NEW YORK – Jonathan Pryce has played a Danish prince, a Eurasian pimp, a James Bond villain, Henry Higgins and Sherlock Holmes. Now, the Welsh actor is playing a tramp.
The two-time Tony winner is starring in an acclaimed production of Harold Pinter’s 1960 play, “The Caretaker,” about a battle of wills between two working-class brothers and a shady drifter named Davies, played by Pryce. The role of Davies has been described as a “thrift-store King Lear.”
Pryce took his Davies from Liverpool to London in 2010. This year, he’s played “The Caretaker” at the Adelaide Festival in Australia, in San Francisco, at the Southern Theatre in Ohio and now makes a final stand this month and in June at the Brooklyn Academy of Music.
Pryce knows the play well: In 1980, he played one of the brothers in a National Theatre production in honor of Pinter’s 50th birthday. That’s when he got to know the Nobel Prize-winning playwright.
Asked how he prepared to play the malevolent tramp, Pryce just laughs. “I’m 65 this year. That’s my preparation for this play. Sixty-five years of life’s experiences and they’re nearly all there in this piece.”
Pryce has certainly spread his talent around during those 65 years. He’s played The Engineer in “Miss Saigon” on Broadway, Peron in the film version of “Evita” opposite Madonna, “Hamlet” in the West End, a 007 enemy in “Tomorrow Never Dies,” the father of Keira Knightley’s character in the “Pirates of the Caribbean” films and common man Sam Lowry in Terry Gilliam’s “Brazil.”
His creative rootlessness continues after Pinter: He can be seen in the indie film “Hysteria,” with Maggie Gyllenhaal, Hugh Dancy and Rupert Everett. And later this summer he’ll be playing the U.S. president in the blockbuster sequel “G.I. Joe: Retaliation.”
In between? No less than “King Lear” in London.
“I’m just lucky I guess,” he says when asked about all his varied work.
He sat down recently to talk about “The Caretaker,” meeting Pinter and a horrific visit with his father in a mental ward that he draws on while tackling the play.
Q: Is it a challenge playing Davies, who is impossible to nail down.
A: It’s not a challenge. It’s a gift, in a way. The role is a challenge, everything about the play is a challenge, but it’s why I wanted to play it, it’s what I find interesting about him. There are many sides to him. And he abides by no rules. He’s all things to all men. However, he needs to behave to ingratiate with one of the brothers, then he’ll do it. That’s very enjoyable to play.
Q: You knew Harold Pinter socially. What was he like?
A: He was someone I admired greatly both as a writer and as a political animal. He was quite an extraordinary man. He was funny and irascible by turns. There are some extraordinary stories about his bluntness with people but he had a great sense of humor and if he liked you, he liked you.
Q: What do you think of the 1963 film version of “The Caretaker” starring Donald Pleasence, Alan Bates and Robert Shaw?
A: It doesn’t work. The work belongs in the theater. It’s a very theatrical piece. The audience is as manipulated as the manipulations between the three guys onstage. I think, for audiences, it’s proved to be a very fulfilling evening in the theater.
Q: There are a few clues to Davies’ back story, including that he was married and once held down a job. He also may have been in a mental hospital. What do you draw on when you play this tramp?
A: My father had a nervous breakdown in 1958 when I was 11. He spent time in one of these very brutal mental hospitals. It was a particular hospital in north Wales where we lived that had been a Victorian workhouse. It was a gray, forbidding stone building and the threat, when you were little, was people would say, ‘If you don’t behave, you’ll end up there.’ I don’t know how long my father had been in there, but he was on the road to recovery when he asked to see me.
Q: What was the visit like?
A: It was like going to prison – going through a series of locked doors, down these corridors. As a child of 11, I felt very tiny in this huge place. ... When you’re Davies and you’re playing this man who was possibly hospitalized at the same time as my father was, you remember. When he says, ‘I had a peep in one once,’ I did. It stays with you.
Q: Next you’ll be playing King Lear in London. Why?
A: I’ve played Hamlet and Macbeth, and had no desire to do ‘The Tempest.’ It’s not my favorite play. But I always thought one day I would do Lear. I’ve played Edgar in 1973 and some of the press in London, when they reviewed ‘Caretaker,’ alluded to my playing Lear, saying that this was Lear-like. So it appealed to my vanity. I decided, yes, I should do Lear.