There aren’t many actors who have played the apostle Paul, and even fewer who have been in more than one movie about Paul. James Faulkner is just such an actor. In 1981, he had a small part in the TV-movie Peter and Paul (which starred Anthony Hopkins as Paul), playing one of the Jewish Christians who resist Paul’s mission to the Gentiles. And now, nearly four decades later, he has played the apostle Paul himself in the first-ever big-screen movie about him — Paul, Apostle of Christ (which also stars Jim Caviezel as Luke, the physician who preserved Paul’s story by writing the Book of Acts).
The new film, which played in theatres three months ago, comes to home video this week, so I had a chance to speak to Faulkner from his home in London, England. It was lunchtime in my time zone, but a few hours past dinner in his, and he began by saying he was “almost through an entire bottle of Montagny Premier Cru, so I’m really loquacious now.” What follows is a lightly edited transcript of our conversation.
One of the things that intrigues me about your involvement in this film about Paul is that I’m a Bible movie buff, and one of my favorite movies over the last few decades is a TV-movie called Peter and Paul, which you were also in–
Well, thank you! The thing is, the Internet Movie Database is how I made the connection, but the character that you played is a somewhat fictitious character, so the name that you had in that film is not the name of a biblical character, so I had to re-watch the entire film to figure out which character you were.
Faulkner: It was some time ago. Listen, all I seem to do, I think, was running around screaming, “Circumcise him! Circumcise him!” Right? That was all I ever did in that film. I had three months in Greece, which was hysterical — absolutely hysterical. I remember going across the road from the Intercontinental to the Hilton to watch the U.S. election results, and that was the year that President Reagan was elected, so it was some time ago. And I was two months in Athens, and I was very, very cross that I didn’t have a suite. Anthony Hopkins had a suite, and [Robert] Foxworth had a suite. I didn’t have a suite. So I rented a suite, and I rented a sitting room back to a club which I founded with Jon Finch, the actor who died a couple of years ago, and we called it — because we found a print on the wall of my room, of H.M.S. Rodney — so we called it “Club Rodney”. And we had black T-shirts with embroidered cigarette holes in it, and silver lettering on the back, and I arranged the club limo, which was about the size of a refrigerator on four wheels, and the five members would go off every day when we weren’t working — and we weren’t working very often, once every ten days — and we’d go off and do what we would refer to as rubble-gazing in the morning, i.e. looking at ruins, have a very long lunch, and then a bit more rubble-gazing or go to the beach, back to the suite, I got the banqueting people organized, and then we’d go have a shower, reconvene for cocktails, the bar was set up, go off and have dinner in the old town of Athens, back to the suite, and then the banqueting people had laid out the card table, fresh packs of cards, and we’d play poker until three or four in the morning. Fantastic! That’s the way to make a film.
And that was all just on that one film?
Faulkner: All on that one film. And then we went up to Rhodes for a month. I then formed “Rodney’s Angels”, and we rented trail bikes, and we’d go to the beach every day when we weren’t working, but instead of going on the road we’d go up over the mountain and back down the other side and then have drag races on the beach. I didn’t do any acting, but I have the fondest memories of making that. Whereas Paul was completely the reverse! I had no time off at all, and very long days. I think my last day I completed sixteen scenes. Tough. Tough.
Sixteen scenes in one day?
Faulkner: In one day. Sixteen scenes in one day, including my death. And it’s not easy doing a death scene, because you have to put yourself there, to imagine dying, and all those other things. That was my last day on the new film, was getting my head chopped off.
As you say, you weren’t in that much of the earlier film, so when you came to the new film, how much familiarity did you have with Paul’s story?
Faulkner: Actually, I was pretty familiar with it, because it was one of the very first things I learned about when I was sent to Sunday School as a five-year-old. One of the earliest images I remember, quite honestly, was a rather simple depiction of Paul slumped down on the road to Damascus. You know, “Saul, Saul, why persecutest thou me so?” So I had that clear image, and I was relatively familiar with the New Testament and the Acts of the Apostles, because I was at boarding school for ten years and we had chapel twice a day, and I was in the choir, or led the choir, so I was very much present at everything. One thing I hadn’t done, which of course was the first thing I did [after being cast as Paul], was to read Paul’s letters. I didn’t have a huge amount of time for research — I certainly wasn’t going to read vast tracts of the New Testament when I had a lot of text to learn, as you might imagine — but I learned it fairly easily because most of it is taken from scripture, and it is not an exact facsimile but it is very close to the King James version of the Bible. I talked to a couple of friends of mine who are better educated than I, more erudite than I, who could propound Paul’s philosophy, and his letters let me in. And I had a very good director and a very good script.
You just now quoted a passage, and you quoted it in the King James language, and yet of course this movie is not done in 17th century English. I don’t know if you read the script before or after you read the epistles, but did you know, reading the script, which bits of dialogue were original to the script and which bits were from scripture?
