Got His Goat: Lunch With Jonathan Pryce

One of the great stage actors of his generation, back in straight theatre

Originally published in The Financial Times

“I don’t want people to walk out,” says Jonathan Pryce. “The play is more valuable than that. I want people to stay to the end.”

He’s talking about The Goat, or Who is Sylvia?, the award-winning play by Edward Albee, starring Pryce in London’s West End. Like many plays, The Goat describes the ruinous effect of infidelity on family life. But the stakes are raised because the man in this case is having an affair with a farmyard animal.

“We get reports that the audiences in New York walked out. Well, they’re a bunch of intellectual lightweights then… Over there, you get people going to the theatre for all kinds of reasons. There’s a huge corporate audience, and people in mink coats who go to celebrate their lifestyle. I remember at a matinee sitting behind a lady like that, her mink falling on to my knees, and [when one character on stage started to proposition another] she snuggled down and said, ‘Ooh, this is the play I want to see!’ Well, she might have thought fucking a goat was terrible.”

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The Goat premiered in New York in 2002 and won many awards. The London production draws added piquancy from the fact that Pryce’s wronged wife is played by his real-life partner, Kate Fahy. “The children have all now been to see it,” he reports.

The Almeida restaurant, in Islington, is not commercially connected to the theatre across the road, which shares its name. But that is where Pryce’s Goat first appeared, and our lunch takes place shortly before its transfer to the West End’s Apollo Theatre. Today, it’s quiet. In a far corner, three middle-aged women smoke through cigarette holders.

Pryce, it turns out, is quite the connoisseur. “I tend to go to the same restaurants again and again. I like the old style where they know you. I have known Jeremy King [a former owner of The Ivy and Le Caprice] since he was maitre d’ at Joe Allen’s. I really like it here. I like the” – he adopts the accent of an American speaking so-so French – “ahm-bee-ahnce. You get very efficient French waiters and it’s exciting watching them work. They don’t miss anything. Last night we came with friends. Didn’t want to eat, but we had pate de foie gras and wine, which was very good.”

I order the same thing to start, then pepper steak. Pryce chooses the salade perigourdine and halibut.

Then he reverts to discussing the play. “It’s extremely thought-provoking,” he insists. “People tell me that they have talked about it for hours afterwards. It doesn’t patronise. It’s funny enough at the beginning to be a West End comedy, structured to make them laugh and then stop laughing. The most telling times are when the audience is silent.”

And when is that? “When I’m speaking,” he jokes, “all the time.”

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Born in North Wales, to parents who ran a shop, Pryce left the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art in 1971 to join the Liverpool Everyman, then renowned for its radical work. After a season away, he returned as artistic director; among others he employed there was Julie Walters, in her first job.

In 1975, he starred in Comedians, directed by Richard Eyre at London’s Old Vic and subsequently in New York by Mike Nichols. This won prizes and global renown. There was a stint with the Royal Shakespeare Company and in 1980 Pryce played an acclaimed Hamlet at the Royal Court.

Then one of the great stage actors of his generation moved away from straight theatre.

To begin with the musicals: he won awards in Miss Saigon; picked a pocket or two as Fagin, in Oliver!, and wowed audiences, at the National Theatre and in the West End, in My Fair Lady. On film, he worked with directors and writers such as Terry Gilliam, Martin Scorsese and David Mamet. Until last year, he hadn’t been in a straight play since 1989.

So did Pryce abandon theatre or was it the other way round? He says few modern writers address themselves specifically to theatre.

“What I need, in order to be able to do it eight times a week, is work that belongs in the theatre and not on TV or film. You get a script like The Goat and it seems very domestic, you can’t film it. Doing this has re-enthused me for theatre, replenished the ambition.”

By now, we’re mid-way through our main course. How is it? “Nice piece of halibut,” he says.

Unprompted, he tells a story about when he was a teenager, on holiday with a girlfriend in Torquay. “We had no money at all but thought we should go for a nice meal. I’d never been in a fancy restaurant before. So we found this place, pressed our noses against the window and went in. When we got the menu my heart sank because it was so expensive. Only the fish came into our range. This snooty waiter came over and asked what we were having. I didn’t know how to pronounce it, but I said, The, er, tur-bot? And he said, ‘The tur-beau.’ Then he said, ‘To follow…?’ I said, nothing thanks. He said, ‘And would sir like chips with that?’ I seethed, and for years I had the fantasy that one day I would go back and buy the fucking restaurant.”

