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‘Dough’ actor Jonathan Pryce drawn by its message

By Barbara Vancheri / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

Even at 8:15 p.m., in a long-distance call from England, Jonathan Pryce’s voice comes across as clear, rich and distinctive as ever.

He is rehearsing for “The Merchant of Venice” at Shakespeare’s Globe but was happy to take a little time to talk about how he seems to be everywhere these days, including in “Dough,” a dramedy screening twice during the Mandell JCC Hartford Jewish Film Festival.

Pryce portrays Nat, a baker who is struggling to hold onto his family business despite slumping sales and a nearby big-box competitor. He finds an unlikely apprentice in Ayyash (Jerome Holder), a young Muslim refugee from Darfur who boosts sales when he accidentally and then secretly salts some of the dough with a little pot or hashish. One older customer, who unwittingly serves brownies laced with something extra to her guests, enthuses, “Best bridge club ever.”

Pryce tends to keep working but it’s a coincidence that all of the projects are tumbling out at the same time. He turns up as Cardinal Wolsey in PBS’s “Wolf Hall,” the new High Sparrow in “Game of Thrones,” a Supreme Court justice in “Woman in Gold,” an undertaker/mayor in “Salvation” and an esteemed author in “Listen Up Philip.”

So why “Dough”? “I liked what it was trying to say. I liked the fact that it involved the Jewish community and the Muslim community. Looking at it now, it seems with the horrors that are happening in the world — they always were happening but at the moment they seem particularly horrible — it was almost as if we were making a rather naive time. Even a couple of years ago, things seemed simpler.”

He had read this script all the way through, rather than picking it up and putting it down.

The veteran actor still remembers the excitement he felt in reading “Brazil,” Terry Gilliam’s Kafkaesque vision of an office worker for a monolithic organization that controls society. He gets a charge when strangers, especially young people who were barely born when “Brazil” was released in 1985, approach him and talk about the film as if it were made last week.

“I’ve played a number of Jewish characters — I’m not Jewish — and it was an opportunity to find out more about the Orthodox faith, which has informed my playing Shylock now. I don’t know what it is about me and Jewish roles, but I’ve done a number.”

Although it’s not unusual for actors to employ hand doubles when they’re playing musical instruments or typing or cooking on screen, Pryce and his young co-star spent time with a baker in Budapest, where all of the interiors were shot to supplement two weeks of location work in London. “I was very impressed with my challah,” he quipped about the braided Jewish bread he prepares.

While audiences know Pryce from any number of projects — Tony-winning turns in “Miss Saigon” and “Comedians,” the Bond villain in “Tomorrow Never Dies,” Governor Weatherby Swann in three “Pirates of the Caribbean” adventures, etc. — his co-star is a relative unknown.

“Jerome was 18 when we were making it, he’d just started university. He’d done some [TV] work as a teenager, and I found him delightful to be with. He’s very intelligent, bright and funny. We were in the same hotel in Budapest so we would have dinner together most nights. He’s a good lad,” from London. “He spent time learning the accent and also the rituals of the prayers.”

The 67-year-old native of Wales has another week of rehearsals before appearing as the money-lender Shylock in “The Merchant of Venice” at the open-air London playhouse.

“It’s an extraordinary play to be doing at this time, with the rise of antisemitism in Europe and racism in general. It’s a difficult play. I played King Lear now three years ago. King Lear’s a walk in the park compared to Shylock. It’s much more difficult. It’s easier when you’re the king than when you’re the victim and you’re in the hands of so many other people and so many other people’s prejudices. …

“It will be an unadorned production of the piece, it will be the piece as written by Shakespeare. Its value will be that people can then put on it their own interpretations. We’re not making any direct references to how contemporary this is, which I like. It’s for the audience — they’re not stupid — to say how this reflects what’s happening in the world.”

Copyright ©, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, 2016, all rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.

“Dough” will be screened as part of the Hartford Jewish Film Festival on two Sundays: April 3, 7:30 p.m. at Spotlight Theatres, and April 10, 4:30 p.m. at Bow Tie Cinemas Palace 17. For ticket information visit hjff.org, call (860) 231-6316, or email tickets@mandelljcc.org.

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