Welcome to Random Roles, wherein we talk to actors about the characters who defined their careers. The catch: They don’t know beforehand what roles we’ll ask them to talk about.
The actor: Jonathan Pryce is perfect for British Actor Bingo, having played The Master in Doctor Who, a Bond villain in Tomorrow Never Dies, stolen scenes on Game Of Thrones, and even taken on London’s most famous detective for Sherlock Holmes And The Baker Street Irregulars. Pryce first stepped in front of the camera in 1972, where he has remained a staple on screens both big and small ever since, and he can currently be spotted playing the husband to Glenn Close’s titular character in The Wife, which is in theaters now.
The Wife (2018)—“Joe Castleman”
Jonathan Pryce: I met with Björn [Runge, the director] and liked meeting him, and I watched two of his Swedish films that he’d made and liked them. And there was the prospect with Glenn [Close], which I very much wanted to do. It was quite easy. I didn’t need any persuading.
The A.V. Club: Had you been familiar with the novel beforehand?
JP: I hadn’t read the novel, and I still haven’t read the novel. I’ve found that if it’s an adaption from a novel or if it’s something that’s based on a real character, I tend to trust the script. And the script is what you end up with on film, anyway. You can frustrate yourself if you have too much in your head that isn’t going to go in the film.
AVC: How would you sum up Joe Castleman in a nutshell?
JP: Well, in a walnut shell, that would be. [Laughs.] He’s a complex man who developed an enormous ego which helped him maintain a secret, but he’s someone who was in a long and—for much of it—a loving relationship, and he’s experienced all the ups and downs of that relationship.
AVC: Having seen the film, it must be a tricky walk to go between being a sympathetic character and a son of a bitch.
JP: Yeah, well, the son of a bitch thing was kind of thrust upon him because of this secret that they were both living under. He’s a man who then began to have lots of affairs, and a man who needed approval. And I think he’s got a lot of guilt about the way he was… well, you can’t give too much away, but about the way in which he was leading his life. And he sought approval outside of his marriage, let’s say.
AVC: How was working with Glenn Close?
JP: Oh, it was great. Really great. We’ve both been in the business as long as each other and it’s great that we go between film and theater. There was a lot of mutual respect and trust between us, and it enabled us to be quite organic in the choices that we made on set about the characters. It was a delight. I loved it.
AVC: We try to go as far back in an actor’s onscreen career as we can, and it looks as though your first role was that of a police constable in an episode of Doomwatch.
JP: That was the very first thing, yeah. In those days, you had to have an equity card to get a job, and you had to have a job to get an equity card. [Laughs.] It was the great days of closed shop. I long for them. And a stronger union. But, yeah, I’d been offered a job in Liverpool, and they’d given away all their starter equity cards—there was a quota system—but the director of Doomwatch was often in touch with the director of the Royal Academy, where I was at, and if anyone needed an equity card, he could give them a walk-on part, as it were, in that series. And that’s how that came about.
AVC: When you initially went into acting, did you always have an eye on stepping in front of the camera, or would you have been happy staying in the theater?
JP: Well, I never wanted to be an actor in the first place! [Laughs.]
AVC: What led you down that path?
JP: Well, I studied art. When I left school, I went to art school, and the last college I was at was a teacher training college, training you to teach art. But you had to do a subsidiary course, and the course that everyone said was the easiest one to do, the one that required the least amount of work, was the drama course.
So I signed up for that, but gradually I had a very good tutor at the college and shifted my emphasis toward acting, although still never thinking I would be a professional actor. But I was encouraged by another tutor to go to the Royal Academy, because he thought I’d make a good actor. And I thought, “Well, I’ve got nothing to lose.” So I got a place at the Academy, I got a scholarship to go there, and I started to learn about theater and acting, and I was also learning to live in London for the first time. It all came about by chance, really.
AVC: You were in a TV movie with Helen Hayes.
JP: Well, I think only in that we were on the same cast list. [Laughs.] And who else? Oh, yes, and Olivia de Havilland was in it as well. But if you asked me to tell you a story about that TV show, I couldn’t!
