Joseph Fiennes On Risen and Playing a Roman Soldier

Director Kevin Reynolds’ Risen is a faith-based film that tells the story of the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus Christ, called Yeshua in the movie and played by Cliff Curtis. But it’s a movie with a twist: the story is told through the eyes of an ambitious Roman military tribune named Clavius (Joseph Fiennes), who is tasked by Pontius Pilate with overseeing the burial of Yeshua and then – when his body mysteriously disappears from his sealed tomb – finding out what happened to that body and preventing talk of a risen Messiah from starting an uprising in Jerusalem. What happens to Clavius from that point on changes his life forever.

Risen’s realistic, grittier take on how things might have looked and sounded and felt at the time (the movie has its grisly moments, for example) is one thing that sets it apart from a lot of religious films, but the detective aspect of the story is another. Joseph Fiennes spoke about those elements of the movie when we sat down with him recently in Los Angeles, while also discussing his training with real-life Roman gladiators and his opinions on Roman footwear.

What was it about this particular version of this well-known story that appealed to you?

Joseph Fiennes: Well, it is a well-known story, precious to so many people. Well, the angle and the hook to me was a veteran director, Kevin Reynolds, and also the angle of visiting this narrative through the eyes of a non-believer. That for me was a fresh take, and it took the curse off it being a kind of quintessentially Bible movie. And I think the success of that structuring is that it allows both believers and non-believers to sit in the auditorium for the first time, because you either get revisionist movies – or they’re deemed as so revisionist, don’t see them -- or they’re deemed as Sunday School and conservative, don’t see them.

So I would hope that the success of this is to have a cross-section of believers and non-believers who can go with the narrative through the eyes of a non-believer and enjoy it as a cinematic feast. Clavius is a fictionalized historical character, but it’s set against scripture. So it’s dovetailing this – it’s a movie, first and foremost, it’s cinema, (but) it’s the story of Christ so it’s dovetailing those elements and serving it up for the audience.

Do your own beliefs, whatever they are – and you don’t have to get into them – play a part in taking on a story like this, or do you just approach it as a story and keep your private views out of it?

I guess as an actor you have to bring something personal to the character – you’ve got to identify and love one element of the character, or else you can’t really inhabit and find ownership. But for me, it was less about my sense of faith and more about Clavius’s. I trained with these gladiators in Rome for a while just to get into shape. And I learned very quickly – because the gladiators showed the Roman army how to fight, they were the rock stars of their day and a lot of their techniques went into the military – that these guys are not just gladiators but physical archeologists, and they get depictions of anything in the art of the Roman Empire that depicts Roman military and they re-enact it.

But what it gave me a sense of, the way that the Romans -- and especially Clavius -- the way that they fought was the way that they thought. It was analytical, it was surgical, it was brutal and that’s how you take over the world. You work as a unit. And I applied that to the detective element as well in Clavius. So it’s all about trying to make it authentic to yourself, to your own beliefs, but also the beliefs of that age and time, but maybe coming at a modern angle.

So I sat with a detective and asked, “How would you interrogate?” Because I’ve got kids and I’m terrible at even interrogating them if they’ve done something naughty. So I already had to prepare in that sense. So it was sort of a combination. For me the key to Clavius was a physical way, and that physicality gave me the mindset of the Roman.

Did the costumes the locations help as well in getting you immersed in that? It looks like you are right there in Biblical times.

Yeah, a lot of the casting and locations is authentic, and that’s great and that helps. Wearing sandals for three months helps and doesn’t help (laughs). I don’t know how you take over the world in sandals, but they did it. There were a couple of days when it was 100 degrees and it’s not too fun clad in leather and steel and on horses. But all of that imbues it with this sense of vivid authenticity, and I think that really translates.

Did you have a favorite Bible movie when you were a kid?

As a Brit, I keep wanting to say Monty Python (‘s Life of Brian) so (laughs)…but I guess harking back, and of course we wanted to stay away from it being too evangelical, but Spartacus and The Robe come to mind.


Risen is in theaters February 19, 2016.

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Joseph Fiennes On Risen and Playing a Roman Soldier