A Conversation with The Great Jonathan Pryce

The actor discusses 'The Wife,' working with Glenn Close, and his secret plan for the BAFTAS.

Jonathan Pryce

If Jonathan Pryce isn’t one of the most prolific actors, then I don’t know who is. He’s done Shakespeare, Chekhov, Mamet, and Pinter. And that’s just in the theater! He was The High Sparrow on a little show called Game of Thrones and on the big screen, he left his mark as Sam Lowry in the cult classic Brazil and has had a taste of Hollywood franchises with the Pirates of the Caribbean films.

In The Wife, Pryce plays Joseph Castleman, a renowned author who is as charming as he is deeply self-centered. As he travels to Sweden to accept the Nobel Prize for Literature, his accompanying wife, Joan (Glenn Close), celebrates with reservations, for reasons that are eventually revealed. Pryce does a brilliant job of creating nuance in a character that could easily have been deemed as villainous as his character in Tomorrow Never Dies. 

We recently spoke over the phone about the new movie and working opposite now Oscar frontrunner Glenn Close. Here’s our conversation:

As I was rewatching The Wife this week, I was thinking a lot about how the film shows different kinds of authorship. There’s literary authorship, but also authorship in marriage and who controls the narrative of the relationship. Obviously, in literature authorship is quite a bit easier to assert because there’s usually only one author. Do you think you can plagiarize a performance?

I think in terms of acting and performance, you’re hopefully inspired by someone. I think it’s possible for a director to plagiarize someone else’s work. Especially in the theater, but that can also be seen as an homage to the previous director. But I directed a theater [production] years ago when I started, over 40 years ago, and it was actually Taming of the Shrew. I was directing in Liverpool and I’d seen a production in London that I’d liked very much, and I did steal the way to open that production and then we expanded on stealing that moment when I did it at the RSC with another director. So it’s possible, but in those circumstances, it’s out in plain sight, it’s not really plagiarism.

But in terms of a relationship, I’d never really thought about how you can guide a relationship or you can be the author of that story. It’s an interesting thought.

Because it kind of seems like at first your character is the one who’s running the show, and then you realize that she’s the one who’s keeping this together. She could have left him long ago.

It’s also like a chicken and egg thing. I know Glenn has talked about why didn’t she leave him because initially she’s complicit in this relationship, and my feeling about him is that he only went off and had relationships because he was getting all this praise for being a wonderful writer and it wasn’t earned. So I think he would have relationships with other women so that he would be flattered and adored by them and that he would feel as if he’d earned something. But as I felt at the time, and as Glenn and I talked about it at the time, this is not a universal theme, it’s about a very particular marriage and how they conducted their relationship. It only becomes universal for Joan when it suddenly opens to the world and he wins the Nobel prize. And I think that’s when the story becomes universal about relationships.

They were both having to invent lives for themselves, for each other. I mean, she invented a life as much as he did in relation to her children. She was willing to be seen as the working mother. I think in some ways that film was enhanced by the #metoo movement coming after we made it. And in some ways it doesn’t damage it, but, I’m standing there a bit like Joe thinking, “Hey, what about me? Hang on.” Is anybody going to think about why I was suffering, you know?

I’m going to accompany Glenn to the BAFTAs when she’s here in London and so it’s gonna be a complete reverse. I hope she wins because we got a better story if she wins, so that she’s up on stage and I want the camera to slowly pan in on me sitting there, which would duplicate Glenn’s look of “it should have been me.” And then I dash out of the theater and run into an ice cream seller and get my suit covered in ice cream and get in the limo and she throws her BAFTA out the window and then we go to retrieve it. But I don’t think it’s gonna happen.

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Joan’s death stare as she is being thanked in Joe’s speech

Well, I hope she wins not just because she should but mostly so that can happen! So when you were offered this role, did you research any specific novelists or did you base it on anyone? Because in Listen Up Philip, your character is sort of loosely based on Philip Roth.

I’ve spent my working life with writers, be they playwrights or novelists, and you know we’re very similar beasts except that as actors, we’re a bit more out there in the world with our work and collaborations with people. And the novelist generally is a solitary figure. So it was all there on the page. It was obvious to me what kind of man he was. All I knew was that I didn’t want to make him out to be a bad guy or a villain because he spent his life in the public eye. So he had to be the genial, charming guy.

When I do characters, I try not to comment on them while playing them. I tried to be honest for that person. I’m true to that person, you know, what I’m doing at the time to me is the right thing to do and it’s for other people to interpret what I’m doing.

There’s a younger version of your character in the film. What are the logistics of that? Did you speak with the actor or see rushes of his performance before? Did you rehearse together?

Fortunately, I’m in the position that he had to copy me rather than me him. I already knew Harry [Lloyd] and I like him very much as an actor and I trusted him. I couldn’t say I had total approval, but I was asked, “Who do you want to be you?” And he was a very obvious choice for me. I know what I looked like at that age and it was closer to Harry than what I do now. And I mean, there’s just enough of the man he was to become. One of my favorite moments in the film, and this applies to writers and actors, is when you’ve asked your loved one, “What did you think” of my book or my performance, and they go, “Well, I’ve got a couple of notes.” That’s the end of the world. And that’s why I love when he says, “This isn’t going to work.” It’s a very telling moment. I love it.

What was acting with Glenn Close like?

[sarcastically] It was okay. When she could remember her lines.

We had a really, really good relationship and we’re still fond of each other. We’re still in touch and I think we’re like kindred spirits in a way. We’re both the same age and we both had done theater and film and we’ve both been around a bit. You know there was a lot we didn’t need to talk about, a lot that we understood about each other and as characters. And of course, the third party who put us together was Björn [Runge], the director, who was incredibly sympathetic to the characters and the actors’ needs.

And it’s one of the very few films that you can look at after having done quite a difficult or complicated scene, and then you look at it and say, “Well, he didn’t miss anything.” And that goes for the editor, Lena [Runge]. Sometimes you do a film and you’re watching it and you go, “Wait a minute, they’ve cut away just at that moment where I’ve got that look” and they’ve taken the camera to whoever is speaking.” But what hasn’t happened with The Wife is that they know where the camera’s supposed to be. You’ve got the shots of Glenn saying nothing, but you need them to tell the story.  But she was great to work with. I’d love to work with her again before we get too old.

You should do a play together in London. You could do Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?!

We’re both a bit too old for Virginia Woolf now. But I think we could still do it. What the hell.

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Björn Runge on the set of “The Wife”

You mentioned the director, Björn. He’s worked in theater quite a bit. Do you feel the difference in being directed by someone who’s done a lot of theater?

Oh, it certainly helps, yeah. It wasn’t all about the image. It was about the word and it’s a film all about the word. And Björn was very sympathetic and we rehearsed scenes before we did them. We were all staying in the same hotel in Glasgow, so we’d often have dinner together and we’d have a bit of a script meeting and talk things through. He was wonderful. Very, very good director.

The Wife is available on digital platforms on January 22 and Blu-ray/DVD on January 29.

[This conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity]

 

Writer/Director/Actor/FKA the girl at the party who'd ask, "does anyone wanna watch a movie?"