JP: I think I’ve kind of blown my chances of playing the actual Master now. [Laughs.] But, no, I had fun doing that. And it was fun with a lot of people I didn’t really know coming in as The Doctor. People like Hugh Grant and Joanna Lumley appeared, and—wasn’t Rowan Atkinson in there as well?
AVC: Yes, he was The Doctor who started it off.
JP: There you go!
AVC: Had you been familiar at all with the Doctor Who mythos?
JP: My Doctor Who time was when it was still in black and white, and William Hartnell was The Doctor. And I don’t want to say that that’s the last time I watched it, but… it probably is! [Laughs.] But I’m looking forward to Jodie Whittaker as the new Doctor. She’s someone I worked with and liked enormously, so I might watch it again now.
JP: That was something we’d hoped would have a longer life. We did a series of about six or seven, and it was a new look at Sherlock Holmes, how he used the gangs of street kids to go out and find the evidence. I had a good time. One of my very good friends, Bill Paterson, played Watson. Yeah, it was okay. [Laughs.] And out of that came a star, because the lead kid of the Baker Street Irregulars was Aaron [Taylor-] Johnson. He grew up fast, got married early, and has a great career.
JP: Well, the short version is that I’d originally passed on the very first Game Of Thrones—I think it was the pilot—because it’s a genre of storytelling that doesn’t really appeal to me. Swords and dragons and fantasies and Lord Of The Rings type stuff, I don’t seek it out. So I passed. And then it became this huge worldwide success, and they offered me or asked me to pay this High Sparrow in season five, and I said “yes” straight away.
It was a really well-written role, and of course the whole series had been a great success around the world, and it looked really good. So I was pleasantly surprised when I turned up for my first day of filming to discover that, far from working with a jaded crew who’d been doing four seasons of this big hit and were now just churning it out, nothing could be further from the truth. The production team, the crews, everybody were committed to making the best possible show they could. And I had one of the best times of my career in Game Of Thrones, working with great people, great directors, people who know about making film.
AVC: Do you remember who they’d originally been after you to play?
JP: [Long pause.] Somebody with a funny name.
AVC: Voyage Of The Damned was your first film, correct?
JP: Yes, that came about because I was doing a play that started in Nottingham, and then it went to London. It was a play called The Comedians—I think I was about 27 or 28—and my character shaved his head and performed this very bizarre and politically committed comedy act. It was transferring to the West End from the Old Vic, and I didn’t really want to carry on doing it anymore. I felt I’d done it enough. And I went for the meeting for Voyage Of The Damned, and it was to play Joseph Manasse, who was a real person who’d been released from a concentration camp in Germany before the outbreak of war. And I think I got the part because I already had my head shaved! [Laughs.] And I was also very skinny.
But it was an extraordinary experience, and with a first-class director in Stuart Rosenberg, who made Cool Hand Luke. I think it wasn’t really the film it should’ve been. It was like a big Murder On The Orient Express extravaganza, with a parade—a cavalcade, even!—of international film stars boarding the ship. But it meant I did get to be in the same film as Orson Welles and James Mason, Faye Dunaway, Donald Houston, Julie Harris… extraordinary people. And it was an eye-opener, and it was a learning situation.
AVC: Who did you actually end up working with?
JP: I worked mostly with an American actor called Paul Koslo. But I was in scenes—or in the back of scenes—where Faye Dunaway was working, and Oskar Werner and Sam Wanamaker. I remember Faye Dunaway, six weeks I’d been standing behind her, and she turned to me one day and said, “Mr. Pryce, I’ve been longing to meet you. My name’s Faye Dunaway.” And I said, “Yes, I know!” [Laughs.] So there you go. It was a good time. And I had a couple of good scenes.
JP: Ah, Mr. Dark! That’s a very special film for me. I’d just finished playing Hamlet at the Royal Court Theater, and [director] Jack Clayton had been to see it. I met him, and he offered me the role of Mr. Dark for Disney. Yeah, it was my first Hollywood film. Again, it was an eye-opener, because I was fortunate enough to have as my co-star and mentor Jason Robards, who kind of took me under his wing. We had a very good relationship, and he pointed out certain things like flaws and weaknesses in the Hollywood system, and how to stay strong.
