National Catholic Register

Inperson

From National Treasure to Eternal Treasure

Jon Voight, who played Pope John Paul II in a recent TV miniseries, reflects on his life and faith.

BY TIM DRAKE

October 29-November 4, 2006 Issue | Posted 10/25/06 at 9:00 AM

 

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 California.

You were born in Yonkers, N.Y. What did your parents do for a living?

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 Penn State. He’s a world renowned vulcanologist. My younger brother is a prolific songwriter who wrote the songs “Wild Thing” and “Angel of the Morning.”

You were born and raised Catholic, weren’t you?

Yes, I attended Archbishop Stepinac High School (in White Plains, N.Y.) and graduated from The Catholic University of America. My parents were both Catholic, but the ship is always run by the mother. She got us to Sunday school.

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 Yonkers and get sodas on the way. We would see a double-feature and sometimes two double-features. His joy was watching movies. We saw every movie. When we exhausted the films in Yonkers, we went to White Plains. Once we exhausted those we went to Stamford, Conn.

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 Warsaw who were the protection of the people from the Nazi regime and the communist regime. These priests were strong people who had to do battle. He was one of those people. He was not a lesser of those guys. He confronted head-on these guys and knew the line to step up to without endangering people. He knew how to use the Catholic Church as a weapon against tyranny. He knew all the symbolism of the Church and the weight of the international Church, and he played these cards against these international villains. He knew who the enemy was.

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 Vatican.

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

St. Joseph, Minnesota.