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Russell Crowe On Finding Out The Pope's Exorcist Was A Real Person And More - Exclusive Interview

Russell Crowe has played all kinds of characters throughout his 30-plus year career, from a neo-Nazi gang member in "Romper Stomper" to a tobacco industry whistleblower in "The Insider" to a Roman general turned into a slave in "Gladiator." But the New Zealand-born actor has perhaps never quite played a role like that of Father Gabriele Amorth, the real-life title character of "The Pope's Exorcist."

"I have to be honest, when I read 'Chief Exorcist for the Vatican,' I thought this was a snappy work title that would be made up by a Hollywood screenwriter," Crowe told Looper in our exclusive interview. "I had no idea it was a real job."

Yes, "Chief Exorcist for the Vatican" is in fact a real job, and it was a position held by Father Amorth from 1992 to 2000. But even before that, in the decades since he was ordained as a Catholic priest in 1951, Amorth claimed to have participated in thousands of exorcisms — although the iconoclastic cleric noted that very few of them involved actual instances of demonic possession.

"The Pope's Exorcist" weaves much of Amorth's real background into a fictional narrative, in which the priest is asked to look into the possession of a young boy whose family is renovating an abbey in Spain. Once there, Amorth discovers that not only is the possession genuine, but that the abbey also has a dark, secret history with the Vatican that is allowing an unspeakable evil to emerge from its depths after centuries. Even though the story is original to the movie, Crowe told us that there were plenty of writings by and about Amorth to absorb: "He left behind 12 books of his first-person experiences, so from my perspective, you can't get better than that."

This is Russell Crowe's first horror movie

It seems that you're not especially a fan of horror movies, so what made this one interesting enough for you to take the plunge?

Yeah, I'm not really a fan of horror movies. It's not a go-to thing for me. I like psychological drama stuff and things like that, but I'm not necessarily a cut-and-dried horror movie fan. What was interesting about this movie was the fact that the central character was a real-life person. When I first read it — I have to be honest, when I read "Chief Exorcist for the Vatican," I thought this was a snappy work title that would be made up by a Hollywood screenwriter. I had no idea it was a real job. But it was the research and looking into it that actually caught me up.

The events of the real life of Father Gabriele Amorth are fascinating, and bringing him to the age of 60, becoming an exorcist, and then becoming the actual, legitimate Chief Exorcist for the Vatican — that caught my imagination. It's such a rich vein because he's a guy that documented his experiences. He left behind 12 books of his first-person experiences, so from my perspective, you can't get better than that.

Father Amorth's life was fascinating even before he was the Pope's exorcist

What did you learn about him and his career that surprised you or even maybe unsettled you?

The thing that got me fascinated to begin with was the period of time that Gabriele Amorth had lived through, because he died in 2016 at a ripe old age. When he was 17 or so, he received his first calling, and he traveled from Modena, where he grew up in Italy. Modena is also the place where Ferrari comes from, so there's a couple of references to that in the film. Amorth, in the movie, wears red socks under his cassock and drives a Lambretta motor scooter with a Ferrari sticker on it. But he received that calling, so he goes into Rome, and they basically said to him, "Look, you're too young. You haven't really experienced anything in life, and there's very little wisdom that you have on board to be able to impart to people. So go away; come back when you're a bit older."

This is 1942. He goes back to Modena, the Second World War is raging, and he finds himself joining the resistance and fighting as a partisan against the fascists. Here's this young man who's received his calling from God, now finding himself with a gun in his hand and shooting to kill. He went through that war experience, and he was wounded in that time. He comes out of the war and actually — probably because of the injustices and stuff he'd seen through the war — he goes to law school and gets his law degree. He comes out of law school, but he actually starts working as a journalist. But he goes back to that same priest — this is now a decade later — and says, "I still have that calling." The priest says, "Well, perfect, because now you've lived some life. Now you have things to impart."

He then went to theology school ... comes out of theology school, he becomes part of the Paulist Order, which is about communication. He starts working as a radio producer, as a television producer, as a journalist. He wrote hundreds and hundreds of articles for interchurch, interfaith magazines. Then at the age of 60, he gets tapped on the shoulder by a fellow that he barely knew — Father Candido, who was at that point the Chief Exorcist of the Vatican — and he said, "Gabriele, you are the guy that's got to replace me in this job." He had no experience in that area of the church's practices, so for him it was a big shock, but then it's 36 years in that job and 12 books documenting his experiences. Purely selfishly, from an actor's perspective, that's a massive treasure chest to be given.

"The Pope's Exorcist" opens in theaters on Friday, April 14.

This interview has been edited for clarity.