Joseph Fiennes Talks About Playing a Skeptic in ‘Risen’

The star of the upcoming Bible film talks about his new film, the nature of belief, gladiator school, and Eric Liddell.
Joseph Fiennes Talks About Playing a Skeptic in ‘Risen’
Image: Columbia Pictures
Joseph Fiennes in 'Risen'

The film Risen—which will hit theaters on February 19, 2016—is not quite like any film based on the Bible that I’ve seen before. Directed by Kevin Reynolds, the film stars Joseph Fiennes (Shakespeare in Love) as Clavius, a Roman centurion who is assigned to figure out where the body of Jesus of Nazareth has gone after it disappears from the tomb. Clavius is a world-weary, ambitious man of Rome, but as he interviews various people from Jesus’ life, he starts to realize that more is going on here than meets the eye.

I spoke with Fiennes by phone last November about playing Clavius, the nature of belief, going to gladiator school, and his upcoming role as Eric Liddell in The Last Race (which covers the period of Liddell’s life as a missionary in China, following the events of Chariots of Fire). The following transcript of our conversation was edited for clarity.

Christianity Today: What attracted you to this project?

Joseph Fiennes: I met with our director, Kevin [Reynolds]. He is extremely intelligent—I loved his films and identify a lot with them. He had established a pretty brilliant pitch, which was really getting into the story of Christ through the eyes of an agnostic. I thought that was a brilliant, original approach. It also appealed to me that it was like a detective story as well. There's this ticking clock to prove that the resurrection is a hoax and designed to bring about the uprising. Clavius is against it, and I love that sense of pressure.

It felt a little bit like Chinatown, where the man is sucked into a mystery—a murder-mystery—but also a theological mystery. I loved it for those terms. I thought it was highly original.

In the film, familiar figures keep walking through the background or entering and exiting scenes. Your character is the throughput for this. Is that a challenging role, given how many biblical movies have been made with these same characters? What made it a difficult part to play?

You could say that Clavius might be loosely based on a story of the Roman centurion—but it's pretty loose. This is much more fictional. So in some sense it's not too difficult.

I do believe the film gets it right in terms of Scripture. Those who feel that what is right in Scripture is right in the film will feel that there's a good balance there. With regard to Clavius in Scripture, he's fictitious, to a degree . . . So the only difficulty was thinking up enough to be a believable tribune of the Roman order.

What does that involve?

Well, I went to gladiator school of my own volition. I went to Rome. (Kindly, the production paid for me to get beaten up by some professional gladiators showing how it used to be done.)

I worked with a wonderful guy called Darius and he basically showed me what the Roman soldiers would have learned from the gladiators, because a lot of their techniques were very brutal, but with a sort of economy and precision. The physicality gave me an insight into the mindset, which was very economical.

The Roman Empire was a machine, and it could only become an empire because it was a machine. So they were all amazing cogs in this very unique piece of machinery. It got me thinking into the mind-frame and the culture and the mental and physical preparation that those beings would've gone through. It was hugely beneficial.

It's not just that he’s a Roman soldier but also a Roman soldier living in Israel, right?

What was interesting was reading about the various legions and the tribune. One place the legionary or tribunes wouldn't want to go is Judea. It’s brutal with the weather, and brutal with the uprising. There was a huge uprising in Turkey, so it was the last place that they wanted to go. That was quite interesting, reading about that.

It seems like a really important relationship for your character is with Pilate, as kind of a mentor—or maybe a more contentious relationship.

That's a good point. He is a father figure. I always thought of story as a detective story about a man disengaging his “father” (Pilate) and being adopted by the greater father.

That was another way in for me: this agnostic going through a huge change (mental, physical, spiritual) because of what he's witnessed, then divorcing himself from his family and being adopted by a new family. So the father figure, I had always thought, is a wonderful component and Pilate instilled that. It still took a Roman army. It's all about the hierarchy of the Roman army as a family, what you aspire to. And ambition is something to look up to, not something to be embarrassed by, when you get a little bit into the movie. I love that. I love that he had to recalibrate, and embrace a different philosophy, a different perspective.

Would you characterize his transformation as conversion, or would you think of it in different terms?

I'll leave that to the audience. I'm on the fence on that one. It's a big thing to believe in Roman gods and be confronted with what Clavius witnessed, and then to become a full convert. I believe what you witness as an audience member is the seeds of conversion (if you want to use that word). But certainly he's at a crossroads; he can't go back and he can't move forward. He's been irrevocably changed and we can only guess which way he would go.

. . . Clavius comes across what he thinks is complete madness: someone speaking in rhymes and riddles. Roman brilliance is up against the spiritual mind of Christ and the disciples. However strong and powerful you are, that connection, that spirituality, that utter faith and belief is impenetrable. I loved seeing how he was driven to madness and distraction by someone who is so into their faith and their love of their belief. That was the joy of those scenes.

It struck me, as I was watching, that Clavius is very modern. At the beginning of the film it feels like his insistence on logic, that "there must be an explanation for these things," strikes me as a very modern thing. He’s being confronted with a world that's very different than his own. This seems especially interesting to me given how much religion around the world feels like it's resurging in strange ways in different places. Had you thought about his character as being ancient versus being modern?

