Jonathan Pryce on Early Roles, Reading Reviews and Advice He Got From Lee Strasberg

Jonathan Pryce
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Jonathan Pryce, who has done memorable work for 40-plus years, hits a career high in “The Two Popes,” a complex look at Francis, played by Pryce, and Benedict, portrayed by Anthony Hopkins. Though Pryce has played well-known figures before, such as Juan Perón in the 1996 “Evita,” he was hesitant to take on Pope Francis because “it was a great responsibility,” but he liked Anthony McCarten’s script and wanted to work with director Fernando Meirelles. The Wales-born actor has appeared in high-profile projects including the “Pirates of the Caribbean” series, Bond film “Tomorrow Never Dies” and “Game of Thrones,” as well as smaller-scale works like last year’s “The Wife” opposite Glenn Close. Variety first reviewed him Aug. 20, 1975, in a National Theatre revival of W.S. Gilbert’s “Engaged.” In conversation, Pryce is thoughtful about his influences while also exhibiting self-deprecatory humor. He is starring on Broadway in Florian Zeller’s “The Height of the Storm,” set to close its limited run Nov. 24.

How did you arrive at the National Theatre?

My big breakthrough was Trevor Griffiths’ “Comedians,” which started at the Nottingham Playhouse, directed by Richard Eyre. I was a member of the company, which was invited to the National Theatre. It was the beginning of a program inviting theater companies from the regions to perform — it was also quite possibly the end of that program. [Laughs.] While I was doing “Comedians,” they offered me the role in “Engaged.” I didn’t particularly like the role, but it was a “Why not?” moment. I ended up having a lot of fun with “Engaged.”

Do you read reviews?

I always say I’m not going to read reviews, because they can be destructive and can affect your performance. But then the morning comes, and you can’t resist. I advise young actors, if you’re going to read reviews, read them all. It puts everything in context. I’ve had enough good ones to warrant reading. And the bad reviews are often quite entertaining.

Who were the major influences on your career?

I’ve had a great mix of naysayers and positive people. In every educational institution I was in, there was always someone making me feel bad about myself. The headmaster at grammar school detested me, but he detested a lot of people, so I left school at 16. I also look back at the tutor at RADA [Royal Academy of Dramatic Art] who said I would only ever play villains on TV series. And these people fueled my energy with an “I’ll show you” attitude.

Positive mentors?

There were three directors early on: Alan Dossor at the Everyman Theatre, which was my first job; Richard Eyre; and in film, Terry Gilliam. He was my breakthrough at enjoying making films and marrying theater work with film work. We started filming “Brazil” in 1983, and it was a life-changer.

How so?

In the mid-’70s, I did two BBC films with Stephen Frears directing. Before every take he’d say, “Jonathan,” and he’d run his hand down the front of his face, reminding me to make my face blank. Maybe it was just the characters I played, but I began to think this was what film acting was: very calm, very still, and the camera would pick up what I was thinking. But then I’d see the finished film and think, “There’s nothing happening.” When I went to work with Terry, he was just the opposite. He kept saying, “Jonathan, more, more!” So I could still do the calm film thing, but also could put more energy into the performance.

Any memorable advice you got?

When “Comedians” transferred to New York, I went to watch Lee Strasberg teach, and even had lunch with him. I was 28, my first time on Broadway, and I asked if he had any advice about performing in a long run. He said, “You do it.” Then he took a bite of his sandwich and said, “It’s your job.” It’s a surprising piece of advice from Lee Strasberg, but acting IS a job, and I do it.

I still remember that.

You’ve been so successful, it’s hard to imagine anyone discouraging you.

It started when I was 5 or 6 in a school play, “The Pot of Gold.” I was playing an elf. I couldn’t understand why I wasn’t playing the king. The boy who played the king, he always had two little candle-drips of snot coming down his nose and I thought, “He can’t play the king like that!” I had one line, “Come, brothers, for it is cold.” I was shivering-acting “it is cold” so much that they took the line away from me and gave to someone else. I was devastated. It’s been a driving force!

But there were also people who encouraged you?

There were great people. At 16, I was happy to go to art school; Michael Ivor-Jones was my art teacher. I remember him being very encouraging. Then there were people when I eventually went to college. I was planning to teach art, but a man named William Murray saw me performing and said, “Have you ever thought of being an actor? I think you should go to RADA.” He changed the course of my life. He wrote a letter to RADA and coached me through two audition speeches. At RADA, the guru of improvisation was Michael Keith Johnson. Working with him on improv, I got a lot of confidence at a time when theater was new to me and I was learning everything about it.