Where: a cafe on Prince Street. 11 am.
When Jonathan Pryce called me to confirm our interview, he told me to meet him at one of those upscale Soho coffee shops with a name that sounds more like an accounting firm than a place where you can get a bagel with cream cheese.
Throughout the interview, people at nearby tables kept turning around to look at us every time he said, "Miss Saigon," "Robert DeNiro," or "Al Pacino." But the real highlights happened whenever he let his playful sense of humor leap into the conversation.
At one point, he was talking about the whole Miss Saigon situation when his hazel eyes suddenly bulged, and he put his hand up to his mouth. Believing that he was choking, my first thought was, "Oh, God! I knew there was too much butter on that muffin," and I asked if he was okay.
"Yeah," he said, a little embarrassed. "I was just belching." Of course, I felt completely silly, but he was great about it. "It's something we do occasionally. Even Broadway stars belch," he laughed. I explained why I had been concerned, and he pretended to keel over in his chair, groaning, "Oh, no! I'm going to die." We both had a good laugh and continued with the interview.
Jonathan Pryce will soon be seen on movie screens in the film adaptation of David Mamet's Pulitzer Prize-winning play Glengarry Glen Ross. The film has a stellar cast, which includes Pryce, Jack Lemmon, Alec Baldwin, Ed Harris, Kevin Spacey and Al Pacino. Pryce believes that the ability to put together such a cast is a reflection on the current ridiculous state of the business.
"All these people were available at the same time," Pryce says with an amused laugh. He then leans in close to the tape recorder and says in a radio announcer's monotone, "There is no work out there, ladies and gentlemen!
"It was really interesting to do, though, to play an American. I thought, ‘Well, now I can play anybody of any race, so I'll just keep doing it,’" he jokes, in reference to his Tony Award-winning performance as a Eurasian pimp in the Broadway smash musical Miss Saigon. "I had a good time doing it. It's very difficult to film and do a play at the same time because you can't really concentrate on either thing as much as you'd like to. You have to get up really early, and then all day long you're thinking, ‘I've got to be out of here by six to get to the theatre.’ You get to the theatre, and you're exhausted because you've been up since six o'clock in the morning."
A lot of actors would never force that kind of rigorous schedule upon themselves, nor would they even do such projects back to back. But, alternating from theater to film is something that Pryce enjoys and has been doing throughout his career.
“I’ll do whatever’s good to do at the time. It's what you're available for. Things have come and gone all the time. There are things I've been asked to do that I didn't want to do, and I never wanted to pursue American film, as it would have been at the expense of anything else. If it comes along, it comes along. It's not that I've avoided it. If you want to do theater, which I do, then there's a commitment. It's juggling things, and I've been happy with the way it's going."
It's no wonder that Jonathan Pryce should be happy. He is finishing his last week of playing The Engineer in Miss Saigon and is about to take a much deserved, lengthy vacation with his family. He was asked to reflect upon the past two years, in which he conquered London and New York with his phenomenal performance and survived the controversy stirred by Asian groups over his being cast here in America to play a character of a different ethnic background from his own.
"I understood and sympathized completely with what they were talking about, but I didn't think that my withdrawing from it would help anybody. Mostly because I believed in the way that I was playing the part.
"As I said when it was happening, I thought it was a really very valid argument to be having. There was a lot of nonsense being said on both sides, but there were some very accurate things being said about the lack of opportunities for ethnic minority actors, and it brought the issue out into the open that certain people aren't always given the chances that they deserve. A white person has the opportunities grounded so much more readily and easily, so you don't always get the opportunity as a person of color to play something which isn't necessarily seen as a person of color.
"It was also the fact that I was being imported, whatever my race was. Here yet again was another British big musical coming in, and once again someone is being imported to play the plum role. They live here, work here, and they're struggling here. It's about protecting their jobs.
"But I'm glad the argument was had. I think that since this, there have been producers who are hopefully more open-minded about casting anyone for any job as long as their talent is there. What Miss Saigon does is it gives a lot of people of all races a chance. So if people can make that leap of the imagination on stage, then they'll make that leap in life as well."
Pryce seems to ponder his last statement for a long moment, and then adds with a sigh, "I know it's not necessarily racism all the time. It's ignorance about people generally. But, it's insane and criminal that these images still exist! There are huge areas of Britain where there are no black people at all, and you'll find that people's fears are the greatest in the areas where they don't know people of different races. So the more that happens in the theatre, where people are presented with positive images, then the more you break down those barriers and fears. Hopefully."
