Julian Glover — who you may recognize from parts in genre favorites such as Game of Thrones, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back, and For Your Eyes Only — has had a long career as a Shakespearean actor. He’s now appearing in Richard II as part of a King and Country cycle at BAM, where he’s playing John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster, the one man who dares tell his nephew, the king (played in this production by David Tennant), what a lousy job he’s doing and how he’s mismanaged the kingdom, in the play’s most famous speech. Since these are the kings and families who inspired Game of Thrones (the Lancasters=Lannisters), it’s as if, in a way, he’s Tyrion slapping Joffrey. Glover equates the two stories because they’re both essentially “the same thing, the history of kings fighting for power.” Here, he chatted with Vulture about roles he’d still like to play at 81, Pycelle’s devious side, and why he nixed his nude scene on Thrones.
You’ve done this play before, but in a different role …
I played the Earl Marshal, the one who pulls them together to do the great fight at the beginning of the play. And before that, I think I played the groom? The one who comes to look after Richard II when he’s in prison at the end of the play and says, “I was the one who looked after your horse and now Bolingbroke’s got the horse,” and Richard goes completely ape. “He’s riding my horse! How dare my horse make him comfortable!” It was in this very adventurous thing the BBC did years ago called An Age of Kings, where history plays were done like soaps, 50-minute episodes.
Each time you do a play, you find something else in it. It becomes clearer and clearer, a different perspective. This is why we keep on going to see Shakespeare. We’ve all seen Hamlet, but there’s always something new there, depending on the individual assets or defects of the actor playing the part. When I played King Lear at the Globe, a year afterwards Oliver Ford Davies, who is in our company now, played Lear at the Almeida Theatre. I spent the whole evening in two states. One was, “No, no, no, no…” and the other was, “Oh, God. Why didn’t I think of that?”
How would you do it differently, if you could do it now?
I’ve seen so many King Lears, and you can’t really tell which is the best. Ian Holm for me is absolutely, almost definitive King Lear. Absolutely tremendous. I want him to play it now that he’s in his 80s. I want to play it now that I’m in my 80s! Being 80, I know a lot of the problems Lear is going through, and why he behaved so badly, and sometimes, so beautifully. The extraordinary contrast of behavior he exposes before your very eyes. I tried to set it up in Chicago, but they had just cast it. There are too many old people like us who want to have a good go at King Lear! [Laughs.]
When I was doing King Lear at the Globe Theatre in London, in the middle of the season, 9/11 happened, and of course everybody was completely bowled over it. I don’t know how we did the show that night. The president of the United States had been on television saying, “We’re going to get them. I don’t know how we’re going to get them, and I don’t know what we’re going to do with them when we get them, but we are going to bloody get them.” And then I find myself on stage saying, “I will do such things. What they are yet, I know not, but they shall be the terrors of the earth.” And that was what the president had said on television, essentially! Shakespeare didn’t know that he was going to write prophetic stuff, but he’s such a brilliant writer that he did.
I wanted Peter Dinklage to play my fool in Lear, and he said, “I would love to.” But it never happened. He should play Quasimodo, of course. He was made to be a Quasimodo. He’s one of the most brilliant actors in America. He’s one of those actors where so much happens in his face. So many considerations cross his face when he’s into a problem. That scene where he’s accused of killing Joffrey, when he pours that wine, it’s just, “How the fuck am I going to get out of this one? I know what’s going to happen. I can see it all coming.” And it does. After that, he wriggles, wriggles, wriggles for the rest of the series. How they hold him down for the show, I don’t know. He must be in such demand.
You helped expand the part of Pycelle, from the way he was originally written?
I’d done about three weeks on it, and I was really getting bored sitting at that table with people talking all around me, and the remarks were sometimes pretty stupid. I’m just sitting there being an old fart. I hadn’t got it together why he’d survived to such a long age, except maybe he’s someone people couldn’t be bothered to get rid of, you know? That’s part of it, of course. So I went to the writers, and I said, “I’m sorry. This sounds very arrogant, but I’m a better actor than this. You must give me something else. I know in the books he’s not very substantial, but if he’s there, and if I’m going to play him, I’m going to play something.” And they went away for a week. And then I had a dream that Pycelle was actually two people. He was someone who was pretending to be a doddering old man, but actually, he was a very active man. And the day after I had the dream, and I promise you this is true, they came to me and said, “We’ve got this idea, and we got it from when after you do a take. The minute they say cut, you stand up to your full height, and you start talking to your friends. So we’ve got this idea that, in fact, you’re hiding somebody under there.” I said, “This is fantastic!” So they wrote the scene where I have this girl …
The one with Ros, where you’re saying, “The thing about kings…”
Yes. And then she goes, and I spruce myself up and go to the door, hold the door, and then droop down again and go out. People loved that. But I have to say, they actually cut the most important scene.
