20 Questions With...Roy Williams
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20 Questions With…Jonathan Pryce

Actor Jonathan Pryce, currently starring in The Goat, or Who Is Sylvia? in the West End, muses on bestiality, working with his wife, plays versus musicals, literary demerits & his reaction to Martine McCutcheon’s Olivier for My Fair Lady.

By • West End

After graduating from RADA, Jonathan Pryce spent the first years of his career at the Liverpool Everyman and Nottingham Playhouse, working with director Richard Eyre.

Pryce starred in Eyre’s 1975 premiere production of Trevor GriffithsComedians, which transferred to the West End and then on to New York, where Mike Nichols re-directed it and Pryce won his first Tony Award.

Over the years, Pryce’s other play credits have included The Taming of the Shrew, Anthony and Cleopatra, Measure for Measure and Macbeth for the RSC; Consuming Passions and Accidental Death of an Anarchist on Broadway; The Seagull and Uncle Vanya in the West End; Tally’s Folly at Lyric Hammersmith; A Reckoning at Soho Theatre; and, again with Eyre, at the Royal Court, Hamlet, for which he won an Olivier.

In 1989, Pryce made his musical theatre debut, originating The Engineer in Miss Saigon, for which he won another Olivier, and when he recreated the role on Broadway, a Tony, Drama Desk and Outer Critics Circle Awards.

He continued his West End musical success in 1995, playing Fagin in Oliver!, and in 2001, playing Professor Henry Higgins, initially with Martine McCutcheon as Eliza Doolittle, in My Fair Lady, both of which earned him Olivier nominations.

On screen, Pryce’s many credits include Something Wicked This Way Comes, Brazil, Haunted Honeymoon, Jumping Jack Flash, Man on Fire, The Adventures of Baron Munchausen, The Rachel Papers, Barbarians at the Gate, The Age of Innocence, Glengarry Glen Ross, A Business Affair, Deadly Advice, Carrington, Evita, Regeneration, Tomorrow Never Dies, Stigmata, Comeddia, The Suicide Club, Very Annie Mary, Unconditional Love, What a Girl Wants, Pirates of the Caribbean and the upcoming De-Lovely and Brothers Grimm.

Pryce is now back on stage starring in Edward Albee’s The Goat, or Who Is Sylvia?, which had its British premiere in February 2004 at north London’s Almeida Theatre and transferred last month to the West End’s Apollo Theatre.

Date & place of birth
Born 1 June 1947 in Holywell, Wales.

Lives now in…
North London.

Trained at…
RADA (Royal Academy of Dramatic Art)

First big break
Comedians, a play written by Trevor Griffiths in 1974/5 which I originated in Nottingham then we brought it to London, then I went to New York with it. It was a play that was especially written for the company, and it was just such an extraordinary role. It was re-directed in New York by Mike Nichols and I won a Tony.

Career highlights to date
There have been so many. What’s special to me? Going from Hamlet to Miss Saigon, having that sort of arc in my work. Miss Saigon was very special because it was the first big musical I’d ever done. Again, it was in London and New York and I had an absolutely wonderful time doing it, which made me want to carry on doing other musicals for the intervening years. On film, I suppose highlights for me were Brazil and Carrington.

What do awards mean to you?
Less and less it seems. I mean, they are odd things. You can love the idea and it’s quite nice to have them, but after this length of time, you get cynical when you’ve seen what wins, what doesn’t win. As a way of advertising the business, I think awards are a good thing, but that’s about it really.

Much has been made of your reaction at the Oliviers in 2002. Were you aware that you were being filmed when your My Fair Lady co-star Martine McCutcheon received her award for Best Actress in a Musical?
It was an entirely honest reaction. I could have sat there fake-smiling and fake-clapping - there were people around me who were applauding while grimacing - but the whole thing was, for me, riddled with irony and I had a very ironic look on my face. It was quite interesting to see it played back afterwards, but it wasn’t done for any effect. Why did I think it was ironic? That Martine won an award for her brief appearances? Well, there you go, it’s ironic.

