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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  • I've read that you've explored other religions, too. Which ones?

    Many religions: the Eastern religions, the Hopi religion. The Hopi religion is a very elaborate, sophisticated religion. They have ceremonies and dances continuously. It's very social, but also full of beautiful symbolism born of the interaction with the natural world and prayers to the creator. It's not unlike the Hindu religion, the meditation.

    I had a friend, Thomas Banyacya. He was a representative of the Hopi prophecy, a testament that came down through word of mouth for the secret societies of the Hopi.

    Jon Voight on
    the Hopi "Bean Ceremony"
    He told me about the "bean ceremony," where the elderly Hopi take the young children into a kiva, a building with a ladder coming out of the top. It's like a holy room. They then plant a seed together in the soil in the kiva.

    Then they come back and chant and pray with that seed-the elder and the little child. My friend would say if there was something going on, some drama in the life of the elder, the tree would grow stunted or crooked. If the person was in right behavior, the bean plant would grow straight and healthy. That's amazing to me. It is about purity, character, how that affects our environment. It speaks so eloquently.

    I've read that you're interested in Judaism, too--you read Hasidic writings and seek out Chabad centers when you're on location in different places. Is that the case?

    That's true of native people too. When I'm near a native community, I visit it. If I hear there's a spiritual person in the neighborhood, I'll seek them out. No matter who it is, if I find someone who might be helping their community, if I'm working there I'll call them up and say, "Need any help? Can I put some focus on something? Can I visit the kids?"

    Do you see a connection between Catholicism and the different religions you've explored?

    I'd say that all nations have contact with the truth, and all religions have admirable people. One of the things John Paul II did was have meetings, in Assisi, of religious leaders. They would all gather and interact. There's a remarkable speech he made in English to them that I have on tape.

    The gist was, "We are thought to be the spiritual heroes of our communities, and we must respect each other. We can see that in the past, we have not always been peacemakers. If we turn away from each other, we will be injuring ourselves, our own communities." I'm saying it in my own words, not the pope's words. "We must all admit where we have been wayward as in our individual communities, and must go forward and offer our hand in friendship to each other." We're more alike than not.

    Having done the movie, do you feel differently towards Catholicism?

    I learned that throughout the lineage of the great priests and archbishops of Poland, there are many great people. They were great because they stood against lies, cruelty. They stood in front of their people as protectors, using their faith as a weapon, an armor against injustice and cruelty. They really were warriors, not physical warriors, but warriors of spiritual commitment and understanding. They were tempered in very challenging times.


    As pope, [John Paul II] saw and experienced so much suffering. He saw the church could do a great deal to protect people and be a voice for changing the temper of the times and giving hope.

    After the journey you've described, how do you identify yourself, religiously speaking?

    Jon Voight on his Catholic roots
    I'm a person with Catholic roots who wishes to go across the lines of religion and embrace other people. I can pray with anybody who's sincere. I'm not so much a dogma guy, I'm a people person. I love people, and that's one of the reasons why I was happy doing this role; I shared at least that with this man. He loved people.

    You've played a lot of sufferers, and you portray John Paul II's final physical suffering very sensitively in the miniseries. Do you think actors have to have suffered in their own lives to portray suffering well?

    Who knows? We come in with certain gifts. Who knows where the gifts come from? Of course they come from God.

    One of my gifts is a sensitivity to suffering. I don't know where it comes from exactly. In my own life, it's not been great physical suffering, it's been emotional suffering. When I see suffering, I can identify it.

    What was it like to meet the current pope, Benedict XVI, at a screening of the miniseries?

    It was delightful. There were 7,000 people who saw the show in this theater in the Vatican. Not just dignitaries, but families, younger and older people, a wonderful sampling.

    When the pope entered, there was a warm and full cheering. It was wonderful. My impression was that he was a small man, not a big man, and very sweet. He smiled and took his seat. I thought, the poor fellow has to sit alone-he can't talk or share a thought or two, he has to sit alone with everybody looking at him, watching his every gesture. And yet, he became involved in the film and I could see he was moved several times during the piece.

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