LONDON — Joffrey’s gone soft.
Sweet, self-effacing, and quick to laugh, the actor who played television’s most hated teenager is also thoughtful, sensitive, and happy to share his doubts about the orgy of violence and misogyny that runs right through the heart of Game of Thrones.
Jack Gleeson was one of the world’s hottest young actors when he left the HBO juggernaut last year, but he turned his back on Hollywood and returned to Dublin to write and produce a family stage show with his friends from college.
He is currently squeezed onto a sofa with three of those friends, his arms periodically coming to rest on their shoulders, as he excitedly describes Bears in Space, which will open in London next month before a planned transfer to the U.S. in 2016.
The allegorical puppet show, aimed at audiences aged “9 to 90,” is about the enduring power of friendship. “I wouldn’t associate it with what I do on Game of Thrones at all,” said Gleeson. “It’s just a completely different thing.”
You can say that again, Jack. As the despicable Joffrey Baratheon, Gleeson’s twisted boy-king had a predilection for sexual violence and the abuse of vulnerable women.
The show’s often-brutal treatment of women has been criticized since the very first season, and Gleeson admits he found it difficult to film some of his sequences.
“Yeah, of course; it’s a tricky thing when you are representing misogyny in that way because I wouldn’t say the show ever implicitly condones misogyny or any kind of violence towards women. But, perhaps, it’s still unfair or unjust to represent it even if the gloss on the representation is a negative one,” he told The Daily Beast.
“Obviously as a 23-year-old man, I can never put myself into the mindset of a woman who has been sexually assaulted, but I think that sometimes you have to represent awful things happening onscreen even if they’re for entertainment because you have to expose the brutality of them, because the chances are you’re not going to see that anywhere. So there’s a chance it engages some kind of empathy but it is a gray area. It might be very traumatic and stressful to watch those scenes.”
One of Joffrey’s most frequent victims was Sansa Stark (Sophie Turner), but his death did little to ease her seemingly endless ordeal. Her plight became even more depressing in the most recent season culminating in the rape scene that Democratic Senator Claire McCaskill described as “gratuitous… disgusting and unacceptable.”
“I think it’s always how you represent that kind of treatment: Are you in some way making it cool, or are you making it into an entertainment product, and is that wrong? Or are you doing it in order to expose the problem of sexual assault?” Gleeson said. “I haven’t seen the scene, so I can't say.”
Hold on, you don’t watch the show?
“Not really—sometimes I catch clips,” he said, laughing. “You know the willing suspension of disbelief, it’s kind of hard to suspend, because you kind of know that the sets aren’t really real, and you kind of know that the actors aren’t really the characters—obviously people know that anyway, but you’re able to convince yourself more when you haven’t actually seen the thing in real life. So, I find it hard to watch.”
In addition to the violence toward women, one of the main criticisms of the show is the gender imbalance of the nudity. Perhaps Gleeson should have volunteered to join his female counterparts in disrobing for his notorious bedroom scenes?
“Even though that would have been technically legal, I think the character Joffrey was probably about 14 or 15. I don’t think that would have been appropriate. But I think there is some male nudity in the show. As I say, I don’t watch it so I can’t really comment, but I have heard that there is male nudity—so I think that is one good thing, to not just objectify women but also objectify the beauty of the male genitalia! We’re all objects together.”
Gleeson hasn’t been up to Belfast, over the border in Northern Ireland—where a lot of the show is filmed—to catch up with the cast since leaving, but he bumps into some of the actors in Dublin. “I don’t really go anywhere else,” he said, laughing. “I feel like there’s nothing else to see in the world. It’s pretty much just me and Aiden Gillen (Littlefinger). Liam Cunningham (Davos Seaworth) lives here as well, I don’t see him a lot because we had a falling out.”
He also saw Kit Harington (Jon Snow) recently but was able to glean no clues about whether he will be resurrected in the next season. “I remember speaking to him maybe about a year ago, after I finished, and they were re-signing contracts and I kind of asked him offhand how many years was the contract for, and he was like: ‘I can’t tell you.’ I was instantly exited from the group of secrecy so I’m in the dark just as much as everyone else.”