I already knew I hadn’t won. My category had already been decided and announced, it was awarded on stage the previous week. I wasn’t going to go to the ceremony and then friends said, no, go and be gracious. I didn’t know beforehand that Martine had won. So if you’re in that situation, you’re not exactly going to leap to your feet and shout, ‘great you’ve won, I haven’t!’ She’d left the show months and months and months ago without a word of goodbye or apology and the first I’d seen of her was when she was sitting in front of me at the Oliviers. So yes, that does colour my view in answer to the previous question ‘what do you think of awards’. Okay, the Olivier voters saw her perform and gave her the prize because they obviously thought that she deserved it, fair enough. And, if she carried on doing it, I’m sure she would have been wonderful.

Which medium – film or stage – do you most prefer working in?
I seriously enjoy doing both. I don’t yearn to do one while I’m doing the other and I don’t see one as a more elevated art form than the other, they demand different things. I do love the intensity and concentration that you have on stage over an extended period of time. In many ways, it’s much easier to do film. If the cynic in me comes out, I’ll say anybody can do a film - I can guarantee that! So there’s a bit of you that wants to get back into the theatre, get back to working with people who really know their craft.

Any preferences between plays versus musicals?
Before The Goat, it’d been awhile since I’d done a play, certainly none like this. It’s more demanding doing this than any of the three musicals I’ve done, not in a physical way but emotionally. I said earlier on – just to quote myself now – that when I was doing musicals I had come from doing a lot of straight theatre, things like Macbeth and Uncle Vanya, and I wanted to do a musical because I thought it would be less emotionally demanding and it was. I get a great deal of pleasure from singing and the music takes care of a hell of a lot of work for you. That’s not to say that you aren’t doing work at the same time, but there is this underlying machine that’s carrying you through. Doing Miss Saigon, which is completely sung through, you could literally get on the train at the beginning of the journey and stay on it until the end, it didn’t stop. When you’re doing a play, you create your own sense of timing and rhythm, whereas with a musical, you have the confines of the score and you’re working with the conductor and the orchestra. I actually found that quite liberating and pleasurable and creative. It sounds as if I prefer musicals to plays, but I don’t know if I’ll ever do another musical, though I certainly enjoyed the ones I’ve done.

Favourite productions you’ve ever worked on
In spite of its trials and tribulations, I did love doing My Fair Lady. It’s a wonderful piece. And maybe it was a bonus to do it with four different Elizas. It certainly kept it fresh.

Favourite co-stars
I’m really enjoying working with my wife Kate Fahy on The Goat. We’ve lived together for 32 years so we know each other pretty well. And we’ve worked together before, though not at this level. I directed Kate years ago in Liverpool, and we did some television together, but again 20-odd years ago. This has been a really great experience. We’d like to work together again. But I don’t see us turning into a Michael Denison and Dulcie Gray, doing endless Oscar Wilde revivals together.

Let’s think of other people I’ve enjoyed working with …. Well, there’s Vanessa Redgrave, we did The Seagull together, and Nicholas Le Prevost who was my Pickering in My Fair Lady, though that’s a bit of cheek because he’s probably my best mate anyway. I like working with friends obviously, but I do generally enjoy working with other actors so it’s hard to single people out.

Favourite playwrights
I’ve got enormous pleasure from performing Shakespeare and Chekhov. I haven’t done many new plays since early in my careers at Liverpool and Nottingham, when we were doing new pieces by Trevor Griffiths, Howard Brenton, David Hare and John McGrath.

What roles would you most like to play still?
I want to do more Shakespeare. There are two directors I’ve talked to over the years about doing King Lear and another keeps asking me about The Tempest, so they’re possibilities. I want to do more comedy too, specifically broader comedic roles, something in the Molière or Feydeau range, whether or not it’s a classic or a new play.

What would you advise the government to secure the future of British theatre?
Restore the tax breaks for filmmaking immediately. I don’t see the theatre and film industries as separate entities. Films are important to us actors because they keep us all in work so we can afford to do theatre. But it’s also like being on Shaftesbury Avenue - you want the show next to you to succeed because success generates success. Successful films create interest in British entertainment and in Britain. We are all suffering hugely now because we’ve got no American tourists here. I’d also like the government to reduce the tax on tickets and to realise what a billion-pound industry theatre is and how it occasionally needs support and investment.

