“Daunting” is one word Ewan McGregor used about stepping into the role of Jesus in the new film Last Days in the Desert.
“Freaked out” is another way he described his feelings about the task, McGregor said.
That’s why the Scottish actor, who has played the pope’s administrator in Angels & Demons and a familiarly robed and bearded jedi in the Star Wars prequels, chose instead to focus on the humanness of Jesus — the Jesus who still is working out his mission; who audiences see dying, but not resurrected.
“When I started to think about those human qualities, about trying to communicate with your father and being frustrated you’re not getting the answers you need, I find him there,” he said.
Last Days in the Desert, which debuted at the Sundance Film Festival in 2015 and opens in theaters nationwide May 13, stars McGregor as both Jesus and the devil — or Yeshua and The Demon, as they are called throughout the film.
It’s writer-director Rodrigo Garcia’s imagining of Jesus meeting a family as he is leaving the wilderness, where he spent 40 days fasting and praying, and wanting to help them. The teenage boy and his father are struggling to reconcile their plans for the boy’s life: The boy wants to go to Jerusalem. His father wants him to stay in the desert.
The story came to him “wholesale,” said Garcia, who noted in the film’s production notes he is not a “devout person” although he grew up “in a Catholic world.”
“I joke that I don’t know what part of my body this came from because all my other movies have been contemporary and strictly psychological and realistic and about middle-class women,” he said.
It was the humanness of Jesus that appealed to the Colombian filmmaker, the son of writer Gabriel Garcia Marquez. After all, Rodrigo Garcia said, how do you “write God?” But as he began to write the script, themes emerged that interested him: fathers and sons, what we do to please our parents and what we do to please ourselves, whether our destinies are written.
When McGregor first read the script for Last Days in the Desert, he said, he had no idea it was a movie about Jesus. The first few pages were “beautifully written” and “poetic” – but without dialogue.
“I started reading a script about a man walking in the desert. I didn’t know who he was or when or where it was. … Then I got to the first line of dialogue, and about the first line of dialogue was the name ‘Lucifier,’ and I realized who it was we were talking about,” he said.
If the minimal, 62-page script, the cast of five characters, the opportunity to act with his eyes and his body drew the actor to Garcia’s script, it was McGregor’s ability to project “a lot of empathy, a lot of inner life and a lot of interest in the human being and a lot of just concern about the other” that appealed to the director, he said.
Garcia had considered making Last Days in the Desert in Israel with Israeli actors speaking in Hebrew, he said. He’d considered making it in Mexico with Mexican actors speaking in Spanish.
But, he said, “There’s something that always comes ahead of whatever formula you have, which is who is going to play the role best?” After spending a holiday with McGregor and mutual friends over Christmas, Garcia said, he realized “he’s the guy.”
The movie was filmed over five weeks in Southern California.
As #OscarsSoWhite has turned a spotlight on concerns about diversity in film — including the near-universal portrayal of Jesus as white — Garcia said: “Did I think at the time, ‘OK, we’re going to cast a white actor to play Jesus?’ Yes, I did think it. You think of everything. But in the end, I have to tell my story.
“I cannot apologize for having chosen an actor that proves me right in that I think his portrayal of the humanity of Jesus is absolutely terrific.”
McGregor doesn’t have an answer for what he hopes audiences will take from Last Days in the Desert, particularly what they might take from it spiritually. But he’s pleased audiences seem to recognize Jesus the way they’ve always imagined him in this performance, he said.
And, Garcia said, “One of the most satisfying reactions we’re having from Christian audiences is that they feel this is a real flesh-and-blood guy who is Jesus.
“I’m not a great fan of those movies where you have this starry-eyed Jesus who barely seems human. And I also thought if he is in fact human, then the mission and the sacrifice are all the greater. If you are a god and only a god, then perhaps the crucifixion is not that big a sacrifice. But if you’re half human, it’s a humongous sacrifice. So I just stuck to the human side, and so did Ewan.”