Game of Thrones’ Jonathan Pryce on the High Sparrow’s Political Philosophy and His Resemblance to Pope Francis

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Photo: C Flanigan/Getty Images

Jonathan Pryce is repping two religious points of view onscreen this week. In his independent film Dough, out on Friday, he plays a kosher baker who is unaware that his Muslim apprentice is slipping marijuana into the baked goods, causing a business boom. Over on Game of Thrones, Pryce plays a much less tolerant character, the High Sparrow, whose extremist religious uprising has flooded the gutters with wine, stormed the brothels, and imprisoned members of the royal family. The actor called up Vulture recently to chat about religious intolerance, punishing Cersei, and his resemblance to Pope Francis.

Prior to Dough, did you have any baking experience?
All kinds! I made bread by hand properly back in the '70s. We bought a bread machine and used it about three times, and then it got put away somewhere. You can buy better bread. A long time ago, my mother had a shop, a general grocery store, and we sold bread there, so I used to deliver bread around housing estates, and I used to drive a delivery van for a bakery. So there you go! My bread résumé! And when we got to Budapest, I worked for a day with the last remaining kosher bakery in Hungary, and together we made challah bread. That was a good day. When it came time to make bread in the film, I actually did do it. I was quite impressed with myself. The problem with food scenes is if you're eating on-camera, sometimes you have to do it over and over again.

Although with this bread, maybe that wouldn't be so bad?
Oh, the druggie bread? [Laughs.] Maybe it would be all right for somebody else. I'm way past the age of eating enhanced baked goods. I tried a pot brownie, but I didn't inhale. [Laughs.]

You've played a string of Jewish characters before, but from what I understand, there was some hesitance on the part of at least one director to cast a non-Jew in the part ...
And then he realized the error of his ways. I was talking to Alex Ross Perry for Listen Up Philip, and it all went really well, but then he thought he needed a Jewish actor for that role. As I told him at the time, I did a kind of horror film Mel Brooks produced in the '80s, The Doctor and the Devils, and I got to know Mel, and at lunch one time, he said to me, "You're Jewish, right?" I said to Alex, "If Mel Brooks thinks I'm Jewish, that's got to be good enough for you." And we went from there. It's a coincidence, but I've played a number of Jewish roles, including Shylock in The Merchant of Venice, which will be in New York in August.   

Because your character is Jewish, and his employee is Muslim, there are a lot of prejudices and preconceptions each one has to confront about the other.
It's a very important aspect of the film, more than the jokey, druggy side. It's amusing, but it's also telling and touching. It's not preaching, just suggesting that it would be better if we both took a bit of time to understand each other and our different cultures. I feel more strongly about that when I'm doing Merchant of Venice, which is a play I didn't particularly ever like until I was asked to do it and I read it again. Reading it from Shylock's point of view, it takes on a whole different color. I see it as a very topical and relevant piece to be onstage with. It's just a much deeper version of what Dough is trying to say, about our political situation in Europe, especially, and your situation with Trump, with the fear of the immigrant, the persecution of minorities, and his intolerance, which is reflected in a lot of intolerance in Europe and the Middle East.

It's kind of interesting how that same theme is played out via the religious commentary on Game of Thrones, as espoused by your character, the High Sparrow.
You get the other side! The intolerance. It's a bit on the back foot with the High Sparrow, but it's definitely there. It's interesting to play him, because in the past, I've been completely unsympathetic to what some characters are saying, any kind of right-wing character, any kind of extremist character, and I've shied away from taking those roles. I don't want to be that person. And yet I went into the High Sparrow aware of that. Everything he's doing this season was hinted at in the last season, and his intolerance is there for all to see. I quite like the fact that people are going, "Oh, he's a horrible character!" And I'm going, "No! He's one of the good people in Game of Thrones! He's clearing out all the bad people!"

You're right. Cersei did commit crimes. A lot of crimes.
And she's gonna get punished! [Laughs.] Maybe it's not over!

The irony, though, is that the High Sparrow's power to punish is vested to him by a king's decree, and if he succeeds in prosecuting Cersei for incest with Jaime and committing treason by putting illegitimate offspring on the Iron Throne, he's also made Tommen's decree null and void. What happens if the High Sparrow topples the monarchy?
What's he going to replace it with? Maybe nothing. Tune in! [Laughs.]

What's deceptive is how he presents himself as having moderate, not extremist, beliefs. Cersei offers him wine, he declines, not because he disapproves but because he doesn't like the taste. Then his Faith Militant are smashing the barrels, flooding the gutters, as if it's against the law. Even when he plays good cop/bad cop with his "guest," Margaery Tyrell, he's hiding something.
I like that he doesn't reveal his hand at all. [Showrunners] David [Benioff] and Dan [Weiss] were very keen that we present the calm, the good-natured side of him. He smiles and smiles and plays the villain. His smile is as important as his actions.

Originally, didn't they ask you to play a different part on the show during season one?
Yes, a long time ago. At the time, I didn't treat it with any seriousness. When it was described to me, I thought it was a genre that I wouldn't watch, dragons and magical, mystical realism, and it doesn't appeal to me. I remember dipping into the script and seeing all these weird names, and going, "Oh, no. Not for me." So I passed, and then I didn't hear any more from it until it became a massive, massive success, which it may not have done had I been in it. And then they came back to me for season five. 

High Sparrow appeared for me right about the same time that Pope Francis became pope, and the PR surrounding him at the time was that he was a man of the people. That he would get down with the poor and the maimed, and he would wash their feet. And that's how you see High Sparrow. He is a man of the people. And a lot of what the High Sparrow wants — to do away with the hierarchy, to promote the revolution of the working man, to represent the people abused by the ruling classes, the monied classes — a lot of that is very good. It's just along the way, his beliefs are not the greatest, given that he's quite homophobic and bigoted. But he is a classic revolutionary. That's a figure we don't see enough of onscreen. There are endless series about the ruling classes, and you rarely see the other side of it. A little socialist voice stuck its head above the parapet briefly in Downton Abbey, but that was got rid of very quickly. They didn't want any of that political rubbish marring our Sunday nights! But in season six you'll find out more about the High Sparrow, about what drives him, how he came to be who he is, and why he's on this journey. 

Have you ever heard people say that you bear a resemblance to Pope Francis?
[Laughs.] I have. I don't see the likeness myself, but then again, I wouldn't, would I? The day it was announced, my son and my daughter both texted me going, "Daddy, are you the pope?" And my agent in London got a call from a film company in Buenos Aires saying they wanted to make the life story of Pope Francis, and they wanted to sign me up. I do Jews good, but I don't know about popes! [Laughs.] I'm too tall.