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Ewan McGregor On The Challenges Of Playing Jesus

02/02/2015 10:17 am ET | Updated Feb 02, 2015
George Pimentel via Getty Images

Ewan McGregor's sandals are following in the footsteps of Max von Sydow, Willem Dafoe, Robert Powell, Christian Bale and Jim Caviezel. With "Last Days in the Desert," which premiered last week at the Sundance Film Festival, McGregor becomes the latest to take on the role of Jesus. Unlike the other actors' projects, which dramatize or twist the events of the Gospels, the details of McGregor's portrayal aren't plucked directly from scripture. Yet, to the credit of writer/director Rodrigo García ("Albert Nobbs," "Six Feet Under"), it would be hard to call the film non-biblical.

Set during the final leg of Jesus' 40-day fast in the wilderness of Judea, "Last Days in the Desert" finds the holy man encountering, first, Satan (also played by McGregor), who fills his head with self-doubt, and, soon after, a family (Ciarán Hinds, Tye Sheridan and Ayelet Zurer) dealing with their own father-son issues. The desert dwellers he encounters are not figures from Christian credo, allowing the film to fill in holes in a chapter of Jesus' life that isn't fully enunciated in the Bible. Shot by Emmanuel Lubezki ("Gravity," "Birdman") in Southern California's Anza-Borrego Desert, "Last Days" is a meditation on the notions of faith and spiritual nourishment, particularly as they relate to familial struggles. HuffPost Entertainment sat down with McGregor at Sundance to discuss the inevitable controversy that stems from a nonconventional take on the son of God.

Did you grow up with a religious background?
I didn’t. I grew up in a small town in Scotland, and Christianity was part of our schooling, I suppose. I went to Sunday school as a kid. At school, special occasions were marked, like Easter and Christmas, and the school was attached to a church that we had music things in. But I didn’t have religious parents and I wasn’t brought up in a religious way, no.

How did playing Jesus come about?
I met Rodrigo on holiday. Our DP, Emmanuel Lubezki, is a friend of mine. Our daughters are friends, so we know each other. We hadn’t worked together; just our kids are in school together. We went to spend Christmas with them down in Mexico, and Rodrigo was there and another friend of theirs. We got on very well; it was a great holiday and we all had a great time. It was a nice experience. After that, I got sent this script from his producer. They said to me that Rodrigo was embarrassed to come forward to me because we’d met socially and he didn’t want to suddenly break that relationship. I read the script because I really like him and I think that’s more important than anything else with your director, that you get on.

last days in the desert

Did you find yourself reading the Bible to prepare for the film?
I did. I read a lot of different things. I read, of course, some of the passages of the Bible. I read some books that have been written about Jesus, but I didn’t choose them very well. I read books that were mainly trying to take the religiousness or take the Bible out of the Jesus story and focus on who he really was, and I found them to be not of any use to me because I was playing Jesus whose father is God. That’s who Rodrigo had written about. Although we are showing, I hope, a Jesus who is a man and who is a human being, he’s also the son of God. So these books I was reading that were sort of trying to remove the spin, if you’d like -- that’s what I suppose their intention was -- weren’t helping me anyway. In the end, as I usually do with research, I get to a point where I’m not an academic person and I find that the sort of academic research for a character leads me not to anything I’m going to be able to play. So I sort of swept it all aside and started thinking about, "Who am I playing?" I’m playing a man who’s trying to speak to his dad and he’s having problems speaking to his dad. And when I made it more simple like that, it became much more easy to play, or it became more obvious to me how I was going to play it.

Anytime someone is cast as Jesus there's a camp that's angry because he doesn't fit their image of what Jesus looked like. What do you say to anyone who challenges your casting as a white man, considering he's thought to have been Middle Eastern?
I am a white man and I was offered this part and I said yes. I wasn’t going to turn it down because I’m not. That was it.

Everything outside of Jesus trekking through the desert seems not to have been culled from the Bible.
No, and it’s not a biblical movie. It’s a film about the relationships between fathers and sons, I think. All of the scenes are about that, really. There are a few scenes between the boy and his mother, so in broader terms, a film about the relationship between parents and their children, you could say. But there are many more scenes about fathers and sons than anything else, so it wasn’t really a film attempting to tell a story about Jesus from the Bible. This story isn’t in the Bible, but it is, I hope, the Jesus from the Bible. I like to think people who are religious, people who do believe, and there’s a wonderful piece written in Christianity Today that suggests that: that although the story is not in the Bible, it does feel like the Jesus from the Bible.

