Opening this month, Risen is a depiction of events surrounding Christ’s missing body after his crucifixion. Check out the Q+A interview below with actor Joseph Fiennes.
What did you think of the script for ‘Risen’ when you read it? I loved it for the idea that we should see the story of the crucifixion, resurrection and ascension of Christ – which some know very well, being very dear to their heart, and others may know a little bit – through the eyes of a non-believer, a Roman Tribune. That was very exciting to me. I felt I was reading a film noir set in biblical times.
It has an original structure to the narrative. Yes, precisely because it feels like a detective story. It is almost a little bit like Chinatown in the sense that Clavius, my character, is going down a rabbit hole during his investigation and is not quite as in control as he thinks. I love that element, which is Kevin Reynold’s invention. And then there is the ticking-clock element to it too, as the Emperor Tiberius is about to arrive in Judea and therefore is breathing down the neck of Pontius Pilate, who likewise is breathing down the neck of Clavius. And Clavius is probably at the same time breathing down the neck of Lucius, his aide. So I like those “ugly bosses” kind of relationships going on; but also that sense of ambition and duty, and the investigation – which is not biblical. So we come at Christ’s story through the bleak angle of a Roman soldier who is actually diametrically opposed. He is the enemy! And I love that sense of de-conditioning.
This way the film is appealing to both the religious and the non-believers too. Yes because, whether you are religious or not, you can take away various themes from the story. And we wanted it to be a great cinematic event.
Which are those themes in your opinion? ‘Risen’ talks about confronting your condition and also about having second chances. There is redemption in the journey of Clavius, who is in the industry of death but then meets the man he killed and is forgiven. And we all know what it’s like to make a bad choice, but the idea that we can be forgiven for it is a wonderful thing that doesn’t have to be religious. So there are elements of this story that spoke to me and challenged me too.
How was your first encounter with filmmaker Kevin Reynolds to discuss your involvement in Risen? Interestingly enough it took place at an airport lounge in Madrid, Spain. We talked at length about trying to get the balance of the story right and also about not wanting to make an over-zealous evangelical piece because wanted to keep it cinematic and believable, without omitting moments of doubt. And right there and then, which is almost a first time to me, he offered me the part of Clavius.
And what was he like to work with as a director? Kevin is a veteran and someone that I trust 100%. He is enormously collaborative, and I felt very secure and happy next to him.
You play a complex character that gradually wins the audience over as the story evolves.
I was concerned that maybe the audience might dislike my character to begin with; but at least he is an honest man, even if you don’t like the way he operates, being so conditioned by the Roman military. Clavius has a sense of honor, which was something tangible I hoped the audience could connect with to go with him on this journey.
So, what kind of a man is Clavius?
In my mind he is someone who has worked his way up the ranks of the Roman army to become a Tribune – which was a big position to hold, as you could go on from there to maybe even the Senate. And he is a loner, a thinker and an intellectual both on and off the battlefield.
He seems tired of what he is doing when we meet him…
Yes, I always felt that another component of setting up Clavius was the fact that we wouldn’t believe him so much if he was 20 and on his game and not exhausted by war. I think he is tired and practically on the edge of posttraumatic stress after all the violence and death he has seen.
What is the turning point for him and the movie then? Clavius has a series of moments that confront his Roman military condition and mindset. He is challenged initially by what seems peculiar to him; but then irrevocably when he hunts down Jesus’ disciples he suddenly confronts one face among many he can’t believe he is looking at: Yeshua, the man that only a few days ago he oversaw the death of. How he deals with that revelation is a great turning point.
Fellow British actor Peter Firth tackled the role of Pilate.
Peter is superb! He is extraordinary and brilliant, with a wonderful delivery and a delicacy about the way he thinks. It is just great to be in a room with him, on or off camera. In my eyes he is the best of the best.
And what can you say of María Botto, who plays Mary Magdalene? She is incredible! María brings such a vulnerability, pathos, purity, spirituality and emotion to that role. It was great to work with her and the rest of the international cast we had on this movie.
Speaking of the international cast, New Zealander actor Cliff Curtis was the person finally chosen to embody the role of Jesus. Yes, and I want to celebrate the fact that we have a Jesus that is not blond and blue-eyed. The casting felt diverse and authentic.
He made the decision to stay in silence, both on and off camera. Cliff didn’t say anything and then at the same time said everything. Words often don’t have to be the syntax of importance, so he had decided early on to not dissipate his energy in interacting with anyone off camera, and I think it paid off. I felt that our lack of contact before the shoot helped our chemistry when we were finally together on set. That moment when both our characters meet on a rock for the first time was also our first moment together, so this way we managed to save that energy for the camera.
What did Tom Felton bring to the role of Lucius? Tom is a wonderful man and a very talented actor. It was great working with him because he was so present at all times, and he managed to chisel out this beautiful part and arch of a man who is desperately ambitious and looks up hugely to his superior. Lucius has great respect for Clavius and probably wants to be him one day.
Then there is this special moment when Clavius confronts him and makes him doubt everything that he believes too. Yes, you have this lovely moment where his idol has turned on him and on Rome – which confounds him. And I love that, instead of slicing his head off, Clavius says: “There will be no more death.” If we could continue Lucius’ story it would be interesting to see what his journey would be after that moment.
How did you prepare the fighting scenes? I actually went to Rome and studied the physical gestures of the Roman soldiers, to then understand better how they thought as individuals and even more importantly as part of a unit.
What did you think of ‘Rise’n when you finally saw it completed? I loved the direction, the other actors, the production value… It was authentic and made me feel like I had been picked by the scruff of the neck and dropped off in Judea. And I thought the journey of Clavius was poignant and subtle, with a nice complex change. Nothing was over the top, and I believed it.
How was your experience of being in Rome to promote the movie? It is once in a lifetime that one gets to, not only celebrate a film in Rome, but to also visit the Vatican and even meet the Pope! I felt very lucky and fortunate. Pope Francis is a gentleman I have admired just through the coverage in the news, because I feel he is a modern and much-needed voice in the Catholic Church; but then nothing could prepare me for actually meeting him. At an immediate glance and by just looking into his eyes you register that this is a man who is deeply connected and spiritual and authentic. To tell the truth I think I just blubbered like a baby…