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The untold truth of Jonathan Pryce

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Oscar nominee Jonathan Pryce never set out to become an actor. The Welsh thespian went to art school and actually intended to become an art teacher, but the teaching college he attended required him to take a subsidiary course. « I was told the easiest course to do, that required the least amount of work, was the drama course, » he told Big Think. After some encouraging feedback from his peers, Pryce realized that acting was his true calling. He joined Liverpool’s Everyman Theatre in the late ’60s, and would go on to establish himself as a star of the stage and screen in the decades that followed, appearing in everything from cult sci-fi classics to big budget musicals and James Bond films. His talents were recognized by The Academy of Television Arts & Sciences (the organization that hands out the Oscars) in 2020, when Pryce was nominated in the Best Actor category for his performance opposite Anthony Hopkins in Netflix hit, The Two Popes.

Pryce has played a variety of memorable characters over the course of his long and distinguished career, but the man himself is just as interesting. This is the untold truth of Jonathan Pryce.

Jonathan Pryce’s father died following a violent attack

Jonathan Pryce’s parents used to run a grocery store in the tiny Welsh town of Holywell, where the future actor spent his childhood. It was a quaint little shop, but it was also the scene of a violent crime that would turn Pryce’s life upside down. His father, a former coal miner, was well known in the local area, which made his death all the more shocking. Speaking to The Telegraph, Pryce revealed that his dad « was attacked by a 16-year-old boy » while he was at work. The teen hit the shopkeeper over the head with a hammer, and, sadly, he never fully recovered.

« We thought he was going to be okay, » Pryce recalled. « I saw him in the afternoon. He’d been sitting up in bed, describing the incident, and I came away quite relieved. But that night he had the stroke. » He went on to have a second stroke and two heart attacks before passing away, two years after being attacked. Pryce couldn’t make it back home for the funeral. « I was in New York when I got the telegram saying he’d died, about to open Trevor Griffiths’s The Comedians on Broadway, » he told The Guardian, adding: « It took me a long time to process how I’d reacted to his death, the violence of it, the sense of something unfulfilled or incomplete. »

Anger over his father’s death informed Jonathan Pryce’s acting

The 16-year-old that attacked Jonathan Pryce’s father with a hammer was given « either probation or borstal [youth detention center] » according to the actor, who was left feeling powerless. Angry about what had happened, Pryce used acting as an emotional outlet. « Whatever I did there was an underlying element of danger and violence within me, » he told The Telegraph. « I couldn’t rip the boy’s head off. If I could work it out, it was in performance. » The best example of this was Pryce’s groundbreaking portrayal of Hamlet.

When director Richard Eyre approached Pryce about playing the titular role in Shakespeare’s tragedy, his own father quickly came up in the discussion. « All those things about how Hamlet did not avenge, or revenge his father’s death were a very important driving force of the play, » Pryce said. Together, they came up with the idea of having Hamlet’s father speak through him rather than appearing as a ghost, taking inspiration from The Exorcist. « The idea seemed really powerful: that this is some kind of possession, Hamlet becomes taken over by his father’s spirit, who tells him everything he needs to hear, » Pryce told The Guardian.

Pryce studied voodoo and watched videos of people speaking in tongues to prepare for his on-stage possession, which shocked audiences. « When we opened the show, you could hear people in the audience saying ‘What the f***?' » recalled Pryce, who won an Olivier Award for his work in the production.

Jonathan Pryce walked out on his first wife

Jonathan Pryce and his long-time partner, Irish actress Kate Fahy, make such a cute couple that it’s hard to believe that their relationship started under shady circumstances — but it’s a well-known fact in theater circles. Pryce met Fahy when he joined Liverpool’s Everyman Theatre, of which she was also a member. Both were married to other people at the time, but sparks flew and they threw caution to the wind. « I’d been married for nearly three years and was very happy, » Pryce told the Daily Mail. « But two weeks after I met Kate I left my wife and she left her husband. It really was just this extraordinary meeting — a real coup de foudre. »

They went on to have three children together (Patrick, Gabriel, and Phoebe) and, despite Pryce having previously stated that marriage was « unnecessary » after so many years, they eventually made it official in 2015. « They tied the knot recently, without any fuss, » a friend of the couple said at the time. « Only close family members and friends know about it. » Everything worked out for Pryce, but what happened to his ex-wife? Pryce didn’t elaborate on the fallout from both his and Fahy’s decision to abruptly end their respective marriages. However, he remain friends with his ex to this day. « I adore both her and her husband, » he told the Daily Mail.

