James Cromwell on 'The Young Pope,' "Radical Politics," America's Need for "Revolution" (Q&A)

Courtesy of Gianni Fiorito/Fremantle Media
James Cromwell in 'The Young Pope'

The Academy Award-nominated actor also discusses his own directing projects, working with Paolo Sorrentino, fracking and abortion.

Academy Award winner Paolo Sorrentino’s new show The Young Pope has taken Europe by storm, appearing across all five Sky Atlantic networks in the U.K., Ireland, Italy, Germany and Austria, Germany, as well as France’s Canal Plus to strong ratings and reviews.

The drama, which HBO will start airing in the U.S. on Jan. 15, delves deep into the political inner workings of the Vatican, has been compared to everything from House of Cards to The Sopranos.

Jude Law plays Lenny Belardo, the fictional first American Pope, a man who came to power through means that no one can understand. Most furious of all is his advisor, Cardinal Michael Spencer, played by Academy Award nominee James Cromwell, who believed he was next in line for the papal vacancy.

What the increasingly erratic Belardo has in store for the Vatican, no one can pinpoint, but advertising for the show, increasingly calls out one word: revolution.

THR spoke with Cromwell about the new series and just what this revolution means. During the conversation, Cromwell repeatedly referred to The Young Pope as a film, rather than a TV show, seeing it as an extended work that allows the storytelling enough room to tackle such a complex topic. 

Your character is really orchestrating the political chess match in the series. Where did that come from?

Well yeah. He’s frustrated and embittered and feels betrayed by his protege, whom he chose for his compliance. Lenny’s way of surviving was to say very little, to observe, to think ahead, to play chess three and four moves ahead. The chess that he’s referring to, the politics in the Vatican, is that the institution is now moribund; it now eats itself.

And I think it probably always has. We know what’s wrong with the Italian government, well it’s the same thing over at the American government, or the French government. I see Sarkozy is coming back, that schmuck! And it’s the same inside the church, completely forgetting the purpose for which Christ founded the church.

At the end, the relationship is sort of restored to what it was, where I sort of educate him on the history of the church, especially as it relates to abortion, but by that time he has completely different ideas. The piece is extraordinary. It’s like Shakespeare: they say you can’t put Shakespeare on a postage stamp.

Most films, because of the length of the film cannot deal with any subject in any depth, and when they try to, like The Big Short, it is done like this (snaps fingers) and there’s no feeling, you watch it and you sort of get the lesson, but it has no impact. This, because of the length, but mostly because of the quality of Paolo’s writing, is actually about something.

What was Cardinal Spencer's lesson for Belardo?

He sees all the Popes, and he says "What wisdom do you have to impart to me?" and they say "Know thyself" and he thinks, oh man, that’s as old as … But really, to know thyself, self-knowledge, is essential. We now have very little understanding about really who we are. We are all exterior things: you are your house, you are your car, you are your job, you are your body, you are your dress, and nothing to do with who you are.

Did you do a lot of self-reflection after shooting the first season of the show? 

I have self-reflection all the time. If you don’t, I think you might as well just curl up and say goodbye.

Cardinal Spencer vows to find out how Belardo became elected pope. Is this something the audience will find out?

Do you know who John Paul I is? The pope they assassinated? Do you know why John Paul I got elected? No one expected that. In that very sort of corrupt world, there are games, and [my character] created the games.

Does abortion become a big topic of the series?

It does. There are sequences about Africa, there are sequences about pedophilia in America, there is the whole homosexual issue, which is interestingly resolved, in some ways not resolved. But abortion is sort of unique. In Europe, I don’t even think there’s an issue, but in America it is the dividing line. And it is not about having an abortion, it is about can you suppress over 50 percent of the people of America who are women and take away their rights to determine what they do with their own bodies, and that’s basically it.

