There are a handful of films that define an age. Think back to the golden age of Hollywood and the masterpieces of Cecil B. DeMille (The Ten Commandments), William Wyler (Ben-Hur) and Michael Curtiz (Casablanca). For the actors involved, those pivotal projects can be a highlight for their career, either professionally or personally.
For Cliff Curtis to play Jesus Christ was an aspiration, but one he never thought would be reality.
“When I became an actor, people would say, ‘What do you want to do? What part would you really like to play?’ Jokingly, I would say, ‘I want to play Jesus,’” he said recently in an interview that included GetOut in a panel with several other journalists.
He added with thick self-deprecating humor that he does not have the “Jesus look.” The New Zealand native is of Maori descent and boasts dark curly locks and deep, expressive eyes that appear to be eternally lit with good humor.
“I haven’t got blond hair and blue eyes. It’s never going to happen,” he said in regards to the odds of playing Christ.
“I was raised as a Roman Catholic. Jesus was one of probably my earliest heroes, along with Sampson from the Bible and St. Francis of Assisi. I grew up with the big JC,” he said.
When the opportunity came to play Yeshua (the Hebrew version of Jesus’ name) in Kevin Reynolds’ detective drama-adventure Risen, Curtis initially thought it was a hoax.
“When the call came through, it was a strange. It came through an email. I was switching representation, and this email came from Europe, through my New Zealand rep. I was like, ‘Oh, one of those ones. One of those little indie thingamajiggers.’ It was very suspicious,” he said.
On a whim he decided to take the email, not realizing who it was from or what the part was. The Risen representatives explained the premise of the film, the role of the Roman soldier Clavius, all the while Curtis was expecting them to ask him to play some sort of terrorist.
“I’m waiting for it,” he said with a laugh.
When he realized that they wanted him to play Jesus, he was floored.
“(I said) ‘You’re joking. This has got to be a prank call.’ This is silly. Jesus died when he was in his early 30s. I’m in my later 40s,” Curtis said.
Even now, he is still bewildered that he was chosen for the role. He was Genesis in The Dark Horse, Emilio Restrepo in Colombiana and is Travis Manawa in the new Fear the Walking Dead series.
“I don’t know how that happened,” he said. “I was like, ‘Do these people know my work? Do they actually know what I’ve done?’ My last movie role was Genesis, and then my next one was Jesus.”
The role held special appeal to Curtis due to his Catholic upbringing. As a child he served as an alter boy and had even thought about becoming a priest.
“In my childhood. I’d slept with a crucifix by my bed. I made a little altar. I would do the early Mass, 7 o’clock in the morning.
“When it was Easter, I’d serve twice a day, because you have Lent. So you’d do the early morning, you do the evening, and I did the whole thing,” he said.
The intensity of his devotion waned as he grew older but that foundational relationship with God really shows through his performance as Yeshua. How does one play the Son of God, after all?
Reynolds told Curtis that his vision of Yeshua was someone who actually lived and worked and walked the earth. He wanted his Christ to show humanity. That was Curtis’ way into Yeshua’s part.
In order to prepare, Curtis took an unexpected route. He spent a great deal of time alone and being quiet.
“Then I realized, as you may have realized right now, I talk a lot. Quite often, I talk a lot of nonsense, I don’t make a lot of sense sometimes, so that was the first thing that’s got to go,” he said. “I attempted to take a vow of silence. I lived next to the Silent City in Malta; I lived on my own; and it was monastic. I wasn’t with my family for a month.
“I didn’t speak to the director or the producers,” he added with a laugh. “I didn’t speak to anyone — makeup, hair — anybody. I kept meeting cast and didn’t speak to them.
“First it’s psychological. I had to accept that I had an interpretation that was valid, that I could be a grounded, real person, playing Jesus as a human being who was a man of the earth and had to suffer from that place through to resurrection.
“The next step was understanding who I was and somehow inhibiting myself from imposing myself on the role. That was basically, ‘I can’t bring my ego to this role. I must be in a state of service. I’m in service of this role, and in service of a movie, like I am as an actor.’ But there’s something far greater than that. A lot of the history of humanity is devoted to this, and I had to be very respectful of that. I had to put my ego and who I was aside and think, ‘How can I best be of service to this role and to humanity, in terms of how this divinity...’ However you perceive Jesus or Christ, there is a divinity to it.”
The end result is a Jesus that is unlike any other presented on screen before. Curtis manages to capture the deep human side of Christ while keeping a sense of the mysterious about him.
Though he has limited screen time, Curtis’ performance is moving. In particular, his scene with Joseph Fiennes (Clavius) is powerful, touching and mesmerizing. Truthfully, the key to his success was not only Curtis’ preparation and performance but Reynolds’ wisdom in keeping Curtis’ scenes brief. It allowed the mystic of Yeshua to remain, while keeping the focus on Clavius and his journey.
Risen is now playing in theaters nationwide.