Career Spotlight: Jonathan Pryce

Looking back at the career of a great English actor…

Now that I’ve written quite a bit on this blog, I’ve gotten tired of doing film reviews, especially seeing as I’ve mostly been reviewing things I like. So, in the name of diversity I thought it would a be a welcome change of pace to introduce a new segment. This is a section which will look at prolific actors and actresses that have been in a lot of films and television, but not usually as the starring role. They are brilliantly talented but often play side characters or supporting roles, so you may well recognise them, but not know their names. I think it’s high time these people got a bit more appreciation, so here goes…

To begin this occasional segment, I thought I would look at the long career of Jonathon Pryce, an English actor most famous for being a bond villain and Governor Swan from Pirates of the Caribbean. I’m going to go over some of the highlights of his filmography, and how well I think he does in the various roles. Obviously, I don’t intend to look at every film he has been in, and so I’m going to pick four films from various points in his filmography which represent the range of his ability. Without further ado, let’s take a look at the acting career of that guy you probably sort-of know from Pirates of the Caribbean.

Jonathon Pryce has been active since the mid 70’s in both theatre and films. From ’76 to ’83 he had supporting roles for four feature films, three of which were relatively small independent projects. It wasn’t until 1983 that he got his first starring role in a feature film for Something Wicked this Way Comes, based on the book of the same name by Ray Bradbury. This is a strange film, with some great atmosphere but big pacing problems and some questionable child actors. However, I’m not reviewing the film, I’m only interested in Pryce’s performance. He plays the sinister Mr Dark, who despite not having a very subtle name, is a deliciously cruel character and a highlight of the film. Pryce gives him just the right level of enjoyment in what he is doing, without making him cartoonish or silly. He has oodles of charm and charisma, and yet you never forget he is the villain; he’s intimidating without needing bravado.

The character of Dark is a skilled manipulator, using people’s desires against them, and Pryce is excellent at playing the tempter, seeming reasonable, yet malevolent. For example, there is a brilliant scene late into the movie in which Dark offers Charlie Holloway, the main character’s father, to make him young again. The way in which Pryce paces his speech, and the intensity of his words is riveting. This is the first example of how much presence and authority Pryce can command with just his voice and his eyes. His intense stare, almost unhinged looking and his powerful, crisp voice both give his characters weight and gravitas. We can’t help but pay rapt attention whenever he is on screen. In my opinion, it is worth seeing this film just to get a clear example of how good Jonathon Pryce is at playing the villain.

Just two years later, however we get a very different character for Pryce to portray. Terry Gilliam’s Brazil (1985) is, according to Pryce himself, a personal career highlight. It showcases his talent for a restrained performance. Even in his most silly roles, Pryce knows just how to sell his character, by keeping his performance under tight control. He knows exactly when to let loose and when to rein it in, and this creates a, if not completely realistic, certainly believable character. In particular in a film as bizarre and ridiculous as one made by Gilliam, Pryce shines as the put-upon straight man, making the outrageous world he lives in seem stranger by contrast. Brazil is such as interesting and funny film that I may come back to it at some point, but for now let’s focus on Pryce’s role.

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As Sam Lowry, he is swept up in an accidental conspiracy leading to him running from an Orwellian government. The key difference between a film like this and 1984, is that the evil government is more incompetent and overrun by bureaucracy than malice. In fact, the inciting incident of the film is a misfiling leading to the wrong person being arrested for terrorism. Within this incompetent and infuriating world, the character of Lowry stands out because he is normal. Pryce gives him enough frustration at the world around him, enough longing to be elsewhere so that the audience can easily empathise. We’ve all been in a less severe version of his situation, held up by paperwork or screwed over by a mistake. It’s strange to see Pryce play the hero of a story, but as the film is about a struggle against overwhelming red tape, it makes sense that a less well known, or traditionally good-looking actor would fit the role better. He brings his quiet intensity to Lowry, making him desperate to live out his daydream of excitement and romance. I can’t say much more without spoiling this film, and believe me, it’s one you want to watch without spoilers. Let’s move on.

The penultimate film I’m going to look at is one much later in Pryce’s filmography, from 2003. In Pirates of the Caribbean: Curse of the Black Pearl Jonathon plays Governor Swan, Elisabeth’s ambitious father. This film gives a good example of his comedic chops, as he plays a more humorous character, but not quite as over the top as Jack Sparrow. While Johnny Depp gives a thoroughly entertaining go as the lead, his performance is a little too disconnected from reality, and sometimes that can detract from the stakes. Pryce reacts to the world around him in a naturalistic way, which means that when the world around him is ludicrous and fantastical, it produces a realistic, and often hilarious reaction. For most of the film, Pryce plays governor Swan as a concerned father, who wishes her wellbeing but also wants her to choose the life he plans for her. He portrays this with genuine warmth and feeling, but the best parts of his role are when he comes into contact with the supernatural.

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Case in point, when he is trapped on a ship being invaded by Zombie pirates, he does the very human thing and locks himself in the cabin, accidentally cutting off a pirate’s hand, which then carries on moving on its own. The scene is very funny mostly because of Pryce’s great comic timing, but also his very real, human reaction. Upon realising the hand is still alive, he almost vomits, and his struggle to fight this one hand, whilst outside a battle against zombie pirate’s rages, is a great contrast. Pryce’s expression when he traps the hand in a cabinet, and the cabinet starts shuddering is priceless (I apologise for the pun, I couldn’t resist). The crowning moment is when he walks outside after the curse has been lifted and joyfully squares up to the already defeated pirates. In a film filled with quirky pirates and undead skeleton people, it’s nice to contrast it with some normal characters and Pryce can do both types very well.

So far, we’ve seen Pryce as the villain, the hero and the light comic relief, but I would like now to take a look at a more morally grey character Pryce has played. To complete this segment, I’m going to look at a very recent performance in Game of Thrones. In Game of Thrones, Pryce plays a religious leader called the High Sparrow. This is one the most nuanced performance I’ve seen from him and it perfectly demonstrates why he is such a talented actor. He fits so naturally into the character, it’s hard to see him as an actor. In the fifth and sixth season on Game of Thrones Pryce plays a religious leader named the High Sparrow, who rises quickly to power, and then starts to take over as the de-facto leader of King’s Landing. He is a humble seeming character, wearing only ragged robes and no shoes, and puts on a great show of helping the unfortunate. While he may or may not actually care about the plight of the poor, his real goal is to amass power, and he sees his religious followers and the poor masses as tools to complete this goal. Pryce shows a very subtle man, who presents a humble grandfatherly exterior, but reveals moments of cunning and hardness.

A perfect scene to show this is when Jaime Lannister confronts him in the Sept of Baelor. At first, the Sparrow plays the defenceless old man who just wants to see justice done. He uses humility as a weapon to disarm his enemies. When it doesn’t work on Jaime, he drops the act and lets his true character out, explicitly threatening him and demonstrating just how many are on his side. Pryce is brilliantly subtle in how he lets his facial cues and body language convey the shift in personas, as he drops the humble act. His measured and calm responses never change, but his tone alters dramatically. He starts the conversation light and kindly, and ends with a serious and completely sincere tone, safe in the knowledge that Jaime won’t kill him. Only an actor of the same calibre as Jonathan Pryce, someone like Anthony Hopkins for instance, could put that many layers into a performance, and still make it seem natural. It is a masterfully done role.

Hopefully during the course of this admittedly rather long post I’ve managed to highlight the skill in acting Jonathan Pryce possesses and how overlooked he can be. Now that I have pointed out some of his best and most interesting roles I hope that you’ll be inspired to check an actor who deserves much more attention and praise.

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