"It is Listen Up Philip, isn't it?" says Jonathan Pryce, a flicker of uncertainty crossing his face as he sits down. His new film is indeed what we're here to talk about, but the hesitation is forgivable: after all, we're meeting in the offices of the Globe Theatre in London, where he is due on stage in a few hours for another performance as Shylock in The Merchant of Venice.
The television show Game of Thrones, in which he plays a crusading priest called the High Sparrow, is headed to the end of its its fifth season. And he's been playing another religious figure, Cardinal Wolsey in the BBC series Wolf Hall.
But Listen Up Philip, a barbed comedy in which he channels "all the shit people that I've known" to portray a loathsome elder-statesman novelist with an unkind whiff of Philip Roth about him, brings him back to the 20th century. Small wonder if it's all a bit of a jumble.
But this kind of variety is what Pryce has always done best, to an extent that makes giving a potted summary of his career nearly impossible. His performances on film and television range from the put-upon bureaucrat Sam Lowry in Brazil to the polo-necked Bond baddy in Tomorrow Never Dies, from the jut-bearded, cut-glass-voiced Lytton Strachey in Carrington to the mandarin Cardinal Wolsey.
He has done unapologetic bread-and-butter work in American blockbusters (three Pirates of the Caribbean films, two GI Joes), has performed in musicals from Miss Saigon to Evita, and has given stage performances that are still cited as some of his generation's best.
At 67, he remains as busy as ever, and he certainly looks well on it: smooth-bearded and soft-spoken, with a striking facial resemblance to Pope Francis and greenish eyes that gleam under satirically lowered lids.
Pryce's dry humour is, thank heavens, a world away from his persona in Listen Up Philip, an independent feature written and directed by the 30-year-old Alex Ross Perry, which applies the droll tone of Woody Allen's early films to a harsh and modern comedy of hipster manners.
It follows a young New York novelist called Philip Lewis Friedman (played by Wes Anderson regular Jason Schwartzman) who cheerlessly lays waste to the feelings of his loved ones while preparing to publish his second novel. His book catches the eye of Ike Zimmerman (Pryce), an ageing titan of 20th-century literature, who invites him to stay at a country house in upstate New York.
But Zimmerman turns out to be another dreadful figure, with a long string of broken marriages and scorched-earth friendships behind him.
"I'm not Zimmerman," says Pryce when I tell him how arrestingly awful the character is, "but I recognise his cynicism about the world he moves in. Forty-odd years of being an actor, that's 40-odd years of critics' reviews, and 40-odd years of people either getting it or not getting it. You're more angry about those who don't get it. And the praise, when they praise you, is never enough." He laughs quietly. "I found it fun to be that horrible."
Much discussion of Listen Up Philip has concerned the extent to which Pryce's character is supposed to parody the writer Philip Roth. The surname certainly appears designed to evoke that of Nathan Zuckerman, Roth's most famous literary alter ego, while the string of perfectly pitched cover designs that throng his shelves are visible mickey-takes of Roth's output from the 60s and 70s.
Taxed with this, Pryce offers an elusive smile. "It is very much a Philip Roth kind of character," he says, "but I don't think Roth is as nasty as Zimmerman. It's definitely there as an influence for Alex to have written this piece. But Roth is one of my favourite writers, and obviously, while he has a large ego, I don't think it's gone the way of Ike."
Instead, he says, the character is drawn from templates much closer to home. "I know writers," he says, grimacing slightly, "and they seem to be the most disgruntled part of the art world. America is littered with novelists who leave New York and go to live in the country. There are English writers, whom we all know, who are very dissatisfied with their lot: even though they get mega-recognition they're still complaining about critics and audiences who don't understand their work." He's naming no names.
Do actors, then, not complain?
"It seems to happen more with writers," he says. "Actors, when they're older, still get a chance to let off steam or something, and work things off on stage."
Perhaps, I suggest, the difference has something to do with the sociability of the two professions. Ike and Philip become friends because nobody else can tolerate them, but surely even the most exalted actors can't act in a vacuum, even on film? "Not even then," Pryce agrees. "Well, you can attempt to. I've seen a bit of that. It was very amusing to do GI Joe: Retaliation scenes with Bruce Willis, who spends months rewriting his dialogue and then turns up and doesn't say it. Part of the time he doesn't say anything, but mumbles and mutters.
"It's quite an interesting way to work," he goes on.
"I mean, I'm not telling tales out of school because I'm not going to affect his career one bit, but he will go, 'Hrrhmmhrrhmm'?" - he moves his mouth conversationally, emitting an unsettling mutter at the edge of audibility - "and he was rather shocked that I responded not with the lines as written, but mumbled back. And then, in post-production, you can put any dialogue on there that you want."
My bark of laughter at the thought of two august thesps rhubarbing at each other must be too loud, because Pryce looks worried and begins backtracking:
"I mean, he didn't do it throughout the film."
Back to Listen Up Philip, which, Pryce explains, was a delight once he was allowed to work on it.
"I read the script," he says. "I then had a Skype call with Alex Ross Perry, which was my first Skype meeting and my last."
He shudders. "It's weird, looking at an image of someone you don't know and trying to sound natural. Anyway, I thought it all went very well, and then Alex went away and decided not to cast me."
That elusive smile reappears. "I was a bit furious. His entirely racist reason was because I'm not Jewish, and he wanted a Jewish actor. So then he came crawling back, saying he'd made a terrible mistake and wanted me to do it, and that's when I told him that 30-odd years ago I worked for Mel Brooks, we had lunch together, and Mel Brooks thought I was Jewish." He taps the table, doing a lordly-actor tone. "And if Mel Brooks thinks I'm Jewish, that's good enough for you!"
And then, of course, there is the flurry of fandom that comes with Game of Thrones, another job that almost passed him by altogether. He turned down a part in the first season, he says, "because it's a genre I don't really respond to very well: swords, sorcery, fantasy things. I looked at the names, looked at some bits of dialogue, and thought, 'Oh God, no, not for me.' But this time around, when they sent the script and it was the role of High Sparrow" - he gives a private smile - "and it was a name I could say. He has a very good storyline, a great character, and I could see no reason for not doing it."
What's more, he has had more messages congratulating him on getting the part than he has had for anything else in his career. "Nobody emailed saying, 'Marvellous, you're doing King Lear, darling!'" he sums up, with dry amusement in his voice.
"But I did get, 'Wow, you're doing Game of Thrones!' There was a feeling that I'd really made it at last."
That he's played two powerful religious figures in a row on major television series isn't lost on Pryce.
"[High Sparrow] goes about things in an entirely different way to Wolsey. Where Wolsey is all riches and finery, High Sparrow is all about living with the people. He spends a lot of his time on his knees scrubbing floors and washing people's feet. Yet at the same time he is every bit as powerful as Wolsey in Wolf Hall."
Who: Jonathan Pryce
What: His roles as the High Sparrow in Game of Thrones (season five final on SoHo on Monday) and Cardinal Wolsey in BBC series Wolf Hall (now screening on Lightbox)
Also: His new film, Listen Up Philip, will be released later this year.