Jon Voight on John Paul

The actor discusses what it's like to portray one of the most beloved--and most recorded--figures in recent history.

BY: Interview by Laura Sheahen


This interview originally ran in 2005.

Winner of the Academy Award for his portrayal of a paralyzed Vietnam vet in 1978's "Coming Home," actor Jon Voight is best known for his roles in controversial films like "Midnight Cowboy" and "Deliverance." Now, however, he's playing a beloved pope on the fast track to sainthood: John Paul II, who in his 27-year pontificate contributed to the collapse of Communism, battled secularism, and upheld the culture of life. Voight appears in the second half of the two-part CBS miniseries "Pope John Paul II," airing on Dec. 4 at 9 p.m. and Dec. 7 at 8 p.m. He spoke to Beliefnet about the challenges and rewards of portraying a towering religious and historical figure.

To prepare for this role, you read some of John Paul II's writings and watched a lot of footage of him. In researching his life, what struck you most?

When you have a person who's the most recorded person in history, you have a lot of information coming at you, and it's him-not people talking about him, but him. You can look at his behavior, feel his emotion, see how he touches people, hear his own words in your language, because he spoke so many languages. It's a treasury that's a tremendous gift for all of us.

I'm thinking, with all this available, why do we need a fictionalized portrait? But I found that interpreting him was a great joy for me, and I felt we did bring some things to the table that made it a responsible contribution.

What were some of those things?

Jon Voight on John Paul II's character
When you talk to some of the people who knew him best, certain things sprang up: his toughness, his sense of humor. He was really a funny person. His wit and his sense of fun were really quite delicious. When I say toughness, I mean strength. He didn't suffer fools easily. He knew what was going on. He was a strong person, so when things were amiss he knew how to step in and take charge.

You said you learned personal anecdotes about John Paul that had not been written in news accounts. Can you give some examples?

I can give you a funny one. When he ate, he sometimes didn't know what he was eating. He ate what was put in front of him. His concentration was so fierce; he was always so busy, he seldom paid much attention to what he was eating.

There's a scene [in the miniseries] where he's eating and making a point to [Cardinal] Casaroli, and he knocks a piece of cheese on the floor. He continues the conversation as he goes looking for the cheese.

He's reaching down on the floor while he's talking.

Right. He's searching for it, you see the top of his head and his eye come up, but he's having a very important conversation. Then he grabs it, he puts the cheese back on his plate. The servant is appalled and tries to retrieve the cheese and put it in his pocket before the pope eats the cheese.

It's a cute insight. There were many jokes told about that. Even when he was talking to little children, they'd ask him, "Do you like spinach?" He said, "If they give it to me, I eat it."

There's a funny scene earlier in the miniseries-when Cary Elwes plays the young Karol Wojtyla-where he addresses a potato as Yorick's skull from Hamlet. Was that also taken from real life?

Jon Voight on
the Pope as an actor
He was an actor. And from my assessment of his behavior in public, I would say he would be a very good actor, a fine actor, not an amateur in any way. You never caught him doing anything inauthentic, or using false emotion or theatrics, ever. So that means he was on another level. In his work, he would have demanded an authenticity and a simplicity, which all the great ones have.

You've said John Paul II was one of few moral voices we can rely on, like Elie Weisel or the Dalai Lama. What, to you, makes a moral voice reliable?

You see the behavior of the person in public and private, and make your determinations. Usually they're exposed to challenges that require courage, and they have that courageous response.

They tell the truth as it is, but also leave us with hope. They're not looking to be cranks or critics; they're looking to uplift and point the way.

How would you describe you own spiritual journey?


Jon Voight on being Catholic
I was raised Catholic... I fell in love with certain ideals. The idea of right and wrong, being righteous, acknowledging when you make a mistake, repentance-all these important things I got from my Catholic background.

Do actors need to experience pain to portray suffering?

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  • Continued on page 2: »

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