- 04 May 12
Still in his teens, he’s one of television’s hottest properties – but for Jack Gleeson, it seems there’s more to life than red carpets and critical acclaim.
At 19 years old, Jack Gleeson has a prominent role in one of television’s biggest shows, movie scripts are piling up and slick Hollywood agents are clamouring to turn him into a megastar. But this young man, long earmarked for ‘Next Big Thing’ status, isn’t having any of it.
In his role as the sadistic Joffrey Baratheon, chief antagonist in HBO’s hugely popular fantasy epic Game Of Thrones, the Dublin native cuts a particularly loathsome figure. In person, however, he couldn’t be more removed from his onscreen persona. Friendly and down-to-earth, he displays not a hint of ego during the course of our conversation. Even the remarkable revelation that he’ll be hanging up the acting boots once his Game Of Thrones contract is honoured is so nonchalant that he doesn’t even pause for a reaction.
But I need to make sure that I heard him right. He’s about to hit his 20s, is on the cusp of potential global stardom – and he’s going to walk away from it all? Alright. What’s her name?
“No, there’s no girl involved, unfortunately,” he laughs. “I really wanted to be an actor for ages but I just changed my mind, as young people do. I just realised that I love acting but I don’t want to depend on it for my living. Obviously Game Of Thrones is an incredible experience and it’s not that I had a bad time on it and that’s why I don’t want to be an actor – it’s just that when I was doing the show I thought, ‘This is great fun, but it’s not fulfilling’. I want to pursue other occupations that I feel would give me more satisfaction in life.
“It’s such a weird concept,” he adds, “that we need a purpose in our life and we need an occupation to validate that purpose. It just kind of struck me, not in any immediate way, that even though I love acting and it’s enjoyable to do, that ‘professionalising’ it makes it less enjoyable, when you have to depend on it.”
Jack first tread the boards at the tender age of seven as a member of Dublin’s Independent Theatre Workshop, so perhaps it’s no surprise to find him musing philosophically on his current line of work: he knows what he is talking about. His casual attitude is mirrored by his attire, having come straight from the Smock Alley Theatre, where he’s been hard at work rehearsing for Collapsing Horse Theatre’s debut musical MONSTER/CLOCK: A Play On Time. Decked out in patchwork pants and colourful braces, he looks positively Dickensian. It’s a good look for Jack, considering the rest of the cast are made up of puppets!
“Originally, all the characters were going to be puppets,” he notes. “The director, Dan Colley, made the choice for Toby, my character, to be human. He’s castigated by society because he’s a monster – so we’re kind of playing with that, the Human Vs. Puppet thing. I’ve had no trouble operating the puppets but it certainly is very, very difficult to master it. It’s so hard to split your brain in half because one half is telling you to move your hand a specific way and the other half is trying to remember lines, where you have to be and to be an actor and emote. Initially your eye was drawn more to the actor because he was emoting – but the puppet is the star, so we’ve put the focus on that.”
Jack might insist that the puppet is the star, and the production is very much a team effort, but it’s his face adorning the poster, a natural result of his rising profile. He’s slightly reluctant to be out front, but accepts that it has to be that way.
Is it true that he has been inundated with film scripts?
“It is! And I feel terribly ungrateful saying no to them because everybody wants to be an actor and be in big films, but at the same time I think I have to be true to myself and just bite the bullet and say, ‘I’m sorry, I can’t do it’. At the moment I can’t envisage myself going back to acting – but there’s no point in saying it’s set in stone because we can always change. I’m not sure whether I hope I don’t change, but I’d like to think that I’ve made a solid decision.”
Having received his big-screen break in 2005 with a small but memorable turn in Christopher Nolan’s franchise-reviving Batman Begins, the young Jack came face to mask with the Caped Crusader himself, Christian Bale. Was he shouting at production assistants between takes?
“No, he wasn’t,” he chuckles. “He was lovely. It was a bit of a blur but definitely very cool. I was very young at the time so I don’t think I really knew how big a film it was or the gravitas of the situation. I certainly had a good time and yeah. It’s Batman! Fuckin’ class, yeah. Katie Holmes!”
Seven years on, Gleeson’s screen presence is as commanding as any of those stars’, as he expertly inhabits the character of the cruel Joffrey Baratheon. So, how does it feel to be one of the most hated men on TV?
“It’s weird,” he says. “It’s not something that I really think about that much because it’s such a small part of my life now. 99% of the time I’m just Jack, whereas that 1% of the time I think about Game Of Thrones. I suppose it’s a compliment to my acting ability, but nobody is ever mean to me on the streets or anything (laughs). Everyone’s lovely. There’s no real downside to it.”
Ireland’s relative lack of a celebrity culture allows Gleeson to just get on with things, whether it’s immersing himself in his studies at Trinity College (he’s currently halfway through a four-year course in Philosophy, World Religions and Theology) or going to gigs with friends. In many respects, he’s just your average student, albeit one with something of a seasoned head on his shoulders.
“I’ve always, the past few years at least anyway, wanted to be a lecturer or professor,” he confesses, “but that’s because I feel like I’d be good at it. If I were to have a dream job, it would probably be a poet. Then again, I don’t think I’m a very good poet! I don’t write that often, not as much as I used to. I like a lot of Irish poetry because I think it’s easier to connect to in some ways, the intonation and the rhythm, but I don’t like writing it because I’m not good at it. I think it’s fascinating though. I keep trying to define poetry but it’s so difficult.”
Not for the first time, Gleeson shows something of a self-deprecating side. Is he really so convinced of his own shortcomings?
“Maybe,” he ponders. “Not necessarily. I suppose the acting business is so fickle. It’s not really to do with talent, you know? HBO are very good at casting the best actors though. They don’t really care if you’re good-looking or not, most of the time. Have I experienced much of the fickle side? A little bit, a little bit. It’s more the showbiz side that isn’t nice, the red carpet thing. I try to stay away from that.”
I put it to him that, if he sticks to his guns and stays permanently out of acting, he’s going to piss a lot of people off.
“Yeah?” he smiles. “Well, they’re gonna have to deal with it!”