Risen - Joseph Fiennes
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Risen - Joseph Fiennes

By Ella Timms

British leading man Joseph Fiennes made Gwyneth Paltrow and Cate Blanchett’s hearts flutter in his roles in Shakespeare in Love and Elizabeth two decades ago. But the younger brother of actor Ralph Fiennes turned his back on Hollywood, spending much of the next 18 years working on stage and in independent movies. Now 45 years old, he is ready to make his comeback in biblical drama Risen, playing a sceptical Roman military tribune who becomes a believer after witnessing the resurrection.

As a lapsed Catholic, he felt a little uncomfortable playing a member of the death squad who crucifies Christ, but after consulting with police detectives and attending gladiator boot camp, he was ready for his close-up. Wed to Spanish beauty Maria Dolores Dieguez with whom he has two young daughters, the charismatic actor divides his time between Spain and the UK. Today he talks religion, gladiator training and why he’s playing Michael Jackson in an upcoming drama:

This is an unusual role for you. How did it come about?

I met [director] Kevin Reynolds in an airport lounge in Madrid. I read the script, and I loved it for the idea that we should see this story which some know very well and is dear to their heart, and some might know a little bit which is the crucifixion and the resurrection and the ascension of Christ. If you’ve seen Mel Gibson’s The Passion of Christ, the movie ends with the crucifixion, so to pick up from there through to the ascension, I thought, “Wow, that’s a tall order.” But to see it through the eyes of a non-believer, a Roman tribune, was really exciting to me. And it felt like a really interesting detective story and I don’t want to be misquoted, but I said in one interview that it’s a little bit like Chinatown, in that he’s going down a rabbit hole and he doesn’t know in that sense with the investigation. It’s not like it [Chinatown] at all, but it has that sense of the investigation and he’s not quite as in control as he thinks.

And I love that element and that’s Kevin’s invention and I love the sense of the ticking clock; the idea that Emperor Tiberius is about to arrive in Judea and Pontius Pilate is breathing down the neck of Clavius and then Clavius is probably breathing down the neck of Lucius, his aide. So I loved the ugly bosses kind of relationships going on, but also that sense of ambition and duty and the investigation, and it wasn’t biblical, it didn’t smack of a biblical story.

Of course, we’ve got to come into the resurrection-ascension, there’s no denying that, and we want to, but we come at it from an oblique angle as this non-believer, this Roman soldier who is diametrically opposed; this is the enemy. And I loved that sense of the deconditioning; whether you’re religious or not, you can take away various themes which is: confronting your conditioning, second chances. There’s a great redemptiveness to the journey and Clavius, who’s in the industry of death, meets the man that he killed and is forgiven. We all make a bad choice and the idea that we can be forgiven for that is a wonderful thing – it doesn’t have to be religious – and then there’s the whole question of faith and I love that too. I love that scene with Cliff Curtis [who plays Jesus] and I on the rock [where] you don’t know if it’s a dream or not, but that sense of “Clavius, you’ve just witnessed it all and yet you still have this thread of doubt?” And that’s something that we all have, that kind of little intellectual thing going on; that “Really?” and I love that so there were elements for me that spoke to me and were a challenge, but I felt the right challenge.

Risen is biblical fiction. How close does it stick to the Bible?

There is a balance between Scripture and fiction. I play the character of Clavius, which is a conglomerate of a few historical characters, and we view the whole Easter experience through his eyes. We had theologians and Christian ministers on the set to advise us on the religious aspects. They were also there for the editing process.

There’s a moment in the movie when you meet Tom Felton’s character Lucius for the first time, and it seemed like it was a buddy cop movie.

Yeah. It smacks of that, yeah, it’s like “Oh, here’s my buddy”. I loved that, and what was interesting is that a lot of people of high-ranking positions in the Roman army, from what I’ve read, especially if you were a military tribune, it’s because Daddy knew somebody. In my mind, Clavius had probably worked his way up through the ranks to become a military tribune, and there were very few military tribunes, and it was a really big position of authority to hold; you would probably go on from a tribune to the senate, and the idea that someone should just walk in because Daddy’s friends know Pilate was just grating to Clavius, and I loved that, it did smack of that in that moment.

How was it filming in Spain and working with the Spanish cast like Maria Botto, who plays Mary Magdalene?

