Joseph Fiennes Talks Embodying Religious Skepticism in 'Risen' and Controversy of Playing Michael Jackson

Risen - Joseph Fiennes and Tom Felton - still 1 - H 2016
Courtesy of CTMG

The actor discusses playing the fictional Clavius and, to some dissent, the King of Pop "in his last days when, I have to say, he did look quite frankly rather differently than when we grew up with him."

Joseph Fiennes is in a tricky position in Risen. The Biblical epic — also starring Tom Felton, Peter Firth and Cliff Curtis, and following the events after Jesus' crucifixion through the eyes of a non-believer — sees him playing Clavius, the film's leading, yet fictional, character.

Though nervous about how Christian moviegoers might criticize the Kevin Reynolds film's textual inaccuracies, Fiennes asserts that its creative liberties bring a fresh eye to a well-known story and, even more, help to illustrate a universal concept.

"Even if the resurrection had been served on a plate and he witnessed it firsthand, he still carries doubt," he tells The Hollywood Reporter of Clavius, a powerful Roman military tribune. "I think that's important because we're all on this search, in some way, shape or form. Whether you're a high-ranking priest or just a guy on the street, we all share that beautiful, infallible condition of doubt."

Ahead of Risen's release on Feb. 19 via Affirm Films (Sony's faith-based distribution arm), Fiennes tells THR of playing the religious skeptic in a faith-based movie, training to portray an "honest" yet "ruthless" interrogator and navigating the recent outrage to his Michael Jackson role: "This is quite right, why people are up in arms."

Why did you want to play Clavius?

I loved the script. The first forty pages felt like a detective story. When I did discover it was obviously Biblical, one of the takeaways for me was that we began the film at the Crucifixion, and then the Resurrection and the Ascension. Most films only get to the Crucifixion, so it's always a very heavy ending. I thought that was novel. Also, the angle, the lens with which we visit this narrative: through Clavius, a Roman tribune who has a completely different set of beliefs — it was a great chance for an actor to go on that journey of transition.

What was your research like, since there aren't details about Clavius in the Bible?

You're right — apart from Scripture in terms of the narrative, Clavius is a historical fictional character and he stems out of that. Beyond Romans in Judea at the time, there's nothing for me to read about specifically. So I went to Rome before we started filming for a week to enlist myself in a gladiator school, as gladiators taught a lot of the Roman army techniques in warfare. I quickly came to the conclusion that the way they fought was the way they thought, and that was my way in. Plus working with a detective to get tips on interrogation, because I'm pretty bad at interrogating my kids when they're naughty!

Clavius is also quite humanized as the Crucifixion story's "enemy," as he just wants to maintain order and solve the mystery of Jesus' missing body.

Yeah. Judea at that time would've been a harsh place to be posted as a military tribune. The Romans were brutal, surgical and economical in warfare; they thought like ants, as one big brain and unit. I found that fascinating.

But here's a man who, through a series of interrogations, is forced to challenge his conditioning. You might not like him, and he might be part of the death squad that crucifies Christ, but there's one component I felt I could latch onto: at least he was an honest man. I loved his ruthless search for honesty and integrity, and slowly his conditioning falls away.

What do you hope translates about where Clavius is by the end of Risen?

There was a lot of discussion about the journey of Clavius because there was another film with Richard Burton called The Robe where it all becomes very old-fashioned, and it's evangelical beyond belief and it just didn't ring true. That narrative only travels at most maybe a week past the resurrection. I always felt I couldn't believe that someone changes so vehemently in a week, especially someone with the nature and sharpness of Clavius — he's so deeply conditioned as a military tribune.

So without sitting on the fence, he should be left at a crossroads where he knows he can't go back. He's divorced pretty much from the Roman army and his father figure Pontius Pilate, and now he's entertaining a theological father figure. But he has doubt, which is such an everyman component. Even if the resurrection had been served on a plate and he witnessed it first-hand, he still carries doubt. I think that's important because we're all on this search, in some way, shape or form. Whether you're a high-ranking priest or just a guy on the street, we all share that beautiful, infallible condition of doubt. I loved that component.