Pryce is a classically trained actor having done Chekhov and Shakespeare for many years. The main reason he wanted to do Miss Saigon and agreed to stay with it for so long was simply, as he puts it, "the joy of doing a musical.
"With a musical, the music and the orchestra take care of a lot of your work. It's always supporting you. Even if you don't feel like doing it that night, once you get out there and the music starts, there is something quite inspirational about the music. For me it's refreshing.
“I've enjoyed the discipline of having to sing and think and act on the beat of the music. With straight acting, there's a tendency not to think and speak at the same time. You sort of think first, and then speak. With doing a musical, I can really have fun and let my imagination work, knowing that there's always something solid underneath it. It's quite uplifting to go out and sing."
When it comes to the question of "to research or not to research" a role, Jonathan Pryce does not believe in going to either extreme. His is a well-balanced approach to one of the most debated issues in acting.
"It varies from job to job. I did quite a lot of research, as we all did, for Miss Saigon. There was a lot to read and a lot of people to talk to who had been there and had experienced the same things. But, there have been times when I've preferred to just work off the script. For something like when I did Macbeth, there wasn't really much to research because that text is so dense. We used that, and then we used our imaginations to create the world of Macbeth. That's why you choose to do a play in the first place. You recognize something within the play or the character that means something to you personally, and you can draw in all kinds of influences about things that interest you and concerns that you have."
As is the case with many actors, it seems that reporters frequently misinterpret the words of Jonathan Pryce. For instance, when he asked about his "well-known encyclopedic knowledge of pop music" (as one British publication described it), Pryce looks puzzled.
"I do?" He starts laughing. "I might have said that because the journalist was asking me something that I didn't feel like answering. But I always have music playing in the dressing room. I remember both times when I was doing Chekhov, I would find myself playing the same piece of music before each time, and it was like a signal.
"In retrospect, I realize what I was doing was putting myself in the same kind of mood every night before I went on. When I was doing The Seagull, I played recent Miles Davis. Then for Uncle Vanya, for some reason I would play Roy Orbison, and I'd play it really loud." He adds with a sly smile. "My dressing room was slightly removed from the other people."
Of course, being a British actor means that Pryce also has to contend with the media's inevitable comparisons to the great Laurence Olivier.
"That's okay. At least they're calling you something. It just makes for interesting journalism. I was also called ‘the next Brando,' which Mike Nichols said, and they keep quoting it.
"I remember after this quote had appeared, they were going to do a production of Guys And Dolls in England, and I was in Los Angeles. The director sent me a telegram asking me to play Sky Masterson. So the telegram said, ‘Brando was Sky. You are the next Brando.’ And this telegram was routed through somewhere in Middle America, and it was telephoned to the hotel instead of being sent on a piece of paper. My wife answered the phone, and this woman in the middle of nowhere was saying--" Pryce puts on a deadpan impression of a Midwestern older lady's voice, complete with the snarl of long distance interference, "'Telegram for Jonathan Pryce.’ Kate took the message, and the woman said, ‘Tell me. Is this guy really like Brando?’"
Pryce has also had the unfair distinction of being referred to as a "fiercely guarded" and "extremely private" person, when the truth is that he is an open and personable man who just doesn't feel the need to exploit himself or his loved ones for the sake of publicity.
"I'm constantly being described as some skeletal, thin, cadaverous, death's head figure. I talked to journalists a long time ago, and because I was nervous or didn't trust them, I would say very little. So you find these articles written about this kind of seething angry man, who you never knew which way he was going to turn or whether he was going to throw the chairs over.
"But I know what I'll answer questions about. Seventy-five percent of what you read in magazines and what people will tell the general public, I can’t believe it. I can't believe these programs every day, every morning! I'm flicking the channel, and I've even seen the same people go from show to show like the mothers with the daughters who dress provocatively. Did you see that one? I mean, do they get paid?!" he asks incredulously. "Then six or seven weeks later the mother is on another show with the daughter, who is still dressed provocatively! It's a joke!
"And actors and actresses, I don't know why they do it. I just wouldn't be comfortable with people in my home taking photographs." Pryce suddenly sits up straight, pretending to pose for an imaginary camera. "’Here I am in my sitting room.’ or ‘Here are my children.’ You can survive without doing any of that."
Doing more than just surviving, Jonathan Pryce is living proof that you can exist in the entertainment industry with your talent and dignity intact. AAA
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