A light-hearted approach from the seriously talented Jonathan Pryce
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He may be an outstanding all-rounder but Jonathan Pryce doesn’t take himself too seriously. Including his latest role as president
Jonathan Pryce spent quite a lot time talking to himself in his latest film G.I. Joe: Retaliation.
“I wasn’t quite prepared for how difficult, technically, it was going to be, talking to myself,” he says, laughing. “It’s always my ambition to work with someone my calibre but, unfortunately, I was working with a piece of green paper on a stick.”
The film is a follow-up to the 2009 hit G.I. Joe: The Rise Of Cobra, based on the Hasbro comic books which date back to 1942, and Pryce reprises his role as American president.
“I play the good and the bad American president and people always ask if it’s more interesting to play the good guy or the bad guy. In this film, it was really fun to play someone who is both the oppressor and the victim at the same time. I just wasn’t prepared for how difficult, technically, it was going to be to talk to myself digitally. I haven’t a clue about digital things.’
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Quietly spoken, humorous and committed, there is something distinctly refreshing to meet a cordial, all-singing/dancing thespian with a career littered by landmark stage performances yet who seems as happy to do a super-3D blockbusting film as he is to play King Lear at Islington’s Almeida Theatre.
One of Britain’s most outstanding actors, he’s very tall with all-seeing eyes, bushy, speckled brows and a melodic voice that has stood him in good stead.
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“‘I’ve always sung. I was born in Wales,’’ he says. “Welsh people sing! I was singing on stage in my first job, The Caucasian Chalk Circle in Liverpool. I got the job because I could sing high, difficult music.”
There’s a nice story about how he went from the classical to musicals while doing Macbeth at Stratford-upon-Avon. He had arranged the opening night party and sang popular club number Witchcraft with his three witches. His agent was at the party and said, “You should really do a musical,” and, later that year when they were replacing Michael Crawford for Phantom Of The Opera, he sent Pryce along to audition.
All went well but Pryce didn’t want to do the acrobatic stuff so backed off. Then Miss Saigon came along and Nick Hytner, the director, was casting the piece. He said: “What we need for the engineer is Jonathan Pryce, if only he could sing.” Cameron Macintosh, who had been involved in Phantom, said that he could and that was it.
Pryce was a seminal Hamlet at the Royal Court in the 1980s and forged a movie career that took off with Terry Gilliam’s Brazil in 1985. His role as the homosexual Lytton Strachey in Christopher Hampton’s Carrington won him substantial awards in 1995 and, since then, he’s been best known to the world-at-large as the engineer in Miss Saigon, as Fagin in Oliver!, as Colonel Juan Perón in Evita, as Bond villain Elliot Carver in Tomorrow Never Dies and as Governor Weatherby Swann in the first three Pirates Of The Caribbean films while remaining one of our most outstanding theatre actors.
The son of a Welsh miner turned shopkeeper, Jonathan Pryce, CBE, six foot-plus and now 65 years old, left school at 16 with four O-Levels, intent on becoming an artist and a teacher. He spent two years at art school, then did teacher training in Liverpool, combining art and drama. His tutor, who ran the pioneering, left-wing Unity Theatre, introduced Pryce to the concept of politically committed theatre and helped him to win a scholarship to RADA.
Within three years of leaving RADA Pryce was on Broadway in Comedians directed by Mike Nichols and had won a Tony Award for best actor.
A long-time north Londoner, he is married to actress Kate Fahy who he met in 1972 working at Liverpool’s Everyman Theatre. They have three grown-up children and lead an uncharacteristically private life. He is a patron of the Highgate charity Friendship Works, which helps young people needing mentors and sang at their fundraising gala at Shakespeare’s UnderGlobe earlier this month.
Pryce will next be seen in a small indie sci-fi film called Dreck, shot entirely on location in Wales and London. Made on a shoestring budget, he plays Russian scientist Yuri Sidorov. Later this year, he stars as a Hollywood jetsetter in the delayed film he made with the late River Phoenix – Dark Blood.
Both a bit different from playing the president of the United States, but then Pryce has always made eclectic choices.
“I try not to repeat characters because there is a danger of being stereotyped and taking yourself too seriously.”
n G.I. Joe: Retaliation is now on in cinemas.