In the early 1980s, Pope John Paul II picked Jon Voight to play him in a script penned by the pontiff himself.
The project collapsed, but two decades later, Voight got the call again to portray John Paul, this time for the CBS miniseries “Pope John Paul II.”
“When the phone rang, I looked in the mirror and said to myself, ‘You can do this,’ ” says Voight. “It was as if his hand was on my shoulder, and he was saying, ‘It’s your time now.’ ”
In preparing to play the most beloved pope in memory, the Oscar winner got key insights into John Paul’s personality from his posture and physicality.
“He was always on the go; he didn’t want to miss out on anything. Every person he came into contact with was a gift, and with that gift came something to be given, something to be received, something to learn.”
Voight spent hours with Stanislaw Dziwisz, the current Archbishop of Krakow, who was John Paul’s private secretary for nearly 40 years.
“He turned white and speechless when he approached me on set and in character,” recalls Voight.
Miniseries exec producer Stephen J. Davis says Voight became “personification of the pope, the personification of every director’s and producer’s dream.”
His performance also got the church’s approval. Says Harry Forbes of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops: “You can’t get a better endorsement than a standing ovation from Pope Benedict XVI!”
Voight confesses that playing the pope changed him.
“It has created an urgency in me,” he says, “to communicate his most important lesson: We are all different, but we are all going to the same place. We are all going to God. And we must never discriminate against any one faith.”
He still wears a copy of John Paul’s ring as a reminder of his legacy.
“He’s still with me,” says Voight.