When Jack Gleeson announced in November 2013 that he would be retiring from acting after concluding his role on “Game of Thrones,” it didn’t come as much of a surprise. He’s made no secret of his preference to avoid interviews and other events to promote the HBO fantasy series, and also has made it clear he wants to focus his efforts on being a scholar.
For a character like Joffrey Baratheon, who is played by a relatively unknown star like Gleeson, the intersection of reality and fiction often become muddled. Instances of Gleeson being harassed by people on the street because they so hate his “Game of Thrones” character make it pretty clear why Gleeson would want to leave the Hollywood scene as soon as he is able.
The 21-year-old was invited to speak at Oxford Union in England on Nov. 27, and video from the event has only now been uploaded online. In a rant of an essay about celebrity culture, Gleeson — often humorously — makes it very clearly why he despises the “brittle pedestal one inch off the ground” he seemingly unwittingly has found himself on.
The 30-minute-long speech is quite long, and Gleeson delves into the history and theories of what he thinks made celebrity such an integral part of society in the present day. He also explains why he opts not to do interviews and steers clear of the public eye. It is very lengthy, so here is a partial transcription of his rant:
“All I’ve done is act in a TV show and pretend to be mean for money, essentially. Worst comes to worst, I thought to myself, I can at least bring along my trusty crossbow and sexually threaten some unsuspecting students with impalement, but we discussed that and that didn’t fly with the board.
“From your invitation, it returned my thoughts to an all too similar event I participated in a few weeks previous during which 20 minutes into a rather long hour-long Q&A session both qs and as respectively dried up very quickly. So with 40 minutes left of the event and apparently all value sucked from it like a tropical mini CapriSun, my blood froze as I gazed out at the sea of awkwardly shifting faces.
“The silence was finally broken by a strained question about what I had consumed for breakfast that morning. It was at that point I realized that after a mere 21 years of a relatively uneventful life, one can not simply expect to talk about oneself for an hour, especially without either sliding into kind of irrelevant or the babbling. I literally just don’t have enough to talk about for an hour.
“So in a bid to kind of avoid the inevitable drought of questions tonight, before we come to the forthcoming Q&A, I decided I would kind of try to waste as much time as possible talking about something that kind of won’t preemptively answer any questions — because every answer is golden in terms of time — but will perhaps hopefully be interesting and relevant to my life and kind of ‘Game of Thrones.’
“So basically, since the show has aired — and apologies for the kind of length and boring nature of this. I did it all last night and it’s very rambling and please feel free to switch off at any point during it, but I’m just going to try and read it in an interesting way, because it’s not interesting.
“Since the show has aired, I feel I’ve been given an insider look into an ever-pervasive and yet often mysterious aspect of society; namely, our culture of celebrity. Strangers on the street now call me ‘Jack,’ and my public image is democratized by fans and public institutions alike on the Internet. I’m also given opportunities, like this one tonight, which I see as truly once in a lifetime.
“So feeling somewhat within but also very much abstracted from modern ‘celebrity culture,’ if you want to call it that, that kind of feeling has provoked a lot of reflection within me about my position within the thing, so I kind of wanted to take this opportunity to perhaps talk about those reflections. But I do appreciate the irony about talking about kind of celebrity in this context. I hope the irony is taken with a pinch of salt.
“I feel like some of these reflections are perhaps somewhat unique in the sense that I’m in a unique position straddling kind of cigarettes and books of a student simultaneously with the cocaine and prostitutes of a celebrity.
“Ever since my mother sent me to Saturday morning grammar classes when I was 7, I wanted to become a famous actor. I loved the idea of captivating an audience and moving them truly through performance, but more importantly being recognized and heavily lauded for that talent.
“Early on, I just performed in some small films and short plays and the like, most notably giving my Joseph in a school nativity at age 8. Critics hailed my Joseph as being ‘raw’ and ‘entrancing’ and having a ‘profound insight into the character that will never be matched by anyone ever again.’
“It was thrilling. Indeed, I drew a great deal upon my Joseph when I played ‘little boy’ in ‘Batman Begins’ in 2005. ‘Little boy’ had the same passion and drive I’d seen in Joseph, the same resilience, but most importantly the same love for his pregnant wife Mary.
“However, despite only being a minute role, my appearance in ‘Batman Begins’ presented me with my first encounter with ‘celebrity.’ After the film came out, I was always forever ‘the kid from ‘Batman.” Amongst my peers, my now defining feature being brought up as an ice breaker; a vaguely memorable tidbit on certain social occasions.
“The labeling didn’t bother me, but I didn’t necessarily enjoy it. However, little did I know that a far more concentrated form of that slight societal abstraction was going to be placed in my lap five years later when I would, as a bright-eyed and bushy-tailed 17-year-old, step into an audition for some HBO show called ‘Game of Thrones.’
“Chapter Two [laughs]. If I’m being honest, upon hearing the joyous news that I’d received the role of Joffrey, I really did not expect all the subsidiary things that come from … being an actor on a successful television program. I had no predictions or expectations of all the attention, invitation to events, and of course all the cocaine and prostitutes that awaited me around every corner. I was literally just excited to act in a cool show.
