A Very Human Jesus: Ewan McGregor on Playing Yeshua in ‘Last Days in the Desert’

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“You can’t approach playing a character such as Jesus without being a little freaked out. It’s incredibly daunting …but you have to put that aside. You have to start with finding the man in you and focusing on that.”— Ewan McGregor, on playing Jesus in “Last Days in the Desert”

There’s a surprisingly funny moment in the otherwise serious and contemplative new movie Last Days in the Desert, where Jesus (played by Ewan McGregor) and the teenage boy he’s met in the desert are returning to the boy’s home with jars of water. As they stop for a rest, the boy passes gas — loudly. And Jesus … well, Jesus laughs. The moment catches you off-guard — it’s not exactly what you’d expect in a film about Jesus’s last days in the desert — and invites you to consider a Jesus who laughs, who is earthy, who could be a friend … in other words, an unusually human Jesus. Which is exactly what the film’s writer and director Rodrigo Garcia was aiming for.

“I had no idea how to write God, or how to portray God as a character,” said Rodrigo Garcia in a recent phone interview with us. “How do you dramatize God? It’s impossible. So I concentrated on the human side. And like any writer creating a character in a story, you think, if I am him, what? If he is like me, what? I’m not a great fan of those movies where you have this a starry-eyed Jesus who barely seems human. And that’s one of the most satisfying reactions we’re getting from Christian audiences — they feel this is a real flesh and blood guy who is Jesus.”

Desert fart jokes aside, Last Days in the Desert is a beautiful, evocative, and strange film imagining a chapter from Jesus’40 days of fasting and praying in the desert in which he meets a family and enters into their very real lives and struggles. Part of the film’s strangeness, I suppose, is that it’s leaps and bounds away from the Christian fare of late. It’s slow; it’s sparse; it’s quiet. Jesus is at times insecure, self-critical, and unsure of his path. He’s tempted by the the Devil repeatedly along his way. At the end of the film, there’s not a clear faith take-away. More than promoting any particular gospel message, the film invites you into the life of a young Rabbi struggling to understand his Father’s will for him, even as he helps a family understand their own destiny.

FRANÇOIS DUHAMEL/BROAD GREEN PICTURES Ewan McGregor, as Yeshua, chats with director Rodrigo Garcia on set for “Last Days in the Desert,” shot by acclaimed cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki (far right).
FRANÇOIS DUHAMEL/BROAD GREEN PICTURES
Ewan McGregor, as Yeshua, chats with director Rodrigo Garcia on set for “Last Days in the Desert,” shot by acclaimed cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki (far right).

The film, premiering in select cites May 13, debuted at the 2015 Sundance Film Festival and stars Oscar-winning Ewan McGregor, Tye Sheridan, Ciaran Hinds and Ayelet Zurer. The cinematography by three-time Oscar-winner Emmanuel Lubezki (Birdman) is stunning, and the haunting soundtrack hits all the right notes. And McGregor’s portrayal of Jesus is deeply moving.

In a recent phone interview with reporters, Rodrigo Garcia and Ewan McGregor responded to some questions about the film. Here are a few highlights:

Where did this story come from? 

Garcia: Well I’ve joked that I don’t know what part of my body this movie came from because all of my other movies have been contemporary and strictly psychological and realistic, and about middle class women. But the idea came to me wholesale: Jesus coming out of the desert and getting involved in the problems of a father and son, and wanting to help — and in the process helping and perhaps hurting, or helping in a messy way. And my initial thought was, “Really, you’re going to make a movie about Jesus in the desert?”

But it did stay with me and I couldn’t shake it. So I started taking down notes and thinking about it more. And as I was writing on it and making notes, I started to see the themes that were interesting to me — the themes of fathers and sons, and when do boys become men, and can they carve out their own path, and what you do to please your parents, and what you do to please yourself, and is your destiny written. And once I saw those themes emerging, the fact that they were wrapped in this story about Jesus was OK with me.  But yes, it’s surprising to me. I’ve often watched the movie and wondered where it came from. But it comes from you, no doubt about it. Or as I read in a Christian review, it came “through” me.

Ewan, what attracted you to the script?

Ewan: I met Rodrigo on a holiday and I liked him very much. When we got back home, I got an email from his producer saying Rodrigo wanted to send me something. When the script arrived, I had no idea what it was about. I didn’t know it was a story about Jesus as the central character. So I just started reading this script about a man walking in a desert. I had no idea who he was, or when it was, or where he was, I just knew it was beautifully written and poetic and lyrically written and the visual descriptions were unusual. No one speaks for the first several pages; it’s literally just a man sleeping, waking up, walking in the heat … simple and really mesmerizing. And I was in.

The first interaction this man has in the script is with somebody who appears to him in his own form… and I’m thinking what, what? Then I got to the first line of dialogue, and the name above it was “Lucifer” and I finally realized who we were talking about. But I was totally hooked in. With any work, you know very quickly with a script, you know within the first few pages, you get a feeling. And I certainly had that with this. And the combination of getting to work with Rodrigo and working with such beautifully underwritten work where the dialogue is very sparse and where as an actor you get to play scenes with your eyes and body language; its quite thrilling and quite rare these days. So it was not a difficult decision to make to jump in.

