I’ll be honest—I was waiting to get to him until after The Man Who Killed Don Quixote made it into theatres. I don’t believe writing about people for this column jinxes them, but I didn’t want to mix that with the angry god that’s clearly dooming any and all Don Quixote pictures that don’t involve singing. I like Jonathan Pryce, and I don’t want to risk that. Even if he’s been in some awfully bad movies over the years, which alas does appear to include The Man Who Killed Don Quixote. Then again, I don’t entirely believe that movie exists yet anyway; I’ve always said I’d believe in it when I saw end credits.
It’s not really a surprise that the man born John Price into a working class family in Wales (add him to the Jedi list!) became Jonathan Pryce professionally because there was already a John Price on the books. What’s a little more surprising is that he was told by a Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts tutor that he could never aspire to being a real actor. (I don’t know if the line about “playing villains on Z-Cars” is a direct quote, but ouch.) His first Tony of two was for a role written for him, which makes me wonder what that tutor thinks of him now.
Even if he’d never done a movie, he has one of those breathtaking British stage careers. He’s done seven Shakespeare plays, including most of the Great Tragedies and a couple of the So-So Comedies. He’s done Chekhov and Albee and Mamet. And of course he can sing, or at least sing well enough to play Professor Higgins, which admittedly is a role written for a non-singer. He was also the original Engineer in Miss Saigon, but I have to admit being almost completely unfamiliar with Miss Saigon. I do know you can’t have his stage career and be completely unable to sing.
Even if he doesn’t really have to as Juan Peron, either. As it happens, I like the movie of Evita more than most people, inasmuch as I like it at all. Okay, the age gap between him and Madonna wasn’t wide enough, but I still liked him in the role. It does, though, kind of seem as though his film career is mostly obscurities with some really quite dreadful movies people have heard of and one or two classics. And Evita, which isn’t ever going to be a classic in the way that, say, Brazil is.
Pryce is, in short, another one of those British actors whose career is incredibly erratic which is probably why they don’t get talked about often enough. His movies aren’t always good. Nor are his TV shows. But I’m not sure most people would be as good at both The Master in the utterly ludicrous Doctor Who short he and a few other lights of British acting did for Comic Relief as well as Cardinal Wolsey in Wolf Hall. He’s got one of those careers where you frequently know the character if not the actual production he himself was in—did you know he played Sherlock Holmes once? Then again, what British actors haven’t?