A Chat With Joseph Fiennes, Star of Historical Thriller ‘Risen’
The star of Shakespeare in Love talks about his latest film as a Roman tribune who must investigate the disappearance of Jesus’ body and his followers who claim him risen from the dead.
See the Register's In Person interview with Joseph Fiennes here.
ROME — The lead actor of Risen, a film told through the eyes of a Roman soldier who is forced to confront the resurrection of Christ, calls it a story for believers and nonbelievers alike, notwithstanding its strong Christian themes.
“The film presents us with the element of a second chance, of forgiveness, of redemption,” Joseph Fiennes told CNA. “Whether you're a believer or not, I think there's a huge value in understanding the quality of redemption.”
Fiennes, known for his leading role in the 1998 award-winning film Shakespeare in Love, plays the character of Clavius, a Roman tribune charged by Pontius Pilate to investigate the disappearance of Jesus' body.
“Clavius is a man who's deeply conditioned in death, in killing, in warfare,” he said. Over the course of the film, “he is challenged through a series of interrogations to look at and examine himself and his own conditioning.”
Fiennes noted the film's unique approach to the story's consistency with Scripture at a time when many films take a more revisionist approach to biblical stories.
“It has a balance between being very creative cinema — it's a beautiful, epic, big film; it’s a Hollywood blockbuster, in that sense — but at the same time, it's respectful of Scripture.”
This balanced approach to the material stems from the filmmakers' commitment to the integrity of the subject material. Those involved in the film, he said, “have sweated and given their nth degree of energy to serve up and make this entertaining and respectful.”
Fiennes was recently in Rome with his family to screen the film. While in the city, he attended the Feb. 3 weekly general audience and spoke of being moved to tears upon meeting with Pope Francis.
“I wanted to say, 'Hey, Pope Francis,' but I cried like a baby,” Fiennes recounted. “I was reduced to a very humble set of feelings, because it was not about what was said: There’s a presence. That was a blessing for myself and my family and everyone there, to be a part of that.”
Risen will be released in the United States and Canada on Feb. 19.
See the rest of CNA's interview with Fiennes below:
What attracted you to this project?
I think there are a number of answers to that question. Firstly, Kevin Reynolds, a veteran director: We had a long conversation; and after that conversation, he very kindly offered me [the role], which is one of the rare times, if maybe the only time, a director’s been in the room and said: “Would you like to do the film?” And I knew there and then: Yes, I did.
[It was] not only after having spoken with Kevin, but also because, for me, the two interesting things about the script: [First] is that we begin at the Crucifixion.
Pretty much all films I’ve seen that depict the life of Christ end with the Crucifixion, almost like the filmmakers don’t know what to do after. And it’s a very heavy place to end. It’s a very upsetting place to end, believer or nonbeliever. It’s a very powerful image. So we start with the Crucifixion, and we go to the Resurrection and the Ascension. As the title Risen (implies that it) might explore the theme of resurrection, it also, I think, imbues the film with a sense of uplift.
Maybe we need more dialogue in terms of our faith, in terms of those who are believers, or even nonbelievers, about that aspect and what that might mean if you were interpreting. You don’t have to believe it; maybe you could draw a metaphor from it. But I think there’s a positivity here which, for me, is fresh in the telling of Christ.
The other thing is it’s true to Scripture or respectful of Scripture. Some films in the past have not been. I like that it has a balance between being very creative cinema — it’s a beautiful, epic, big film; it’s a Hollywood blockbuster, in that sense — but at the same time, it’s respectful of Scripture. So that’s a first-time balance as well.
Could you talk about the journey of your character and how much of your own personal life and faith journey contributes to the journey of Clavius?
As you know, my character is a nonbeliever. He believes in the law of Roman gods, in particular Mars. He views Yeshua (Jesus), his followers and all that they stand for, as Zealots and terrorists.
I came to this from a completely different angle. It’s nothing to do with me. I had to go the other way. I had to invent and articulate the research I had found. The historical research that gave me great value to making the character was how a man, military tribune, would think and act in that time and age.
I didn’t bring my self to the part. I invented Clavius. And when he goes on a change, maybe I could come closer to him, but for me, in my mind, I wasn’t myself. I’m this tribune.
