Interview: Charlie Cox
The man who plays St. Josemaria Escrivá in the upcoming There Be Dragons talks about forgiveness, Opus Dei and how playing a saint has affected him
When I talked last week with Charlie Cox about his role as St. Josemaria Escrivá in the movie There Be Dragons (written and directed by Roland Joffe (The Killing Fields and The Mission), to be released this Friday, May 6), Osama bin Laden’s death and the public reaction to it had yet to occur, and while Blessed John Paul II’s beatification was on the calendar, it was not a topic in our interview. It’s interesting then that we spoke of the central role of forgiveness in Christianity. This should not be surprising however, since, as Charlie Cox said in referring to the film, forgiveness is “always going to be key when you’re talking about Christianity at all, especially if you’re talking about a man who is canonized.” Nevertheless, recent events have made this interview and the movie itself all the more timely.
Charlie Cox, born in London in 1982, is best known for his starring roles in Stardust and Stone of Destiny, and will appear in the upcoming season of HBO’s Boardwalk Empire.
Phil Fox Rose: First, I just want to say Stone of Destiny is one my favorite films of the last few years. It’s such a perfect little film, and you’re the driving force through the whole thing. But, even though that dealt with serious issues, there was a slapstick comedy element to it. It was a light film in many ways. So, how was preparing for this movie different than previous work you’ve done.
Charlie Cox: Well immediately, the first thing that became evident when I started researching this man — because initially I’d never heard of him, and I knew very little of Opus Dei and all that — was the immense amount of responsibility that I felt, in that, yes, the primary reason that we make films and TV shows is for entertainment purposes, but every now and again there comes along a project where there’s something more there and it’s not just about entertaining people. It’s not just about people losing themselves for a couple of hours in the movie theater. This story, and particularly this man, is of great importance to hundreds of thousands of people. If you look at those photographs from his canonization, you know, looking at 400,00 or 500,000 people who were able to make it to Rome, not to mention how many millions who couldn’t physically be there: that was an overwhelming feeling. I felt, this is not an opportunity for me to invent a character. I have to try and find some truth, and I have a responsibility to try and do this story and this man justice. That was the main difference that I noticed early in preparation.
PFR: What did you do to prepare for the role?
CC: I do a lot of reading. I love to read. I love to read what I can get my hands on, whether that’s some of the stuff that he wrote or stuff that was written about him, or biographies. The book that helped me the most was a book by Pedro Casciaro, who is one of his early friend-slash-followers, one of the original members of the Opus Dei groups. He wrote a book called Dream and Your Dreams Will Fall Short, and he describes in detail what everyday life was like for them and little memorable moments that he had of Josemaria, and he talks about what he felt Josemaria was battling with and where his troubles lay. Also, the film company was very generous and they sent me on a mini-tour of Josemaria’s life, so we started out in Barbastro where he grew up, and then we went to visit Zaragoza where the seminary was. We then drove around and went to areas of northern Spain, in the Pyrenees, where he would have traveled through, caves that he spent the night in when he was trying to get to Andorra. And we crossed Andorra in the same area where he did. Then I went and spent about a week with two members of the Opus Dei, one of whom is an Opus Dei priest, at a kind of priest’s retreat-slash-church in Catalonia, and we just talked a lot — Father John and I talked a lot about Josemaria — and we prayed and we meditated and we got into a priest’s routine. I just got to know the character as well as possible — and then you hope that the script will do the rest for you.
PFR: About Opus Dei, it’s not that well known in the mainstream except for Dan Brown and some things some of its opponents have said. Did you have any qualms about getting involved in the project — about the potential controversy around it?
CC: Not really, no. I only ever heard of Opus Dei from Dan Brown’s book, and I very rapidly discovered that what’s written in that book is seemingly based on no truth whatsoever that I can work out. It’s been a fair few years since I read that book. What was interesting to me is that when I talked to people — whether they be very familiar with Opus Dei or not, whether they were neighbors, or my parents or friends of the family — when people asked me what I was doing and I would say I’m going to do this job on Josemaria Escrivá and the Opus Dei, people’s reaction was very often fear-based. Their immediate response to me telling them that was, “Oh, be very careful of those people,” or, “Watch out.” Because I was researching the role and I was trying to be open minded about whatever people told me, I would always say, “Oh really? That’s so interesting. What do you know about them?” What was most interesting to me is that none of these people could back up their contempt prior to investigation with any sort of factual knowledge at all. It’s the most extreme case of contempt prior to investigation that I’ve ever come across. People have no clue about what it was at all. They just have an immediate instinctive kind of repulsion to it, and couldn’t back it up. It was really fascinating.
PFR: So then, what is the thing that you most want people to take away from your portrayal of St. Josemaria from seeing the film?
CC: My hope is that this film will not just appeal to Catholics or even Christians. My hope is that people will see the film, and regardless of whether you believe, regardless of your religious background, regardless of whether you consider yourself religious at all, or even an atheist, my hope is that you can watch this movie and walk away from it and say, “Wow. That’s an extraordinary story. I’m interested to know more. He was an extraordinary man.” — to be compelled to look at how this man approached the living of his own life, and what he tried to encourage others to do with the way they lived their lives, and hopefully see how you might be able to incorporate that into your own life, regardless, again, of your religious background. I don’t know how possible that is, but that would be nice.
