What if the sadistic teen bully from your high school nightmares was given unlimited power to rule the world? That’s King Joffrey as played by Jack Gleeson, who torments the Seven Kingdoms on HBO’s Game of Thrones with his petty, juvenile cruelty and preening, witless arrogance. As Thrones‘ producers often point out, the character’s personality is radically different from the 21-year-old actor, who shuns media attention, studies philosophy as a scholar at Trinity College, and recently gave a speech about the evils of celebrity culture that went viral.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: As a kid, what Hollywood villains impacted you?
Jack Gleeson: Joaquin Phoenix’s Commodus in Gladiator; certainly for my characterization of Joffrey, that had a big impact, the smirk. And the monster Hexxus from FernGully, certainly as a childhood fear that was a big one.
Wow — Gladiator and FernGully! What qualities should a good villain have?
Gleeson: It’s interesting sometimes when an audience can empathize with a villain. But to get completely lost in it, it’s exciting just to be intrinsically evil and not have a speck of good or humanity in their bones.
Which is part of what makes Joffrey so fun. Unlike almost all the Thrones characters that are shades of grey, Joffrey has no redeemable qualities.
Gleeson: That’s exactly it. I remember in season 2 we were filming a scene where I come to Sansa with a necklace and tell her I’m very sorry. I was going to play it like I don’t actually care but [showrunner Dan Weiss] said to try and express any genuine love for Sansa that Joffrey actually has. That was the one attempt to put some grey into the black. But overall, it’s a pretty black evil road.
The showrunners said other actors who auditioned for Joffrey played him more like a demonic evil seed. But you won them over by playing him like a spoiled brat, a more familiar type of character. What inspired that?
Gleeson: My characterization pretty much hasn’t changed a huge amount from the first audition. It came from the writing. Everyone has met Joffrey in some shape or form. He’s a very contextualized and plays off other people, he’s not an abstracted Omen character.
Has it ever worried your friends and family that you’re so easily able to play such a terrible guy?
Gleeson: I don’t think so. I can do that with any character. All my friends and family are used to it. They know when I’m being Jack.
What’s Joffrey up to this season?
Gleeson: He’s grown up slightly. He’s perhaps emulating how his father Robert would rule, but his petulance is still there. At his heart he’s still a petulant boy and he’s still butting heads with Tyrion.
And he gets married. One of the showrunners described Joffrey as the ultimate bridezilla.
Gleeson: Yeah, it’s all about him. It’s not about Margaery. I’m sure he’s thrown many hissy fits at different designers. He likes being seen and the glamor and pomp and ceremony.
When you’re standing in front of a crowd of subjects and berating people, what are you feeling in those moments?
Gleeson: Ninety percent of the time I’m feeling what Joffrey would feel — glee or desire for attention or frustration or whatever. About 10 percent of the time, there’s a lack of focus, but that’s fun as well; to take yourself out of it and appreciate [the moment]. But you wouldn’t be able to work if you did that all the time, you have to focus on what the character thinks.
You’ve maintained a low profile outside of the show. You don’t go to Comic-Con, you don’t do many interviews.
Gleeson: The crux of it is that I don’t want to be an actor after Game of Thrones. Interviews are good if you want to be an actor because they raise your profile. You’re also more interesting to talk to if you’re more passionate about acting. I don’t need to do those things, and I also suppose I’m just private. I find it slightly uncomfortable to see my face on a bus or a poster. I like just being known by my friends and family.
If you were king of Westeros, how would you rule?
Gleeson: I wouldn’t be any good. I’d probably go for a socialist democracy, to try to integrate as many spheres of society as possible, have lots of arts, and make sure the needy are cared for.
What’s the meanest thing you’ve done in real life?
Gleeson: Um, I read my sister’s diary when I was 7. She was, I think, 13. It was awful to read it … I also ruined the end of one of the Harry Potter books for the same sister. I said Sirius dies when she was halfway through.
Were there any consequences?
Gleeson: Just shame.
EW.com will continue posting Thrones scoops all weekend — including a big must-read post tomorrow morning. Here’s Gleeson’s celebrity culture speech, which went viral a couple months ago:
EW’s Game of Thrones Pre-Season 4 Coverage. Catch up on what you’ve missed:
Still to come: Once the season starts we’ll have our popular recaps (find them here) and post-episode interviews with cast or producers each week.
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