Film: The Pryce of villainy

After playing a string of television baddies, Jonathan Pryce comes to the big screen as the unhinged villain of the latest big-budget Bond film. But, Jasper Rees asks, how does this square with his thoughtful role in the high-brow, First World War film, `Regeneration'?

Tomorrow Never Dies incorporates, for the first time from the lips of 007, the following line of dialogue: "You're completely insane." Bond villains have a statutory requirement to be a couple of rounds short of the full magazine, but their clinical certifiability has always gone unspoken. Bond doesn't tell them they're loco, because it might just provoke them into doing something rational, like wasting him before he can throw his spanner into their works.

The newest Bond villain is a departure from his predecessors. Elliot Carver's empire-building fantasies are actually quite plausible; there is method in his mad plan for global domination through media ownership. Before you try it - no, you can't jumble up the letters of his name and come up with Rupert Murdoch. Besides, although this mogul has as many irons in the fire as Murdoch, he will go the extra mile alone for the story that sells. He plots to ignite a war between Britain and China that his world-wide operation can exclusively report on. Which sounds more like CNN's thing.

The irony of Carver's unique potency is presumably not lost on the actor who plays him. Jonathan Pryce, along with the rest of the cast, spent the whole of Monday, this week, fielding interviewers from all corners of the intercontinental media. In a reception suite at the Hyde Park Hotel, Eurohacks in check blazers slump on sofas, awaiting their turn as if in an airport lounge. You can tell it's been a long day on the promotional coalface from the cold French fries on the hospitality's silver platter. When Pierce Brosnan steps into the lift on the way up to Pryce's room, his handshake is granite, his tan deep and rich, in stark contrast to his co-star's weary grip and grey complexion. Some time in the last 12 hours, Pryce stepped off a plane from Los Angeles, where he was put through an even more intensive three-day course of interviews.

In other words, no one at this moment can feel less in control of the media than Pryce. He has just had lunch with an American journalist and couldn't even persuade him of Wales's existence. "When I was explaining to him where I grew up, there was a completely blank look on his face. Was this a country that I was talking about? Is it here? Is it England? Is it attached to it?"

Carver is the most charismatic enemy 007 has faced in many a mission. I wonder whether Pryce conducted a survey of Bond villainy before embarking on the role. It turns out that all America and half of Europe has already asked him this one. "Everybody assumes that because there is a long line of villains, you must go back and look at them all, as if you've got something to learn from them. But I didn't." He can't be that ignorant of their collective behavioural history because he adds that "unlike a lot of Bond villains who inhabit some fairytale land, this one was firmly rooted in the real world".

It may well be that he studied the template simply to ignore it. Pryce's Carver, gleefully revelling in his own dastardliness, teeters marvellously on the verge of camp. British interviewers are always asking Pryce when he'll go back to the theatre, and in a way he finally has. Carver is a natural progression from his Engineer in Miss Saigon and Fagin in Oliver!. He is a stage villain who just happens to have ended up on film. (But then he is also of a piece with Pryce's best television roles, the loony journalist in Selling Hitler and the sex- sect leader in Mr Wroe's Virgins.)

It would make an oddly logical double-bill to show Tomorrow Never Dies in tandem with Regeneration, Gillies McKinnon's adaptation of Pat Barker's Booker-winner, which is currently showing in a very gloomy print at the Odeon Haymarket. ("That shouldn't be the case," he says. "I'll get somebody to go and check it.") Pryce plays Dr William Rivers, who presides over the Scottish sanatorium to which the poet Siegfried Sassoon has been sent to have the pacifism knocked out of him. Rivers' job is to mend the cracked minds of the shell-shocked soldiers sufficiently to justify their return to the front line. In the process, his own psyche goes a bit AWOL, too.

The two films find Pryce bridging the quality gap with characteristic ease. He goes from playing one utterly serious historical psychiatrist in a high-brow, low-budget thinkpiece to portraying a comic-strip nutcase in a low-brow, high-budget blockbuster. It would be amusing to find that he filtered what he learned about mental instability from one character into the other.

All he will say, is that "you don't think that you're playing somebody's insanity. What you're playing is his commitment to his ideas, from which he gets great pleasure. Unlike a Murdoch or a Ted Turner, Elliot Carver lives his life in the public eye. He is on his own television screens. So I played up that pleasure, that delight he takes in himself and his power."

From his own absence from the stage, it could be extrapolated that Pryce derives a similar frisson from appearing on screen. He is currently making a John Frankenheimer film in Paris called Ronin, also starring Robert de Niro and Sean Bean. "Personally, I don't feel any withdrawal symptoms as long as I can keep on playing multidimensional roles on films. It's when they become cardboard cut- outs that it's not that interesting. You could have put a pair of scissors around Juan Peron in Evita, but that isn't mine or Alan Parker's doing. That's the part as written. There are a lot of films I made in the past which aren't as good as the ones like Carrington that l've made in the past couple of years. There was a time when I was frustrated and now I'm not frustrated. So, in that sense, it doesn't make me miss working in the theatre."

He made a brief return to live performance this summer in front of an audience of 18,000 at the Hollywood Bowl, where, as Henry Higgins, he performed excerpts from My Fair Lady with Lesley Garrett and Desmond Barrit. "The conductor warned us that after each number you have to step forward to take your bow and imagine that there are 18,000 applauding, because you can't see them. I said, `That's not a problem, because I do it every night before I go to bed.'"

But to what extent is he happy simply to dream of a live audience, rather than seek one out? "I read lots of new plays and they are usually, in many cases, by very well-known writers. I won't say which they are, but there are a couple of instances where the play has been described to me before I've read it and each time I've read it and thought, `what you've just described to me sounds fantastic; unfortunately it's not here on the page'. I do manage to misread plays, as well. I completely misread Art. I hadn't read it with any sense of humour at all." I resist the temptation to tell him that, to turn Art down, he must have been completely insane.

`Tomorrow Never Dies' is reviewed on page 8

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