"It's purely for dramatic reasons. I knew that the type of audience for this skews toward younger than older. And for that reason, I thought I had to create a character that an audience could identify with. So they had to be younger, and they had to be skeptical. For me, it provided the window into that world."

Back to School

Before the young man can quit seminary though, his mentor Father Matthew (Toby Jones, Frost/Nixon) sees something special in Michael after witnessing him at the scene of an accident where he demonstrates extraordinary skills when calmly and compassionately dealing with a victim. He encourages Michael to consider going to Rome for specialized training and to help fulfill the need for exorcists.

Once there, although in his skepticism he challenges his superiors to look to psychiatry rather than demonic possession, he is soon dispatched to study one-on-one with a legendary priest named Father Lucas, who has performed thousands of exorcisms. What happens next could either strengthen Michael's lingering doubts or give new life to wavering belief.

Father Gary's mentor, who is named Father Carmine in real life and in the book, comes alive through this character of Father Lucas in the film. Portrayed by Academy Award-winning actor Anthony Hopkins (Fracture, Alexander), Father Lucas is known for his unorthodox ways and for his extensive experience in dealing with the spirit world. But ironically, even this veteran of the faith is struggling with his own uncertainties … and eventually his own unbelievable possession.

"I take it that Father Lucas' possession happens because he opens up something which he hasn't even thought about in his own soul and touches into something of his own dark side, his own neurosis, his own doubts and that's how he becomes possessed," shares Hopkins. "But then I don't know. I'm not a theologian. I don't know what I believe at all really."

Hopkins, who is no stranger to the portrayal of evil in some of his scarier, legendary roles (Hannibal Lecter, The Silence of the Lambs), initially didn't want to take the part. "I thought, ‘Oh, I don't want to do another creepy movie. I've done enough creepy movies.'" But his agent persisted, and on this side of the finished film, the actor is pleased that he carried through.

"It's probably the most interesting part I've played," he reveals, "because I start off as a man who is for all intents and purposes a ‘good man' and suddenly he's overtaken by some demonic thing that's inside himself."

Only in Hollywood?

While not a part of the book nor drawn from any of his own experiences either while training in Rome or in his day-to-day work as a pastor and exorcist in Northern California today, scenes of the priest's possession in The Rite were something that Father Gary still found interesting upon first screening the film.

"The movie doesn't really bring out whatever opening may have been in the person of Father Lucas that could've created the possession or that attachment," Father Gary admits. "But I think you need to keep in mind that it's Hollywood, too.

"I've never known personally anyone to whom that has happened," he continues. "But I will say this: in Rome, the priest I worked under … we had somebody come whom he could not figure out how that person had a diabolical attachment. They had a faith life, sacramental life, prayer life, the whole bit and yet this happened to them. So I can't say it's impossible."

Despite some of these disturbing moments in the film—which will no doubt provoke interesting demonic possession discussions for people of faith—Swedish writer and director Mikael Håfström, who is already known for horror films including 1408 which is based on the Stephen King short story of the same name, thinks that there is something of value here for audiences who take in The Rite.

"It's a film with, I think, a positive message. It's a film about finding yourself, finding your way. It's a film about memory and loss, about the important things in life. So hopefully it's entertaining in the right sense of the word. If it makes people think about some of these important questions in life, it's a good thing.

Rated PG-13 (for disturbing thematic material, violence, frightening images and language including sexual references), New Line Cinema/Warner Bros. Pictures' The Rite opens wide in theaters on January 28, 2011. Click here to read the review of The Rite. 

Photos courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures.

**This interview first published on January 26, 2011.