Many of the actors who’ve died on Game of Thrones — and there are a lot of actors who have died on Game of Thrones — have moved onto Disney movies, superhero franchises, and prestige biopics. Not Jack Gleeson. Shortly after his King Joffrey was killed off, in 2014, the 24-year-old Irish actor decided to leave the world of big-budget film and TV work. Instead, he concentrated on his theater company Collapsing Horse, which he formed in 2011 alongside some friends from university. The troupe’s Bears in Space, a comic puppet show about … well, you can probably guess, recently finished a successful run Off Broadway, and in a packed convention hall at New York Comic Con, Vulture talked with the charming Gleeson about his career as a child actor, his time on GOT, and his complicated feelings toward fame.
This event was billed as “a look at your life and career,” so why don’t we start at the very beginning. How old were you when you decided you wanted to be an actor? And when did you realize that it could actually become a reality?
I suppose it occurred with my two older sisters who used to go to Sunday-morning acting classes at our local community center. Really low-key thing; It was nearby and it was just something to do. I did it because it looked fun. If the community center hosted karate classes instead, I might be a karate person, but for some reason they happened to have acting classes so I went to them. It just felt like playing, and I began doing small plays within the classes and then short films and it just kind of went on from there.
One of your first major roles was in the Matthew McConaughey dragon movie Reign of Fire.
Really kind of mediocre movie.
You’re allowed to say that?
Who’s going to care? [Laughs]
What do you remember about making that film?
I got cast just because they filmed it in Ireland. They filmed it in Wicklow, which is outside of Dublin. It was just a matter of banding together as many young Irish kids as possible. It wasn’t a special auditioning process. I do remember really needing to go to the bathroom at one point. They were like, “Just wait, we’re filming,” so I just wet myself. I was a 9-year-old kid, and I had to piss my pants. Maybe that’s why I think it’s a mediocre film.
Did anybody notice?
I really hope they didn’t. I tried to be as cool and collected as possible. And then I acted my socks off. That’s one of the rules of acting: If you piss yourself, don’t let it affect your performance.
Your first big role was as “Little Boy” in Batman Begins.
He was christened “Little Boy.” His dad is John Boy. As a young actor, you just go to loads of auditions and sometimes you get lucky and sometimes you don’t. And this one, I got lucky and got the part. But it was really cool, because they filmed it in a place called Shepperton Studios outside London, and they basically built the whole fake Gotham City in this gigantic, old warehouse. I think it was an airship warehouse for blimps or something. You could literally get lost within this Gotham City, it was so realistic. I only filmed for a few days because it was a pretty small part. But it was a very, very, very memorable, cool experience.
Were you directed by Christopher Nolan?
Yeah. I remember I was trying to act scared at one point. I obviously wasn’t acting very scared, so he was like, “Just imagine your sisters. Imagine them in danger and how that would make you feel?” And I was like Ehh, I don’t really care about ‘em.
So that was his one direction, which I didn’t really respond to, so he’s an awful director. I’m joking, he was very cool. The memory I have of him is him wearing this detective-style trench coat and being really relaxed. Because if I was a director, I’d be running around and freaking out, losing my hair. I remember him being just really calm and collected. That’s a good quality to have in a director.
Then we come to the big one: Game of Thrones.
I thought you were going to talk about Shrooms, the indie Irish horror flick.
Now I want to hear about Shrooms.
I didn’t play a little boy, I played the lonely twin.
Who played your other twin?
I played both twins.
Was it hard to play twins?
For the whole movie I had a bag over my head, so it was pretty easy to play both. Anyway, let’s not get into it, it’s not a good movie.
Alright. So back to Game of Thrones. How did you find out that you got the part?
