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Anthony Hopkins and Jonathan Pryce about how they prepared for the & # 39; papal smackdown & # 39; from & # 39; The Two Popes & # 39;

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When Brazilian director Fernando Meirelles signed up to & # 39; The Two Popes & # 39; director of Netflix, he knew he would have his work done for him. The film dramatizes a series of thorny theological discussions between Pope Benedict XVI and the future Pope Francis about the Catholic doctrine and the role of the church in a changing world. Not exactly the kind of cinematic blindness that attracts the attention of the contemporary audience with attention.

"My son even made a commercial for it," says Meirelles, slipping away in the fake dramatic tone of a movie trailer announcer. "" Two old men … sit and talk … about religion. "" He smiles. "Very exciting."

Fortunately for Meirelles, who is best known for his Oscar-nominated work on the critically acclaimed crime film & # 39; City of God & # 39; from 2002, he had one big asset in store: those old men would be played by two of the most renowned actors in life, Anthony Hopkins and Jonathan Pryce.

Now playing in a limited release before hitting the Netflix streaming service on December 20, "The Two Popes" traces the story of how Argentinian Cardinal Bergoglio rose to the papacy after the surprising resignation of German-born Benedict in 2013 amid criticism on his treatment of the sexual abuse scandal of the church. The film has drawn strong reviews, with critics praising it for bringing a sense of humanity into a world that has long been protected behind walls of secrecy and traditions that go back centuries.

With Pryce as the genius, liberal-tending Francis and Hopkins as the tacit, conservative Benedict, & # 39; The Two Popes & # 39; not just an exploration of the Catholic Church in a moment of transition and crisis, but ultimately an unlikely and moving kind of buddy comedy – "The Odd Couple" with long white robes and Bible passages.

After the successful runs of the film at the Telluride and Toronto film festivals, Oscar predictors Pryce and Hopkins have named strong contenders in lead actor and supporting actor races, while the film itself is considered a shot at a best image button. Hopkins, who won the lead actor prize in 1992 for & # 39; The Silence of the Lambs & # 39 ;, wipes out that kind of speculation. "I can't take the trouble to think about things like that," he says, adding with almost papal acumen: "My philosophy is: don't ask for anything, expect nothing, but accept everything."

Hopkins and Pryce in "The Two Popes"

(Netflix)

Pryce, 72, and Hopkins, 81, both from Wales, have previously depicted true leaders; Pryce played King James in the historical drama & # 39; The New World & # 39; from 2005, while one of Hopkins & # 39; four Oscar nominations came for his lead role in the biopic & # 39; Nixon & # 39; by Oliver Stone from 1995. But he embodies someone who bears the title His Holiness and is accused of leading the souls of a significant part of the world's population has his own special sense of responsibility. "It has an effect," Hopkins says of putting on the papal robes. "I looked in the mirror and thought," God, this really feels extraordinary. "

The unique power of the role was brought home to Pryce while filming a mass for hundreds of locals in a poor neighborhood in Buenos Aires. "Some of the little kids out there thought I was the pope, and twice it happened that young women asked their babies to be blessed," he says. "Fortunately the real priest intervened and said," It's OK – I do it. "You don't know where that baby will end if you give him a fake blessing. But all of that contributed to the authenticity of the thing.

"If you play a fictional character, you can sit around it, but when I dressed as pope, I didn't make pope jokes," he adds. "I would bless the crew, but I definitely had the feeling of respect for the office."

While & # 39; The Two Popes & # 39; presenting himself as a rare glimpse behind the papal curtain, in reality not much is known about what happened during the three meetings between Benedict and Bergoglio during the period covered in the film. Screenwriter Anthony McCarten, who has earned Oscar nominations for his work on & # 39; The Theory of Everything & # 39; and & # 39; Darkest Hour & # 39 ;, attempted to imagine what the two might have discussed, based on extensive research, and humanized them with details he'd discovered along the way. , such as Benedict's love for the soda Fanta and Francis & passion for football.

"For me to speculate responsibly, I did a lot of research into their indicated positions: newspaper articles, things translated from foreign languages, lots of books, YouTube clips, documentaries," says McCarten. "The trick here is that I have put these two voices into dialogue with each other and built this papal smackdown, this argument between a conservative and a liberal."

Earlier project iterations – initially entitled & # 39; The Pope & # 39; and focused much more on Francis, had a clearer delimitation between & the bad pope and the good pope & # 39; as Meirelles puts it. But over time, the debate between Francis and Benedict became more even and balanced.

"As a dramatur you have to love your characters as much as you can," says McCarten. “The interesting discovery for me was that by learning to love Benedict – which was more elaborate because my politics are more in line with Francis – I began to respect Benedict's position and see a power that I didn't have before seen. "

Pryce, who is neither Catholic nor religious, was initially drawn to the project from his own admiration for Pope Francis. "Like many people, I felt great empathy with Francis, who said what he said about society and climate change and the refugee crisis and building bridges, not walls," says the actor, who is perhaps best known to many younger viewers. High Sparrow in & # 39; Game of Thrones & # 39; played a much sinister religious leader. The fact that he shows a rather eerie resemblance to Francis was a lucky coincidence. ("The day Francis was made pope, the internet was full of images of the two of us together. One of my sons called me and said," Dad, are you the pope? ")

To prepare for the role, Pryce learned as much Spanish as he could. But in the end, Meirelles decided to dub the majority of the actor's Spanish dialogue with a native speaker. "Jonathan has an English accent and for Latin America it would not be acceptable to have the pope speak with a little English accent," the director says.

For his part, Hopkins was fascinated by the complexity of Benedict, who is portrayed in the film as being caught between his belief in the supremacy of the traditional values ​​of the church and his private sense of his own fallibility. "He has the wisdom and knowledge to understand that he is definitely not perfect," says Hopkins. "It must have occurred to him," I don't know everything. "We are tiny little creatures. We think we are smart, but not at all."

When asked what kind of research he did for the role, Hopkins mocked cheerfully. "I don't do research," he says. “I saw photos & # 39; s and pieces of documentary films. But it wasn't hard for me to play old because of me am old. Acting for me has made death easy. I don't sweat it. People want to make it complicated so that it is painful. Okay, if they believe that, but it's not brain surgery. It's pretty easy if you relax in it. "

Although it remains to be seen how big an Oscar player "The Two Popes" can be, McCarten says he is surprised at the extent to which it has resonated with the audience so far. "For a kind of niche movie, who knew?" He says. "I mean, it's a pretty big niche: 1.4 billion Catholics. Still, it's two old men in dresses talking about God."

He suspects that the explanation can be found in the film's message of tolerance for conflicting points of view, no matter how deep or diametrically opposite.

"Like a couple of prize winners, these two kinds of themselves beat out and then they fall silent, and that silence creates tolerance and they begin to make their way to a middle position," says McCarten. "I think if there is something that people react to about the film, this is the feeling that it is still achievable. We live in a time when people almost despair that it will ever be possible again. If a compromise can be found between these two camps, there may be hope for all of us. "

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