The one with Tywin, where he calls you out.
Yes, on the beach. I was really disappointed, because it was the thing which explained it: “I know I’m old, I’m going to die any minute now, but I’m not going to die like these other buggers.” Tyrion caught on, too, in the scene where again, I’m with a girl, and they come in and cut my beard off and it takes two men to restrain me.
You were supposed to be nude in that scene?
The script said Pycelle is lying naked on his bed except for his chain of office and is being pleasured by … And I showed my wife this. She said, “Julian, if you, a famous Shakespearean actor, do that scene, it’ll be on Facebook. You do know that, don’t you?” So I went in and said, “This won’t do, I’m afraid.” We can still get the point across. He’s good with the ladies, or he likes the ladies, but there’s no reason for being gobbled up in front of the camera. I don’t mind being there in my shift, and it being very obviously postcoital. I said, “You’ve got lots of scenes like that in the series, and it might be very funny for Pycelle, but it’s not good for Julian.” So we changed it.
Also, we changed the moment when Tyrion came in. It was going to be, Pycelle is cringeing in the corner and he wets himself. Very funny, but I said, “I don’t want that for Pycelle.” Because how does Pycelle survive in court if he’s going to be so rattled that he pisses himself in the corner? No, no, no. Don’t do that. It’s undignified enough as is. But it goes to the point, Pycelle was playing two lives. He was actually a very bright fellow, playing politics, but he’s got it pretty bloody awful now, and people insulting him quite a lot, as you’ll see in season six. There’s some good stuff coming.
Mostly it’s Cersei insulting him, or passing him over for Qyburn.
She keeps dismissing him and keeps trying to get rid of him. She’s so rude to him to try to make him react in a way that she can punish, but he never does. He always swallows it.
It’s so shortsighted of her, though, because he’s someone who knows she committed not just incest but treason, because he knows that she passed off Jaime’s children as Robert’s, to put her illegitimate children on the throne. And just as she’s about to face trial on these charges.
How true. And he’s got all the evidence in his books, the lineage of everybody, so he can call someone in and say, “Oh, he should be king, really,” or, “No, he can’t be king, because …” He’s got all the evidence.
And all the poisons. And yet hardly anyone ever suspects him when someone succumbs.
I should be the first suspect! [Laughs.]
I’m wondering if you’ve heard about the Grand Maester’s Conspiracy.
I’ve heard of it, yes, but it means nothing to me because I haven’t read the books.
Well, the idea is that the maesters have actually been manipulating events to fit their own agenda more than anyone had realized, especially because they control the means of communication. So your move to make Pycelle more devious actually plays into this larger conspiracy that could be in play, or not …
[Pauses for a moment.] Oh, brilliant. I know nothing about all that. Fantastic. How clever. How clever. There was a running joke for several weeks on season six that actually — surprise! — Pycelle would become king. [Laughs] He was going to take over. But he didn’t ever want that. Never. He just wants to keep going, as do I.
Once you reach 80, the roles are limited. There are some still around. I really wish I had had a chance to play Coriolanus. God, I just loved that part, and it never came my way. I never played Hamlet, but I was never a Hamlet, I don’t think. The very beginning of my career started with not playing Hamlet. I had no thought of being an actor, but they did Hamlet at my school, and I was up against John Stride for it, we both auditioned, and he got it. I don’t remember being very annoyed about it, because I thought he was so clever, but that’s the only time I’ve ever come anywhere near being Hamlet. There are certain parts still out there, though. Michael Gambon is a great stealer of parts, quite understandably. He’s a terrific actor. I was a close runner-up for Dumbledore when Richard Harris died, but then Gambon appeared, and that was the end of that.
Maybe there’s still a chance for you in Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them? Maybe an ancestor of Dumbledore’s, or some other wizard …
I’d love to play that. And act with Eddie Redmayne, who can play anything. I could be a wizard! I better get on this. Put in a good word for me, will you?
This interview has been condensed and edited.