It was a really quick audition, one or two scenes. [Creators] Dan [Weiss] and Dave [Benioff] were in the audition, and they gave me a little bit of direction. They seemed to enjoy my performance, so I was slightly optimistic. But you don’t want to get your hopes up too much at these things, so I kind of put it out of my mind. Then I think they wanted me for the part, but they were filming during Ireland’s equivalent of SATs. I was like Okay, well, I have to give up the part. And then they changed around the filming, and I knew that I’d be free and I remember being very, very happy.
Do you remember which scenes you auditioned with?
It was the scene, I think it’s in the very first episode, where the whole Lannister gang goes to Winterfell and Joffrey’s squaring up against Robb Stark. They’re talking about archery or something like that, and Joffrey’s trying to assert himself. I just remember Dan and Dave actually LOL-ing during my audition. I was like, Maybe they’re laughing at how bad the performance is. But I think they were laughing at how mean and cruel my portrayal was. Almost camp.
Had you read the books before you started filming?
Before the audition, I actually hadn’t even heard of the book series. ‘Cause I’m an idiot. But before we filmed the first season, I read the first book. Mainly to get a sense of the character of Joffrey, but also to get a sense of the world and everything else.
Why did you stop after the first one?
Because I don’t have the attention span to read those kind of books. I applaud anyone who can. I was already studying philosophy in university, and that was taking up enough space in my brain. I wasn’t really able to keep track of all these characters. I’d need a kind of diagram next to me, or constant footnotes. It’s not because I didn’t enjoy the books — I enjoyed them a lot — but I feel like I wouldn’t be able to do anything else other than reading them.
In your three seasons on the show, was there a scene you felt like you did your best work?
I don’t know if there’s a scene where I did my best work, but the final scene I appear in is when Joffrey’s corpse is lying on a plinth in the set and I just got to sleep for the whole day. That was a fun experience. I don’t know if I did my best work, because I would literally just fall asleep in the middle of a take. They put these ceremonial stones on my eyes. You know when you’re dozing off, and then you wake up and you realize that you were asleep, but you shouldn’t have been, and you kind of … [jolts]? I got like that. That was the one I enjoyed the most. It was also the one I gave my worst performance.
You had a lot of scenes where you had to be very vicious and cruel. Did you feel like you had to compartmentalize yourself on those days?
Thankfully, I’m not a good enough actor to believe the things that my character believes. When you go on to a set, you realize the very visceral reality that you see on the TV show is a product of a huge amount of processing and editing and storytelling that is not present at all on the day of the filming. You go and put your makeup on, put your costume on, wait in your caravan-trailer thing for an hour and then you go the set and you film for three minutes and then they change around the lights and the camera angle and you wait for an hour and then you film for another three minutes. It’s a very boring, tedious process. If you’re a really good actor, you can completely believe what you’re doing in those three minutes, but one is oneself for 99.9 percent of the day of filming. So for that .01 percent, you’re this other character.
Anyway, I just kind of say the lines in a mean way. I don’t really get into the emotions too much, ‘cause I’d probably go crazy.
Did you know ahead of time that you were going to die?
Yeah, definitely. That was one of the first things I did when I heard I got the part: I looked at the Wikipedia summary of the books and my character. If you get a new job and you know that at some point you’re definitely going to be fired from it, you’re going to check online when you’re going to be fired. I think that’s a pretty reasonable thing to do. So the whole thing wasn’t a surprise. I would’ve been happy to have one episode, or one season in the whole thing. The fact that I had as many as I did was an immense privilege.
How did you feel when you found out you weren’t going to stick it through the end?
I didn’t care that much, because four seasons is enough. You have to end at some point. My dad always says to leave a party wanting more. You should never be the last to leave, when everyone’s kind of sleepy and cranky and like, Oh, this is awful. You should leave a little late, but not so late that it’s bad, the energy is still there. I feel like I left at the right time.
I’ve heard you didn’t watch the show because you didn’t like watching yourself onscreen. Do you watch it now that you’re gone?