“Perhaps that was naivety or perhaps — like everyone else involved in the show — I just simply didn’t anticipate the success of it. In any case, whatever the reason was, what it led to was a sharp shock when I realized I had, unbeknownst to me, signed an invisible contract which required me to enter into a strange new echelon of society.
“People suddenly wanted to take pictures of me on the street, and journalists were interested in what kind of socks I preferred. Among certain groups of my peers, my jokes seemed to become a lot funnier, which perhaps was all the comedy books I was reading at the time or perhaps it was sycophancy, I don’t know.
“It was an atmosphere from which I instantly wanted to retreat. I detested the superficial elevation and commodification of it all, juxtaposed with the grotesque self-involvement it would sometimes draw out of me. Being a faceless member of a mob, I soon realized, is far more comforting than teetering on a brittle pedestal one inch off the ground.
“The exclusion and subtle differentiation that comes with even a rather diluted form of celebrity that I had embarrasses me. But what shook me as most odd, however, about the whole thing was how I odd I indeed found it all. Celebrity is seen by a huge amount of people and certainly myself for a while as the pinnacle of society, of success. It is revered almost religiously, both the institution and its quickly growing member base.
“Indeed, these days the apotheosis of celebrity is not just combined to the worship of movie idols, pop stars, sports heroes or even reality TV stars. We have bloody celebrity chefs, authors, comedians, politicians, intellectuals, scientists, business people, cheesemongers or something, milliners — hat makers, for those of you who didn’t get that — who constantly stick out their faces at us on advertisements and talk shows, magazines covers. But this reverence and invasion is often welcomed and indeed fostered by a great percentage of the public.
“I started to wonder why that was and whether there was any harm in that reverence. They’re just people, after all. So whilst one can trace the origins of kind of celebrity or whatever you want to call it back to the Romantic era, and people like Samuel Johnson, or even before — Beckett — it was truly in the 20th century — proliferation of photography, radio, television and finally mass media — that finally a fecund ground could be laid for, in particular, sports stars, movie stars and singers to be massified as recognizable, influential public figures.
“This kind of fostered a culture dominated by what [Jean] Baudrillard called the ‘simulacra,’ which are images that contain no reference to the real world. For upon being able to, for the first time, see and also hear the well-known figures of the time — people like Charlie Chaplin and Gloria Swanson — the public began to kind of, perhaps unconsciously, reduce them down to their image alone, leading to a perhaps irreparable commodification of these photogenic celebrities.
“… So what are the dangers, then, involved in being a celebrity? On the one hand, in some ways, there’s the true loss of the self by virtue of being over-democratized, over-saturated — over-loved, perhaps. Without an internally directed compass, an ego can drown in its own fascination, leaving the bearer unable to posit or hang anything actual onto themselves.
“… Celebrities become excluded from every day life, kind of in exile in an echelon that is deemed better anyway: Life of celebrity, all the fame and glamor. However, no matter how much we can lust after this exile, wanting to be a celebrity is a manifestation of a dehumanization, essentially. One becomes easier to fictionalize when removed from any self-likeness of the perceiver, and thus easier to judge and also consume.
“And lastly, of course, there’s the issue of privacy. That comes up a lot. We’ve seen … why we become fascinated by the banal, mundanity of celebrity life. You know, what kind of bananas they like, and stuff. They are the prescribed role models of our time, representing some form of ideal in apparently every aspect of life, be it in their professional success, cheese preference or even drug preference.
“Perhaps the desire to simultaneously position celebrities on both planes — the ordinary and the abstracted — is a bid to retrieve some of the immortality we have given them. By empathizing with them and humanizing them to an extent, we for a brief moment share in ‘the glory of celebrity life’ — or perhaps at least remind ourselves that if they can do it, I can do it.
“In conclusion — thankfully — it seems that celebrities have become vessels of either, as I say, an economic, revolutionary or sociological instinct to consume and imitate certain extraordinary members of society. We’ve seen how this reverence can have profound effects on both parties, oftentimes more negative than positive.
“I believe that communal admiration of individuals is healthy for society. It facilitates, in one way, the base of our universal standard, morals, but also publicly espouses the virtue of certain practices that are kind of like ‘inherently good’ in some kind of ideas of what the good is.
“However, this kind of celebritization is only a positive one if the individual represents values that should be imitated by, say, a reasonable, moral person. We need to be choosier with our celebrities, or else we may find ourselves again in that situation where we just find ourselves acting out the role of the town drunk constantly.
“And we also need to temper the concentration with which we love to celebritize; primarily for the sake of the celebrities themselves and their self-evaluation, but also for ourselves. Just as the object of our attention can become rendered hollow and externally directed with too much worship, so too I feel can the worshipers sacrifice their own individual self or autonomy in favor of giving it up to a higher power.
“We need to fight against our human instinct to deify our role models, but also fight against our instinct to subjugate our own individuality in the process. Star gazing is one of the most profoundly human things one can do. But perhaps we must more frequently tear ourselves away from the mystery and beauty of the starry heavens above, and rather inspect, admire and foster the moral law within.”