The death of River Phoenix devastated Jonathan Pryce

Jonathan Pryce played struggling actor Harry Fletcher in Dark Blood, the film that River Phoenix was working on when he died of a drug overdose in 1993. Phoenix was vegan and had a reputation as someone who lived a healthy lifestyle, so when news that he’d passed away outside a Hollywood night club started to spread, it was hard to believe. Pryce was fast asleep in bed when he got a phone call he’ll never forget. « I didn’t know where the hell I was for a moment, » he told The Telegraph. « It was the producer on the line. All she said was, ‘River is dead.’ It seemed impossible, so I reached for the remote control and clicked on the television at the foot of the bed and there it all was, on screen. »

The death of his young co-star hit Pryce (who would later compete with River’s brother Joaquin Phoenix for Best Actor at the 2020 Academy Awards) so hard that he almost abandoned Hollywood for good. A re-jigged version of Dark Blood was finally released in 2012, but, much like Phoenix’s family, Pryce just couldn’t bring himself to watch it. « The DVD has been sitting in our room at home for about six weeks, » the actor told The Telegraph. « Making that movie was one of the most horrendous experiences of my life. I never wanted to make another film again. Ever. »

The controversial makeup Jonathan Price wore in Miss Saigon sparked outrage

A starring role in 1985’s Brazil turned him into a Hollywood name, and Jonathan Pryce continued churning out celebrated and sometimes understated screen performances thereafter. He but his love for the stage meant he never strayed far from the West End. In 1989, he played the Engineer in the Cameron Mackintosh production of Miss Saigon, which garnered critical acclaim and controversy in equal measure. Audiences in the UK responded well to the show, apparently willing to ignore the fact that Pryce wore bronzer and eye prosthetics to make him appear more Asian. In an interview that definitely wouldn’t make it to air today, Pryce told BBC veteran Terry Wogan (who makes a seriously inappropriate gesture during their conversation) that the eye add-ons helped him get into character.

When Miss Saigon came to Broadway, people weren’t as willing to overlook the racially offensive makeup. « There were still protests on the opening night, » Pryce told The Sydney Morning Herald. « People got into the theater and were in the flies threatening to drop things on us from above the stage. It wasn’t pleasant. » The fuss eventually died down and Pryce went on to win a Tony for his work as the Engineer, a French-Vietnamese character. Speaking in 2016, Pryce stood by his decision. « If the argument is valid that any actor of any race should be able to play any role, then it is a two-way traffic, » he said. « But I am all for supporting the fact that more opportunities need to be made for non-white actors. »

The time Jonathan Pryce out-mumbled Bruce Willis

Jonathan Pryce played the President of the United States in 2009’s G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra and 2013’s sequel G.I. Joe: Retaliation, both of which failed to impress the critics. Despite boasting some star power, these Hasbro-based action flicks ended up being totally forgettable, but at least they gave birth to a great story involving Pryce and Bruce Willis. During his appearance at the 2015 Into Film Festival, Pryce revealed that he found working with the Die Hard star a little tricky.

« I did a scene with him in G.I. Joe 2, and he had to say, ‘Well Mr. President, take care of your arm,' » the Welshman told the live audience. It was supposed to be a simple exchange, but Willis kept speaking in such low, gravelly tones that Pryce couldn’t make out what he was saying. In frustration, the older actor deliberately mumbled his own lines right back at Willis. « I tell you, the look on Bruce Willis’ face! It was like, ‘Wait a minute, I do that, you can’t do that!' »

Pryce played the story for laughs, but he was deadly serious when he said that mumbling movie stars were setting a bad example for up and coming actors, who (in his opinion, at least) are idolizing the wrong people. « Theater is not their role model, » he said. « In theater, you really have to communicate — not just to the audience but to the other actor. »

Wait a minute — who taught Jonathan Pryce how to sing?

Prior to portraying a fictional US president in the G.I. Joes movies, Pryce took on the role of former president of Argentina Juan Perón in the 1996 movie adaptation of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Evita. Like the musical, the film follows Perón’s super popular wife Eva « Evita » Duarte, famously played by pop icon Madonna. The singer made headlines for all the wrong reasons at the time (Evita entered production not long after her infamous, expletive-laden appearance on Late Show with David Letterman), but Pryce had nothing but good things to say about her. « She is hugely confident, but I had a good working relationship with her, » he told The Guardian in 2002, adding, « She works incredibly hard. She’s a very bright woman. » Apparently, Pryce missed Broadway legend Patti LuPone’s assessment of Madge’s performance. 