It was a really interesting film that Jack Clayton made, one that was determinedly messed about with by Disney executives who were there at that time. They’d employed Jack to make a story film, which he’s very good at, and it was coming out at a time that there were lots of special effects films starting to happen, so they decided they didn’t want a story film, they wanted a special effects film, and they spent a year adding special effects to this rather scary Ray Bradbury story. I didn’t suffer from it. My character, Mr. Dark, was still a very powerful figure. But I think Jack suffered from it. He felt he’d been let down.
AVC: Well, it developed a cult following, at least.
JP: Yeah, that word comes up quite a few times in my career. It comes up with Brazil as well, and with films like that and Something Wicked, people very happily say, “Well, you’re a cult actor.” But you don’t set out to be a cult actor. You set out to be a very successful actor that makes financially successful films! [Laughs.] We didn’t set out to make a cult film with Brazil. We set out to make a blockbuster. But there you go.
JP: I played the president briefly in G.I. Joe 1, and a little more extensively in G.I. Joe 2. And I had a great time. I think [Retaliation director] John Chu is a really excellent filmmaker. He’s smart, he knows all the tricks, but he also knows about creating a character and supporting an actor in the middle of a lot of fireworks, shall we say. But, no, I had a great time. I got to stand next to The Rock, which has got to be a good thing.
AVC: I would think.
JP: Yeah, well, he made me look skinny. Anyone who can do that is good in my book.
AVC: I would think he’d make you very aware of your height as well.
JP: He makes you aware of everything. [Laughs.] He puts you in perspective!
JP: A very special film, mainly because it is such a good film, such a good rendering of a stage play. It doesn’t feel stage-y for a play that’s so dialogue-heavy, shall we say, when not a lot happens physically. While I was filming that, I was doing Miss Saigon on stage, so Glengarry Glen Ross was the way I was spending my days… and to spend one’s days sitting in a booth with Al Pacino is not a bad way to go. [Laughs.] And we talked a lot about all kinds of things between takes. I already knew him—I’d made acquaintance with him when he came to see Hamlet in London—and we kind of kept in touch. But it’s a great film.
AVC: Roger Ebert famously—or perhaps infamously—picked up on some homosexual undertones in your scenes, or at least that was his impression.
JP: [Uncertainly.] Homosexual undertones in what?
AVC: In Glengarry Glen Ross.
JP: Oh, really?
AVC: Not something you guys were going after, apparently.
JP: No. [Laughs.] No, I was just a put-upon henpecked husband!
JP: [Long pause.] Yeah. The director was Simon Curtis, who I’d done a television series with, and… I had to give pause there, because it was done as a favor to Simon, but it was more to do with [Harvey] Weinstein asking me.
AVC: Oh, really?
JP: Yep. So… there you go. [Laughs.] Who knew?
AVC: Apparently you did not.
JP: No, I didn’t!
AVC: Were you a Cole Porter fan going into De-Lovely?
JP: Oh, yeah! That was fun to do. I’m not sure it was an entirely successful film, but I enjoyed it very much. Kevin Kline’s an actor I like very much, so I got to spend time with him, and I got to sing and dance a bit. Yeah, a nice film.
JP: I think it comes as a surprise to a lot of people when you say to them, “Well, I was never really a big James Bond fan.” I enjoyed them, but I didn’t go out of my way to seek them out. So at the time, it had never been an ambition of mine to play a Bond villain until my agent, James Sharkey, who was at the time Tim Dalton’s agent… I think it’d always been an ambition of Jimmy’s that I should be a villain. [Laughs.] But it was a very happy, fortuitous kind of thing that that particular script and that particular character I could relate to. In terms of playing a powerful newspaper magnate who is trying to take over the world and is acknowledging that China was the coming territory—well, that was uncanny! So to play [Rupert] Murdoch in a Nehru jacket was fun. At the time, I thought, “Well, it’s a Bond movie, but we’re also saying something.”