The mindset, the conditioning, the belief system, the fallibility, the brilliance, and the faults in human nature [shown in Clavius] will always be modern. It’s got to be. That's how I think stories survive. I don't believe we've evolved so differently from 500 years ago in terms of those basic thoughts and beliefs.

Do you feel like you learned anything from the character as you were playing him?

I always am learning. The character takes me on a journey; I'm aware of where the character is going but at the same time I'm not always aware of how he's going to react in a scene. I might have a direction of how it should go—and then you play it, and you get emotionally attracted to another area that you hadn't been conscious of.

I do feel that he [Clavius] was chosen, in a way; that he's not diametrically opposed to part of the plan. There's a plan here . . . His military instinct allowed him to face God with this important message. I hadn't thought about that. I thought that was something that he was struck by. Not only was he touched and blessed with what he had witnessed, but that also he was playing the part. It wasn't an accident.

That was a rather wonderful thing for me, that maybe none of this is accidental; maybe it was part of a plan, however diametrically opposed that plan might be to our conscious efforts. Sometimes you're challenged in that way, and that's something I learned.

I had forgotten that you did Luther a while back, and that you've been working on a film playing the missionary Eric Liddell [in The Last Race]. Those are interesting projects because the characters are all very familiar to readership at CT. I was wondering if you had any attraction to these projects—if you found them interesting in some way.

Liddell lived and died by his resolute Christian beliefs and values. His values cost him his life, and it's what I love—how far can you raise the bar when you give up your life for your beliefs? These are very magnanimous, attractive figures. To have a chance to follow in their shoes, as it were, just for a film? I love that. I don't know why.

I was personally really interested in the Eric Liddell project because I grew up watching Chariots of Fire, as I think a lot of people did.

The most amazing, interesting thing about [The Last Race] is that it's filmed by a Chinese-production-company-turned-director. Here's China, taking on a big Christian hero; it's so diametrically opposed. It will be hugely controlled: there will be cuts and editing and shots according to the party rule. You can't make a film without the party members giving it the green light. It's hard enough making a film anyway, but then throw it that, and you're really up against it as a sort of voice, a creative voice.

Clearly there's a huge Christian movement in China. That was a big surprise to me . . . Very interesting, but very interesting that a Communist country has embraced and allowed [the story of] Eric Liddell to be told. I know it's partly because they thought that he has been born in China and they feel that was an Olympic hero but it's very interesting.

Having participated in several of these faith-based projects, or at least projects that are going to be marketed very strongly at a religious audience, I was wondering if you had any thoughts on what elements go into making a faith-based film successful or interesting to a larger audience.

That's a very good question. This film in particular, I feel, strikes the balance.

I think the producers have gone a long way in getting it right for a faith-based audience, in a very respectful way. At the same time, they're delivering what is a really great piece of film and entertainment. It's a difficult balance to get: if you go revisionist, it's not going to appeal, but if it's very dry and conservative, that too will not appeal to another audience. We’re hoping this really get the attention of a faith-based audience because it treats the story with great respect and great production value. So we hope that it strikes a chord with cinephiles and faith-based audiences alike.

I know Christianity Today readers will be interested in where your personal beliefs come into this film—or if they do at all. Do they color the way you play the character?

This is a difficult one, because I'm very aware that as an actor I don't want to put my beliefs or force my beliefs on people who probably don't really want to hear them. I feel like it's very easy to be given a platform where you get a vast amount of exposure to voice your opinions when you might not be asked for them. . . . For me, it’s about being light where there's suffering. That's essentially it. I'm greatly in tune with that idea. I don't want to overcomplicate my answer, but I think, on a very basic level, that that's what really appeals to me.

Do you feel like playing Clavius affected you on a spiritual level in any way?

I felt what it did was it made me tune in and become aware and receptive to a part of me that, at a deep level, needs to be reawakened. But playing Eric Liddell followed onto playing Clavius. Maybe I looked at Eric Liddell with greater intensity because of where I had just come from with Clavius, so I felt a greater receptiveness towards it, and to the story of Eric. That episode did have an effect on me. I felt very connected.

Sometimes as an actor you connect or you don't connect or you struggle to connect or you connect a bit, but you're always trying in some way to become completely immersed in the best way by your character. Sometimes it's a struggle and sometimes you get it for free. So I felt both with Clavius and especially with Eric Liddell that I had this relationship that was much more engaging than I had with other characters. I feel alerted and shifted through the material with the characters.

It strikes me that both of those characters are at the top of their game, headed for greatness, and both of them end in a place of (sort of) exile, based on they've gone through.

Yeah, you're right: exile.

In both of their cases, it could look like a tragedy if you wrote it a certain way, but it's not.

No, it's not. It's not. It's anything but.

Alissa Wilkinson is Christianity Today's chief film critic and an assistant professor of English and humanities at The King's College in New York City. She is co-author, with Robert Joustra, of How to Survive the Apocalypse: Zombies, Cylons, Faith, and Politics at the End of the World (Eerdmans, April 2016). She tweets @alissamarie.

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Joseph Fiennes Talks About Playing a Skeptic in ‘Risen’