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.