Anthony Hopkins and Jonathan Pryce, arguably two of the greatest actors ever to come out of the British Isles, have surprisingly only worked together once before. The two Welshmen collaborated on a special one-night production of Dylan Thomas’s Under Milk Wood in the presence of Prince Charles in December 1992. But as they gather to discuss their latest collaboration on The Two Popes, Hopkins has to remind Pryce that he had directed Pryce’s work in the show.
Why has it taken them this long to find a pair of roles—one German and one Argentinian Pope—that brought them together in a major way? Perhaps it was divine intervention. In Anthony McCarten’s delectably literate and entertaining screenplay, The Two Popes, directed with style and grit by Fernando Meirelles, they both get to roll off dialogue that would be the envy of any actor, and both have landed deserved Oscar buzz ever since the Netflix movie premiered in Telluride over Labor Day.
The film imagines what might have been said behind closed doors during three known encounters between Cardinal Bergoglio—the soon-to-be Pope Francis, played by Pryce—and Pope Benedict (Hopkins) before the latter abdicated from the Papacy. It is the first such instance of two popes living at the same time in some 700 years. As the men come to know one another, their differences lead to spirited debate, as they strive to find a common spirituality.
DEADLINE: For two guys from Wales, growing up to be Pope seems like a pretty good trajectory. It must be daunting to play a Pope, since they’re so visible, so known around the world. So, what was your reaction when this project came to you?
JONATHAN PRYCE: My agent called me and said, “You’ve been offered the role of Pope Francis,” and I said, “God, I don’t want to do that.” I was quite reluctant to even think about it. And then, I could see what a good script it was, and a great story; even if this hadn’t been a living person, if it was a work of fiction, it would still be a great story.
And then, you read it, it’s quite a dry read. But when I was told Fernando Meirelles was directing it, I felt this was not going to be a biopic, it was going to have a great energy and a life to it that he brought to his other films, City of God being one of my favorites. And then they were looking for a good actor to play [Benedict]. They looked all over the world to find somebody. It was offered to all kinds of people [laughs]. And finally, we have to make do with this South Wales actor, [Anthony Hopkins].
So, that whole package made me feel very confident that it was something I wanted to do, plus my respect and admiration for Pope Francis. I mean I’m not a Catholic, but I respected him as a politician and a world leader.
DEADLINE: Didn’t they ask you to do Pope Francis right as he became Pope?
PRYCE: The day he was created Pope. There was a call from Argentina and they came from Argentina to meet me. And I think they decided I wasn’t quite there yet. I think they thought I wasn’t quite the caliber of religiosity that they wanted.
DEADLINE: You look like him. It’s all over the internet.
PRYCE: Well that was the day he was announced. My photograph was next to his, and even one of my sons called me and said, “Dad, are you the Pope?” So, the seeds were laid then.
DEADLINE: Anthony, you played Benedict, a wildly different kind of Pope. Did you pay much attention before? Did you like him?
ANTHONY HOPKINS: No, I’m not an avid reader of the news in the last few years, so I didn’t know. And I never do research. I used to when I was younger. I was having breakfast with the writer of The Father, and my agent happened to join us. I was very keen to do this thing called The Father, which I did eventually do. My agent said, “They’ve offered you the Pope, Ratzinger.” Well I knew of Ratzinger, and I knew he’d resigned, and he was German. He said, “What do you think?” I said, “Well, fine, send the script.” So, they sent the script.
What I gathered from it, reading all the Argentinian stuff first—I knew [Pryce] was in it—but when I looked at it, I thought, This is pretty well-written. I’m not a judge of writers, but it was not heavy. There was talk of ecclesiastical stuff, but I liked it, and I’m fascinated by the fact that he was German, because Germany had a tremendous amount of guilt for years. I thought, everyone judges everyone. Nobody has any conversation anymore. What I liked about him was this kind of isolation that I myself experience. I’m not a very touchy-feely person, and I’m a little reserved, and I mind my own business. I thought, I can really get this man.
I’ll tell you a quick story, if I may. I was in Rome in 1984 with Bob Hoskins, and there’s this old man, and he’s a priest in the Vatican. He’s Austrian. He recognizes me in the hotel and says, “I want to buy you coffee.” So, we went and had coffee. And he said, “What troubles you?” He was very jolly. An old man. He’s obviously dead now, he would be 120, it was 1984. He said, “You have a faith? You believe in God?” I said, “I don’t know.” He said, “You shouldn’t be so discontented, young man. I’ll tell you something. When I went through a dark night of sorrows, I suffered a loss of my faith. And one day, I was here, on the Spanish Steps, and I saw all these people, these pretty girls and everything.” For a priest to say that… He said, “And I thought, that’s God, so you must enjoy your life. I’ll tell you one thing, my friend. I may never see you again, but one day you will come back to Rome and you will be in for a big surprise.” And it only occurred to me five days ago.
