The actor and the saint
A Q&A with Charlie Cox on playing Josemaría Escrivá in the film “There Be Dragons”
By Julie Rattey
“People who struggle with faith can be moved by [Escrivá’s] strength and integrity and belief”
Charlie Cox, 28, most recently seen in the British series “Downton Abbey,” spoke with Catholic Digest about how working on the upcoming film “There Be Dragons,” which touches on the life of Josemaría Escrivá, the 20th-century Spanish saint and founder of Opus Dei, affected his Catholic faith. To read an accompanying interview with director Roland Joffé, check out the May issue of Catholic Digest. “There Be Dragons” releases May 6.
I heard that you went on retreat to prepare for the role. What did you come away with from that experience?
Oh my gosh, I wouldn’t even know how to begin. It was extraordinary. I started off in Barcelona, and met up with a really wonderful man called Dámaso Ezpeleta, who is a historian and a member of the Opus Dei, and he took me to two different centers in Barcelona. [Later] we went to meet with Father John Wauck, who’s an Opus Dei priest, and spent five or six days at a priest’s retreat just outside Barbastro. I got into a routine with Father John of waking up very early and putting on a cassock and going down for a morning meditation and prayer and then having breakfast. Then maybe we’d walk around and pray together, or we’d say the Rosary, and then we’d have lunch, and then we’d go to different areas that Josemaría had been to, where he had his First Communion, all this kind of stuff. And talked a great deal about Josemaría and his life and about what people thought of him, and about the controversy, and all the time I’m tripping up and down stairs in my cassock (laughter).
So what was that experience like for you personally, emotionally, spiritually?
Well, I always find it very hard to know because the benefits are kind of not tangible; you can’t see them. I remember talking to Father John early on about the journey that I had had with my faith. I was brought up a Catholic. I went to a Protestant school that had 90 percent Protestants and 10 percent Catholics. When you’re at school, anything that’s compulsory is, in some ways, uncool. Going to church on Sunday was compulsory, so most of us spent most of our time trying to get out of it. And it wasn’t until I got near the end of my school career that I recognized that I actually enjoyed aspects of it.
What aspects did you enjoy?
I looked forward to spending that time listening to the priest talk about Jesus, or about his life, or read from the Bible, and I enjoyed that time of sitting down and turning your phone off for an hour, which we never do. I’ve always loved being in churches. I find them extraordinary. And so I remember saying to Father John, I felt like part of this job was kind of a gift, you know, in many ways, and I wanted to approach it with as open a mind as possible and re-establish some sort of faith that I hadn’t perhaps lost but wasn’t really doing anything about.
Having a relationship with God wasn’t something that I really could relate to, I don’t think. I told people I believe (in God) because I grew up (that way) and I had taken my Holy Communion and been Confirmed, but again, you do it at a relatively young age, often you don’t really know what you’re doing.
So you hoped that the retreat would—
Well, the experience itself, I was really open to it having a lasting effect on me and my faith, I guess. I wanted to get to know [Josemaría Escrivá] as well as I could, and in order to do that, I immersed myself in it, and I was excited by the prospect of what that might mean in terms of just for Charlie.
And did you find that that happened?
One thing I think I discovered is that when Father John and I would go to our morning meditation, we would kneel in this little chapel, and one of the things he would say every morning — and I never forget that, [even though] I was always really sleepy — I remember he would say, “Here I am, God,” and then, “I firmly believe that You are here, and that You can hear me.” I think that’s wonderful, I think that’s beautiful. But it struck me that that’s not necessarily true for me, or for everyone. I realized during this period that faith is as much a gift as it is (something) for us to work at. I do think that we have to put ourselves out there; you have to work at it, and at least attempt to relate your life to your God. But it was just interesting for me to note that faith is a gift, it’s grace, and it’s not a shortcoming of one if you don’t have it, necessarily, you know? I actually feel that my faith has grown immensely with being able to acknowledge that within me there is a part that doesn’t believe.
Father John told me this story about someone in the Bible who Jesus (essentially) asked, “Do you believe?” And his reply was, “I do believe, help my unbelief.” (March 9:24) And what I took that to mean was, “Could you help the bit of me that doubts?” For me to acknowledge the part of me that doubts has been immensely helpful to me, so that I can not feel bad when I’m skeptical, you know? And Josemaría would talk about this. I think it was in one of his lectures where he says that what God wants you to do is involve Him in your disbelief. Even if you wake up and you have no inclination to talk to God on that particular day because you’re angry or frustrated or you have doubts, or whatever it is, what you must do is tell Him that, involve Him in that. And that’s a revelation to me.
The more I got to know about Josemaría, the more I got to know about Opus Dei and the people I met within it, which were numerous, the more inclined was I to believe that he was a really special man. He was an extraordinary, extraordinary man, and the work — what the Opus Dei calls God’s work — is a really beautiful concept.
How does that idea speak to you personally — Escrivá’s philosophy that holiness can be found in everyday work and everyday life? For example, did it give you any new insights into your own work as an actor? Did it give you any perspective on the work that you do?
I know that it did, it certainly did on my life. The idea that you can offer up the making of your bed in the morning, or an exercise — going for a run in the park — you can offer up these things to God, or for a human being — I do that all the time now. I love that. I wouldn’t necessarily admit it to everyone (laughs), but I love that idea.
What I loved about Josemaría’s work was that by doing that — by seeking holiness through everyday life, whatever your vocation, whether it be an actor, or a musician, an office worker, a mother, a father, doesn’t matter, by seeking holiness in doing that, what you also do, I think, is you begin to divorce yourself from self-seeking motives, and that’s amazing. And if you can slowly begin to divorce yourself from “I, I, I. What about me?” and start to develop a state of thinking about others, and putting others before yourself… I don’t know any sort of religion or teaching in the world that doesn’t indicate that to be in some ways the answer to happiness and freedom — getting out of self and into your fellows or God.
I think it opens up a lot too, when you start to think of your own work and the things around you as holy, it helps you to see the goodness in other people and in everything that you do. It can help make life a lot happier, I think.
Yeah. To begin to see your day as filled with opportunities to humble yourself for God and for your fellows is a wonderful, complete change of consciousness. And whether it’s picking up a bit of rubbish in the street to holding a door open for someone, it doesn’t matter. If you do those things in that frame of thinking, I think you begin to change your character.
What do you hope audiences will take away from the film?
The vast majority of people who’ll probably go see this film will probably be Catholics. I think the vast majority of them will hopefully enjoy it. But for those people who don’t know anything about Josemaría or who aren’t religiously inclined, my hope is that they’ll be able to watch it with an open mind and think, Regardless of whether I believe what this man stood for, regardless of whether I have any convictions or thoughts around religion, he was an extraordinary man. People who don’t necessarily have the gift of faith, people like myself who struggle with faith, can watch that and be moved by this man’s strength and integrity and belief.
Check out the film online!
For more information about the film, which releases May 6, or to download discussion guides, visit ThereBeDragonsFilm.com.
Opus Dei and “There Be Dragons”
Fr. John Wauck, an Opus Dei priest living in Rome, was the on-set consultant for “There Be Dragons.” “The culture needs to be aware of the many positive and beautiful aspects of our Church,” he said from Rome. “‘There Be Dragons’ tells the story of jealousy, betrayal, hatred, love, and redemption. We all battle with internal ‘dragons’ or demons that direct us away from Christ — away from holiness. St. Josemaría shows us that we can achieve holiness and happiness by doing our work and ordinary activities with love. If we follow this simple lesson, we can all defeat our ‘Dragons.’”
— The Maximus Group