Maria was phenomenal, incredible. She brings such a vulnerability, pathos, a purity, spirituality and such emotion. It was great to work with her and a lot of the guys who were playing the disciples, and we had a co-partner in the production. It was great to be in Almeria where Clint Eastwood rode his horse on a number of occasions in spaghetti westerns in Sergio Leone films. So there was history everywhere, but also to have a Spanish crew was great and talented and wonderful and brought that diversity, so regarding casting and look it felt authentic [to] the casting, the territory, the land, Judea. And also Cliff – let’s celebrate the idea because so much of Hollywood talks about the casting and the whitewash, so let’s celebrate the fact that we have a Jesus that’s not blond and blue-eyed.

And you went to gladiator boot camp?

Yes, for me the way into this film was I went to Rome and studied with all these gladiators. They go round Europe to these amphitheatres … there’s this one guy called Darius and he and his team go round Rome, and he and his team look at every depiction of frescoes and murals and sculptures and fabrics, and any depiction of military warfare in Roman times, that they would copy and re-enact. So it might be physical gestures like this ancient boxing which is based on the idea of pulling a bow and arrow, and he would re-enact all that. He’d talk about the gladius [sword] which was rather like the Samurai for the Japanese in terms of the stabbing motion. The economy of the Roman army, the philosophy; the surgical, economical precision was amazing. And that for me was the mindset, the idea that you would go into battle rather like a boxing guard, you’d only reveal the eyesight there to know where I’m going to go, and the gladius would come down, and you’d hide again, come down, Achilles heel. And down again. And so what I learned at school was phenomenal, and it wasn’t just picking up the bruises and feeling macho, it was actually mentally, I was like, “Wow. These guys are surgeons.” And now I understand how you can take over huge parts of the earth – [it] is because of how you think and how you think as a unit and not just as an individual, so that was a big lesson for me.

Cliff Curtis took a vow of silence in preparing for his role of Jesus and didn’t even speak on set. How was that?

That was great. It played into my way in and certainly in my attitudes on camera and off-camera, it’s the same for me, whether I’m on or off there is no difference, so if we happen to be sharing the same space, he didn’t exist – until he existed – and the same for all the disciples. And what you’re trying to do is form a platform, a space that when you film on camera, it is imbued with the right kind of chemistry and energy and quality. And you can dissipate that, you can dilute it if you’re faffing around and having a fag and everything, and it kind of somehow filters through so the moment when we’re on the rock is the moment when we first met each other; the first moment we had eye contact and spoke to each other, and we saved it for that moment. It might work; it might not work. Maybe it doesn’t make any difference at all but for the actors, in our mind, and having a platform, its important, so it’s great when you have an actor that is like-minded because there are certain actors who don’t want to go there, and there are certain actors that do, and it just brings a chemistry and invites a consideration, and a tension which you’re hoping the camera might get that energy. So that was important.

Was that a rather lonely experience – not talking or hanging out with Jesus and his disciples on set?

Yes, there were days when I was rather jealous and felt isolated that all the crowd in the next tent were all laughing and joking and talking about the dinner that they’d had together as a collective group of disciples with Jesus, and the prayers that they had. Meanwhile, Tom and I were silently together in our leather in another tent. But it’s all good, and it’s all part of the off-camera work.

It seems you’re the go-to guy for faith-based films?

I wouldn’t say that – but I have to admit that these films strike a chord with me. I don’t know why I gravitate towards them or them to me – if it’s coincidence or if it’s conscience. I guess it has to do with integrity – my own and the integrity of the project. When you raise your consciousness, you attract projects of higher consciousness as well.

Your character Clavius is a non-believer. Do you believe?

I believe in a greater consciousness. I believe that a conditioning and polarisation and locking straight into one’s own ideal can produce walls between people. Umm, so what do I believe? I don’t know. I’m still on that quest. There’s a constant conversation, a constant inner dialogue. I’m baptised Catholic, but I’m lapsed. I don’t go to church. I live by simple rules that I hope are just basic humanitarian, kind of humanistic beliefs, and I’m still working it out as Geoffrey Rush said in Shakespeare in Love: “It’s all a mystery”, and it’s all a theological mystery.

As an actor it must be fascinating to play someone who is not a believer but then is faced with such an overwhelming experience which cannot be explained?

It’s delicious. How do you go from the guy that was in the death squad that crucified Christ to a man that is now going to safeguard the Christian word by defending a group of men through the gullies of the desert against his own compatriots? Brilliant. I always felt that he was a man who is exhausted by the industry of death, that he’s at the end of his career, he’s looking to get to Rome.