Biblical-based films can be tough because some moviegoers are critical about textual accuracy. Have you been nervous about that?

Yes, I'm nervous — more respectful than nervous. I have this thing where whenever I walk into a church, I'm kind of overwhelmed by an atmosphere or a presence. I don't know what it is, but it's the same with this story: I’m walking into very precious and sacred territory. Of course it's going to not work for everybody, but the filmmakers have worked with the faith community in trying to adhere as closely to scripture as possible.

But also, Kevin wanted to bring an epic, cinematic piece to an audience. I love cinema, so to get the balance right was what we tried hard to do. We'll see when it opens if it's worked. For me, this would be a success if we got faith-based and cinephiles in the same auditorium together, believers and non-believers. Over and above, whether you're a believer or not, you take away concepts which are important to us all: redemption, forgiveness and a second chance.

Regarding critical reception, you're also playing Michael Jackson in another project. What have you thought of the reaction to that news?

Firstly, let me preface this conversation — and it's an important conversation I want to go into in-depth because it demands that — that I shot this last autumn, and the Internet had the information at the end of last year, for a long time. It was only in doing a little publicity that it got caught up in the whole Oscar conversation — which is a good conversation, but I think it's a different conversation, but in the same discussion.

Elizabeth, Michael and Marlon is a one-off, twenty-minute comedy through Sky Arts, and it's a fictional imagining of what might had happened if the trip had taken place. It's based on an urban myth in Vanity Fair in 2011. The director has done many comedies, and it's less about Michael; it's almost about the three of these amazing, iconic characters and what it's like to have that disconnect at that kind of echelon of fame. It's sweet and actually very poignant and moving, but I got to tell you, it's not a biopic, and it's not Michael in his younger days. It's Michael in his last days when, I have to say, he did look quite frankly rather differently than when we grew up with him in the '80s or earlier. So it's as Michael as we last remembered him and how he looks. The decision with the casting and the producers — I wrangled with it, I was confused and shocked at what might come my way, and I knew the sensitivity, especially to Michael's fans and to Michael's family. It doesn't negate who he was.

I remember seeing in the National Theatre when I started, a brilliant actress, the best of our generation, played Marilyn Monroe. I was working in the wings so I got to watch all the performances, and she was mesmerizing. It was an Arthur Miller play called After the Fall. She for me was Marilyn, without question, but because she was black, I was shocked to hear that two critics refused to come and see it because they didn't have the imagination, and that was twenty, twenty-five years ago.

From that moment, I realized how important colorblind casting was, and when I went to drama school and went through my career in theater, I've known nothing but colorblind casting. I think it's essential, otherwise we wouldn't get amazing actors to play Hamlet and even changing sex as well. It's important because all actors bring something fresh and new. We're looking for imagination and interpretation, and it doesn't steal anything away from the true identity of that person. It might offer something new and fresh and funny; as long as it doesn't become disenfranchising, racial or rude or stereotypical, then it's the wrong place. But if it's offering something else that's positive in discussion, we have to entertain colorblind casting at all levels.

The thing is, the playing field is not fair right now, and that's absolutely evident. This is quite right, why people are up in arms. I'm a full believer in making the playing field fair. When it is fair, we can have a conversation about this project and it wouldn't cause outrage.

Is the reaction justified for a relatively small project?

The reaction is important — I'd never shy away from that. I share this industry with my brothers and sisters right across the board, and I only want a level playing field. I think outrage is good, as long as it doesn't get into a violent shouting match. These conversations are really important and they shape our industry. It's vital to have them. I kind of welcome it. You can't do this and not welcome it.

Any words for the Michael Jackson fans about all this?

I grew up with Michael; I adored him. He is the son of Motown forever and ever, and is the most beautiful, angelic, soulful voice ever to grace pop. He is the King of Pop. This is a rather sweet comedy, and during filming and going into the character through a lot of interviews I listened to, I fell in love with him again. That's all I can say.

Twitter: @cashleelee