You know, memory is selective. We shut out most of our lives. We don’t know how we get here at all, to know what our journey is around, to be very touchy-feely about it and ‘la la land’. I suddenly thought, My God. I don’t put any great significance on that, but it is peculiar.
It was a very easy role for me to play. I’d have to play an old man, and I am an old man [laughs]. I know he had bad legs, and I have bad legs, and I have a bad back. So, working with Jon and then going into the scene in the Sistine Chapel, I really did have to deal with getting up the steps. So, it was no big stretch for me.
I do like to know the lines so well, and I had to learn Latin and Italian, but because I was such a duffer at school, I’ve got this obsession of, I’ve got to know, I’ve got to know, and that’s my one control factor, I guess. I’ve got to know my lines. So, it was very easy just knowing the dialogue, and we did this first scene in the garden together, where I had to stumble about in Latin a bit, but I enjoyed it. I enjoyed the challenge of learning a bit of Latin, a bit of Italian, and then to be in Rome.
DEADLINE: You’d worked with Fernando Meirelles in 360. Does he go for improvisation? It’s such a beautifully written script, but did he encourage anything like that?
HOPKINS: He’s very generous. I mean, he asked me about it. I was a little nervous about the piano. He said, “So you play the piano?” I said yeah. He said, “Can you play some jazz?” I said, “Well I can’t play jazz, but I’ll tell you what…” so I improvised all the modern stuff I know. And I was a bit nervous about that. I told him the story about the priest and he said, “Yeah, that’s good.”
But no, I think when you get a script, why rewrite it? When an actor says, “Can I rewrite your thing?” It’s, “Come on, are you a writer?” I’m not. But you know, you can push a few buttons here and there.
PRYCE: You said, “I want to play a bit of Smetana,” and so he played Smetana. And then Fernando said they went to get clearance for Smetana, the music, and they discovered this piece of music didn’t exist and it was him [Hopkins]. He’d written it.
DEADLINE: You had written it? So, they just needed to clear it with you?
HOPKINS: I could have charged a lot of money for that.
PRYCE: Yeah, he only did it for residuals [laughs].
DEADLINE: You did a score for a movie—August.
HOPKINS: I have fun with it.
DEADLINE: For me what came up, watching this, was you both made these popes so human and people we can identify with.
HOPKINS: Well, from my point of view, I’m not like Ratzinger, but, in this script, what I got and sympathized with [as] the root cause, was his terrible loneliness. Because he is a man of the Church, he’s a man of conservative values, and the structure of the Church—that doesn’t make him evil. He just believes in what he believes: Structure. And that causes a tremendous loneliness. And then this young Marxist comes in, this guy from the streets, I don’t trust him. And I think, Well, he seems all right. I mean, he likes football, I don’t know anything about football, but…
And I thought, That’s the crucial point in thinking that Ratzinger is not an iron-clad conservative, he’s just an old man who’s lonely in the Church. Maybe any wise man, any older man, would say, “There must be other answers,” and, “I can’t be right all the time.”
That’s the wonderful thing as you get older, is that now I just have a ball. I don’t know anything anymore. I can’t take opinions about this, that, and the other. Because now in this country and all over the world, everyone wants to condemn and execute. But give the guy a chance, whoever they are. There’s a scandal here about school admissions and all that. Everyone wants death. I think, Come on, stop it. Because this guy said, 2000 years ago, “Cast ye the first stone who has not sinned.” Smart man. He hung out with the hookers and the drunks. He didn’t hang out with the goody-goodies. I’m talking about Jesus.
DEADLINE: This is imagined conversation. We have no idea what they actually said to each other. And you said you don’t do much research, but did you try to figure out their way of thinking? Did you look at YouTube or anything to try to figure out these guys?
PRYCE: Well I looked at YouTube, because what you present, what you say, is all in the script, and people can make their minds up about what you’re saying. But it’s how he behaved, and how he was when he said it physically that was important to me.