Would it bother you if religious moviegoers condemn the film because it isn't a fundamentalist adaptation?
Yes, I would probably be disappointed. I think so. I’m sensitive about my work; I care about it. And I would feel that I’d failed if people felt like that. There might be people who don’t believe that we should invent stories roundabout the figure of Jesus. Now that’s not something I can answer to. I don’t feel that way, but I’m respectful of people’s different opinions, so I would respect somebody if they felt that way. But I would hope even if that was the case that they wouldn’t watch my portrayal of Jesus and feel like I’d done him a disservice. I would be upset if somebody thought that because I really felt the responsibility of playing him and I tried to live up to that responsibility every day.

Talk to me about filming the dual role of Jesus and the devil, which often required you to act opposite yourself. Did you have someone feeding you lines?
I had an actor to work with. I had Nash Edgerton, who’s been my stunt double since "Moulin Rouge!" and "Episode II" and "Episode III" of the "Star Wars" films, and many, many films we’ve worked on together. He’s also a filmmaker, he’s a director, and he’s acted with me as well in a couple of films. In "Son of a Gun," he plays our getaway driver. He was coordinating our cliff stunt, which is a quite dangerous sequence on the cliff with real actors going over the edge. It had to be very safe, and it was very safe. Because he was organizing that, I asked him to play opposite me in these scenes. So he learned and performed the scenes with me. I would be Jesus first and he would be the devil, and we would swap and then shoot the other side of the scene. Sometimes we’re looking over his shoulder, sometimes his hands. But it’s only because I was playing with somebody who was playing those scenes with me that it works as well as it does. I’ve seen it not work so well, you know, somebody acting with themselves, if you like. I did a film called "The Island" with Michael Bay, and I was playing a clone of somebody and there were scenes where the clone meets the person he’s cloned from, so I had experienced it before. But it works best like that, when you’ve got somebody that’s not just feeding you lines but actually playing the scene with you.

What's it like working on a movie shot by Emmanuel Lubezki? What's his process?
He’s an extraordinary artist, and I think the truth is I don’t know. I don’t know what his process was for "Gravity" because I wasn’t there. It’s almost, how could that man have shot this film? And this film and "The Tree of Life"? They’re so different from one another. So that’s why he’s a real artist, because he’s making the film look like the film should look, and it’s got nothing to do with the last one. What I will say is I loved watching him with Rodrigo. I don’t know how far their relationship goes back, but it's a long, long way. They were like two halves of a brain. They would disagree about some things, very rarely, but Chivo totally challenges himself. He never used any lights. Out of a 24-day shoot, he used lights for two days of it: the interior of the tent and two or three scenes at night -- he’d use a few lights. Other than that, he was using natural light.

As moviegoers, we feel like we should expect a certain artistry with Lubezki's movies. Do you find that he's different from other DP's?
We never shot the two angles of a scene in the same location ever. So we would play a scene like this, they would shoot you, and then we would walk miles to find the next place to shoot me. So the two backgrounds have got nothing to do with each other usually. I’d be interested to do a film with him -- God, I’d love to work with him again on anything -- but it would be interesting to work with him where he is lighting, maybe where we’re shooting green-screen work. It would be fascinating to see that side of him because here he was using what we had. And he was using the time of day more efficiently. It’s the desert, so you have a little poetic license there, I guess. But it was very rare that we would shoot this way, turn the camera and shoot that way. We’d always be walking in between those two things.

It's really the opposite of "Gravity."
Right. He always wanted to be shooting when the sun was coming up. Those hours just after the sun came up, and sometimes depending on the cloud base, that period of time would last longer than others. Some days you had really beautiful light until 9 o’clock in the morning. Other days you had beautiful light until 11 o’clock in the morning because there was clouds. It would just depend -- and then the period of time just a couple hours before the sunset and after the sun has set, that beautiful window of light. He was sort of painting with that. He was using the sun and the time of day to make this picture. So we very rarely would be shooting stuff in the middle of the day or on either side of lunch. It was usually time for rehearsal and finding locations.

I'll close by asking about your expectations for the new "Star Wars" movie.
I have no idea!

Have you seen the trailer?
I watched it over someone’s shoulder on their iPhone. I didn’t watch it properly. I’ve got no feelings about it at all. I’m looking forward to seeing it, I suppose, as much as the next man.

Is it a relief not to have to concern yourself with how people will react to the new movies?
I never bothered about what they felt about mine anyway, so I don’t have that feeling. I’ll enjoy watching it as a filmgoer as much as anyone else, I’m sure. I’m interested to see what the storylines are. I never talked about it with George Lucas. I knew there were three other chapters, but I never asked him what they were. So I know as much about it as you do.

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