In Risen, New Zealand actor Cliff Curtis (Fear the Walking Dead) joins a fairly brief list of actors who have played one of the central spiritual figures in human history – Jesus Christ. But unlike other movies that depict the life and times of the Christian Messiah, Risen portrays them in stark, realistic terms, and the mystery of his resurrection plays out like a thriller more than anything else as a Roman soldier played by Joseph Fiennes tries to solve the riddle of why Jesus’ body is not in its tomb.
At the film’s press day in Los Angeles, Screen Rant spoke with Curtis about whether he was intimidated by the role, how he prepared for it, and why he gave up his childhood dream of being a priest to become an actor…
When you take on this role – a pretty important person in the grand scheme of things – is there a moment where you’re intimidated by it, or do you seize the moment and not think about it?
Cliff Curtis: I took it as a miracle that this role came my way, that the possibility even happened. Jesus for me as a child was my first superhero – I didn’t read comics, I read the Bible. So – and as an actor, it was the role I always wanted to play. But it became a joke; I never thought it would actually happen. So when it did happen, I took it as a miracle. I was like, “This is actually happening.” And then I had to think, well, how am I going to do it? What am I going to do? So I took a vow of silence. That was my approach and preparation. I lived alone for a month, you know, preparing my own meals, and I didn’t speak to anybody.
Interesting. You have the script, you have the Bible, were there other ways to research the historical Jesus?
Well, because of my childhood, I knew a lot about Jesus and the historical stuff. I’m not a theologian, I’m not an historian, but from a lay person’s point of view I had a fair amount of – I’d been preparing for the role most of my life in that sense. He was a carpenter, I was a builder. He was a man…I was always interested in spirituality, I always had an interest in it. I thought I was going to be a priest, you know, as a kid. I just turned into an actor.
How does a priest turn into an actor? What changes along the way?
A crisis of faith, I think. And then you get caught up in life, wondering what you’re going to be. An actor, acting for me is somebody who doesn’t really – for me it’s the experience of somebody who wants to treat life as an adventure and explore life. So acting is great for that, whereas a priest is somebody who has a vocation and knows exactly what their purpose is in life. And to be honest, I wasn’t there as a young man. I didn’t know absolutely. I didn’t have that calling.
You said you took a vow of silence, you kept to yourself, and that’s sort of extended in the way the character appears onscreen. He doesn’t have a lot of dialogue for much of the movie. Is it difficult to act the character without saying much?
Yeah. Look, I couldn’t pretend to be Jesus. That would be terrible of me. But what I could do was I could be quiet, I could put my ego aside and not pretend, and also not talk about it and not (air quotes) act about it, but try to contemplate love and what that is, and to be in the presence of that and that’s really all I did. It’s simple – not easy, but it is a simple task. Not an easy one. Try contemplating love for hours a day. It’s beautiful. It’s an amazing thing to do.
And difficult to do with the real world intruding.
Oh, we’ve got so many things we have to do, you know? The kids, the wife, the job, the taxes, you know…we have so many things we have to do. The career. Everything we have to do in our lives, how many hours a day do we spend contemplating love, honestly? And I was blessed to have the opportunity that was my job.
Before we go, do you have a favorite cinematic Jesus from previous films that you really admired?
Well, I think, you know, it’s impossible to go past Jim Caviezel’s (in The Passion of the Christ). That was a beautiful, beautiful representation. And then – I’m blanking now, the British actor with the blue eyes and the curly hair – I was a kid, I forgot his name now. Good question though. I think they’re amazing.
Risen is now playing in theaters.