Faulkner: Yeah, pretty much. I’m familiar enough to know where it’s been sorted from.
And then when you turn it into dialogue, how did you handle that balancing act of reciting scripture but at the same time, making it seem spontaneous and human?
Faulkner: Well that’s the trick, Peter, isn’t it. It’s absolutely the core of what I’m required to do as an actor. And that’s to keep it fresh, to say it as if it has just been thought of and said for the very first time. That is absolutely the trick. And that was the one thing that I and my director were very specific about. Actually, he didn’t really have to tell me much about that. I knew. Look, I’m an old pro, Peter, I’ve been doing this a long time. To make it fresh, to make it a thought, an original thought — that’s my job. And it’s my director’s job to convey the general tone of the performance, and that he did to me wonderfully. In between rehearsals and fittings in Malta, I had four days, and he wrote to me, in that period, an entire page of notes which were apposite and hugely useful. Between him and my wife — my toughest critic, who was helping me learn the lines — I achieved, I think, an immediacy of Paul, and conveyed something of his understanding of humanity, because of it. My wife is very good, Peter, at giving me humble lessons.
One thing many people have remarked upon with regard to the film is the powerful, effective portrayal of a married couple through Aquila and Priscilla, which is not something you often see in Bible movies, especially New Testament movies, and they of course are portrayed as part of this broader community. Your character spends the entire film in prison, so did you have any interaction with the other actors or the other sets, or were you sort of cut off from that?
Faulkner: I wasn’t cut off. We didn’t have a huge amount of time together because of the exigencies of the schedule. We were shooting split days, largely — mid-days and midnight — actually, if I’m honest, mid-day to 2am — and there were many days that they weren’t there, but I was very fortunate, blessed, with working with a really fabulous bunch of people who knew that I had a mountain to climb and were very supportive. Joanne Whalley [who played Priscilla], I know she lives in Los Angeles, but she is a British actress who was schooled here and spent her early career here, and we speak off-duty the same kind of language. John Lynch [who played Aquila] is a deeply, well-rounded individual and a published novelist, and a novelist of some depth. Jim [Caviezel, who played Luke] lived in another building, but Jim and I could always — if I didn’t understand Jim’s point of view or the depth of his faith, he’s a motoring enthusiast, as am I. Let’s put it another way, he’s a petrolhead, like me. And Olivier Martinez has become a really good mate of mine. Terrific guy. Completely different to what I expected, because of his prior marriage and his love life. He’s a very, very cool guy, but actually he’s an absolute darling underneath, and it was a joy playing scenes with him.
Faulkner: No confusion, Peter. I will not be called Jim. Only my very oldest friends can call me Jimmy, or Jimbo. But in public, I’m James, very much so. (laughs) And Jim is Jimmy to his friends! When you know Jim, he says, “Please call me Jimmy,” so we’re both Jimmys to our mates, but on the set, people would be relatively respectful, especially if you’re playing a leading role, so he’s Jim and I’m James.
There’s some humour in the film, which one doesn’t often expect in Bible films.
Faulkner: There weren’t a lot of jokes in the film, but I got it in where I could get it in!
I wasn’t thinking of jokes, exactly, but there are scenes like the one where Paul and Luke talk about the way somebody snored, things like that.
Faulkner: The recollection of their travels on the road. I remember saying, quite clearly, I said, “Look, is there a way of doing this that we can recreate the fireside on the road?” Because we had a top light, so we lay on the floor and did it like that, and then the light coming into the dungeon represents, as it were, the campfire that we’d built on the road, so that we could relax. It’s as if they’d bought a wineskin in the village and that was their only comfort and they were able to reminisce. And also there were odd things that I slipped in. If I became a bit preachy, I would look him in the eye and say, “Write it down.” Because he knew that Luke was his amanuensis.
So that line was an ad lib, or an improv?
Faulkner: Yeah, that’s an ad lib! Me, getting into the character! And, I guess, having, I would say, an early premonition of his importance within the founding of the faith.
Is there anything that you’ve taken away from the role, anything that you think will stick with you?
Faulkner: Oh, yeah, there’s an enormous amount. The difficulty is adhering to it, back in the to and fro of daily life, just trying to remember the things that you learned because you were given the role of Paul, and that you learned how to be more generous to your fellow human beings. I struggle with that. Sometimes I don’t suffer fools gladly, and I can be a real bitch, but whenever I’m pulled up short, and I remember what I went through playing Paul, and my wife will remind me of the better points of my personality, which were allowed to the fore while I played Paul, and I attempt to go back to that. It’s not easy, though.
Well, there are sections of the epistles where Paul almost comes across that way too. There’s a famous passage in Galatians where Paul is fed up with these people who are insisting on circumcision — like your character in the other movie — and he says, “I wish they would go all the way and emasculate themselves.”
