Rapid Round: Jonathan Pryce on 'Dough' and the Religious Fundamentalism of High Sparrow on 'Game of Thrones'

Jonathan Pryce split - H
HBO/Menemsha Films

From 'Thrones' to an indie film about a Jewish baker and his latest Shakespearean outing, the British actor reveals how his roles relate to the modern world.

From Shakespeare to Game of Thrones, the British actor Jonathan Pryce, 68, currently finds himself tackling projects that speak directly to today’s front-page headlines — from religious fundamentalism to the wave of immigrants washing up on the shores of Europe. His newest film, John Goldschmidt's Dough, which opened this weekend, may be a lighthearted comedy. But as it tells the story of a Jewish baker whose shop is threatened by a gentrifying developer and who discovers a friendship with a young Muslim boy that changes his life and eventually impacts their whole neighborhood, it doesn’t shy away from real-world problems.

Pryce is equally forthright when it comes to expressing his own opinions about Donald Trump, London Mayor Boris Johnson and life in London’s multi-ethnic East End.

You’ve done a lot of Shakespeare. Has that had any influence on playing the High Sparrow in Game of Thrones?

I think so, yes. There’s an epic quality to Game of Thrones — I think Shakespeare was the author’s inspiration: the War of the Roses, the battling families and the regions and tribalism. Especially with the High Sparrow, the use of language is very important to that character. There is a sort of Shakespearean element to him, definitely. The intimate within the epic. It was really exciting to see episode one screened at the Chinese Theater. It is fantastically cinematic. Forget television. The images are extraordinary, and the camera work is great.

When you went into season six, did you know the overall arc of the character?

I went into season five knowing pretty much the complete script, and then while we were making season six, I had no idea where the character was going. And now in many aspects, they are beyond the books. So the High Sparrow’s story was there to be created. I sat down at the read-through before we started filming, and that was the first time I seen any of the script. I felt like somebody in an old-style soap opera, where you’re desperately thumbing through to see if you live to season seven. So it was full of surprises.

So what lies ahead for the High Sparrow?

What you see are the seeds that he sowed in season five come to fruition in six. You learn a lot more about him. You find out why he does what he does, where he comes from, what motivates him, and you see his rise in power as his following gets bigger, his army gets bigger. There are many immediate echoes of what’s happening in society today. I see him as a religious fundamentalist and, as we know, that’s what’s happening. It’s a storyline that exists in a piece of drama that people have dismissed in the past as dragons, sword and sorcery. But it’s darker than that. I found it very exciting to do season six.

Describe the character you play in your new film Dough.

He is a very sad man. He’s a Jewish baker selling kosher goods, business is bad and it looks like he’s going to be ousted by the big supermarkets. He’s mourning the death of his wife, he’s being flirted with by his landlady and trying to resist her charms. And the main thrust of the story is that he loses his assistant baker to the corporate world, and he takes on a young Muslim boy who’s never baked before or even worked before. And it’s the story of their relationship and sort of how they come to understand and in many ways tolerate each other’s faith. And at the same time it’s funny — hopefully.

Did you actually learn to make bread for the movie?

I did. We were filming in Budapest, and, sadly, I think there is just one kosher bakery there, and maybe there’s two in the whole of Hungary. They welcomed me and taught me how to make challah bread and all that stuff. So I actually did get to do it for a couple of days. I come from a family of bakers. My father started life as a coal miner and he became a grocer, and we sold bread and we delivered bread, and I drove for a baker in my late teens, I drove the van, delivering bread to other shops. My uncle was a baker. So I quite enjoyed revisiting that side of growing up. I also knew it reflected my father’s demise of his business in the 60s as the big supermarkets came to our small town. He found it very difficult to do business.

How much does the movie reflect what’s going on in London now? There are a lot of reports about tensions with the Muslim community.