I’ve played real characters before, but this is the first living character I’ve portrayed. So, everyone has an idea of what he’s like. I couldn’t get away with it if I didn’t… I mean, I was at an advantage in that I’m supposed to look a bit like him, but it was more to do with the essence of the man, and how he spoke and how calm he was when he spoke. And he speaks quite quietly. But also, looking back at YouTube clips of earlier in his life when he was being interrogated, questioned by his fellow Cardinals about his possible involvement with the Junta, and seeing how angry he looked, sitting there being interviewed and interrogated. He’s sitting at a table looking very grim, and his hand is drumming the table, which shows his impatience with them, and he wasn’t taking this lightly.
Then talking to a Jesuit priest in Buenos Aires who worked with him and underneath him, who didn’t like him. Because we have this image of this benevolent Pope who’s happy and smiling all the time, and making people feel good about themselves. He said, “We didn’t like him. He was very strict, and when he was made Pope and he was on the balcony, we didn’t recognize him because he was smiling, and we knew him as the man who never smiled.”
So, you put these things together with what is documented about his early life. How he didn’t want to be a priest, and he had this epiphany, and I think it was just today, somebody said, “How did you build the character?” And I said, “I didn’t. He did.” It’s documented and it’s there for you to see the progression of the man. What’s great is that he’s a flawed character, he’s a flawed man, he comes with a history. And when he gets to be Pope, there’s a kind of liberation in him, and he’s able to talk freely about things. He’s there to instigate change in the Church and change in the world.
DEADLINE: So many things were surprising. I was surprised that Pope Benedict would see him as his successor, since they seemed on such opposite sides. But he summons him there and he’s going to tell him this secret.
HOPKINS: I found it very touching that, in my interpretation of him, it was written that he is not a stolid, fanatical conservative. He’s a soft man, and he’s getting older, and he thinks, I don’t know that much. If I’m a true Christian, I’d be like Socrates, I know nothing. Socratically, wisdom comes when you don’t know anything. Maybe this guy, this young [guy] who sings Abba, he seems a good man to me. He’s not stealing from the Vatican and browbeating me. He seems pretty pleasant. Maybe he’s the guy, I don’t know. I can’t do it anymore.
And I think that’s when it comes. If I haven’t liked someone in my life it makes me think, What’s my problem? He seemed to be perfectly OK. That’s my paranoia, that they don’t like me. They have better things to do than think about me.
DEADLINE: You make the interaction between them look easy.
PRYCE: We weren’t sitting there struggling, asking, “Why is he saying this? What’s he thinking?” It’s apparent in the script. And also, Fernando creates an atmosphere in which it’s, you just do it. It almost seems perfectly natural. He’s not directing you to do it in a certain way. He’s definitely got in his mind how he wants the whole thing, the shape of the whole thing. But it’s just, he gave us wonderful freedom.
HOPKINS: We had a slight argument because he’s exacting in a very good way, Fernando, he knows what he wants to see, and total liberty is wonderful. But there was a moment when I thought, This is not working. So, I asked him, “Could I throw that line in about resigning and then get up and walk away?” And he said, “Why?” I said, “Well, can I show you?” He said, “Yeah, OK.” The line was, I think, “I’m going to resign,” and then I get up and walk away, like a hand grenade thrown over my shoulder. Little moments like that, I’d say, “Can I try that?” And he’s wonderful, but you’d have to prove it. He’d say, “Oh, yeah. That’s good. Good. Can we shoot now?”
DEADLINE: You two actually had only worked together once before, in Under Milk Wood.
HOPKINS: I directed him.
PRYCE: I don’t remember. He says he directed me.
HOPKINS: He played Second Voice and I played First Voice. You’d forgotten that, hadn’t you?
PRYCE: Yeah. I was doing this Q&A, oh God, only last night, at the Screen Actors Guild. They had had a screening, and they were doing a Q&A, and I told the story about—we have this story about our rivalry—I was number one on the call sheet, he was number two. And then he gets his own back by emailing me, and signing it off, “Sir Number Two.”
HOPKINS: [Laughs] Did they like that?
PRYCE: Yeah. Then, from the back, this guy stands up and he says, “OK. So, you were number one on the call sheet, and he was number two. But onscreen, he gets first billing.” And I said, “It’s alphabetical,” and gave him the finger. I said, “In Wales, that means bless you.” It’s not alphabetical.
DEADLINE: That’s an interesting thing to say, because we’re in awards season here, and the ads are campaigning for you, Jonathan, as lead actor, and you, Anthony, as supporting. Do you two see it that way?
HOPKINS: Yes, absolutely.
