This month sees the release of a new Hollywood movie that tells the story of the resurrection from an unusual viewpoint – that of a Roman soldier. Joanna Moorhead saw the film and went to meet its star, Joseph Fiennes.
It’s not often an actor gets to play everyone, all at the same time: but that’s very much how it is for Joseph Fiennes in his new movie Risen. Fiennes is Clavius, a Roman tribune charged by Pontius Pilate with retrieving Christ’s body after he hears rumours that the disciples are saying the crucified Nazarene is alive again. ‘It’s all nonsense’, Pilate tells Clavius, ‘so go find the evidence.’ And Clavius, who of course is 100 per cent certain that the recently-executed preacher is deceased (didn’t he see him expire on the cross with his own eyes?) sets out on a quest on behalf of all of us to find out the truth – with a few predictable surprises in store.
It’s how Clavius reacts to the shock of discovering that Jesus is, in fact, risen that appealed to Fiennes. ‘The pull for me is that there’s this sense with Clavius of a character who raises his level of integrity, who raises the moral bar. He’s fictional, but there are plenty of examples of real individuals who have weathered particular storms and stood alone in the fact of authority, maintaining their strength and faith for what they believe to be truth.’
Risen is a serious, Hollywood, blockbuster-hopeful; it’s in the tradition of Mel Gibson’s 2004 The Passion of the Christ, which was a major hit at the box office in both the US and Europe; and like The Passion, Risen is a literal, no-holds-barred, epic retelling of the Easter story, set in the often-violent reality of 2,000 years ago. Alongside Fiennes, Peter Firth – best known for his portrayal of Sir Harry Pearce in BBC 1’s Spooks – is a bulldog-like Pilate, and the Argentinian actor Maria Botto is a wise and intuitive Mary Magdalene. But the other central figure is, naturally, Christ himself, known in this film by his Hebrew name of Yeshua and played by the New Zealand actor Cliff Curtis.
Curtis brings an extraordinary stillness and sense of other-ness to the role of Yeshua; he manages a genuine element of transcendence as he appears in the midst of gatherings of his astonished follows, and even-more-astonished Clavius. The pivotal scene in the film takes place one night: the apostles are sleeping, and Clavius – who is tagging along with them – notices that Yeshua is awake, and sitting on a rock. He clambers up beside him, and the conversation that follows is the conversation any of us, believer or non-believer, would want to have with the physical, risen Christ. What makes the scene so charged, Fiennes reveals, is because he and Curtis decided to deliberately keep their distance from one another during the making of the film, in order to keep a freshness for their first meeting on-screen. ‘We wanted to preserve the energy between us for the filming,’ he says. ‘We saved the moment of interaction for that moment on the rocks, and I think it does give it a very special dimension.’ Around the set, he says, he and Curtis didn’t even speak to one another; in fact Curtis kept his distance from all the other actors, in order to protect that sense of ‘otherness’ that he believed he needed for the role of the risen Christ.
We are meeting at an advance screening of Risen; the previous day, Fiennes has been introduced to Pope Francis at the Vatican, with his wife Maria Dolores Dieguez, whom he married in a Catholic ceremony in 2009, and the couple’s two young daughters, as well as other members of the cast and crew. He’s not sure, he says, whether the Pontiff will be attending the screening of the movie when it’s shown inside the Vatican, but he hopes he does; and he was completely bowled over by the chance to meet him. ‘Usually I’d be doing the supermarket shop or looking after the children, and there I was saying hello to the Pope,’ he says. ‘He blessed my family…it was an amazing moment, a once-in-a-lifetime moment.’
Fiennes was baptised a Catholic, the youngest in a family of six children; his elder brother is Ralph Fiennes; two sisters, Sophie and Martha, are filmmakers; and another brother, Magnus, is a composer. Their parents were photographer Mark Fiennes and his novelist wife Jennifer Lash; Fiennes says he’s not really sure how the couple managed to turn out such artistic children. The only one of the six who doesn’t work in the arts is Joseph’s twin brother Jacob, and he’s a conservationist. He and his twin are very close, he says, but all the siblings get on very well indeed: there’s no rivalry, and he’s delighted that Ralph is currently getting rave reviews for his role in The Master Builder in London’s West End.
Growing up one of a big family definitely shaped him, he says. The idea that it was all mayhem because there were so many of them is quite wrong. ‘There was a strong sense of discipline in my family as we were growing up: people seem to imagine we were raised in some kind of bohemian, Walton-style set-up, but that wasn’t right at all. There was creativity, for sure, but it always went hand in hand with discipline.’
When he was a child the family moved around a good deal – he can’t remember whether it was 14 different houses and 12 different schools or vice versa, he says – and he feels now that this gave him a good start for life as an actor. ‘What it meant was that I was always the new kid in the playground. And the playground is a tough place for a child, and more so if you’re the new arrival. I think I took something away from that about how to collaborate and get along with people from different mindsets and backgrounds, because certainly as an actor you’re plunged into different worlds and you’ve got to make it work. So when I arrive on a new set or a new production, I’m drawing on those skills I learned as the new boy, yet again, in the playground.’ Becoming a parent himself, he says, has made him more aware of the role his parents – who are both now dead – played in his life. ‘It seems impossible to believe that what my wife and I are doing for two children, they were doing for six; as times goes on I feel greater and greater respect for them, for all they did for us, for pulling us through the way they did,’ he says.
The biggest difficulty about playing the role of Clavius, he says jokingly, was wearing sandals the whole time! But the most serious challenge he faced was having to take the audience along with him on the Pauline-like journey the tribune makes from being one of the persecutors of Christ, to becoming one of the first believers. ‘What I realised was that Clavius was deeply conditioned, and we are all deeply conditioned, to see the world in a certain way and to play our part in the machine we’re part of. But what’s exciting and interesting about Clavius is that he is confronted by his conditioning and he comes to a point where he is deconditioned and then he comes to understanding that there’s a deeper consciousness.’
Fiennes says he identifies with some elements of Clavius, in particular the need to intellectualise events, which is how Clavius initially tries to deal with the shock of discovering that Christ truly has risen. But the biggest thought his role has left him with, he says, is this beautiful one. ‘I think, isn’t it amazing that a non-believer is caught up in God’s plan? And then Clavius safeguards the apostles so that God’s word is protected, so it can be spread. So the person who is opposed becomes a player in the great mystery; and that makes me think, maybe all of us, whether we are believers or non-believers or unsure, are part of this same great mystery, and one day we will find out how we were all part of it.’
Photos © Columbia Pictures