At 72, Jonathan Pryce still isn’t quite sure what to think about religion. Raised a Welsh Presbyterian, the legendary Shakespearean actor attended chapel and Sunday School every weekend as a child in the Fifties, but, like many young people, drifted away from faith in his teenage years.
“I don’t know,” he says after a long pause when I ask whether he is now a confident atheist. “I think there’s something there. I find spirituality in relationships with people, not organised religion. When I was younger, I used to very fancifully think that when I was older I would find religion and then approach death calmly.” Now in his eighth decade of life, he admits, “I still haven’t found religion.”
Surprising, perhaps, given that Pryce spent the bulk of last year playing the Holy Father himself in filming ‘The Two Popes’, a Netflix film for which he has already received a Golden Globe nomination for best actor.
He plays Argentinian Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio (who later became Pope Francis) as a roll-your-sleeves-up new world street preacher who cringes at the Church’s opulent wealth and feels more at ease chatting with the Pope’s gardener than with the Pope himself. The film, which also stars Anthony Hopkins as Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger (Pope Benedict), depicts an imagined meeting between the two pontiffs at the Pope’s summer palace outside Rome. Liberal Francis is shown tussling with conservative Benedict over divisive issues like divorce and women priests, and at one point Francis confesses his profound sense of guilt over his alleged compromise with Argentina’s brutal military junta in the Seventies, when he was head of the Jesuit order in Buenos Aires. (Francis says he worked behind the scenes to hide priests from government death squads.)
“He’s the first Pope that I’ve really taken any notice of,” Pryce says. “I felt he was the first one that was speaking to me in a political way, and the first to speak about the environment, climate change and the refugee crisis. So I saw him as a great world leader when we’re sadly lacking the kind of leadership we need.”
Pryce, who rose to prominence playing Hamlet in the Royal Court’s 1980 production and went on to star in ‘Evita’, ‘Tomorrow Never Dies’, and ‘Game of Thrones’, had to learn Spanish, Italian and “a little bit of Latin” to prepare for the role, and spent hours poring over old footage of Francis.
“Whether he’s speaking Spanish or English, there’s a gentleness to the way he speaks, quite a soft tone. He’s got a very particular way of walking, which is uncannily like mine. The most interesting things I found on YouTube were from his middle age, while he was Archbishop Cardinal. There’s a video of him being interrogated by his fellow priests about his possible involvement with the junta during the 70s, and you see an image of the man which is quite unlike that smiling image [we’re used to]. He’s looking angry, I think, that he’s being questioned and he’s drumming his fingers on the table.”
Indeed, Pryce and Francis look remarkably alike on screen, which is perhaps not as surprising as it ought to be: in a 2015 interview, when asked who should play him in a film of his life, Pryce replied: “If he could lose weight, Pope Francis.”
For the most part, the film is light-hearted — Benedict claims to love The Beatles but has never heard of ‘Yellow Submarine’, while Francis is obsessed with Argentinian football and persuades the Pontiff to watch a World Cup match with him — but Anthony McCarten’s script does not pull away from the thornier issues, either. In one scene, Benedict confesses to Francis about his failure to act on child abuse, although parts of the dialogue are intentionally muffled. It is the sort of artwork that would have seen an actor executed for heresy in the 16th century.
Was Pryce at all worried about offending Catholics? “No, because it’s a huge concern for Catholics. I separate the Church from Catholics — the congregation is obviously horrified this was happening and wanted it exposed. And Benedict was part of the organisation that perpetuated it by not dealing with it properly.”
Pryce met his actress wife, Katherine Fahy, in 1972, when each was married to someone else. They fell in love but did not marry for another 43 years, when Pryce was 68. Their daughter, Phoebe, appeared alongside Pryce in ‘The Merchant of Venice’ at Shakespeare’s Globe in 2015. “It could be odd acting with your daughter, but I have so much respect for her as an actor that it was slightly one removed,” he says. They also have two sons, one of whom owns Bodega Rita’s restaurant in north London. Pryce’s first wife, a teacher, is still a good friend of the couple.
The spectre of ageing plays its part in the new film, with Pope Benedict becoming more philosophical as he approaches his twilight years and even — it is gently implied — having doubts about his faith. Has Pryce, who always thought he would retire at 60 but is still slogging away more than a decade on, gained any new perspectives in his later years? “All the time. I never went to university, and whatever job I have done over the past 50 years has formed part of my education.” His new film, too, has made him think differently: he is “fortunate,” he says, to have been involved as “it’s forced me to think about myself. My family is very important to me, as it is to almost everyone, and my friends are very important. I’ve become calmer,” he adds, “and I’m not afraid of death any more. There’s a certain inevitability to it, so you might as well embrace it.”
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‘The Two Popes’ is streaming now on Netflix