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Tuesday 23 April 2019

Kneel before King Joffrey: How Dubliner Jack Gleeson gave us Game of Thrones’ greatest villain — then disappeared

Charlotte Runcie on how Dubliner Jack Gleeson gave us Game of Thrones' greatest villain - then disappeared

One of the most evil characters: Jack Gleeson as Joffrey in Game of Thrones
One of the most evil characters: Jack Gleeson as Joffrey in Game of Thrones
Game over: Jack Gleeson with his Game of Thrones co-star Sophie Turner

Charlotte Runcie

Remember Joffrey? One of the most evil characters in HBO's Game of Thrones - a crowded field to be sure - was played with chilling, nauseating aplomb by the young Dublin actor Jack Gleeson, and then killed off smartly at his own wedding in season four.

But the golden-haired boy king's reign of twisted horrors, which at the time seemed endless, belongs to a bygone TV age. Game of Thrones has moved on. These days there are far more ice zombies in the show, and far fewer fiancées forced to gaze on the severed head of their own father. Now that's narrative development.

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Joffrey's evil deeds, however, still loom large, and their effects are still being felt in Westeros and beyond - even seeping into the real world. Joffrey's screen death came with Gleeson's simultaneous decision to quit acting altogether at the age of 21. He took up a place to study Philosophy and Theology at Trinity College Dublin.

"It's not like I hate it, it's just not what I want to do," Gleeson said of acting at the time. He elaborated on his decision in a speech at the Oxford Union in 2014, calling the fame that came with exposure as part of the Game of Thrones cast "an environment from which I instantly wanted to retreat".

Game over: Jack Gleeson with his Game of Thrones co-star Sophie Turner
Game over: Jack Gleeson with his Game of Thrones co-star Sophie Turner

He said he was "relieved" to stop playing Joffrey and that the celebrity that came with the role had a toxic effect on him: "What sort of valuation of the ego would one have once you've let it been preyed upon by the public for years and years? Perhaps, it becomes truly just skin and bones."

That faintly gruesome turn of phrase is fitting coming from someone who played a character responsible for some truly despicable acts, from twisted sexual torture to cold-blooded murder. "Everyone is mine to torment," Joffrey claimed memorably in the show.

But Gleeson's life couldn't be further from his vicious on-screen persona, and in the end Joffrey affected the actor who played him almost as dramatically as his on-screen victims.

Gleeson, who has conducted his life since Game of Thrones with privacy and grace, still largely refuses press interviews, though he's no recluse, and does still make time to meet Game of Thrones fans at conventions. He hasn't entirely ruled out acting ever again, and he now runs a theatre company.

He is one of the co-founders of Collapsing Horse, one of Ireland's most dynamic and inventive theatre companies, the original productions of which, The Water Orchard and Bears in Space, have won acclaim here, in Edinburgh, London and New York.

Gleeson is an active member of the troupe, which workshops the shows together. In 2017, when Collapsing Horse were artistic directors at the Cat Laughs Comedy Festival, Jack provided one of the festival's more surreal moments when he read 9th century comic poetry to a room full of cats - for four hours.

Gleeson, who has four sisters, was also vocal in the campaign to repeal the 8th. "If abortion was to do with a man's body," he commented, "if men were the ones getting pregnant or having abortions we could pick one up in Spar. We would not be having a referendum."

He's one of several of Game of Thrones's young cast members who were thrown into the spotlight at an early age, took part in an array of grisly and provocative scenes, and found themselves famous around the world while still in their teens. Maisie Williams, now 21, who plays Arya Stark, has recently said she's looking forward to taking a short break from acting, and even dyed her hair pink in what she called a subconscious attempt to make sure she didn't take on any more work for a while. Of finishing shooting the series, she told Rolling Stone magazine, "I'm free. I can do anything now."

And although 19-year-old Isaac Hempstead Wright, who plays Bran Stark, said earlier this month that he's not going to "do a Jack Gleeson" and that he does want to continue acting, he acknowledged that fame has had some negative effects on his life. He had to abandon one university degree after his address was published in the press, but is planning to begin a new degree in neuroscience when Westeros is behind him.

One of the reasons it was so surprising that Gleeson decided to quit acting was that he was so good at it. The way we remember Joffrey is largely down to the superb way he was played by Gleeson, with evil coursing through him as pure as a mountain stream, his cherubic face contorted into the disturbing sneer of a psychopath.

Joffrey and his misdeeds, in all of their lurid violence, are some of the things that really set Game of Thrones apart from other TV shows in its early days. They showed firmly that this pseudo-medieval fantasy world was dark, brutal and anything but twee.

Joffrey's atrocities were many. He ordered the death of Ned Stark and then planned to marry Ned's daughter, Sansa, after the aforementioned head-gazing incident. He commanded his knights to beat her, threatened to rape her while his knights held her down, and threatened to make her eat her own brother's head served on a platter. He also ordered for all of Robert Baratheon's illegitimate babies to be killed, made prostitutes attack each other, and he himself murdered a woman in cold blood with a crossbow.

So after all that, back in season four, it felt as if we'd been waiting centuries for the hideous little toerag to meet a deserved grisly end. But now, as the eighth and final season approaches, some of his crimes seem almost quaint compared to what else has happened. The villainous Ramsay Bolton, who liked to dabble in murder-by-hounds and rustic phallectomies, possibly exceeded Joffrey's lust for violence in the end, and Ramsay actually carried out what Joffrey only threatened to do in raping Sansa Stark.

With Ramsay now dead too, there are yet more villains to contemplate in season eight: the Night King, for one; the murderous eyeball-squisher Gregor Clegane; and Joffrey's own mother, Cersei, all still have a lot to play for. Joffrey's death at the 'Purple Wedding', which we saw so many TV hours ago, now blends into a general picture of violence, all but obscured by the dramatic escalation of every subsequent series.

But Joffrey is still unforgettable. When Joffrey ruled Westeros, that was when it really started to feel like a wildly unpredictable place where the inevitability of violence was the only thing you could rely on. It still feels that way.

Whatever happens in season eight, it will take place in the shadow of Joffrey's influence, because Westeros is a place where a boy king could once rule and torment whoever he liked.

He showed that the Iron Throne, and the power that so many characters desire, could be truly despicable. Much of that is down to Gleeson's talent as an actor. Since Joffrey, the power structure of Westeros has been rotten to its very heart, and we begin season eight wondering if it always will be.

 

Iron Throne: The contenders

Daenerys Targaryen

Daenerys (Emilia Clarke) started out as a timid little thing who is now as vicious as her father. Feels the Iron Throne is rightfully hers, and is my favourite to get it.

Cersei Lannister

Self-serving Machiavellian, old Cersei (Lena Headey) is hoping Jon and Dany's armies will exhaust themselves battling the Walkers, leaving her to swoop in victoriously. Might just work.

Jon Snow

Jon (Kit Harrington) is the popular choice. Has a conscience, is not a sadist, but possibly lacks the ruthlessness to claim the throne. He's returned from the dead once, so don't bet against him.

Sansa Stark

Having emerged from the lying influence of the late Petyr Baelish, Sansa (Sophie Turner) might not be badly placed to inherit the throne. She stands to become powerful. An outsider, but you never know.

The Night King

The Night King's only aim is to kill everything that stands in his way and unleash perpetual winter; he's definitely in with a chance now that he has a zombie dragon!

Paul Whitington

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