Has it really been 28 years since Jonathan Pryce last appeared in New York in a nonmusical play? Apparently so. Although Accidental Death of an Anarchist lasted just one month on Broadway in 1984, Pryce, now starring in The Caretaker at BAM, can pin down when it was because his 29-year-old son, Patrick, was about 18 months old. “I usually chart where I am by how old my children were at the time,” he says. “I remember that. Gabriel was about five months old when I did Macbeth [with the RSC in 1986], so I can date that to him. Phoebe was born just after Miss Saigon opened, so I know how long ago that was; she’s 22 now.”
But the two stage roles he’s undertaking this year, both choice parts for an actor of a certain age, should be easy to remember regardless. After finishing his current seven-week stint as The Caretaker’s Davies—a desperate, self-absorbed tramp whose identity and grip on reality are equally shaky—he dives into the titanic title role of King Lear in London. “I tell people it’s the same performance, just different words,” quips Pryce.
Both, even though they’re falling to pieces physically and mentally, are the kind of menacing, unpredictable types ideally suited for the 64-year-old Welsh actor. Throughout a career that began in 1972, he’s played an array of beguiling oddballs and devilishly charming types in dramas, splashy musicals, and both quirky, unconventional films (Brazil, Carrington) and Hollywood blockbusters (Pirates of the Caribbean), but always with finesse. His Infiniti car commercials even had an arty sophistication to them. The actor also has roles in two new movies that couldn’t be further apart in scope: Hysteria, opening this month, in which he plays a Victorian-era doctor who treats women for the titular “ailment,” and June sequel G.I. Joe: Retaliation, in which he returns as the U.S. President.
Pryce attributes such diversity to his own early-career days in repertory at Liverpool’s Everyman Theatre, where roles ranged from a turn as Elbow in Measure for Measure to Richard III. “That has informed the way I worked,” says the two-time Tony winner. “I never wanted to be classified. I would take a role in a film, and maybe the film didn’t turn out as well as it could have, but I’d not done that type before, or there was something like the location…Pirates of the Caribbean: Why would you say no to that?” One job he did turn down, however, was the chance to replace Michael Crawford in Phantom of the Opera. “I didn’t want to do a takeover, but what that meant was they knew I could sing when they were casting Miss Saigon.”
The international journey of The Caretaker began at the Liverpool Everyman in 2009. Pryce had wanted to return to the theater where his career began before the venue was torn down and replaced with a new space. But his history with the piece, about two brothers (played in this production by Alan Cox and Alex Hassell) and the homeless man one shelters, goes back to 1980, when Pryce played Mick, the younger brother, in a production at London’s National Theatre. “I suppose I’d always thought I would want to play Davies someday,” he says. “It’s an extraordinary role and it’s beautifully written.” And for New York, he wanted to bring this production to BAM, in particular: “I was told that Pinter was box-office poison on Broadway.”
Caretaker director Christopher Morahan has noticed that Pryce “has no method” when it comes to acting. “It has to do with understanding the text, but also realizing the performer’s delight in being able to engage the audience. Davies is a fantasist and a bigot and liar, and Jonathan gives such humanity to the performance that you care for him hugely.”
As Pryce talks about the role, it’s challenging to get him to address approaches to the play. Comparing the 1980 production with this one, he focuses on how people’s perceptions of the homeless have changed, which turns into an attack on Reagan and Thatcher policies toward mental illness, and how that ties into his feelings about the play. “At the end of The Caretaker,” he finally concludes, “what you hope to induce in your audience is a great sense of compassion for your fellow man.”
The Caretakeris at BAM Harvey Theater through June 17.