Pope-pourri: Jude Law, John Malkovich offer dueling takes in HBO’s ‘The New Pope’

Jude Law, left, plays Pope Pius XIII and John Malkovich plays Pope John Paul III in HBO's 'The New Pope.' (Photo: Gianni Fiorito, HBO)

Yes, you are seeing double – or make that quadruple. And, no, it’s not a multiplication miracle, in the loaves and fishes sense.

There are two popes in HBO’s sequel, “The New Pope” (Monday, 9 EST/PST), just as there were two popes in current film “The Two Popes.”

Jude Law, whose Pope Pius XIII(nee Lenny Belardo) collapsed at the end of the cable network’s 2017 limited series “The Young Pope,” says it’s more than a coincidence that he and John Malkovich, as Sir John Brannox (aka Pope John Paul III), find themselves together in the follow-up from writer-director Paolo Sorrentino.

“We are in a unique period where we have two popes alive at the same time,” Law says. The papal film is about “the interaction between the current pope (Francis) and the Emeritus, Benedict. I think Paolo imagined taking this story (of) Lenny being sick and how would he be replaced? What happens if one is alive but not able to fulfill the job? There is a foot in current affairs that made it all the more sumptuous.”

When 'The New Pope' begins, Pope Pius XIII (Jude Law) is in a coma after his collapse in the finale of 'The Young Pope.' (Photo: Gianni Fiorito, HBO)

As “New Pope” opens, Pius remains hospitalized in a coma, six months after being stricken, and nervous Vatican officials can no longer wait to fill the leadership void. A brief papal succession ends under mysterious circumstances, and clerics move on to Brannox, a British aristocrat quite different from Lenny’s Pius, a controversial chain-smoking New Yorker with a devout following.

“Lenny was young and this pope is (older and) wise. Lenny was full of instinct and (Brannox) is patient and calmer. Lenny was a guy that was eager to become pope and, in this case, I was more interested to tell a story about a guy what was not so excited about the idea of being pope,” Sorrentino says,.

That contrast extends to religious philosophy, as Brannox, known for a spiritual text called “The Middle Way,” extends from Pius’ fierce conservatism. 

While ‘The Young Pope’ delved into political elements, the second chapter is “more spiritual, because you have two individuals with a different approach to religion and a different faith base,” Law says.

Sir John Brannox (John Malkovich), who becomes pope in HBO's 'The New Pope,' has an elegant wardrobe, both in his civilian and religious lives. (Photo: Gianni Fiorito, HBO)

Malkovich acknowledges the two bishops of Rome are “separated by culture, experience and age, but they are both orphans,” Lenny literally and Brannox, who has a defining secret, more figuratively. “They’ve been orphaned by God, orphaned by family and both have become parents without having children. So, I think there is a big amount of common ground and a common search for the spiritual in the modern world.”  

The two popes of “The New Pope” will meet during the nine-episode season, but Pius “kind of haunts and shadows” the story before that encounter, Malkovich says. “I love the way it dealt with Jude’s character, and the way he fully reappears in the series. That was extraordinarily beautiful, powerful and smart.”

“The big surprise is the relationship between these two popes, who has the power or gives up the power or steals the power,” Sorrentino says. “You have these unusual and strange conditions, two popes that potentially both are in charge.” 

HBO's 'The New Pope' opens with Pope Pius XIII (Jude Law) in a coma, but the character is very much a presence in the coming season. (Photo: Gianni Fiorito, HBO)

 Sorrentino said he came up with the idea for the new edition in the wake of European terrorist attacks while he was editing first-season episodes.

“I started to have an idea of fundamentalism as a hook for a second season,” he says. 

For all their characters’ differences, the two actors dealt with opposing sides of the same challenge, with London-born Law, 47, playing an American and Illinois native Malkovich, 66, an Englishman. 

“Honestly, playing an American was easier than playing a pope,” Law said. “I had way more reference.”

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