Jonathan Pryce?s film breakthrough -- The British actor scores a hit with ''Carrington''

By Jeff Gordinier
Updated November 17, 1995 at 05:00 AM EST

The sky blackens, the wind rises, a downpour hits the London streets, and Jonathan Pryce enters the room. Voilà. His timing is impeccable. From the look of things — those flyaway strands of gray hair, the flash of frenzy in his eyes — this guy just rode a storm cloud into the West End.

It isn’t the first time Pryce has hitched a ride on a squall. Here in The Ivy, a restaurant wedged into a side street of London’s theater district, his countrymen tend to look upon the quiet, unruffled actor the way weathermen look upon the eye of a storm. But in the United States, Pryce probably couldn’t get arrested — although he might be eligible for a parking ticket. Despite two Tony awards on Broadway and a brace of striking roles in films like Brazil, Glengarry Glen Ross, and HBO’s Barbarians at the Gate, Pryce is best known in the colonies as a car salesman — the pithy, slightly arch TV pitchman for Infiniti’s luxury sedans.

All that may be about to change. Pryce is far too British to admit it — his halting speech alone can stop hype in its tracks — but the 48-year-old actor is poised for a breakthrough.

First comes Carrington, opening this month. Pryce plays Lytton Strachey, the writer (Eminent Victorians) and Bloomsbury bon vivant who sustained a lifelong partnership with a woman, painter Dora Carrington, even though both knew he was gay. Laced with stinging wit and sorrow, Carrington made Pryce the toast of Cannes in May, landed him the Best Actor prize, and whipped up a gale of Oscar talk. ”I can’t deny it,” Pryce murmurs modestly, ”it’s very exciting.”

Then there’s Evita. As it happens, today’s lunch is a respite from recording Evita‘s score; after sharing stories with the press, Pryce — playing Juan Perón in Alan Parker’s film version of the musical — goes across town to share a 75-piece orchestra with costars Antonio Banderas and Madonna. ”We spent the week together,” he demurs, nibbling at a miniature pizza. ”I always find it fascinating and fun to cross boundaries.”

Indeed, Pryce might be the last guy in London you’d expect to tango with La Ciccone and the new Don Juan. He dreads cameras, claims to have little interest in becoming a movie star. ”At celebrity events or premieres, my attendance is nonexistent,” he admits. ”I just won’t go. I’ll go to the movie on my own. For me, it’s just not fun. You know why you’re going there, and it’s to be photographed.” Unlike half the U.K., he has never played an effete villain in an American action flick. ”I’m lucky, I suppose,” he deadpans. ”It’s never worked out.” Hollywood logic dictates that he permanently pack his bags for L.A., but he lives in London with his companion of 23 years, the Irish stage actress Kate Fahy, and their three children. In the city, he limits his dining to the same three or four restaurants. ”And probably eats the same meal,” jokes his friend John Lithgow.

”I’m a creature of habit,” Pryce confesses. His only Pacific Coast indulgence: cruising in that Infiniti. ”It’s a great car,” stresses Pryce, ”and it’s one of the reasons I look forward to going to the States. They don’t make them here, so I’m forced to drive lesser vehicles.”

But hang up the Hugo Boss suit and clear away the tea set for a second. Before you write off Pryce as the latest twee Merchant Ivory export, there are a few things you should know. He is famous in Britain for playing foul-mouthed skinheads, tongue-wagging Saigon pimps, Hamlet in the grip of supernatural possession. In his younger days, he played The Taming of the Shrew‘s Petruchio as a drunk who bickered with ushers and brawled his way through the theater. (So persuasive was the performance that an off-duty cop once tried to arrest Pryce in the aisles.) He does not trash hotel rooms, but Pryce is every bit as demon racked as any young Hollywood firebrand.

In fact, Pryce was good friends with River Phoenix. In the weeks before Phoenix died in 1993, the two spent time in the Utah desert shooting Dark Blood, Phoenix’s last, unfinished film. ”We had a rather immediate rapport, even though I was twice his age,” Pryce says. ”He had passions and obsessions. He was a great fan of Brazil.” They set a date: On a Sunday break, Pryce was going to take Phoenix to meet Brazil‘s director, his friend Terry Gilliam.

But in the early morning before that meeting, Phoenix died of a drug overdose after a night at the Viper Room. ”It was a terrible shock,” Pryce says wearily. ”The whole thing was a f—up, from beginning to end.”

