When I first meet Jack Gleeson, he’s pointing an umbrella at the throat of a girl, whilst her friend snaps a photo on her iPhone. Graciously, he smiles and announces that it was his ‘pleasure’.
Jack and I go back a long way; right back to Season One of Game of Thrones, the international hit TV show in which he portrays evil King Joffrey. When he’s not shooting prostitutes with his crossbow, he’s a philosophy student at Trinity College, Dublin.
Gleeson’s talk at the Union has become something of a viral hit with, at time of writing, almost a million views on YouTube. The reason for the wildfire is that Gleeson seized the opportunity to talk about retiring from acting at the end of Game of Thrones, and his general dislike of celebrity culture. The comments on the video range from ‘Man i feel so slow o.o most of the words and things hes talking about is making me confused it’s like inception all over again’ to ‘Too bad his celebrity draws mostly the worst possible audience to his insightful speech.’
‘I do feel uncomfortable in celebrity,’ he tells me, ‘It’s a weird, like, adoration and elevation. It’s uncomfortable to be on another echelon, it’s nicer to be on the same level as someone but when someone puts you there it’s hard to get out of it.’
We’ve just sat down in the corner, away from the braying masses and he seems somewhat relieved. It’s a pretty rare occurrence for an interviewee to consider talking to a journalist as an escape from celebrity culture, but, lager in hand, Gleeson seems more comfortable.
When I ask him how he manages to remain civil whilst being treated like a fairground attraction, he tells me, ‘There’s no other way to do it. I always just say yes. For you it’s just 30 seconds, but they really get a kick out of it. It might make you feel worse, but they really want the picture and they enjoy the picture. I’ve only had one or two experiences where I’ve been in a really cranky mood and the atmosphere’s been toxic and I’ve just said ‘no’, but that led to a lot of negativity at the time, so I’ve learned to get over myself and just be patient and say yes.’
What really sticks out is the idea that it might make him feel ‘worse’. This isn’t just an unwanted by-product, but something that can be actively negative.
‘Yeah I find it really hard. I don’t find it so hard when I’m on my own, but I find it hard when I’m with friends. Like I’m with my cousin there and he had to leave to get a pint. It makes me uncomfortable that friends might see me as arrogant or see that I enjoy it. And my friendships have to bear the burden of my celebrity, when they’re asked to take photos!’
At this point in our interview, we’re interrupted by some more fans – who have brought the collected works of George RR Martin to be signed, and clearly don’t respect the journalistic authority of Cherwell. Gleeson signs their books with a resigned smile on his face, and when another fan can’t produce a piece of paper (she seems to expect him to provide one) he ends up signing the back of a Tesco receipt.
When the autograph hunting hordes have finally receded, I ask him whether his theatre production company, the Collapsing Horse Theatre Company in Dublin, is something that gives him more satisfaction.
‘I take more of a behind the stage role for that, helping out with the production and writing. That’s really fulfilling, especially as it’s with friends and you have some creative control.
With Game of Thrones I see it as just a job. You just do it and learn the lines and turn up for work and that’s that.’
With minimal interest in Game of Thrones (he drew a shocked silence from the Union’s audience when he revealed that he didn’t even watch the show), I can’t help but feel like we’re not in too different a situation. Sure, he’s a super-rich, super-famous actor, with a devoted following, and I’m just a student with a dictaphone, but we’re roughly the same age and at roughly the same juncture in life. So what does he want to do with himself, once he’s no longer acting?
‘I’ve no idea. I enjoy the comfort of third-level education. I’ll certainly do a Masters and flirt with the idea of doing a PhD. I like writing, but I’ve no idea what.
I’m a huge fan of social theory, even though I come from a philosophy background. I’m a big fan of Å½iÅ¾ek, for example. That would be an ideal line of career, to be a philosopher and get paid to think, but it’s tough.’