Unfortunately, my biggest speech—which for a Bond film was quite a long speech, and one where I was addressing a world audience—when I went to see it, I knew the speech was coming up, and I thought, “Oh, great, here’s my big moment!” And I start the speech, and it’s all going well… and then suddenly they cut away to James Bond having this incredible fight, which goes on forever, and you only hear the speech in the background. Ah, Hollywood… [Laughs.] But I enjoyed it, and the production people, the Broccolis, are good people, so it was nice to do. And I enjoyed being with Pierce Brosnan. He’s a good guy.
JP: Oh, god, that introduced me to someone who became a friend: Gene Wilder, who I loved so much. He was just great. A lovely, lovely man. And Gilda Radner and Dom DeLuise. It was one of those films where, when there’s a break and they’re doing the next setup and people usually go back to their dressing rooms, nobody went back to their dressing rooms. We’d all sit around in a circle of camp chairs or whatever they call them—director’s chairs—and be entertained by Dom DeLuise. It was a blissful time. It was a great time.
AVC: How was Gene Wilder off-camera?
JP: Off-camera, he was lovely. He was an unassuming, quiet man. Everything you’d expect him to be. So off-camera he wasn’t doing shtick. He left that to Dom. [Laughs.] But on camera? Some of my favorite films are his and Mel Brooks’.
Brazil (1985)—“Sam Lowry”
The Adventures Of Baron Munchausen (1988)—“The Right Ordinary Horatio Jackson”
The Brothers Grimm (2005)—“Delatombe”
AVC: How did you and Terry Gilliam first cross paths?
JP: We met at an all-day screening of… Oh, god, what was it? 1900. And he was sitting behind me with Michael Palin. And he tapped me on the shoulder to say hello because I’d just been on TV in a comedy the night before, and I think he’d seen Hamlet as well. So we got to talking a bit, and he offered me the role of Evil in Time Bandits. But I’d just finished playing Hamlet for next to no money, and I was broke, and at the same time I was offered Loophole.
AVC: Ah, yes.
JP: Oh, you say “ah, yes” now, but have you seen it?
AVC: Aware of it, but haven’t actually seen it, no.
JP: Well, then. [Laughs.] But Loophole paid twice as much as Time Bandits, so I went for Loophole, because I needed the money. So when he finally got to do Brazil with me, anytime it was painful filming—which quite a bit of it was, hanging from wires or being trapped in some contraption—he would say, “This is your punishment for saying ‘no’ to Time Bandits!” And that started a great collaboration, most recently with The Man Who Killed Don Quixote.
AVC: You obviously weren’t playing Don Quixote when Gilliam first attempted to make the film.
JP: No, but he offered me a role in the original one. But I wasn’t available, so I had to pass. And then a lot of extraordinary things happened in the following 14 to 15 years, with different people getting to restart it and to recast it. We like to say now that every disaster and every catastrophe was God’s way of saying, “Wait until Jonathan’s free and old enough.” [Laughs.] So that’s what happened. And I had a fantastic time making it. It was like a kid playing from beginning to end. I got to ride horses, I got to carry a lance and joust, got to dance, got to sing, got to be poetic, and got to die again!
AVC: Having worked with him so many times over the years, I’m sure you’ve witnessed issues with him having a greater design for films than the studios did. Did you witness his frustration during those periods?
JP: Did I witness his frustration? [Laughs.] Oh, my god, I witnessed everything with Terry! His frustration, his anger, his outbursts of creativity, his madness… But when it’s all going well, he’s great to work with. His priority is to get the film made, and his priority is his actors. There’ve been great elements of sadness surrounding the things that have happened, and the frustration now with the lack of release—in the States, anyway—of Don Quixote. It’s coming out in lots of territories in Europe. It’s coming out in France and Spain, and those aren’t the only places it’s opening up. He’s been very positive about it. Don’t believe everything you read in the newspapers. Don’t believe every adjudication that’s made in a court of law in France. The film is going to be out!
AVC: I know you’ve got to go, but have you anything offhand to say about Breaking Glass?
JP: Breaking Glass! Ah, yes, the deaf, heroin-addicted saxophonist… [Laughs.] I played so well, I was offered work in bands. People thought I could really play. But I couldn’t, so it wasn’t to be. There you go!