as nasty as Zimmerman. It’s definitely there as an influence for Alex to have written this piece. But Roth is one of my favourite writers, and obviously, while he has a large ego, I don’t think it’s gone the way of Ike.”
Instead, he says, the character is drawn from templates much closer to home. “I know writers,” he says, grimacing slightly, “and they seem to be the most disgruntled part of the art world. America is littered with novelists who leave New York and go to live in the country. There are English writers, whom we all know, who are very dissatisfied with their lot: even though they get mega-recognition they’re still complaining about critics and audiences who don’t understand their work.”
He’s naming no names. Do actors, then, not complain? “It seems to happen more with writers,” he says. “Actors, when they’re older, still get a chance to let off steam or something, and work things off on stage.”
Perhaps, I suggest, the difference has something to do with the sociability of the two professions. Ike and Philip are friends because no one else can tolerate them, but surely even the most exalted actors can’t act in a vacuum, even on film? “Not even then,” Pryce agrees. “Well, you can attempt to. I’ve seen a bit of that. It was very amusing to do GI Joe: Retaliation scenes with Bruce Willis, who spends months rewriting his dialogue and then turns up and doesn’t say it. Part of the time he doesn’t say anything, but mumbles and mutters.
“It’s quite an interesting way to work,” he goes on reflectively. “I mean, I’m not telling tales out of school because I’m not going to affect his career one bit, but he will go, 'Hrrhmmhrrhmm’ ” – he moves his mouth conversationally, emitting an unsettling mutter at the edge of audibility – “and he was rather shocked that I responded not with the lines as written, but mumbled back. And then, in post-production, you can put any dialogue on there that you want.”
My bark of laughter at the thought of two august thesps rhubarbing at each other must be too loud, because Pryce looks worried and begins backtracking: “I mean, he didn’t do it throughout the film.”
Back to Listen Up Philip, which, Pryce explains, was a delight once he was allowed to work on it. “I read the script,” he says. “I then had a Skype call with Alex Ross Perry, which was my first Skype meeting and my last.” He shudders. “It’s weird, looking at an image of someone you don’t know and trying to sound natural. Anyway, I thought it all went very well, and then Alex went away and decided not to cast me.”
That elusive smile reappears. “I was a bit furious. His entirely racist reason was because I’m not Jewish, and he wanted a Jewish actor. So then he came crawling back, saying he’d made a terrible mistake and wanted me to do it, and that’s when I told him that 30-odd years ago I worked for Mel Brooks, we had lunch together, and Mel Brooks thought I was Jewish.” He taps the table, doing a lordly-actor tone. “And if Mel Brooks thinks I’m Jewish, that’s good enough for you!”
Energetic and self-possessed, Listen Up Philip has gone down well in the United States, but Pryce isn’t sure how it’ll do in the UK. “It is so American,” he says, “the voice and the way of expressing yourself.” What he means, I suspect, is that the plot depends on the audience’s belief in characters so brutally forthright that they seem almost extraterrestrial to self-effacing Brits.
Pryce still sounds a little chastened after one recent experience: “I first saw it at Sundance in America, with a thousand people or more,” he says, “and they fell about.” At a screening here, however, ominous silence reigned. He lowers his voice sadly. “I wished I’d never been.”
Time will tell. For now, work continues apace. Pryce’s duties as Shylock, which have occupied him since April, come to an end tomorrow. “I’d resisted the Globe, even as an audience member, for years,” he says. “Like many people I thought it was heritage theatre, a tourist attraction.” But seeing a friend act there in 2013 changed his mind, as did a personal tour of the space from Mark Rylance, the Globe’s former artistic director, whom Pryce played opposite in Wolf Hall.
What did he learn? “It works well on diagonals,” he says, all business. “Not so well if you’re in a line. Get below the pillars: they’re in the wrong place, should be further back. They found that out after they built it.” What’s more, the theatre’s social role reminds him of his early days at the Liverpool Everyman in the Seventies. “Across the street where we rehearse there are classes, education projects,” he says. “It’s like theatre used to be. The irony, of course, is that it receives not a penny of government funding, and they’re sold out every night.”
Pryce is also in the midst of organising a series of gala concerts for a mentoring charity called Friendship Works. These will include a clutch of younger actors such as the Oscar winner Eddie Redmayne, who once played the son of Pryce and his wife Kate Fahy in Edward Albee’s The Goat at the Almeida, and Tom Hiddleston, who played Pryce’s son in Cranford and Fahy’s son in the film Archipelago.
“It’s funny,” he says ruminatively, “the stages of an actor’s life. I have all these extra children now.” He and Fahy have three real children as well: a painter, a London restaurateur, and one, his daughter Phoebe, an actress, who plays his stage daughter in the current Globe production. “You don’t want to talk about it too much,” he says apologetically, “because you don’t want to jinx it.” But he looks intensely proud. “It’s worked out great.”
And then, of course, there is the flurry of fandom that comes with Game of Thrones, another job that very nearly passed him by altogether. He turned down a part in the first season, he explains, “because it’s a genre I don’t really respond to very well: swords, sorcery, fantasy things. I looked at the names, looked at some bits of dialogue, and thought, 'Oh God, no, not for me.’ But this time round, when they sent the script and it was the role of High Sparrow” – he gives a private smile – “and it was a name I could say. He has a very good storyline, a great character, and I could see no reason for not doing it.”
What’s more, he’s had more messages congratulating him on getting the part than he has for anything else in his career. “Nobody emailed saying, 'Marvellous, you’re doing King Lear, darling!’ ” he sums up, with dry amusement in his voice. “But I did get, 'Wow, you’re doing Game of Thrones!’ There was a feeling that I’d really made it at last.”
Listen Up Philip is out now