PFR: I know you were raised Catholic and still identify as Catholic. Many of Busted Halo’s readers are Catholics in their twenties and thirties, many are seekers. So, from that perspective and your own, how did playing the role, and learning about him through playing the role, affect your own spiritual journey?
CC: Well, you know, of all the questions that I’ve had to answer about the film, and this one has come up, this is the hardest to answer, for many reasons, but primarily because I’m still discovering all this. I feel like, in every area of my life, convictions for me of any sort, are dangerous, because I’ll believe something wholeheartedly, and then a few weeks, months or even years later I’ll realize that I’ve completely changed my mind about something, and that I don’t believe that any more, or that I’ve learned more since then. So, I don’t love to talk about my own religious beliefs publicly because, like I said, the more I know, the more I realize I know nothing — if that makes any sense. But, it was really enjoyable for me to — I haven’t been the most wonderful Catholic my whole life, meaning that I’m rarely even attending Mass on a weekly basis, so it was really enjoyable and interesting for me to get to throw myself into the religion that I was raised up in, and to learn more and to ask questions. I went to Mass regularly and I spent a lot of time with Father John, and would talk to him. A lot of it was about the movie and about Josemaria, but obviously when you’re doing that and you’re spending that much time with a priest, it starts to kind of segue into your own life, and you can’t help but start to grow and learn more about yourself and where you stand with it all. I know that sounds a bit confusing, but it makes sense to me. And I’m still figuring out where that has led me now, what that’s meant for me now, and what I’ve taken from it, and my relationship with the Catholic Church, and my relationship with God, or any of these things. I will certainly say I have benefited a huge amount from this period of my life where I got to immerse myself in it.
PFR: That’s wonderful. The movie certainly has some overarching spiritual principles that it’s putting out there. One is purpose and calling and how the two characters took such different life paths.
CC: I think what we attempted to do is show two people who grow up together and whose lives are affected by the same adversity, in this instance the Spanish Civil War, and the same troubles and circumstances, and through the course of the movie we see these two men make very, very different choices about how they live their lives — polar opposites in many ways — and hopefully most of us will identify with both of these characters. I think we have both of these characters within us. The hope is that we haven’t stereotyped either one of them too much. You’ll hopefully ask yourself, when faced with adversity, which of these characters do I tend to turn to? Do I look at these troubles and these problems and these adversities within my life and react with fear and hatred and anger, or do I attempt to see these as opportunities to grow, opportunities to help others and to maybe be of service in some way to humanity or to our fellow human beings? And again, whether the movie does that or not, whether that’s what your experience is, that’s for the audience members to say. That would be nice, if people could go, “Maybe I need to strive to think more about others and see how I can be of service to others,” rather than go immediately to “What about me?” when faced with difficulties.
PFR: You’ve talked about the role of forgiveness that’s portrayed in this movie.
CC: That’s always going to be a key when you’re talking about Christianity at all, especially if you’re talking about a man who is canonized. Forgiveness is a major part of this movie. What is interesting for me is that we think of forgiveness as a very pious character trait — of those that have the ability to forgive evils or the wrongs against them as being in some way saintly or holy. And actually the interesting thing about forgiveness is that it can be a selfish thing. Because when one has resentments against other human beings or organizations or life in general, it’s really you who suffers from those resentments. The world doesn’t feel it, you do. When Josemaria would talk about this I think he understood that. I think he understood that the reason one must forgive is because that hatred and that anger and that resentment lives in you. It doesn’t live in the person that you resent. More often than not, those people don’t even know know.
PFR: That’s right. It doesn’t t live in them, and it only exists in the past except that you’re keeping it alive.
CC: Exactly. Exactly that. Personally, I think that’s really, really important because what scientists are discovering about nowadays about harbored resentments and harbored anger and the relation that those toxic energies have towards cancer and other diseases is becoming more and more apparent. My grandmother, ever since I was a small boy, would always say, “Don’t worry. You’ll make yourself sick.”
PFR: And now scientists are proving she was right. We knew it all along.
CC: Exactly. Exactly.
PFR: I know we’re about out of time. Just one last question. I’ve asked a lot of questions about the spiritual dimensions of this very spiritual film, but what do you hope this movie offers to nonbelievers other than a good story; what lessons do you think it has for them?
CC: Well, it’s a great question. The honest answer is, other than a great story, I don’t really know. I guess my hope would be that nonbelievers could watch this movie — you know I don’t really have any interest in converting people to or from any religions, or anything like that, that’s none of my business — but if a nonbeliever can watch this and walk away from it and say, “Wow. This guy was a cool guy. He was an extraordinary human being, and I think he had some important things to say that we can all learn from.” That would be a bonus, I think.
PFR: I appreciate your time, and it will be interesting to see how the movie does.
CC: And you, thanks a lot. Lovely talking to you.