PRYCE: He carried me through the film. All the politics of that? Nothing to do with us.
HOPKINS: We’ve got nothing to do with that. We worked as a team together.
PRYCE: It’s not a competition.
DEADLINE: How did it help you shooting in Rome, so close to the Vatican? You couldn’t actually shoot at the Vatican.
DEADLINE: But, it’s beautiful, the production design.
HOPKINS: Isn’t it beautiful?
DEADLINE: The recreation of the Sistine Chapel is stunning.
HOPKINS: Yes, for me it was fascinating, and I had time to contemplate it, and think a bit about religious stuff, and the design. You could look at all the great paintings of Michelangelo, and there’s an interesting one in the Vatican itself, in the Sistine Chapel, where God’s touching the finger of Adam. Michelangelo would go into these autopsies and cut open bodies. And I think his message was in plain sight. His message was that God, whatever it is, is in us. We may have developed that idea of God 300,000 years ago.
DEADLINE: Audiences laugh so much in this movie that you could almost call it a comedy in some ways.
PRYCE: When we made it, we weren’t thinking of being funny at all, were we?
PRYCE: We just were thinking of being honest with each other, and that humor in different hands might have been completely different.
DEADLINE: It could have been shtick.
PRYCE: Yeah. It could have been shtick, or it could have been very unfunny.
HOPKINS: But then there’s a moment where everything’s very serious, and the silence at the beginning of the scene, and I say, “Sometimes it’s hard to hear the voice of God, or what the plan is.” And that’s a somber moment of loneliness. And then we have a discussion, and there are flashbacks to Argentina. I go off and play the piano, and I think by doing those serious scenes first of all, and then playing the piano… It doesn’t take a genius to figure that out, that playing the piano is a bit of entertainment. He’s coming to listen to me, and they’ve both got a sense of humor about it. And he mentions “Eleanor Rigby”, and I say, “I don’t know.” But it’s so human, between two old men.
DEADLINE: The wonderful scene as you’re leaving, you say, “Let me show you the tango.” Was that in the script?
PRYCE: Was it? I don’t remember.
HOPKINS: I say, “Don’t come back.”
PRYCE: Yeah. That wasn’t in the script.
DEADLINE: It looks so natural, but that must have been fun, too.
HOPKINS: Oh, it was.
PRYCE: Yeah, it was all fun, actually.
HOPKINS: And they would film so quickly, we couldn’t do endless takes.
PRYCE: No. We owe a lot to César [Charlone, cinematographer]. Because there were static cameras about, but César was always with the hand-held, and the camera’s always moving. It gave it an energy, and a life to old men talking. And he was like the extra—well, Fernando said he’s like the co-director. And these images, and the freedom to create these images, were a lot to do with him. Because he was really close, but you’re also very unaware of him.
HOPKINS: Did they have a drone above us, in the gardens? How did they take those shots?
PRYCE: There was a drone, yeah.
HOPKINS: When I saw [the film], I thought, “How the hell did they get up there on a big ladder?” It’s a drone up there. We flew in the Pope’s jet as well.
PRYCE: With the Pope’s pilot.
DEADLINE: That’s real?
HOPKINS: And all the regalia was designed and tailored by the man in the Vatican.
DEADLINE: How is it putting on those regal outfits?
HOPKINS: You know the Stanislavski thing about building a character? You look in the mirror and you think “Ah, that’s it.” But I remember they put them on, and I thought, “I like this.” And then the very nervous makeup lady said, “Can we try this way?” She thought I was going to give her a battle. I said, “OK.” She put the thing on, and I said, “Oh my God. It’s Ratzinger.” It was close, and I thought, I don’t need to act anymore. It’s that moment when you think, “Ah, that’s it.”
I remember doing Howards End with Emma Thompson. [Chief makeup artist] Chrissy Beveridge said, “They want you to try a mustache.” I said, “I hate mustaches.” She said, “Well would you put one on?” And I was in a black suit. I said, “I don’t know.” I hadn’t even read the script that closely, I just wanted the job. And they put the mustache on, and I thought, “That’s him.” And the mustache did the acting. It does, doesn’t it?
DEADLINE: Jonathan, you’ve played a cardinal before.
PRYCE: I’ve played a few cardinals. I’m used to wearing the robes. That’s another day at work for me. But getting into the Pope’s outfit was a bit special. I had a wonderful dresser, who was in Italy, and she was very particular about the look, and it was more important to her when I was dressed as the Pope than it was to me. Something happened when I put the robes on. What I liked about the robes in fact, is the difference between when you see Benedict being created Pope, and all the finery is coming out, and the Gucci stuff, and the jewels. And then Francis rejects it. The final thing is the shoes. Right there, when he says, “The carnival is over.” That’s a great moment for me in the film, a significant moment.