Pryce, it turns out, has passions and obsessions of his own. He grew up in Wales, where his father ran a grocery store. One day in the ’70s, a kid attacked his father with a hammer. The elder Pryce died two years later, after a paralyzing series of strokes. ”On two, maybe three occasions, I thought I saw my father after he died,” Pryce remembers. ”Well, I didn’t think I saw him. I saw him. It wasn’t a ghost. It was an image of my father, but at once it was very, very clear. And he was just standing, looking at me.”

For some years preceding that, Pryce had balked at every British actor’s time-honored rite of passage: Hamlet. ”I didn’t feel ready to do it. I didn’t want to do it until I had a reason for doing it.” Hauntingly, the tragedy gave him a reason. ”Maybe we could interpret it,” thought Pryce, ”that Hamlet so wanted to see his father that he conjured his father up.”

Hence, he watched films of voodoo rituals, of people speaking in tongues. He sat at home with a tape recorder and found a strange voice that seemed to emanate from his stomach — and then hid it from the cast for weeks. Finally, when he took the stage at London’s Royal Court Theatre in 1980, Pryce summoned the voice of Hamlet’s father from his belly. Literally. Instead of hearing the words pass between two actors, the audience watched Hamlet, Pryce, groping and sparring with a spectral growl that rose from his own guts. The performance won Pryce an Olivier award and turned into a West End legend.

”It became very powerful,” Pryce says quietly. ”I mean, having the chance to play Hamlet with that acknowledgment of my father probably helped me more than I would know. Sometimes, you do get a chance to work things out.”

Pryce may be a creature of habit with lunch, but not much else. Take scripts. Just a few months back, he had a choice between Evita and Eraser, a likely Arnold Schwarzenegger smash. Pryce loved the script for Eraser but noticed that he’d have to engage in a fistfight with the Terminator. ”I reached for the phone and called my agent and said, ‘Do they know what I look like?’ I’m a good actor, but I’m not that good.”

And Evita? The movie has been delayed for years, the Argentinean government is touchy about letting the crew shoot in Buenos Aires, and — oh, yeah — it’s a musical. ”So I chose Evita,” Pryce says mischievously. ”I actually found Evita to be more dangerous than Arnold Schwarzenegger.”

Like any eye of the storm, the placid Pryce tends to find himself at the core of wild controversies. His biggest film role came in 1985, when he played the daydreaming bureaucrat in Brazil; Universal deemed the movie unreleasable — and, true to its word, hobbled its distribution.

His biggest stage triumph also got snagged on a scandal. Pryce came back to Broadway in 1991 to play a Eurasian pimp in Miss Saigon — a part that had won him bravos in London. But since he is not Asian, the Broadway union Actor’s Equity banned him from the role, leading to a showdown that nearly put the production on ice. Eventually, he did play it — silencing naysayers and winning a Tony — but for Pryce, a socialist with steely political convictions, it was a chilling experience. ”I know what it is like to be the agitator, to be the activist,” he says. ”And it was an extraordinary position to be on the other side, to be the bad guy.”

Carrington, too, first felt like a risky proposition. Writer Christopher Hampton spent nearly 20 years trying to get it to the screen. Countless directors jumped ship, including Mike Newell, who’d cast Pryce in 1992. And to play Lytton Strachey, Pryce had to sweat through the summer in a giant fake beard that was infested with bugs. ”It was terrible,” Pryce laughs. ”You couldn’t get them out. You could feel them moving about. They didn’t bite, but it was pretty uncomfortable.”

Nonetheless, Pryce felt driven to get under Strachey’s whiskers — ”it’s the best role I’ve had on film, something with that kind of range and depth of character” — and his strife ended there. ”He was doing such good work, and he knew it,” says director Hampton. ”That makes an actor very happy, when they know they’re hitting the target.” Even Pryce, a merciless critic, concedes that Carrington lives up to his stage work. ”My sense of pride has usually been reserved for what I feel doing a theater role,” he explains. ”This is the first time when I’ve looked at myself on screen, and I actually quite like what I’m doing.”

No, he isn’t ready to trade in the West End for the West Coast, but after the Carrington whirlwind in Cannes, Pryce has started to take a shine to Hollywood hoopla. Some of it. ”There are times,” he muses with a sly smile, ”when it’s fun to be feted, and be photographed, and be part of that whole scene.” Hint, hint.