Jonathan Pryce on being an actor and not a star
Jonathan Pryce is one of the finest actors of his generation yet you may not immediately know his name. Rather than seeing acting as a way of accruing riches and fame, Pryce has instead built a stage and screen career portraying a vast range of complex characters – people that leave a strong impression on his audiences.
His acting career began in the early 1970s after accepting a scholarship to study acting at London’s famous Royal Academy of Dramatic Art (RADA). Today, almost five decades later, Pryce holds a prestigious Commander of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire and, at 71, remains dedicated to his art.
Growing up in the small village of Carmel in North Wales grounded Pryce. “As the years go on I feel more and more Welsh,” he says. “I’m a proud Welsh man – [though] I’d rather be a proud European.
“My father was 14 when he went down the mines. He was a coal miner until he met my mother and the two of them opened a small grocery store in Greenfield when he was 19 or 20.”
Pryce’s breakthrough role came in 1985 when he appeared as Sam Lowry in the futuristic science fiction film Brazil. Directed by Terry Gilliam and co-starring Robert De Niro, it’s now considered a cult sci-fi classic.
Pryce views his role as Sam Lowry as his career favourite. Set in a consumer-obsessed world governed by a bureaucratic, totalitarian state, Lowry is forced to work a monotonous job by day while being haunted at night by dreams of a woman who is troubled and needs his help.
“Brazil resonated then and it still resonates,” he says. “It’s an 1980s film that has kept up with political changes and life changes and it is still relevant.”
Like the rest of Hollywood, Glenn Close, who co-stars alongside Pryce in his latest film The Wife,first became aware of Pryce when she saw him in Brazil. “I’ve never forgotten him in that performance,” she says. “He’s just one of the greats of his generation, so it’s a huge thrill and an honour to be working with him.”
Over the years, the pair had crossed paths on several occasions. During filming The Wife, they got on very well together and developed a friendship based on mutual respect.
“We stayed at the same hotel and had dinner most nights,” he explains. “Glenn and I have a lot in common. We are both the same age and have had long careers.” The topic of conversation least likely to be on the menu was the day’s work. “That was the last thing you wanted to do – it’s a bit like in any relationship you don’t go home and talk about your work.”
The Wife portrays life inside a 40-year marriage. Pryce plays Joe, a philandering high-achieving novelist who has been awarded a Nobel Prize for Literature. His wife, Joan, played by Close, is also a talented writer but put her husband’s career ahead of her own. The film is an adaptation of the 2003 novel by Meg Wolitzer of the same name, and is directed by Swedish director Björn Runge. Although set in Sweden, most of the filming took place in Scotland. As the film has dark undertones, Pryce admits it was important that both he and Close were able to have some fun during their down time.
“Off set we would tease each other,” he says. “We shared the make-up room in the morning. We had quite a bit of banter about what kind of music to put on. I like a variety of music – she [likes] show tunes.
“We talked mostly about art and theatre. I like her honesty and integrity. She is a sharp, bright person and I knew that we would work well together. All the banter brings up a sense of trust.”
Pryce’s own marriage is a happy one. “I have a happy relationship with my wife Kate. We have been together 46 years now,” he says. The couple have three children together. It was a second marriage for both actors and they only decided to get married secretly in 2015. “It has not made any difference to our relationship,” says Pryce of getting married. “It was a very nice thing to do after such a long time. Kate wears a ring and she never used to wear jewellery. I’ve worn a ring for years so now it is a wedding band.”
As a character actor, Pryce’s experience is extensive: he portrayed the former president of Argentina, Juan Perón, in the 1996 film Evita, was the Bond villain Elliot Carver in Tomorrow Never Dies (1997) and Governor Weatherby Swann in the hugely successful Pirates of the Caribbean blockbusters. More recently, he played Cardinal Wolsey in the BBC’s award-winning adaptation of Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall. He has also gained a new following of fans as High Sparrow in the mega-series Game of Thrones.
Pryce’s latest role is Pope Francis in the upcoming Netflix film The Pope, with Anthony Hopkins, which he recently finished filming in Italy.
“What I tend to do as an actor is to believe in the character. You believe what you are saying. In the Game of Thrones I was constantly surprised people were saying what a frightening bad man High Sparrow was – I thought he was a good man who believed what he was doing was right.”
As someone who prides himself on being an actor and not a ‘star’, it’s not surprising that Pryce sometimes finds attention from fans difficult. Although that attention is just as likely to come from a Game of Thrones devotee as a fan of an obscure 1970s film.
“It can be intrusive at times if you’re with family having dinner,” he admits. “Mostly the downside of this recognition is selfies. You used to sign a piece of paper or sign a photo – now you have to be careful how you leave the house in the morning and what you are wearing.”
A cause for concern given the fact that Pryce was once described by an old headmaster as resembling a ‘bottle of skinless pork sausages’. “I probably had my hair too long and I didn’t wear my cap – worst things have been said to me since!”