As an actor in Hollywood, you’ve said this film has an appeal for believers and nonbelievers alike. Are we perhaps at a time when there’s more receptivity to films about faith, specifically to films that don’t have an agenda or that aren’t seeking to change the story?
The biblical narrative has played a part in the history of cinema for a long time. There’s always been a hunger, I think.
Now, they’ve always been films for their age. Maybe they’ve been over-the-top old-fashioned, evangelical; and now maybe they’ve gone the other way: They’re too revisionist and too original and don’t adhere to Scripture. I think we’ve got a nice balance here, and maybe it is a film for the time and age.
I think less about religion, and I think [about] the word “conditioning”: that we’re all conditioned, whether we know it or not. To have a dialogue and a self-observation of one’s conditioning is important, because we’re only going to come up against another person’s conditioning, and that might bring tension and conflict.
The more that we can understand our conditioning, the more that we can invite ourselves to look at someone else’s culture and belief through their eyes, the less conflict there will be.
I see Clavius as a man who’s deeply conditioned in death, in killing, in warfare. He is challenged through a series of interrogations to look at and examine himself and his own conditioning.
It’s less about religion, for me. I like to use the term — it’s a more neutral term —“conditioning.” ... I think religion might throw up a kind of resistance, but I think if one talks about conditioning, we can all kind of understand that.
Conditioning can be not a big, heavy thing. [For instance], I've got a brand new pair of shoes; by mistake you step on [them], and you make them muddy and dirty. I'm conditioned to go, “Hey, what are you doing?” That's my conditioning; I have a response. So maybe we have to learn to find the pause before we react, because [our] reaction is our conditioning.
That, for me, is what I love about Clavius. He’s conditioned and de-conditioned in order to take on the understanding of philosophy elsewhere.
You’ve been taking part in the various screenings of this film and meeting with people who are seeing it for the first time. What has been surprising in how people are responding to the film?
Our producers and directors and actors, right across the board ... have sweated and given their nth degree of energy to serve up and make this entertaining and respectful.
The surprising thing, for me, is that we're dealing with a very sacred narrative. It seems to me that we have not caused division or dislocation or disenfranchisement, which is incredible. The overwhelming response has been positive.
Now, some people will love it; some people will kind of go: “Yeah, it’s okay.” But no one has gone to the other length. And, when you’re dealing with this narrative, I find that we’ve been very lucky. Something has guided us towards a place where I feel that the auditorium watching the film could be a complete diverse mix of atheists, agnostics, hard-core believers, and they will all enjoy and take something away from it. That, to me, is very rare.
And from all the interviews and everything I’m getting: People are liking it.
Something I noticed during [the Feb. 3 Rome] screening was how some people were moved to tears during the film. Obviously, the majority of people in that screening were Catholic, but it would be interesting to see the impact it would have on people who don’t have any religion.
That’s what we’re really interested in: Will it reach that wide audience? I hope it does, because there’s great value for everybody.
But I think, just on a cinematic level, it’s a feast. It’s beautiful to look at: It’s wonderfully shot by a great Italian cinematographer and cameraman, Lorenzo [Senatore].
You had the opportunity to meet Pope Francis at the general audience. Could you tell us a little bit about what that was like?
I didn’t know what to expect. I guess I was a little bit in a dream. Honestly, I’m buying Pampers for my girl with my wife on Wednesdays. Wednesday mornings, I’m not in Rome at the Vatican meeting the Pope.
I’m a huge admirer of Pope Francis and everything he stands for. I think he’s an incredibly connected spiritual and authentic being. As well as that, he clearly has the heart of the people because he is a modern voice and, [because of] everything he stands for, [people] feel a connection. He is tangible.
The pomp and the ceremony [at the Vatican] can distance ordinary people, and he breaks through that. This is incredible.
I wanted to say, “Hey, Pope Francis,” but I cried like a baby. I was reduced to a very humble set of feelings, because it was not about what was said: There’s a presence. That was a blessing for myself and my family and everyone there, to be a part of that. And what a generous man to do that every day, or on Wednesdays, or across the world and travel. To look you in the eye and give the time and energy to millions: This takes a very connected being to do that.