Darwin Shaw on playing St Peter (and a Lego Bond villain)

The apostle Peter is not the first biblical character that Darwin Shaw has played in his decade or so as an actor. You can see him briefly as Adam, in a new prologue to the Campus Crusade film Jesus (1979) that was shot a few years ago, and you can also see him as the “Semitic Jesus” in Gospel of Thomas (2009), an interactive adaptation of the Gnostic text that allows you to toggle between different actors. (Another actor plays the “Western Jesus”.)

But Peter is easily the biggest role of this sort that Shaw has tackled so far. He appears in all five of the New Testament-themed episodes in last year’s mini-series The Bible, and he will appear again this week in Son of God, the big-screen movie that consists mostly of footage from that mini-series but also includes a few new scenes.

I spoke to Shaw — whose credits also include Casino Royale (2006), Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time (2010), John Carter (2012) and a deleted scene from Prometheus (2012) — by phone last week while he was in Los Angeles to promote Son of God.

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I don’t know if you know this, but you may be unique among actors, in that you are quite possibly the only actor who has played Peter all the way from the beginning in Galilee to his martyrdom in Rome.

DS: Ah, I didn’t know that!

There have been plenty of films about the gospels, and several based on the Book of Acts, but I can’t think of any, apart from The Bible, that have covered both with the same actor as Peter. Were you aware of how unusual your take on the role is?

DS: Well, I mean, I was aware that the previous– The research I did, I didn’t find anything which was quite in the vein of where I was hoping to go with it. I know Omar Sharif did a version, but that was an older man, and one of the things which came out of my research was that Peter was a contemporary of Jesus, he was one year senior to him. So they were very much young, vibrant men.

He was one year senior?

DS: Yeah, according to the research, he was born a year before Jesus Christ.

Oh, I don’t think I’d heard that before.

DS: Yeah, so that gives you a completely– Because all the Renaissance paintings and a lot of the visual images we’ve had of Peter are as an older person. So immediately that gives you a sort of unique inroad into– This is a man, he was vibrant, strong, he was married, he had a family, he was a fisherman, he left all of this to go on this journey, and what a journey he does go on. It’s an incredible privilege for an actor to kind of get a chance to go and take that route.

You mention the family. Were they part of the mini-series at any point? Will we see any more deleted scenes?

DS: In terms of what was actually shot, there’s a couple of new scenes which you’ll see in the movie. A lot of the research you do is just stuff which feeds you and helps you as an actor to try and define the character and make it as rounded and as rich as one possibly can. And one of the real things which me and Diogo [Morgado, who plays Jesus] both worked really hard at was trying to bring as much humanity to these people as we could, and try not to– These are such famous stories that it’s quite hard to not fall into telling them in the sort of typical manner which we’ve all seen before. So we really just tried to get as much truth and as much richness to it as possible.

What other sources did you look at?

DS: I first of all spent three days in an Orthodox monastery, and had three days just living with these monks — there were a few nuns there as well, actually — and she kind of gave me some real insight, because one of the things I was really struggling with was, y’know, after the conversion of Cornelius, Peter converts obviously the first non-Jewish person to Christianity, or what would become Christianity, but then later on — we didn’t have time to cover all this minutiae — he then sort of goes back on his thoughts later on, and there’s a lot of [tension] between Peter and Paul, there are debates about this, and I was trying to work out how could this man who has seen these miracles — and he’s actually started to perform them himself, so he’s been filled with God, and he’s gone on this incredible journey — how could he then sort of flip back? And I was talking to this nun, and she said what was great about Peter is that he was such a man of his culture, that he was really just culturally, it was so ingrained in him. That was kind of one of the reasons why he found it so difficult to break away, and that was one of these small conversations you have in the kitchen with a nun, and that’s what happens when you’re trying to research a role as big as Peter, that you kind of scatter the seeds as far and wide and hope that one of them plants, and a little bit of information like that just makes you go, “Ah, he’s a man who’s tied to his culture.” And that immediately gives you a certain– Anything you’re playing, it kind of gives you some sort of grounding into that world.

Which monastery was that?

DS: It was the Monastery of St John the Baptist in Essex, outside of London. There’s a very, very wonderful elderly monk there, who didn’t know any English — he was Greek Orthodox — and he just wanted to talk to me, so he had to be translated, but he just basically was telling me how Peter was his favorite disciple, and he’s based a lot of his life and teaching through a great love for this particular apostle, and he gave me a couple of icons to take with me on set, which was a very moving gesture.

Interesting. I go to an Orthodox church myself, and one of my neighbours is the son of an Orthodox priest in Britain, so I wonder if I might know somebody who knows somebody who knows somebody there.

DS: Possibly. I mean, I think, again, when you’re trying to do research, you sort of have to look far and wide. I went to Rome and I spent time in the Vatican, and obviously visiting the great cathedral, and as well just sort of looking into historical things, getting a feel of Rome, getting a sense of what it must have been like walking into there as a fisherman from Galilee. In the same way, just reading about fishermen and getting into that world and getting as physical as one can, and visceral, with the character. I felt that he was the eyes and ears of the audience, and we know that he fails, and it’s just about trying to kind of make him a man, very much an everyman, which people could identify with. Because I think we all identify, in some part, with Peter.

Have you seen any of the other portrayals of Peter?

DS: I’ve obviously watched The Passion, Peter appears in there a little bit, quite briefly. But what’s your feeling about it? Have you seen lots of them?

A few, yeah, and I like your take on Peter quite a bit.

DS: Thanks.

