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As Sir John Brannox, a harp-strumming, intellectual English aristocrat and author of the renowned theological study "The Middle Way," he's hesitantly accepted the role while cheeky, white-Speedo-wearing American Pius XIII (Jude Law) of 2017's The Young Pope remains in a coma.
Malkovich, who considers himself an atheist, experienced the weight of spiritual leadership when he first stepped into the ceremonial garb with all its symbolic meaning. "It sounds stupid, but you feel the aspirations, projections, fantasies, beliefs, sorrows and disappointments of a billion living people and many more who are no longer on the Earth," he says.
Pope John Paul III, the pontifical name Brannox chooses, must guide the faithful flock in a fraught era that includes terrorist threats. He also deals with personal demons; his parents blame him for the 1980 death of his twin brother, Adam. ("He is possibly responsible in some way," Malkovich concedes.)
By his bedside he keeps a mysterious ornate silver box — the contents of which have yet to be revealed. At this point in the story, it's a metaphor for Brannox's secrets.
"He feels himself a fraud on many very profound levels. Rightfully so," Malkovich says. "The thing about power is the good never seek it."
Still, all eyes will turn to the new pontiff for guidance when, later in the season, tragedy strikes the Vatican. Confesses the two-time Oscar nominee, "When I read Episode 7 [airing February 24], I had to put it down 20 times because I was just sobbing."
The New Pope, Mondays, 9/8c, HBO