I don’t disagree with him, especially when he turns the question back on to me. When I tell him I’ve been rejected from all management consultancies firms, he responds with a short laugh and says, ‘Thank god you did!’ So are we just the same then?
‘For me, the stakes might be slightly higher in some ways. All my friends are thinking the same way as me, but the thing I’m withdrawing from just happens to be in the public eye. Loads of my friends have been doing stuff since they were young and they’ve realised they’re not interested anymore. It’s natural to do something for a while and then realise that it’s become stagnant, especially at the age we’re at. But it just happens that mine is alluring. It’s just not alluring to me.’
With that, we turn out discussion to the classic Oxford careers escape route: further education. I suggest that if he’s concerned about his celebrity, he might consider applying using a fake name.
‘I’d like that- I don’t know if you can do that. I am worried that there’s a bias there. Do you think universities would have a positive bias because I’m famous? [I mention Emma Watson] I’d hate that, to not be validated. What kind of academic research is Emma Watson fucking doing?!’
Unlike Emma Watson (although, perhaps that’s unfair, I have no idea what her interests are), Gleeson seems serious about withdrawing from the public eye. I raise the dreamlike prospect of not being recognised on the street to try and test his resolve.
‘It’s funny; at the moment I feel I’d appreciate that. But because I’m so ‘in it’ at the moment I find it quite hard to get an objective perception of it. Only in two or three years’ time will I be able to look back at it and realise how crazy it was. At the moment I can’t really say whether it’s been a good or bad experience. But I happily wait for the time that I become anonymous again. Perhaps I’ll look back and be like ‘that was amazing’.
At the end of the day, celebrity’s a cultural anaesthetic and I don’t deny that. People enjoy it as a respite – all those celebrity machine shows – but I certainly believe that it’s the public who create the celebrities. It’s interesting that they can be seen as ideals that are representative of the public because, if they’re created by the public, then it’s just inherent that they are representation of what they view as good or bad. So I think there’s a lot of power in the public in terms of celebrity, which isn’t perceived a lot.’
His candour is arresting and I find myself wondering how this will go down with the bosses at HBO. Nobody wants one of their lead actors smack talking the production process of the show they’re meant to be promoting. But still, I ask him what he really makes of the whole Game of Thrones culture.
‘I’ll try and be honest,’ he says, after I interrupt him by asking him not to be tactful, ‘One part of me screams ‘no, I don’t give a shit!’, and then a part of me says ‘well, it’s a big part of my life and a lot of people care about it and I have a duty to care about it.’ I don’t care about the banal questions and the trite questions that I’ve answered a thousand times, but I think I do care about the duty I have as a result of Game of Thrones. And that’s not a tactful answer, it’s an honest answer.’
Whilst I’m tempted to take the ‘no, I don’t give a shit!’ sound bite and use it out of context, Gleeson appears to be speaking the truth when he talks about the show. Much as he is unable to reject the autograph hunters outright, he is unable to dismiss a show, which, he acknowledges, brings pleasure to a lot of people.
But that experience is coming to an end, and, just like most students everywhere, he doesn’t know what’s going to come next. There’s an interesting conflict to observe, meeting someone who is heading towards gentlemanly retirement, whilst only being 21 years old.
‘It’s a bizarre tension. That’s why I’ve done a lot of publicity stuff with GOAL, the humanitarian organisation, and really putting myself out there, whereas, in the past three or four years, I haven’t at all. Perhaps it’s a desire to use this weird thing that’s been given to me: for good, or for selfish means, like tonight. I feel like I’ve resented it for so long that, in five years time, I’ll look back and think ‘that was pretty cool’.
You just have to make sure it meets your moral standards rather than whoring yourself out.’
Before he leaves (supposedly to Park End, although he vigorously shook his head when I asked him about it), I undermine everything he’s talked about over the last hour by requesting a photograph. It takes about 30 snaps for me to get the perfect shot; the perfect Facebook profile picture.
He doesn’t complain.