And the reason it stays that way is that they will not tell the truth. Abortion is wrong, it hurts everybody, but as my character says, in an abortion, everyone is to blame except the woman. The society that supports a system where you destroy life does not get a vote. So you have to say, OK so it’s wrong, and there will come a circumstance when women alone get to make the choice, no politician, no doctor, no nothing. He’s saying the Catholic Church allowed abortion in the first trimester up until the 1870s. It changed purely for political reasons.

What was it like working with Paolo Sorrentino?

Well, you see, it is absolutely stunning. I have in my own way a vision of my own, whether I can materialize it or not, I don’t know, because I want to direct as well. So I look at the master of all the elements of filmmaking, writing and directing, and his editing and his musical choices and his tempo, and it’s just … you know that’s why we call him maestro.

Do you have directing projects in the works?

Yes. I’m going to hopefully direct a film in Mississippi about cyber-bullying. I did a film about the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, and it’s called Admissions. They are short films, and they are used basically to open discussion among people as to how we might handle what seem to be intractable issues. And cyber-bullying, as you know, is a really big thing in America and very, very dangerous and causing a great deal of people pain. So we used the same sort of concept to look at bullying, and I’m going to direct it. So I’m going to do that and then the company that’s doing it in Mississippi is also interested in a concept I have for King Lear, which I very much want to do as a film.

I won’t direct it, no, but it’s my concept so, I’ll do a little bit of everything. The writing Shakespeare took care of, it’s very nice. We have to, of course, edit it to some degree, hopefully not too much. We’ll see if that comes off.

And then two other projects … I and another person are writing about an experience I had teaching at a school for juvenile delinquents, and an adaption of a book by Dalton Trumbo called Johnny Got His Gun.

Starring in a political drama, did you see any comparisons with the current U.S. election campaign?

Oh, American politics? (Laughs loudly.) American politics are as Byzantine as the Catholic Church. It’s just a cesspool. The whole system is as corrupt as it can possibly be. I went to the Philadelphia convention with a group I’m involved in, in environmental politics. I’ve been in radical politics all my life. When you stand on the outside — I didn’t have credentials, I’m on the outside — you see the disparity between the way power works and conducts its business. And the will of the people, the need of the people, unrecognized, separated from our own process by three levels of screen with hundreds of policemen. You think Jesus, god, man, what are we living in? We are living in an oligarchy, a turnkey totalitarianism, and nobody tells the truth. Well, some young Turks tell the truth.

What’s the solution for America?


What does revolution look like today?

Yeah. Revolution is basically changing your mind and going against the status quo, what you have done habitually, and facing the problem directly and seeing what the possible solution could be, and then committing to that solution. That is called revolution. The reason that is called revolution is because the status quo says you do it our way, there is no other way, and if you have another way we are going to suppress you with violence. So revolution is to say I oppose that violence, and I oppose your solutions because they don’t work.

So all of this is in this film, every piece is in this film. A man wrestling with this, what is my responsibility, what am I trying to create, what is it that I believe, because he believes at his essence, that the church is, you know, the old service where the priest had his back, and spoke in Latin to a congregation that didn’t understand anything. What they knew was they were in the presence of something that goes all the way back to Christ. What they did was they turned around and read the thing in English. Oh yeah, it’s all great, accessible. And they’d go out and make a mess of their lives. It doesn’t inform our lives, and that’s what faith is supposed to do — not religion — faith is supposed to inform our lives, open our hearts.

You’ve been very politically active around the issue of fracking. Is the situation improving anywhere?

New York, which banned fracking, is using more fracking gas now than they did before! (Makes incredulous noise.) What are you thinking?!

In my community, we are building a 650 megawatt plant. Josh Fox, who did Gasland, said that’s the plant that is going to put New York under water. The emissions from that plant alone are going to cause enough global heating to put New York under water. What are you going to do with a fight on Wall Street? Where are you going to shift this to? It’s like our Syrian policy, nobody knows what they are doing.

What’s the solution?

This is madness. Fracking has to stop. You stop that right away. Then you take away $5.3 trillion in subsidies to the oil industry, and now you have an even playing field. Now let’s completely commit to the new playing field. Let’s commit to renewables.