'The Vatican' Writer Paul Attanasio: 'We're Not Doing an Oliver Stone Show' (Q&A)

Paul Attanasio - P 2013
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Showtime's drama pilot The Vatican couldn't be more timely.

The contemporary thriller, which is set against the modern-day political machinations within the Catholic Church, comes amid the real-life drama inside the Vatican, which was recently in the global spotlight after Pope Benedict XVI unexpectedly resigned and a new pope, Francis, was elected.

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Starring in the pilot are Friday Night Lights alum Kyle Chandler, who plays a charismatic archbishop of New York; Bruno Ganz as Pope Sixtus VI (who, like Benedict, is German); Anna Friel as Duffy's sister; Sebastian Koch as the Vatican's secretary of state; Matthew Goode as the papal secretary; and Scottish actor Ewen Bremner as a monsignor who investigates miracles. The Ridley Scott-directed pilot -- and potential series -- will shoot in locations around Europe.

Paul Attanasio (House) -- who wrote the script and will executive produce with Scott and David Zucker (The Good Wife) -- recently spoke to The Hollywood Reporter about the project's timeliness, whether real-life events will be incorporated into The Vatican and the decision to cast an actor best known for playing Hitler as the pope.

The Hollywood Reporter: How did the idea for this project come about?

Paul Attanasio: I think what is interesting about the Vatican is that it is a story that everyone is interested in, and that became apparent with what happened with the resignation of the pope and the selection of a new pope. When I talk to people about what I'm doing, and I say, "It's Showtime, present day, the Vatican," they all go, "ooh." I just know this from House: Whenever I can summarize what I'm doing in three seconds, people are interested.

THR: Do you plan to incorporate real-life events into your project?

Attanasio: I think what we're doing, we're not trying to do an expose of the Vatican. We are definitely giving you a look behind the walls of the last royal court in Europe, the last monarchy in Europe. But we're doing something different than documenting reality.

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THR: Your casting has gotten some attention. Kyle Chandler is extremely beloved from his role on Friday Night Lights, and Bruno Ganz became an Internet sensation for his portrayal of Hitler in Downfall, and now he's playing your pope.

Attanasio: Ever since Friday Night Lights finished, Kyle has been extremely sought after, and he turned down over the last couple of years basically any male lead in his age range, so we feel lucky to have him. [Regarding Ganz previously playing Hitler], I think you have to take that with a grain of salt. That's like [continually referencing] William Shatner as Captain Kirk. Bruno Ganz is one of the giants of acting, and [Downfall] is certainly one of the great achievements in a very long and distinguished filmography.

THR: There are numerous religious- and faith-based shows popping up on cable networks, from History's The Bible to Lifetime's Preachers' Daughters. What do you make of that?

Attanasio: I think that possibly there was [previously] a sense that the subject matter of faith-based shows was too charged or too controversial for advertiser-based TV. But what people are discovering is that viewers can distinguish entertainment from real life. Religion is of great interest to everyone, and a key driver of political and personal life worldwide. Maybe the curse came off it somehow that people would stay away from it.

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THR: Given the sensitivity behind such a topic, what kind of research did you do before writing the pilot?

Attanasio: Everything I do is very research-driven, and I think people enjoy that glimpse behind the wall, especially with an institution that is as historic and, in some ways, as secretive as the Vatican. I think what happened in the last few weeks, you saw it on the front pages of the newspaper every day -- there's a great desire, I think, to believe in the Church, that it will regain its glory. I think the Church has had its bumps over the last several decades, and so we do offer that look behind the walls.

THR: Do you expect The Vatican be controversial?

Attansio: Yeah, I think these shows are inevitably controversial, which is a good thing. You want people talking about your show. You want people talking about it around the water cooler, if there still is a water cooler -- what we used to call the water cooler. But it's not an anti-Catholic show. It's not an expose. It's a pro-faith show, and so it won't be controversial in that sense. We're not doing an Oliver Stone show.