At any rate, Pryce, as it turns out, is a naturally gifted singer. He was very much a serious theater actor in his early days, but he fell in love with musicals after he was taken to Les Misérables in New York. He decided to give it a go, and before long he was singing his heart out on London’s West End. He could more than carry a tune by the time he starred opposite Madonna in Evita, but he still learned a thing or two from the Queen of Pop. « When I first met her, we were in the recording studio doing the songs and she was very supportive and helpful to me, » he recalled, adding, « There was a mutual respect. »

A certain intensity is what Jonathan Pryce brings to the set

Jonathan Pryce made the transition from stage actor to recognized film star with Terry Gilliam’s dystopian sci-fi classic Brazil, which baffled audiences in 1985 but went on to become a firm cult favorite in the years that followed. It’s the story of Sam Lowry (Pryce), a man stuck in a dead end job who becomes hellbent on finding the woman who keeps appearing in his dreams. Filming involved many complicated scenes, arguably the most complicated of which was scheduled for the very first day, and that caused a little friction.

Gilliam brought in fellow Monty Python member Michael Palin to play government-employed torturer Jack Lint, who tangles with Pryce’s character in the aforementioned scene. « I’d not worked with Jonathan before, » Palin said during an interview for the film’s supplementary material. « He’s quite an intense actor, and I’m a, you know, Python actor — we were intense for short periods but basically we rely on the love and the comfort and the easiness and the bouncing off lines one from another. Jonathan was searching for exactly how he should play his character… I felt the whole atmosphere was a bit tight and a bit tense. »

According to Evita cast member Peter Polycarpou, Pryce had the same laser-sharp focus on the first day of the musical’s shoot. « He was at his best: sardonic, sarcastic and energised in a focus of fascistic reality, » he wrote in a movie diary published by The Telegraph.

Jonathan Pryce isn’t a fan of big franchises

Jonathan Pryce has popped up in a handful of huge franchises over the past few decades. The Welsh actor played villainous media mogul Elliot Carver opposite Pierce Brosnan’s James Bond in Tomorrow Never Dies, Governor Weatherby Swann (father of Keira Knightley’s Elizabeth Swann) in the first three Pirates of the Caribbean movies, and, more recently, the High Sparrow in seasons 5 and 6 of Game of Thrones. When an audience member asked Pryce about the inspiration behind his Bond villain (he was rumored to have based him on Rupert Murdoch) during a Q&A at the 2015 Into Film Festival, he let slip that he doesn’t actually like big franchises, even the ones he’s personally appeared in.

« To be honest, I’m not a Bond fan, » Pryce said. « A lot of these major franchises… I’ve never seen Star Wars, I’ve never seen any Lord of the Rings, I’ve never set eyes on a Hobbit. And before I started to do Game of Thrones, I’d never watched Game of Thrones. » This last admission drew gasps from the audience, but the truth about Pryce is that he’s always preferred the intimacy of the theater. In that same talk the actor revealed that he likes to go between the stage and film, but he always gets more out of the former. « I like being with actors, » he said. « It’s what draws me to the theater, being in a company of actors working together for a common aim. »

The Oscar-nominated role that almost wasn’t

Jonathan Pryce was offered the part of Pope Francis the day he became Pope, but, despite having a deep respect and admiration for the man, he didn’t want to play him. « I said, ‘God, I don’t want to do that,' » Pryce told Deadline. « I was quite reluctant to even think about it. » He said that the script was « quite a dry read, » but when he found out that City of God director Fernando Meirelles was helming the picture, he had a change of heart. Pryce accepted the role, and the internet went nuts over the fact that the two men look so much alike. « The day he was announced, my photograph was next to his, and even one of my sons called me and said, ‘Dad, are you the Pope?' »

The film went on to earn rave reviews, but the audience that Pryce was most concerned about was the Vatican. The Two Popes was shown to the people who know the titular characters personally, and that made Pryce very nervous. « I approached them as they were leaving the screening, » he told CNN. « They were very straight-faced until one of them began to break up and smile at me, and they all slowly revealed that they enjoyed the film. » The actor admitted that he was moved when Cardinal Peter Turkson told him that Pope Francis would most definitely approve. « I nearly cried, » Pryce revealed. « In fact, I did well up when he said that. »

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