Risen - Joseph Fiennes
Risen - Clavius (Joseph Fiennes) with Jesus' disciples, witnesses a miracle ©2015 CTMG

Risen tells the familiar story of Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection in an unfamiliar way – through the eyes of a non-believer named Clavius (Joseph Fiennes, Shakespeare in Love, Elizabeth, Flash Foward).

Clavius is a powerful Roman military tribune, who is given the task of  solving the mystery of what happened to Jesus’ body following his crucifixion, in order to disprove the rumors that he had risen from the dead, which could incite an uprising in Jerusalem.

Cliff Curtis (Fear of the Walking Dead, Three Kings, Training Day) portrays Jesus (aka Yeshua).

Both Joesph and Cliff attended the press day for the movie, which opens this Friday, February 19th 2016.

Risen - Joseph Fiennes
Risen – Clavius (Joseph Fiennes) and the apostles fish fruitlessly at night on the Sea of Galilee ©2015 CTMG

What interested you the most about this project?

Joseph: Many components. Kevin Reynolds (who also wrote the screenplay) who is a wonderful veteran director, and a brilliant idea of this story through the lens of a non-believer.

The challenge for me was if we have a Roman military tribune who is part of the death squad that oversaw the crucifixion of Christ, how is the audience going to want to travel with this guy or like him? That was my challenge and that was something I really welcomed.

What I also liked was here’s an opportunity for a film to be neither deeply conservative nor hugely revisionist. It struck me there was a balance to be had where you could invite an audience from all faiths and beliefs to sit in the auditorium and enjoy a wonderful piece of cinema.

Risen - Cliff Curtis
Risen – Jesus (Cliff Curtis) crucified along with other convicted criminals ©2015 CTMG

I read that you’ve always wanted to play Jesus, is that true?

Cliff: I was a devout Catholic as a child, so when I became an actor occasionally the question would arise, ‘What roles would you like to play?’ I’d say, ‘Jesus.’ It became a running joke, because I thought I wasn’t fair complexioned enough to get the role.

When the call came through from Patrick (Aiello, one of the movie’s producers and screenwriters) and he gave me the breakdown of the concept, I was like, ‘What role do they want me for, some terrorist?’

And when he said, ‘Jesus,’ I was going, ‘This is a prank, this can’t be real,’ because I also know that Jesus was crucified at age 33 and I’m in my late forties.

Do they know my work? When you look at my work, what makes you think I’m right for this role? So it was a pleasant surprise. A miracle.

Joseph, what kind of research did you do?

Joseph: I did Gladiator school, and worked with a detective, understanding the physical and mental processes of a Roman tribune. I had help with that, and that really made me understand and have fun playing Clavius as this rather clinical detective.

In the front of the movie, (you see) all of his conditioning as a Roman solider and his approach to warfare and dealing with insurrection and these zealots. Then he suddenly butts up against something huge and irrevocable.

It’s like a Greek play, you’re told at the very beginning this is the protagonist and this is the end, now let’s see how these events collide.

We all know the story, what the fresh take is, seeing a man, I feel, and his journey of de-conditioning, and if there is any takeaway for an audience, whatever your background is, we are all conditioned.

At some point in our life we have to face our conditioning, and in this sense here’s a man who is an elite man who is involved in the industry of death, and he has to challenge his conditioning.

Risen - Joseph Fiennes and Tom Felton
Risen – Clavius (Joseph Fiennes) and Lucius (Tom Felton) at the crucifixion of Yeshua ©2015 CTMG

Cliff, did you watch any Biblical movies to prepare for this?

Cliff: No, I had seen The Passion of the Christ. and those images were so striking it’s hard not to reference them. It’s a beautiful film.

Cliff, whose idea was it for you to not talk to anyone during the shoot?

Cliff: I think it was my idea to be silent.

When I realized the offer was real and that I was going to be playing Jesus, I had to think how am I going to do it?

The first thing I had to understand was I had to set my ego aside and I had to be of service to a very significant divine being on this planet for many people.

There was a cleansing process that was required, because I talk a lot, and I often talk a lot of nonsense unnecessarily and certainly not divine. The idea was he would only speak words of God, and so if you can’t do good, just stop doing bad, just stop saying nonsense.

So for a month I lived on my own in Malta, it was really a beautiful experience, I prepared my own meals, and I lived monastically.

Risen - Director Kevin Reynolds, Joseph Fiennes and Tom Felton
Risen – Director Kevin Reynolds, Joseph Fiennes and Tom Felton on the set on the set ©2015 CTMG

How did Cliff’s approach make you feel?

Joseph: I think every actor has their way in and their methodology, and I’m very respectful and love that, because it’s all about claiming the character, and setting up an environment for the creativity and the chemistry to work.

Did you feel not speaking to each other when you finally did the scene where they meet it made it more intense?

Joseph: Yeah, without doubt. Two or three months with no eye contact, no talking, just because for Clavius there are parts where he (Jesus) just doesn’t exist, and I wanted to save that moment (where they meet).

It’s very complex and emotional and a big turning point for Clavius, so you’re working hard to ramp up that for the camera. So the first time we spoke or ever met really was on camera.

Cliff: I haven’t seen the scene, I don’t know if it did help, I hope it helped. I hope the scene worked. But it really helped me through the shooting process to not engage unnecessarily or socially, to keep that distance.

It really helped me, I spent a lot of time on set in meditation and silence. I would sit for hours alone.

Otherwise, it’s like being on stage, doing your Hamlet and suddenly getting out your phone and Facebooking.

Risen Soundbytes

I asked Joseph how meeting with police detectives helped him in playing this role, and wondered if that was his idea? Click here to listen to his reply
Cliff was asked if he kept his code of silence with his wife too, and I asked him how playing the role of Jesus (aka Yeshua) changed him?


Judy Sloane

Judy is Film Review Online's regular Los Angeles based reporter.