No, there’s too much to catch up on. I’ve not a clue what’s going on. In my mind, all these characters are still alive and everyone’s in this place and those people are in that place and they have these motivations, and now everything’s screwed around so much that it’s a completely different show. I’ve no idea. Even when I got the script, I only read my own scenes. I’m just selfish. Maybe I should get into it. I hear it’s good.
After you left the show, you gave this great talk at the Oxford Union where you talked about feeling dislocated by the fame, and commodified. Do you still feel that way?
A little bit, yeah. You can give in to that side of things very easily, but I’ve tried to live as normal a life as possible, almost to an extreme extent. My flat in London where I live alone is really not very lavish. I’m there because I like living in the area and I like living with the people that I live with. It’s maybe the status thing that I find uncomfortable. People can be wealthy and not be mean, but this status thing … some people when they become famous, they feel better, they feel more worthy. That’s what makes me feel really uncomfortable. I try to eschew that as much as possible.
How do you feel about events like Comic Con then, when you’re up here in front of everyone? [Gleeson is sitting on stage with a microphone, and there are two gigantic video screens showing his face to the people in the back.]
I feel like I am risen above you guys. Talking in a magnified voice: “I am a divine entity.” Ironically, it almost works in the way that I want it to, because if you always see me on a TV show, or on a magazine cover — not that I do those — if you imagine me as this otherworldly creature then that’s how you’re going to view me. But if you actually get to meet me, and I get to meet you, and we get to hang out a little bit, we get to know each other. That weird status thing is dissolved. We can just enjoy each other as people.
I want to talk a little bit about your theater company, Collapsing Horse.
Thank you. Your bucket of money is waiting in the back.
You’ve said you won’t do TV and film jobs for the foreseeable future. What do you get out of the theater that you don’t get in screen work?
I get a real investment in the creative side of things. I enjoyed the writing, the creation, the coming up with wacky characters and songs and scenarios. I loved acting on Game of Thrones, but you kind of feel like you’re just this small cog in a big wheel. You provide a service, but it’s a very nominal service where you kind of just go and say the lines and you’re valued, but you’re just as valued as the prop department or whatever. The prop department provides a service and so do the actors, whereas, in the theater company, it’s a more holistic experience.
Your company’s play is called Bears in Space, and it’s literally about bears in space. They’re puppets.
We don’t like to mislead our audience.
How did you come up with idea of intergalactic bears that are cryogenically frozen and wake up and have to save their captain?
[Collapsing Horse member] Eoghan [Quinn] and I wanted to write an educational TV show for kids, like Sesame Street, teaching kids about Irish history via these two Russian cosmonauts. We got offered to perform a show last-minute at a theater tent at a music festival, and we wanted free tickets to the music festival, so we decided to go with this idea of the two bears because that’s what was rappelling around in Eoghan’s head at the time. We developed it more and put in the Fringe Festival and then we brought it to Dublin and then London, and then we performed it in Manhattan just this month. It’s basically like, if you know The Mighty Boosh, they’re a big influence. Monty Python, Mighty Boosh, maybe a bit of Adventure Time and Futurama, where it’s very kind of childlike and surreal, but the people that enjoy it most are people my age.
Unfortunately it just closed, so nobody here can see it. But what are you guys working on next?
Speaking of TV shows, we’re looking into the possibility of progressing this idea. My dream is getting into some Adult Swim–style [thing] — short little bursts of wackiness, maybe a multimedia thing with puppets and animation and live action. We’re looking into that at the moment. And we’re constantly producing new shows; our director, Dan [Colley], is doing a show teaching kids about astrophysics in Dublin at the moment. I actually know nothing about astrophysics, so maybe I should go and learn something. We have a show that’s an adaptation of Virgil’s Aeneid, which is like a classical, Roman adventure story I suppose. We like adventures.
Is that also with puppets?
There were puppets, yeah. It’s a good kind of rule of thumb in life: If you feel like people aren’t going to listen to you, or you’re not getting enough attention, just do everything you do with puppets. People won’t look at you the same.