Faulkner: It was a surprise to me, how tough Paul could be on people, and it didn’t really come into the script. That’s not really revealed in the script, because it’s his last seven days, when, as it were, if he hasn’t made his peace with the world, at least he’s made his peace with God. And it was a friend of mine, who as I say is more erudite and better read than I, who reminded me that Paul was misogynistic, that Paul was a homophobe, and could be pretty tough on those around him, and exacting if they did not meet his standards. But it isn’t really in the film. If we had shot Paul’s life, and we had seen him on the road, then I guess that would have to be there. But it isn’t in the film, because it’s about the last seven days.
There are flashbacks to Paul’s earlier life in the film, but in those scenes he’s played by another actor [Yorgos Karamihos].
Faulkner: A Greek actor, yes, and a very good Greek actor.
Was there any talk of you doing the flashbacks as well, or was it ruled out from the beginning?
Faulkner: I was too late to the project. Had I been on the project from day one, I would have suggested that I should spend an extra three hours in make-up and play age 33 or whatever. And I did persuade, having seen the very first cut, I said, “I feel the two halves of Paul are somewhat divorced. And this is tough on the younger actor, but you need a narrative, a spoken narrative from me over the top, a reflection, a recollection here. I think it would help bind the two halves of Paul together.” But yes, had I been on it from day one, I might have said we should do a test with me as the younger Paul.
Had they shot those scenes before they hired you?
Faulkner: No, but they had already cast the actor, and they were shot before I got back to the film. They started immediately after I was there for three days, and in that four-day hiatus they had already shot those scenes. . . .
I said, “I think there is a disconnect between Saul and Paul,” when I first saw it. The scenes of the Greek actor were longer, he suffered a bit in the cut, and that’s partly my fault, because I felt there was a disconnect, and I said, “Stay with the movement, stay with the light, stay with all of those things, but you need to hear my voice over the top as if it’s my memory, or else it’s confusing to the audience.” Not everybody, Peter, is familiar with the Damascene moment and the fact that Saul becomes Paul.
So those scenes were going to have more dialogue and the sound that was recorded when they shot it originally?
Faulkner: Yeah, there was a great deal more dialogue from Saul himself. But as I pointed out to the filmmakers, “Thing is, given the amount of work that Paul did on his travels, I am unclear that he would have had enough time to visit a dialogue coach.” [Karamihos] has a Greek accent and I don’t. It’s not about an individual here. At the end of the day, you’re making a movie — you’re making a movie for an audience, and hopefully for a mass audience — and you mustn’t confuse them. Why mass entertainment works is because it’s emotional, and it behooves you as a filmmaker, or a participant in an exercise such as this, not to get in the way of the storytelling. That’s all. That’s all it is. And I’ve suffered in the past, and usually I understand why I’ve had to lose a scene.
I thought it held together. Certainly by the ending, I was surprised by how moved I was at the ending, where — spoiler alert — your character essentially sees the people that he persecuted, and of course, those characters are characters that the other actor would have encountered, but the movie does hold together so that when you see those characters in the very last scene, you get the full emotional impact of that.
Faulkner: There’s a moment in the cell where Paul says — you’re not quite sure what he’s on about — “I’m haunted by these people and I don’t know who they are, I don’t know where they are.” And he doesn’t know what it is. And then he’s confronted with them, and they forgive him, and it’s a much longer scene than is in the film, I must tell you, and I was utterly destroyed by it. I stood there and wept, crying my eyes out, while those wonderful extras held me. And we couldn’t put it in the film! It was too much of it! We were completely destroyed. We all knew what that extraordinary moment of redemption was, and it’s just lightly touched upon [in the film], but it was a deeply, deeply moving day.
Wow, because I thought that scene was very moving as it is in the film.
Faulkner: Yeah, well, the full-length version, you’d be on the floor. You’d be on your third box of Kleenex. It was extraordinary. It’s not often I cry on the set, I have to tell you. I wept buckets.
Was that planned, or did it just catch you by surprise?
Faulkner: No! It just happened. And the wonderful thing about shooting on Malta is that there are 365 churches on that tiny rock, it’s quite a devout island, Malta. They know the stories, they know it. And they knew exactly what it represented.
And Malta of course is actually mentioned in the Bible. It’s where Paul had one of his shipwrecks.
Faulkner: Indeed! And where he was bitten by the serpent. We couldn’t do that, but I want you to know, I insisted on two puncture marks on my hand in make-up.
I certainly didn’t notice it on screen, but that’s fascinating.
Faulkner: No, but it’s there!
Right hand or left hand?
Faulkner: I think we put it on the right hand. There are a number of images of Paul casting the serpent from him into the fire, and whichever hand he uses, we put the puncture marks there on the back of the hand.
— Paul, Apostle of Christ is available via iTunes, Google Play and other digital platforms today. It comes out on DVD and Blu-Ray June 19.