Jon Voight has appeared in more than 60 motion pictures and television shows, but his Emmy-nominated role as Pope John Paul II earlier this year may have been the most important role of his career.
Born and raised Catholic, Voight has appeared in such films as National Treasure and Mission Impossible. He won an Oscar in 1978 for his role in Coming Home. The “Pope John Paul II” miniseries originally aired on CBS and is now available on DVD through Ignatius Press.
Voight spoke with Register senior writer
Tim Drake from his home in
You were born in
My father was a golf professional. He was a poor boy growing up and became a caddy. The members at the club were very favoring to him and he became the head golf pro.
My father was a wonderful athlete, but he was many things. He was a storyteller. He had an accident at the age of 18. Because of the damage to his body he was unable to continue his golf tour career. He never complained about that. He was a remarkable fellow. When bad things happen, good things are also in view, if you look carefully. In his case, the accident forced him to be at the club and be a teaching pro. Then he was around for our growing up. We wouldn’t have had that continued presence of our dad if it hadn’t been for that accident.
My mom was a homemaker. I have two
brothers, each a year apart. We’ve all been successful. Barry taught at
You were born and raised Catholic, weren’t you?
Yes, I attended
Do you have a favorite childhood memory?
My father loved movies for some
reason. It was a part of his childhood. Every Monday was his day off. He would
pick us up from school with our mother. She would have bologna and cheese
sandwiches. We would go down to
Do you consider yourself a practicing Catholic?
I’m Catholic. I’m not as good a Catholic as my mother would like me to be, but who is? I have a great respect for all religions, and a great regard for the Catholic Church. I had a great regard for Pope John Paul II. The Catholic Church has been a very good force in many ways in the world.
What initially led you to acting?
My father was a storyteller. At night, he would have us close our eyes and he would tell us stories that he made up. His personality was very striking. He was a very cheerful person. In life he always had a smile and gave people a smile. His influence was paramount in my life. My motivation to act was in response to his storytelling, and then from going to the movies with my dad.
How has the Church’s influence in your life shaped your art?
My principles come from there. I would suppose that my tendency in a general sense is to try to find pieces that have some moral aspect to them. I’m always looking for something that gives us an insight into moral behavior.
The Catholic Church had a lot to do with the teachings that I ingested. They form us. The idea that there is something beyond this life is a very important teaching. It really does determine how we behave. If we believe there is some type of witness to our innermost thoughts and behavior we are going to be different people. If we believe that we can identify good and bad, we’re asked to be good, but we don’t always make it. If we have that striving in us, that will make a difference. I have a deep commitment to the good and God.
As an actor, you’re able to portray evil characters. Why do you do that?
Someone has to show you what bad is. You want the baddies to be understandable. You want to be able to identify the evil. In the film Rainmaker I played a bad lawyer character. I felt I did a pretty good job. I know where he came from and what his enthusiasms were. People can get distracted in their values so that they are selfish or greedy. That happens all the time. People try to protect their own little spot without considering the whole.
Weren’t you in the midst of another project when they approached you about portraying John Paul II?
Yes, I was working on September Dawn, a serious movie about religious fanaticism and how it produces violence.
How did you prepare for the part of John Paul II?
Back in about 1981-’82, I was asked to play the young Karol Wojtyla, and he had approved me to play him. That was a big deal, but for financial reasons the movie never got made. When actor Ian Holm pulled out of the recent project and I was asked to do it, I felt that John Paul II was tapping me on the shoulder saying, “Now you can get up and do it.”
When I looked in the mirror, I saw so many similar aspects at my age. I could be made to look like him. I started watching videotapes and became more and more excited as I watched them. I liked him so much anyway. As I watched the videos, I would catch certain aspects of his personality and find out what he was about. Composing a full picture of him was really fun for me.
What insights about him did you gain by portraying him?
He was so loving
of people, so much fun. People always found themselves laughing when they were
with him. He was tough. He was strong. He was a sportsman. There was also a certain steel that he had, a strength that he had from his
growing up among very heroic priests and archbishops in Krakow and
When they chose him as Pope, the
cardinals evidenced a great wisdom at the time. There was a great deal of
politicking and discussion and weeding out, but for some reason this youngish
man emerged who had been very key to the work on Vatican II. He expressed
himself in such a way that his intellectual abilities became evident. He had
poise, charm, wisdom — so many things. He came forth and was the perfect fellow
for this time period in world history. He had experienced most of the villains
of the time and was able to revitalize aspects of the Church. He wasn’t going
to be some remote figure hidden behind the walls of the
Did anything special happen during the shooting?
I always try to stay in touch with God’s will and love. It’s a necessity. I believe there is a harmony there that is beyond this world. That’s how I feel all the time. When I was doing this film it was accentuated.
We were racing against time to get the last shot. It was to be of John Paul II sitting in a chair looking over the mountains that he loved, and his assistant asks him, “Do you remember?” It was a touching little scene, but on the day of the shoot it was drizzling. The scene needed to be perfectly lit and the director was worried we wouldn’t get the shot. It was the one time I came to his aid.
I told the director, “We can’t have gone this whole journey and not get a little blessing here. We’re going to do this and get a perfect cloud formation.” I told them to keep the cameras ready. “Roll them. We’ll catch it,” I said.
It was a dark and foreboding scene, but all of a sudden there was movement in the clouds and they broke right in front of us. When we saw the scene on the monitor it looked beautiful enough, but in the film it looked even more beautiful.
I considered it a miracle. Miracles are everyday life. Every positive thing to me is a miracle. Gravity here pulls us under, so we have to get a little help.
Tim Drake is based in