Later, Pryce tells me a similar story in which he asked about a particular wine in Bibendum, “and this shit implied that ‘this is out of sir’s price range’. So I thought, Fuck you, and said, ‘I’ll have a case, then.’”

I can’t help wondering whether these incidents account for his move into more lucrative acting work. To be sure, I ask if actors need to be poor. “No,” Pryce says, “No! The ‘hungry artist’? I don’t think so.”

In the US, he remains well known for a series of late 1990s car ads. “Brilliant financially, but also it raised my profile. Mike Myers, on Saturday Night Live, parodied me in a cod English accent. They were incredibly stylish ads and the car [Nissan’s Infinity] was great as well, thank God. For a while whenever I was in America there was a car for me. But they decided, rather short-sightedly, I think, that once I had stopped being the spokesperson they could not be bothered. Now, if people see me and I’m not driving an Infinity that causes consternation. I make sure I’m driving an Audi.”

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He may have pursued money, but Pryce has never been interested in celebrity.

In 1996 he starred as Juan Peron in Alan Parker’s film Evita, opposite Madonna. “I don’t envy her lifestyle and celebrity, but she created it and she knows how to work it… There are so many celebrities out there that it makes it easier for people like me to be missed. The focus is on Hello! magazine and OK!, and if you are not part of that you don’t have a problem. My actor friends are generally people I have known for 30 years. And I have an amazingly star-free directory – although that is not to be rude about my friends.”

His diverse approach to acting is explained thus: “I have done all these things because I can. I can do comedy and musicals and serious drama and still be credible in each form, thankfully.”

This goes back to his start at the Liverpool Everyman. “We were always finding new ways of presenting classic theatre – and you had to do that to get the school parties in. You would be performing on stage, backed by a rock band. So you learn to be fearless… And you need that at Drury Lane when you have three Elizas in two nights.”

He’s referring to the problems he experienced as Professor Higgins in My Fair Lady. Pryce’s ill-feelings towards Martine McCutcheon, cast as Eliza but frequently unavailable to play the part, have been much discussed. How did her frequent absence affect Pryce’s performance? He once said he had to “act for two” while on stage with those understudies. What did he mean?

“Well, how do you know that someone on stage is a king? Because everybody bows. So at a crude level I had to demonstrate to the audience that the girl was unsophisticated. It’s hard work… tiring.”1

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This leads me to a wider point. I ask why audiences routinely undervalue straight-forward acting. In The Goat, Pryce appears boringly normal, even after his uncommon love interest is revealed. Is such low-key performance risky? Audiences tend to prefer gimmicks: weight gain, roving eyes, speech impediments?

“Audiences do like to see the ‘acting’,” he agrees. “At the Oscars, in each clip they showed, they’re all crying.” He thinks for a moment. “Did Sean Penn win [the Best Actor award] for Mystic River? His performance was much finer in 21 Grams. It was a real act-fest, Mystic River. Turned me off. Almost unwatchable.”

A particularly British response?

“No, it’s a matter of taste. But the days of the understated British actor are gone. There used to be a great respect for the British actor who did very little and was just allowed to be. But the ambition of British actors to keep up with Americans means acting styles have got broader.”

Another type of performance beloved of judges handing out awards, I suggest, is any portrayal of people who are oppressed, marginal or physically disadvantaged. In this respect, at least, playing a goat-botherer might stand him in good stead.

But he’s not taking anything for granted. In 1994, Pryce reminds me, he starred as Lytton Strachey in Carrington. “I was very disappointed because I was gay and I died – and I still didn’t get an Oscar.”

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1 Even at the time, I sensed that there was something extraordinary about this insight.
Pryce had been visibly reluctant to talk about acting, because (as I recall it) he sensed that this can come across as very pretentious, and easily mocked. I pressed him not because I’m a terrific journalist but because I was simply eager to know more. And he said this line about how a king on stage appears powerful because everybody else is kneeling.
Some years after doing this interview, when I was writing How To Change The World, I was looking for a metaphor to show that leaders lead by consent, and not because of any intrinsic quality. They have power because people give them power, and that can be withdrawn.
And I remembered Pryce’s description of stagecraft: if the people on stage don’t kneel any more, then the same king, without doing anything different, starts to look powerless. And that’s what happens in the real-world, when a tyrant is toppled: people just stop being scared. They get up off their knees.