Ewan McGregor stars as 'Jesus' in the imagined chapter of Jesus' forty days of fasting and praying, LAST DAYS IN THE DESERT, a Broad Green Pictures release. Credit: Gilles Mingasson / Broad Green Pictures
Ewan McGregor stars as ‘Jesus’ in the imagined chapter of Jesus’ forty days of fasting and praying, LAST DAYS IN THE DESERT, a Broad Green Pictures release.
Credit: Gilles Mingasson / Broad Green Pictures

You play both Jesus and Lucifer in the same movie. What was your process like for preparing for these roles?

Ewan:  Well firstly, as an actor, you draw from your experience and imagination, and then you fill that in with any research you feel is necessary. It’s very daunting to approach playing Jesus Christ; it’s a very daunting proposition and idea. I certainly concentrated far more on Yeshua than the demon in my research. I started to read books about Jesus, but many of the more recent books about him are trying to disprove the “son of God” nature of his life and writing more about who he might actually have been, and I found that to be unuseful because I was portraying Jesus who was the son of God. In all of the scenes, we were exploring the human side of a young rabbi who is aware of the path that’s been set in front of him and has some questions that are unanswered about it. He’s trying to get those answers from his Father and he’s frustrated because he’s not getting the clarity he wants from his Dad. So when I started thinking about those real human qualities about trying to communicate with your Father, and being frustrated you’re not getting the answers you need, I found him there, I found a truth to those sides of his character. But I was always mindful of the fact that I was playing Jesus whose Father is God; that was very important to me.

As for the Demon … I realized when we showed up to start working that I hadn’t spent much time thinking about him at all. Partly because I needed to be in the scenes to find him. And I wanted to portray a certain human version of him as well, I guess. It’s always a mistake to try and play “the bad guy.” So I tried to play a guy who was screwing with Jesus’ confidence. My goal as the Devil was always to disrupt Jesus’ path, to screw him up all the time.

At a screening at a church in Los Angeles recently, the Reverend said that the movie — and your performance of Jesus — had actually changed his theological perspective of Jesus. What’s it like playing this extraordinarily famous person from religious history and what do you hope people will take away from the performance, even perhaps spiritually?

Ewan: Wow. I don’t have an answer for you in terms of what I want people to take away from it, especially not in a spiritual way. I’m very proud that people are responding to the Yeshua in this story in a way that makes them feel like he’s…

Rodrigo:  human…

Ewan: Yeah, human, but also like the Jesus they recognize, I guess, from their own imaginings of him. That I’m very proud of. I never really like to say what I want people to think of a movie or a performance; it’s not for me to say. You want people to be made to think and you want people to be made to feel. And that’s our job as artists in any realm.

But did you feel a heightened sense of responsibility for portraying this hugely important and revered person in religious history?

Ewan: Yes, yes of course, you can’t approach something like that without being a little freaked out, but it’s never helpful. And of course, there’s a responsibility … but the responsibility is always there, to be truthful, to be responsible to yourself as an actor, to satisfy your own experience of a role. But when you start projecting that out to everybody else’s expectations, it’s not helpful. But responsibility and respectfulness, yes, absolutely … but I think that was all taken care of in the script. I didn’t have to worry whether we were being disrespectful or irresponsible in our story, because I don’t believe we ever were.

So yes, it was incredibly daunting — but you have to put that aside. And you have to start finding the man in you and focusing on that. So much of it happens on set with the other actors, or being alone in front of the camera with a director and cinematographer. You’re not alone doing it. We found all of this together.

There’s been a lot of discussion lately that casting in bible-based films has been really white and that Jesus is almost always portrayed as white. Did you think about that when you cast the movie?

Rodrigo: When you’re writing and thinking and pre-producing, you consider everything. There were earlier versions of the movie, where we thought about making it in Israel with Iraeli actors in Hebrew, and there was moment I was considering making it in Spanish with Mexican actors in Mexico. But in the end, there’s something that always come ahead of any formula you have, which is who is going to play the role best. And I always liked Ewan a lot as an actor; I thought he just projected a lot of empathy, a lot of inner life, a lot of interest in the human being, and a lot of concern about the “other.” So I thought, he’s the guy. Did I think ok, I’m casting a white actor to play Jesus? Yes, you think of everything. But in the end, I have to tell my story. I have some freedom in that I am from Latin America, so as a Latino who has made movies and shows with Latinos and African Americans and Whites, maybe I can be spared the bullet a little bit, hopefully.

But I see the problem that exists, generally, and I’m happy to take the blame and my responsibility on this one, but I can not apologize for having chosen an actor who proves me right in the sense that his portrayal of Jesus and the humanity of the Jesus is absolutely terrific. So yes, I’ll take the bullet, but I have no regrets.

Watch the movie trailer here:

 

Visit the Patheos Movie Club for more conversation — and videos — from Last Days in the Desert. 

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