DEADLINE: The Catholic Church has been very controversial in recent years. This movie isn’t afraid to deal with that. But what do you think about that? The film seems to have universal appeal beyond the Catholic Church. Do you think it will humanize the Church?
PRYCE: I wouldn’t want to begin to comment on that because I think it’s beyond anything I would have to say about it. I’ve not experienced it. And it would be presumptuous to make a judgment on any of it, other than I’m glad we haven’t avoided it. It’s there in the film, and that is for other people to discuss and debate, people who are more involved in it. I’ve read critics who say we’re too lenient about that in the film, about that subject matter, and ask why, when Benedict is in his confession, you don’t hear what he says. And I think it is so powerful that you don’t hear what he says. What he doesn’t say is the most telling aspect of it. And you know he said something wrong by my reaction, but also, we couldn’t presume to say. We didn’t know what he said. We hope that everything we say is taken, as Anthony will have told you, from things they’ve said or written. So, it’s all well-documented. But this moment, it’s for another film.
HOPKINS: I was asked the question before I went to Rome by someone here. He said, “You’re going to play the Pope? He’s evil.” I said, “What do you mean, he’s evil?” He said, “He was a Nazi.” I said, “No, he wasn’t.” I did a little research. He wasn’t. He was in the Hitler Youth apparently, and he got out. If you’re in a society and you’re forced into the Hitler Youth, what would you do? Risk execution, or do you escape? You’ll do one or the other. But it was, “You’re going to play a Nazi, and you always play evil men.” It’s such narrow, unthinking… it’s called non-think. The principle of non-think. Duh, react, say something, it’s always bad. Come on, wake up. Life is really not like that.
I think the moving thing about this, as I’m finding at my age now, is that our imperfections are the most powerful part of us. They are the most powerful gifts. That we understand that we are not perfect, and that’s the great feeling. When we become Puritans, and when they become certain, that’s when you give rise to Hitler, Stalin, Mao Tse Tung. That’s when you give rise to absolute certainty. That’s when it’s really dangerous, and we’re living in that time now. You’re bad, and you must be destroyed if you don’t agree with me… It’s the Inquisition, it’s Torquemada. I hope it sends a ripple through the world. Come on, let’s all relax.
DEADLINE: Anthony McCarten says he thinks great dialogue can be as exciting as a car chase in a movie. Is it hard to find a script like this that you can play in this world of the movie industry?
PRYCE: Well, I think they exist, but it’s hard to get them made. All credit to Netflix to get behind this film the way they did, and the way they continue to be. Yeah, I think that’s there. I mean, you read interesting scripts all the time that you know are never going to get made. But they don’t have that something extra—this script has.
DEADLINE: Just recently we were showing a clip from an Adam Driver film at a Q&A event. He hates to watch himself so much. They said, “Bring him out afterwards.” He won’t even watch himself on a clip. Do you watch your movies?
PRYCE: Well, when I was Adam’s age, I would’ve been like that as well. If I hear, when I’m set, they’re playing back something, I don’t want to hear my voice. I can’t bear it. It’s interesting, because I’m older, and your vanity disappears a bit as you’re older. Then I’m not looking at me, and what’s nice about it is I don’t recognize me in it. I’ve watched this film more times than anything else I’ve done because I just love the audience reaction. From that huge wash of laughter at the opening sequence of the telephone wire going to my ear and booking the flight, and people don’t know what’s going on. You can feel the audience sit back, and go, “Oh, I’m going to enjoy this.”
DEADLINE: The Two Popes has won so many audience awards at film festivals.
HOPKINS: Oh, it has?
DEADLINE: Definitely. Right down the line. At any festival, whenever they say, what’s the audience film this time? If The Two Popes is there, I know that’s likely to win it. It’s reaching people.
HOPKINS: It’s the most pleasant surprise in my life, because I’ve done some reasonably good ones and less good ones. Not bad at 81 to do one good one. But sheer luck, I mean, you can never tell. You hope it’s going to be good. I heard a few weeks ago from Fernando, he wrote to me from a festival [about the film’s success]. And I said, “Oh that’s good. That’s a big surprise, a bit of a boost too, you know?” But you can’t take it too seriously. Go with the flow of it.