If you could swap places with one person (living or dead) for a day, who would it be?
I would swap places with Alfred Brendel, the pianist, because I can’t play the piano and I’d love to. He’s brilliant.

Favourite books
I’m like an alcoholic who has to admit, ‘my name is xxx and I’m an alcoholic’. Well, my name is Jonathan and I don’t read. For years I’ve been embarrassed about it, but now I think I’d better own up to my weakness. I occasionally read books that I love and I think I should carry on but I don’t know what happens. For lots of people, reading is a form of relaxation, but it doesn’t do it for me. I know, it’s terrible, terrible.

Favourite after-show haunts
Anywhere run by Jeremy King. He’s great. I’ve known Jeremy years and years, ever since he was a maitre d’ at Joe Allen’s. He’s the best and he’s also one of the nicest people you could know.

Why did you want to accept your role in The Goat?
I couldn’t not do it. I didn’t see it in New York, but when the script was sent to me, I read it and was completely taken with it. I just thought it was absolutely brilliant. There was no question I wouldn’t do it.

Were you already an Edward Albee fan?
Yeah. My most recent thing – which is almost how I became involved with this because Albee saw me do it – was a staged rehearsed reading of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? to celebrate Uta Hagen’s 80th birthday. It was a big fundraiser three or four years ago in New York. Uta reprised her role as Martha, I played George, Matthew Broderick was Nick and Mia Farrow was Honey. It was a great night, and then we did the same thing a few months later in Los Angeles – for 2,000 people at the Ahmanson Theatre, can you imagine? Anyway, Edward saw it and I became his choice to do The Goat in London. Since then, we’ve also been talking about doing Virginia Woolf in New York, but I’m not going to do it now. It’s been on off on off, but it’s not like the old days. I can’t spend six months away from home solidly. It’s different when you go away to do a film because there are breaks but that amount of time in theatre is different.

Did you have a problem with the bestiality in the play?
The odd thing is I don’t see The Goat as a play about bestiality. For me, it’s about someone’s passion and the intensity of passion, and the whole thing about relationships and friends and betrayal. The last thing I ever think about is f**king a goat to be honest with you so I’m always surprised when people get upset about that.

What’s your favourite line from The Goat?
It’s probably some obscenity. I tend to put a few in myself. My subtext was one the other night. When Ross the friend was saying something, I was thinking ‘c**ksucker’ and actually said it even though it isn’t in the script. That shocked everyone on stage. I have loads of favourites that are actually in the play. It’s so spare, it’s written quite musically. There’s one line that’s a favourite because, if we get a laugh on it, it means the play’s going well. It’s in the interview scene near the beginning. Ross says “Stevie is your wife” and I say “I know that”. It means nothing, but it’s wonderful because you see the audience rock forward in their seats at this simple little thing. They haven’t not laughed at it yet, but if they don’t laugh one night, I’ll know we’re doing something wrong.

What’s the funniest thing that’s happened in the run to date of The Goat?
Nothing I can tell you about! One thing that’s been great is how the original four of us – me, Kate, Eddie Redmayne and Matthew Marsh – have worked so well together, ever since the beginning of December last year, through rehearsals and the transfer. It’s been great. Matthew has now left the cast and Colin Stinton has taken over as Ross.

What are your plans for the future?
There’s always talk about something. Pirates of the Caribbean II is the fairly sure thing on the horizon, but that will be next year.

Anything else you’d like to add?
The Goat is continuing to be as good here as it was at the Almeida. The fear was that it was a very Almeida audience play and, you know, when you move to the West End, you’ve got to have a much broader appeal. But you can hear and know this play gives people what they want and that it takes them a bit further. I think it’s great, a great piece of theatre.

- Jonathan Pryce was speaking to Terri Paddock

Following its initial Almeida season, The Goat, or Who Is Sylvia? opened on 15 April 2004 (previews from 13 April) at the West End’s Apollo Theatre.

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