One of my favorites is from a mini-series called A.D. Anno Domini, which is based on the Book of Acts, and he was played there by a British actor named Denis Quilley. Have you seen that one?

DS: No, I haven’t seen that. I will try and look it up.

Speaking of mini-series called “A.D.”, I understand that there’s a follow-up to The Bible in the works that is also called A.D. Do you know if you or any of the other actors from The Bible might be returning in that one?

DS: We don’t know the final scripts yet. I think they’re still being finalized at the moment. I know they’ve been writing them for– They pretty much were already starting that when we were shooting, or finishing shooting, back in– I think a year ago. But unfortunately I don’t know exactly what we’re going to see. There’s word it will be from the Resurrection onward, but there’s so much scope, because there are so many brilliant stories about the early Christians and the political machinations which were going on at the time between Rome and all these other satellites, colonies, and other places in the present Middle East. So they have so much scope, and I think it will depend on where they feel they are with it.

You don’t have to answer this next question if you don’t want to, but obviously it’s going to come up on a project of this sort. What sort of religious background did you bring to this, if any?

DS: Well, I mean, being English, we don’t really discuss our own personal faith that much, but I know that the experience of this– I mean, my uncle and my grandfather are both priests, and I was brought up with them as well– But I know that the experience of this has been a very powerful thing for everyone on set, because when you get a chance to explore this material, it’s often the first time you’ve really got into it since you were a young person. You get a real chance to explore how you think about the world, and re-look at some of your feelings and opinions and how you live. And I know that– I would probably say everybody was changed in some way during the shoot. Because it’s a profound thing to do, in that any time you spend a great deal of time exploring very deeply, and especially from the inside out, of any powerful text like the Bible, it’s going to make you reflect and, in a very healthy, positive way, help you grow as a human being.

What was the most interesting scene to shoot?

DS: Gosh, that’s a hard question. I think the most interesting, from an acting point of view, is when Jesus meets Peter, because this is a scene that was the beginning of the movie, it was one of the most crucial parts of the mini-series because it’s when we see Jesus starting to call on his disciples, and how that initial meeting — it was the first thing we shot together — how that would sort of set the tone for the rest of the movie. So we worked incredibly hard on trying to get that right. It’s always a bit of a gamble, because once you start, you’re on a roller-coaster, and you can’t just change your character, so we knew that this was crucial. And what was wonderful was working with an actor like Diogo, who was so generous, experienced, and just unflinchingly hard-working, but we really just spent hours and hours — on every scene, actually, but particularly this one — coming together and thinking of new ways of how we could kind of establish this kinship between these two people. So I always imagined it like you just parked your car at the stop light in L.A., and some random guy just climbs into your car and says, “Look, I know you’re stuck in traffic, I know the best way to get to the house,” and it would be such a weird thing. How could this stranger just– And what is it about this man which made Peter trust him? So we worked on that scene for days in order to get to that point, and then we worked on our costumes, and I even went two days before, rehearsing the net, just to make sure everything worked so that when we got on set that day, we had the most sort of minimal things that could go wrong, and we could just concentrate on the acting, and started this journey.

Just wondering if you can answer a question I’ve had since watching the mini-series: Is Mary Magdalene at the Last Supper?

DS: Well, in the Bible, there’s no mention of her in the Last Supper, so I think that was one of the big questions which the producers had to decide about which way they were going to go with that. And I think you don’t see Mary at the Last Supper at all. She’s not present at the Last Supper.

I wondered because a few films, such as The Gospel of John, have put Mary Magdalene at the Last Supper lately, and we see her in The Bible in the scene outside the house when Jesus predicts that Peter is going to deny him, just before the disciples go to Gethsemane — but when I went back and looked very carefully at the Last Supper itself, I couldn’t tell whether she had been there.

DS: You’ll have to speak to the editor about that, the ins and the outs!

So was she on the set?

DS: All the actors were always on set, on every day really. We were very very supportive. So they were always around, and sometimes we’d do coverage shots and get stuff just in case they needed some things.

Final question, and nothing to do with The Bible.

DS: (laughs)

I believe you, or your character rather, are the first person to be killed by Daniel Craig’s James Bond.

DS: I am! That’s one of my many claims to fame! If we think of it as the first original Bond, how he became James Bond, then yeah, I’m the first kill. But thankfully, I now don’t die until page 17 normally.

Do you still hear from people about that? Obviously I just asked you about it.

DS: It’s funny, somebody just made a Lego version of the trailer of Son of God, which was going on the internet yesterday, so that’s quite funny. It’s Lego Peter and Jesus fishing. And one of my other friends found a Lego version of the opening of Casino Royale, so they sent it to me, so I had a little chuckle at my Lego self getting drowned again in the sink.

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Here are the Lego clips to which Shaw refers:

Here is the prologue to the Jesus movie in which Shaw plays Adam:

Here is an extended version of the opening scene from Casino Royale:

And here is the scene from Son of God in which Jesus meets Peter for the first time:

About Peter T. Chattaway

Peter T. Chattaway was the regular film critic for BC Christian News from 1992 to 2011. In addition to his film column, which won multiple awards from the Evangelical Press Association, the Canadian Church Press and the Fellowship of Christian Newspapers, his news and opinion pieces have appeared in such publications as Books & Culture, Christianity Today, Bible Review and the Vancouver Sun. He also contributed essays to the books Re-Viewing The Passion: Mel Gibson’s Film and Its Critics (Palgrave Macmillan, 2004) and Scandalizing Jesus?: Kazantzakis’s The Last Temptation of Christ Fifty Years on (Continuum, 2005).


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