What made you decide to consult with police detectives for this role?

Yes, when I spoke to a detective, I learned that a lot of detectives smoke cigars because they have the smell of death in their nostrils, hence Columbo. And I suddenly thought: that’s really interesting, so I had this plant which I would smell or wash, and I always felt Clavius was at a point where he was prepped for something. It wasn’t like he was a 20-year-old. If he was 20, I don’t know if he could make that change, but when he’s in his late 40s, I felt that Clavius was in a position where he was almost bordering on post-traumatic stress, exhaustion, and he had a spirituality to him in that he prayed to Mars; he invited Yahweh to cross over, and I loved that. He’s already beginning, and he’s in a place which is not absolute black and white – he’s this, and then he’s that. I felt like here’s a man who’s ready for change and here’s a man that happens to [think], maybe if you want to enjoy this idea, which he might be part of God’s plan. That actually he’s not someone that’s made the change in discovery, but maybe God has brought him in to safeguard the word and to get the disciples out, so there’s lovely themes there, but certainly delicious is the one word that comes to mind when you get to play that juxtaposition. He’s exhausted I think, and that’s what makes me believe that he’s malleable to take on or decondition rather than being a young, sprightly, fixed person. He’s an interesting character, and he’s a loner, a thinker, he’s an intellectual on the battlefield and in terms of the detective story. I felt it was believable. It was a challenge as an actor to take the audience on this story. You don’t want to make them like you. In fact, I wanted the audience to really not like me for what I did and then try to carry them with me. That was the big challenge. We’ll see if it pays off.

Is it tough to find challenging roles?

I did [find it challenging], until the other day I got a script and an offer to play Michael Jackson, which I took. They do come around. It’s a comedy; it doesn’t poke mean fun. It’s a story which is possibly an urban legend whereby Michael, Marlon Brando and Liz Taylor were all together the day before 9/11, doing a concert. And airspace was shut down, they couldn’t get out, and Michael had the bright idea that they should go to a car hire company and drive. So the three of them got in a car, and they drove 500 miles; took them a while because they had to stop at a lot of Burger Kings for Marlon. They got out. It’s a lovely road trip, and a lovely thing about Michael’s relationship with Liz Taylor, and Brando with Liz who had been in a film together. So it’s [a] fun, light-hearted, tongue-in-cheek road trip of what it is to be a celebrity of that kind. But it’s also rather beautiful and poignant as well. Marlon is played by Brian Cox, and Stockard Channing plays Liz Taylor.

You’ve worked with many different directors in your career. How was Kevin Reynolds to work with on Risen?

Kevin’s a veteran. He’s someone that I trust 100%, and I felt so happy and secure with, and from the first conversation we had, enormously collaborative, which was a surprise to me because some veterans, quite rightly, they know how it’s going to work out and you don’t need to question it. Not that one questions … I like to think ‘collaborates’ is a better word, but he was really welcoming, and I think we both got off on the same foot in terms of wanting this film to satisfy. Of course it’s going to satisfy the faith base, but also we wanted it to be a cinematic event and we wanted to have creativity within that and so we pushed hard to strike the balance between honouring Scripture and what is really pertinent and precious to so many but also, being a cinephile, offering up a great epic film that you would enjoy whether you’re religious or not. You read so much about “It’s Sunday school. It’s just so conservative and boring” or it’s “Whoa, its revisionist. Don’t go and see it”. So how great it might be that we get both camps in the room, in the auditorium, who can share the spectacle and appreciate it and take away elements whether you’re religious or not? That would be a great success.

Is there a specific inspiration for Clavius besides the script?

Yeah, you’re right. He’s a fictionalised historical character. I’m thinking about Emperor Constantine, much later, which was the kind of watershed moment in Christianity. Up until that point, I think there was just horrendous Christian brutalities and he was the emperor who had a dream, and Christ came to him in the dream, and he converted. So that’s one big historical happening and writers, or Kevin, might have taken that but I believe it’s really a device in which to give us a fresh take, a fresh look on an old story, and introduce the story again and take us through it but obliquely so there’s not that stigma of being really upfront and religious, and its striking those balances.

Were there any Roman soldiers in cinematic history that came to your mind?

I think Russell Crowe in Gladiator was phenomenal. His depth was extraordinary, and I loved that for Ridley Scott’s cinematography and direction. So that plays in your mind. The last thing we wanted to see was a sort of evangelical transformation.