The Shack had one of the biggest first weekends in the history of “faith-based” films. It is also making history in one other important way: it just may be the first English-language movie to feature an Israeli actor as Jesus Christ.
I spoke to Aviv Alush, the actor in question, by phone the day the film came out. It was a brief chat, and there was a bit of a language barrier, but Alush had some interesting things to say about the film — which concerns a grieving father named Mack who spends a weekend with the three persons of the Trinity, one of whom is God the Son, a.k.a. Jesus — and how the film can help people to cope with death and grief.
What follows is a slightly edited transcript of our conversation.
As I understand it, this is your first English-language movie?
How did you get involved with The Shack? How did you get involved with this Hollywood film?
Alush: Okay, so, I’m going to start from the beginning. One day, I made my way to a show in the north of Israel, and then my agent called me, and she told me, “Listen, the tape that you sent for The Shack, they want you.” But, there was a little bit of a problem, because of the schedule for my wife’s due date. It was a big problem for me (laughs) so I told them, “Listen, it’s a big problem, we can’t do this,” and the reason is with my little son — I have three kids — after he was born, I went for two months to the Philippines to shoot something, and it was so hard for us, for me and my wife. And my wife, she’s the hero in that story. But then my wife told me, “Listen, you have to do something big, beautiful story.” I remember that I read the script and I told her that there is a big message over here, and as a Jew, I read the script, and I didn’t see anything that connects to religion. It’s not about religion, it’s about faith, it’s about God, and I connected with it, because from my point of view, there is God in this world. Anyway, so I told you about the moment that I got the part, and the thing with my wife, and in the end, everything [got figured out] with the birth and the production, [and they figured out] all the flights back to Israel. I spent a couple of days in Vancouver, and then go back to Israel, and then I went back to Vancouver and then come back to Israel. I was there for the birth, it was like magic.
We’re all familiar with the biblical stories about Jesus, but The Shack isn’t one of those stories. Was it a challenge to play a familiar character like that in an unfamiliar story, or was it liberating?
Alush: Yeah, because I think the special thing in that story is that Jesus and God were like friends with Mack, you know? It’s something else, and I think it connects from what I started to say a couple minutes ago, that the story is telling us some basic things about faith. There is God, and it doesn’t matter who you are or what you are doing, there is God in this world, and there’s a lot of love for everyone, and it doesn’t matter where you are from, the important thing for me when I read the script — the thing that Jesus is, he is a friend. There is a line in the script, where Mack says he is very comfortable with me, and I tell him, “That’s because I’m human.” This is the most beautiful thing in the story, that Jesus can be just a friend, someone who can carry you, and you can trust him. I like that.
Had you thought about Jesus much before you took the role? Did playing the part change your perception of him at all?
Alush: I read about him. I read about him when I got the part. I read about him, I read about the Trinity. I found something — you know, Jesus was Jewish, he was a rabbi! — and I read a lot of stories about Jesus in Israel. And it’s interesting that they picked me for this part, and I’m Jewish, I’m kind of religious Jewish from Israel, and I don’t look like the traditional Jesus with the long blonde hair and blue eyes.
Alush: Oh yeah, I remember.
— and last year, Cliff Curtis, who is Maori, played Jesus in a movie called Risen. So there seems to be a move towards casting actors who either are Middle Eastern or look Middle Eastern. Any thoughts on that trend?
Alush: I don’t know the word in English — I’m looking for the word. There is no specific type for this. There is a traditional one, and what I think is now, it’s a little bit that they picked me because it’s the original Jesus — that’s what I think — because he looks like me. You can make Jesus however you want. I think it’s beautiful that there is no specific type, you can imagine whatever you want.
What kind of feedback have you had from Christian audience members? Has anyone been surprised that you aren’t a Christian?
Alush: Actually, no. Everyone says they love it. I don’t know how to explain it, but really, I’ve met a lot of people who are Christian, and they are all very loving, they love the idea that I am Jewish and from Israel. I think they are a little bit excited that I am Jewish from Israel who plays Jesus. I can’t explain it. But I think because Jesus was a Jew!
Absolutely. I think a lot of people want to see more accurate or authentic representations of Jesus in film, and I think The Shack is going to play a big part in that.
Alush: I hope so.
Are there films about Jesus made in Israel by Israeli filmmakers? You’re the first Israeli actor to play Jesus in an English-language movie, but have there been any films made about Jesus in Hebrew, in Israel?
Alush: I’m sure there is, but I don’t know. I’ve never seen a movie in Hebrew about Jesus. I have three kids, I don’t have enough time to watch TV. (laughs)
You mentioned that Mack finds it easier to get along with Jesus because Jesus says he’s human, but in the film, Papa [aka God the Father] and Saruya [aka the Holy Spirit] also seem very human and relatable as well. What is it that sets Jesus apart, in the film?
Alush: I think because of the fact that the Christian people believe in Jesus, that he was the son of the God. It was easier for Sam [Worthington’s character, Mack] or the audience to feel more comfortable with Jesus, because God doesn’t have a shape, you know. In Christianity, in Judaism, God doesn’t have any shape, and this is the first time God has a shape. So I think that Sam knows Jesus and can help him to feel more comfortable with Jesus as his friend, more than with Octavia [Spencer, one of two actors who play Papa], because she is God, and it’s a big thing.
In making the film, were there any themes or messages that stuck with you? Anything that surprised you as you were making it?
Alush: I don’t think anything surprised me. It was very hard for me, this story, as a father. I have family in the army in Israel, I know families that lose their children, and I think this is the most hard thing, is faith. Because [what happens after] death is always belief, it’s always something that you don’t have any answers about, and I think the movie helps you to understand that death is part of the life. It makes it more natural, and less– I’m looking for a word. Anyway, it really helps me to understand that death is a part of our life. There is life, and there is darkness, always together. And I think when people speak about faith, they always get stuck when they’re starting to speak about the terrible things that happen in the world, and I always know, even in the Torah, they’re always speaking about it, that if there is fifty percent of love, there is fifty percent of hate, they are always in perfect balance. And I think this movie and story helps Mack and the audience to understand that death is not something bad, it is something that must happen. It’s part of life.