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Q&A: ‘The New Pope’ Creator Paolo Sorrentino on the End of the Series, a Potential Third Season, and Jude Law’s Swimwear

The Oscar-winning Italian auteur discusses fanaticism, idolatry, and his memeable sense of humor

Getty Images/HBO/Ringer illustration

In what’s beginning to feel more and more like common practice, a limited television series won’t stay limited as long as there’s popular demand, especially if that series is airing on HBO. You needed only four words to get on board with another season of Big Little LiesMeryl Streep’s in it—and pretty much the only thing stopping Watchmen from coming back is Damon Lindelof insisting he has nothing more to say. (It appears HBO is also, already, mulling over a second season of The Outsider.) But the circumstances for Oscar-winning Italian auteur Paolo Sorrentino extending his small-screen papal universe were particularly challenging; after all, how do you follow up a show (The Young Pope) in which Jude Law played a sexy, chain-smoking, Cherry Coke Zero–drinking pontiff who could perform miracles like a modern saint and then collapsed and seemingly died delivering a public address in Venice?

Turns out, you just get a new pope. As The Young Pope gave way to the straightforwardly titled The New Pope, the Vatican found itself an equally eccentric pontiff: John Malkovich’s insular, despondent John Paul III. Law’s Pius XIII, meanwhile, lingered over the sequel series in a months-long coma—one he would inevitably wake up from, if only because you don’t bring back an actor of his stature to have him lie semi-naked in a hospital bed. (Not that any of us were complaining!)

What transpired during The New Pope’s nine episodes was another beautiful, singular, surreal treatise on faith, fanaticism, loneliness, and the power of love, delivered with Sorrentino’s signature mix of high-brow philosophical ideas and low-brow, memeable humor. There were also some raving nuns, because when you can have cloistered sisters gyrating in pajamas next to a giant neon cross in your show’s opening credits, you simply gotta do it.

If The Young Pope seemed like it had a definitive ending, then The New Pope delivers that feeling twofold. By the end of the series, Pius XIII has truly died and gone to heaven, while John Paul III finds closure in an early retirement and the church elects yet another new pontiff (shout-out Pope Voiello). But as Sorrentino tells me following The New Pope’s finale, he isn’t quite ready for this holy saga to end—lord and HBO willing, he wants to make a third season. Below, we discussed what to expect from a third season, the dangers of fanaticism, why he deprives his popes of parental love, and Jude Law’s skimpy beachwear.

The New Pope dealt a lot with the dangers of fanaticism and idolatry. This is obviously something that’s always been a part of human history, but was there anything specific that inspired you to tell this story?

Those themes are inspired by the terrorist attacks of a few years ago that happened in France. Something that we, as Europeans, have felt very close to and that has led me to reflect on those issues.

For your new pope, you cast John Malkovich. Other than being a very talented and respected actor, what appealed to you about having him play John Brannox?

John Malkovich, besides being a splendid actor, was perfect to represent the idea of wisdom, dark, and mysterious charm that the character must have. In addition, Malkovich is an icon, a perfect match with the figure of the pope, also iconic by definition.

What I found interesting, comparing these two popes on the show, is that they’ve both dealt with childhood trauma that tested their faith and deprived them of parental love. What interested you about giving both of them these qualities?

We measure ourselves with faith very often as children, and childhood traumas condition our reasoning and our feelings also with regard to faith. As children we have faith in parents. They are, in the eyes of a child, a flesh-and-blood version of God.

In your shows, the Vatican is very much a political playground, and the way you explore these popes’ positions of power is similar to how you have tackled Italian prime ministers in two of your films (Il Divo, Loro). What draws you to telling these kinds of stories?

I have always been interested in the power of the relationships between people. Those relationships, for better or for worse, move humanity, history, progress or regress of the human being. The locations of the Vatican and of politics are an amplification of the power of relationships.

One of my favorite quirks about Cardinal Voiello is his very intense, passionate Napoli fandom. Is your relationship with Napoli similar to his?

I don’t dress as a football player during Napoli matches, but otherwise similarities are striking.

I have to ask you about Jude Law emerging from the beach in a Speedo. It was like he was a Bond girl, or Botticelli’s Venus. How did you come up with that idea?

Perhaps Bond’s films, unconsciously, made me think of this.

Unsurprisingly, the Lenny Speedo scene really caught the internet’s attention, as well as the nuns dancing through some of the opening credits. Are you familiar with the way moments in your shows have turned into memes?

I expected that a little bit. Certain spectacles, when they go beyond rigor, do not go unnoticed.

The New Pope also had Marilyn Manson and Sharon Stone cameos, where they played themselves meeting the pope. Why these two celebrities?

I admire Marilyn Manson and Sharon Stone. They’re good, beautiful, and free.

At the end of the New Pope finale, it appears that Lenny has died and gone back to heaven, presented as a beautiful, dreamlike beach. Did you always plan to have Lenny die on the show? Would it have been possible to have Lenny as a pope without people idolizing him in the same way as Esther and the other cultists?

Lenny rises, stays a few days on earth, and then dies. Like Jesus. This was the idea from which I started: a disturbing, or reassuring, assonance between the divine and the human.

I have found The Young Pope and The New Pope to be similar to the work of David Lynch, and like him, you’ve been successful making television and films. What are some of the benefits of working in television?

The great benefit of television is the narrative length and therefore a relative narrative freedom that cinema, due to duration reasons, does not allow. Television dramaturgy has more assonances with literature. Literature in images. A wonderful wedding for those who, like me, love images and words in the same way.

I have read in other interviews that you are interested in doing a third season, which would make this a trilogy. Can you say anything about what a third season would entail? Would it involve Pope Voiello?

I have an idea for a third season, with all the protagonists of the other two seasons, but frankly I don’t know if HBO and Sky are interested in doing it. It is a question that should be asked to them rather than to me.

Disclosure: HBO is an initial investor in The Ringer.