His studies have kept him busy between acting jobs but he has now almost completed a degree in philosophy and theology at Trinity College, which included a thesis on Ludwig Wittgenstein.
After the Bears in Space run at the Soho Theatre, Gleeson is going to spread his wings slightly after 23 years in Dublin and move to London with a friend. “For no real reason, just because I’ve never lived anywhere else and it’s a cool place,” he said.
He wasn’t tempted by L.A. He’s not even tempted to take a job in Hollywood. The London Evening Standard reported that he’s been turning down film offers after announcing his retirement from the screen last year. “It doesn’t really happen like that,” he said, switching back and forth between his soft Irish accent and a husky middle-aged American. “It’s not like Steven Spielberg calls you up and is like, ‘I need you, Jack.’ And I say, ‘Steven, can I call you Steven?’ and he says, ‘No—call me Dr. Spielberg.’ And I say, ‘You’ve got a doctorate?’ And he says, ‘No, it’s an honorary doctorate.’”
“It’s not really like that—it’s more just me not putting myself out there for roles.”
Gleeson is still open to changing his mind about his retirement from a screen acting career that included a role as a child in Batman Begins. “It wasn’t really a definitive thing in my mind; one day I woke up and I was like, ‘I’m not going to do this.’ It was simply just as Game of Thrones got bigger and bigger, it was also the stage of life I was at where I was moving through college and finding new interests.”
He’s very clear that the fame—or infamy—of a role like Joffrey had no bearing on his decision to quit. He has no problem with the constant line of fans asking for a picture: “Literally 100 percent of people are just lovely, these guys can attest to it—they have to put up with smartphones being shoved in their hands but no, it’s always a really positive experience.”
What about the millions he could be making in Hollywood? “Yeah, I mean I suppose I’m in the lucky position, I mean, jeez, it’s a tricky question to answer in terms of my like financial status. I suppose I’m in the lucky position where I can look towards an occupation that first and foremost I enjoy rather than [if] it’s financially profitable,” he said, shifting uncomfortably on the sofa for the first time. “I suppose I’m in the position where I’m working out what that thing is, and then hopefully I can become good enough that I earn some money, but that’s a kind of luxury that pretty much no one else has, so I’m very grateful for it.”
For the next few years that thing is performing and producing plays and children’s shows with the Collapsing Horse Theatre Company, a small outfit set up by Gleeson and his friends from Trinity.
“We’d like it to be that people will come to see the show not because I’m in it,” said Gleeson, “but because they want to see a fun hour, hour-and-a-half of entertaining theater. It does help to a certain extent, but we always like it to succeed or fail on its own merits.”
Eoghan Quinn, who plays the main character in Bears in Space, said fantasy fans had become a sort of minor sideshow at their performances. “It’s something that we notice on the periphery. There’s the general theater, comedy-going audience in Dublin and then there’s a minority of people who are there because they’re big Game of Thrones fans; the particular sort of like: ‘Oh my God! Hate Joffrey! Love Jack Gleeson!’ sort of weird vibe.”
The company has been working together for four years, cutting its teeth at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe, and working on dozens of plays, workshops and sketch shows featuring the puppet-mastery of Aaron Heffernan. Over that period, Gleeson went from being a little-known but successful child actor to having one of the most recognized and hated faces on Earth.
“I was thinking: How does he learn his lines for that and not our stuff?” said Quinn. “Maybe something about how much they pay him…”
Cameron MacCauley, another member of the company, deadpanned: “I didn’t watch Game of Thrones for a long time simply out of spite. I didn’t want to fuel your ego.”
“He does that himself,” said Quinn. They often finish each other’s sentences. “Jack is a very genuinely humble man, and a small man—weak anyway. So if you broke him down too much…”
“I’d crumble,” said Gleeson.
“He’d crumble like a biscuit,” agreed Quinn, but Gleeson got the final word amid the giggles: “Like a soft, buttery biscotti.”
Bears in Space is at the Soho Theatre in London from Monday, August 3 to Saturday, August 22.