JONATHAN Pryce has not slept. He is fresh off a plane from New York, where he is appearing in a play on Broadway, and is due to fly back to perform again the following day. It’s a trip so whistle-stop it makes you want to lie down for a long winter’s nap, but 72-year-old Pryce is taking it in his stride.
Luckily the play is going well, he says modestly, and he is in the charmed position of scoring warm reviews both on stage and on screen.
In fact the reviews for his new film, The Two Popes, have been so good he’s been tipped to score his first Oscar nomination.
He plays Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio, now Pope Francis, opposite Anthony Hopkins as Pope Benedict, formerly the German Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger.
The odd couple form an unlikely buddy comedy inside the walls of the Vatican, as Benedict reveals his shocking plans to step aside and tips Bergoglio as his successor.
It seems like natural casting to see Pryce in the role — when the Argentinian cardinal ascended to the papacy in 2013, the internet was awash with pictures comparing the two men. But Pryce didn’t quite see it that way.
“I wasn’t particularly flattered,” he admits.
“He’s not what I see in the mirror when I look there but the internet was full of the two images, even to the point where one of my sons called me and said, ‘Daddy, are you the pope?’
“It went on from there but I would like to think it wasn’t just because I look a bit like him that I got the part! I like to think that 47 years’ work isn’t wasted.”
Those 47 years have included Cardinal Wolsey in Wolf Hall, the High Sparrow in Game Of Thrones, and James Lingk in Glengarry Glen Ross, but perhaps none have been as intimidating as a living pope.
“I was nervous,” he admits. “Of course you want to present someone well. I’ve played a lot of real life characters but most of them have been dead and they can’t sue me.”
The project also gave him the chance to work with Hopkins, a fellow Welshman. “I held him in high esteem for years and I didn’t know what to expect from him,” says Pryce. “In retrospect, that played well into the relationship in the film because Bergoglio goes there with some trepidation that he is actually in the presence of the pope. Whether he agrees with Benedict or not, he would revere the position.
“I went into some of the scenes and said afterwards that I felt like a teenager. I felt as if I don’t know how to act on camera. I said, ‘I don’t know what I’m doing’, because I was looking at Tony as a consummate.
“But that actually plays well. Fernando [Meirelles, director] says that we are so unalike in our ways of working that it makes for a good relationship.”
It is not yet known if the pope himself has seen the film and what he might make of it. Production was obliged to build a replica Sistine Chapel in which to film because the Vatican did not want to participate (they did eventually hand over some footage).
However representatives of the Vatican have now viewed the finished project and Meirelles is hopeful others might follow suit.
“We are programming a screening for the Vatican, for the cardinals,” the director says. “I hope it happens inside the Vatican but if not, it will be in the theatre in Rome and we can invite him.
“I hope he sees it but if he does, he won’t tell. He will see it secretly in his room and he will never tell.”