National Catholic Register

Inperson

The Dread Pirate and the Pope

The Register spoke with Cary Elwes who played Karol Wojtyla in a recent miniseries, which is now available on DVD through Ignatius.

BY TIM DRAKE

January 14-20, 2007 Issue | Posted 1/10/07 at 10:00 AM

 

Cary Elwes was known for his role as Westley — a.k.a. the Dread Pirate Roberts — in the memorable 1987 film The Princess Bride.

But that was before he got the role of a lifetime, playing young Karol Wojtyla in CBS’ “Pope John Paul II” miniseries, which Ignatius Press has just released on DVD.

A practicing Catholic, Elwes spoke with Register senior writer Tim Drake from his home in Los Angeles.

Where did you grow up?

I grew up in a very modest area of south London. I shared a small apartment with my mother, who was divorced for most of my childhood, and my two older brothers.

What first interested you in acting?

We had a very old, very large, very overheated black-and-white television that was my companion when my mother went to work so that she could feed us. I was transported to a world that I knew I wanted to be a part of in my adult life.

Did your parents encourage your artistic pursuits?

Very much so. My father was a portrait painter and my mother was an interior designer, so we were surrounded by art and things of an artistic nature.

I became a mimic from watching television. I was fascinated with comedy. When you grow up in a broken home, comedy is a wonderful sense of relief, as is one’s faith. I used to watch some early “Monty Python,” before they were “Monty Python.” They were the Three Stooges of England.

My mother supported us to follow our dreams because she had not received that from her parents. She was determined to allow her children to flourish in whatever endeavor they chose.

You grew up Catholic, didn’t you?

Yes, my mother was a convert. We were all altar boys, were confirmed, and received holy Communion every Sunday. I was one of a handful of Catholics at school. My father’s side of the family was Catholic, as well. I had many priests and archbishops on my father’s side of the family. Father Columba Cary-Elwes was a monk who founded the Priory of Sts. Louis and Mary in St. Louis, Mo. He was also abbot of Westminster Abbey.

Do you consider yourself a practicing Catholic?

Absolutely.

Is that difficult in Hollywood?

No, it’s not difficult. It’s important that you remain true to your faith, especially in this crazy business. Having a rock to hold on to provides a very good feeling. It’s one I feel very grateful for.

Does your faith impact your acting?

There is a faith in acting and a faith in yourself. Ritual is also an act of faith. I think acting is a faithful act. That’s why I try to pick roles that have some value. In acting, you’re trying to portray the human spirit in all of its aspects. You’re helping the audience to suspend their disbelief. In Church you’re asking them to confirm their belief.

I understand that you met Pope John Paul II when you were younger.

My mother took me to meet him not long after The Princess Bride. There were at least half a dozen people in the room, yet when I met him it felt like I was the only person in the room. He asked me what I did for a living. When I told him I was an actor, he said that was ‘wonderful.’ I didn’t know at the time that he had been an actor. He said it was a wonderful profession, and that he hoped I would continue to do it. I continued … right up to playing him.

Did meeting him help you in portraying him in the CBS miniseries?

It definitely helped in forming me to play him. He was a very special and extraordinary man — not an easy one to portray. Consequently, it would be very easy to sanctify this man and portray him so that the rest of us would feel like mere mortals in his presence. The director, John Kent Harrison, made the script accessible so that we saw Karol Wojtyla the man, rather than the future saint.

Karol grew up a stone’s throw away from Auschwitz. He lost very dear friends and found faith in the darkest moments of the history of our humanity. Some people might find that to be an insult to the victims of the tragedy, but I think it shows tremendous strength to find a loving heart in times when there was so much hate.

Are there ways that portraying Karol Wojtyla changed you?

I think it’s impossible to study Karol’s life and his faith and not have it have an impact on your own faith and questions about your own faith. It was an extraordinary journey because I met his colleagues, his childhood friends, so many people on this journey, and you could see in their eyes their love for this man and their sincere desire that we would portray him in the right way. I understood this to be an enormous responsibility. I had to figure out how to fill the shoes of JPII and the shoes of Jon Voight. If you get a million roles as an actor, you’re lucky to be remembered for one. I’ll be eternally grateful if I’m remembered for this one.

Playing Karol Wojtyla did change the roles I’m willing to take. I do draw the line, and won’t do roles that are flippant or are filled with expletives for no reason, or that have no value. Playing John Paul really defined that for me.

Was there a particular scene you found most difficult or challenging?

No, every day was a blessing. You can see it on my face. We got to film and walk the streets that he walked in Poland. We filmed at his birthplace in Wadowice, in Krakow, and at the Jagiellonian University. Then we went to Rome and were blessed with a reception of premiering the movie inside the Vatican.

When Pope Benedict XVI walked into the audience of 6,000 people, the screams from the people were like they were screaming for a rock star. It was extraordinary and moving.

What insights did you gain from playing the role of Pope John Paul II?

There was a turning point in his life during the war. After losing his father and watching his professors being rounded up, he made the decision to join the underground seminary. In the film he says, “The times we are living in … my heart is already consumed.” His decision didn’t come easily. It was like a light coming on that this was what he had to do.

I admired his decision to share his illness with the world rather than becoming a recluse. He felt it was important for all people who suffered. Portraying him was an extraordinary journey. His life will never leave me. It will always be a part of me. I’m glad I was able in some small way to share that with other people.

What do you have planned next?

I just finished the film Georgia Rule with Jane Fonda and Felicity Huffman. That should be coming out in the spring.

Tim Drake is based in

St. Joseph, Minnesota.