I’ve lived in London for 40 years now, and I’ve become more and more proud of London as a city that is overcrowded and overpopulated, but we do live, on the whole, very happily side by side with each other. It’s always been a city and a country that has welcomed and accepted immigrants. I live now in the East End of London, which was predominantly a very poor area, which was populated in the early 18th century by French immigrants, the Huguenots, fleeing religious prosecution in France. Then the whole area became Irish. Then it became a Jewish area with Jewish trade taking place there, and then Jews moved out of the area. It’s become an area populated by Pakistani and Muslim people. And that’s the beauty of London. The church on the corner of the street where I live started off as a Christian church in the mid-18th century. It then became a synagogue, and it’s now a mosque and we all live happily together.

There’s a lot of untruths told about the situation in London regarding the Muslim community, and none more so than Donald Trump pushing his propaganda that there are no-go areas [that the police won’t enter] in Britain. Absolutely not true. And Dough kind of reflects this common understanding about how we do tolerate and live together happily. I mean, I don’t want to sit here and make any great claims for its relevancy. It’s merely a lighthearted reflection of what’s happening. 

How closely are people in Britain following the Trump campaign?

We are very aware of him. We had half a million people sign a petition requesting that he be banned from entering Britain. The petition got up because of his racist comments about Britain and the situation in Britain. And it’s headline news every day, and the coverage is very strong and quite rightly so. A lot of it is hard to understand about the delegates and the caucuses because it’s not our situation at all. But it’s a fascinating and scary thing to watch from a few thousand miles away, because it does have a direct influence on all our lives.

But there are politicians in France and Germany who like Trump are stirring up nativist passions. How much of that is happening in Britain right now?

Well, we have a campaign to remove us from the European Union. The isolationist group is led, curiously, by a figure who I wouldn’t say is quite Trump, but his public persona is Trump-like. He’s the mayor of London, Boris Johnson, who presents himself as an amiable buffoon, a man of the people. He’s one of the most dangerous figures in British politics. He’s the kind of person who sings to the tune of what he thinks anybody wants to hear. It’s strongly felt that his leading of the campaign to leave the European Union has less to do with the good of the country and more to do with the good of Boris Johnson and his desire to be prime minister. I don’t like him. I don’t like him. Get him out. I’m very much for staying in the European Union. I think it’s folly to think we should be isolationists and we could go it alone. It won’t do us any good at all.

How much stage work are you doing these days?

I’ve been doing The Merchant of Venice, playing Shylock, which was done at The Globe Theatre. We finished with the London run last year, and we start in July in Liverpool, then New York, Chicago, Washington through July, August. China is the whole month of September, and then back to London, and the icing on the cake is the final week we play The Merchant of Venice in Venice. And that’s going be something. It’s the 500th anniversary of the ghetto in Venice and the 400th celebration of Shakespeare’s death. I’m looking forward to it. When I was asked to play Shylock, I immediately said, “No, this is ridiculous.” But I read it again, reading it from Shylock’s point of view. It is incredibly relevant to the situation in the world today — which is the racism that occurs, the fear of the immigrant, the hatred of different cultures and religions. It’s strongly reflected in The Merchant of Venice, and I think as much as anything it is a great learning tool about empathy and sympathy for the immigrant figure.

Is it a difficult play to do now, given its portrait of Shylock?

No, not at all. In the past it has been seen as a racist play, but I think — seeing it through contemporary eyes — it’s a play about racism. We don’t hold back on the abuse of Shylock, but neither do we hold back on Shylock’s loathing and hatred of the Christian community — in some ways they are as bad as each other. But it is a good vehicle for building understanding. It’s a great play.

You’ve played Hamlet, Lear and now Shylock. Are there any other Shakespeare characters you still want to take on?

For someone my age, there’s not many left. I’ve been asked a few times to do The Tempest, to play Prospero, but that has never really been one of my favorite plays. But I’ve just seen a production in which my daughter Phoebe appears — she’s playing Miranda — that’s also at The Globe. It made me think that it’s something I should and could do. My daughter actually plays my daughter in The Merchant of Venice as well. She plays Jessica, and that’s been a joy to do with her.