By ANGELA DAWSON
Front Row Features
HOLLYWOOD—Cliff Curtis grew up in his native New Zealand a devout Roman Catholic. He attended church daily and served as an altar boy in his youth. Curtis even pondered entering the priesthood but eventually changed his mind and became an actor.
Still, his deep-seated faith remained. Whenever asked his dream role, he frequently responded, “I’d like to play Jesus Christ.”
Knowing, however, Hollywood’s penchant for fair-haired, blue-eyed Caucasians (Ted Neeley, Robert Powell, Max von Sydow and Jeffrey Hunter, to name a few) in their depiction of the Christian Messiah, the Maori-descended actor, with olive complexion and dark features, figured his prospects were slim.
Yet the producers and director of “Risen,” a fictional drama about a Roman tribune (Joseph Fiennes, “Shakespeare in Love”) who undergoes a transformation of faith when he bears witness to the Resurrection of Christ, decided Curtis was right for the part.
“I know how intense and versatile (Curtis) can be,” says director Kevin Reynolds, who previously worked with the veteran actor of the 1994 Easter Island drama “Rapa Nui.”
Curtis, who is a youthful looking 47, says he not only was surprised he was called on to play the Savior because of his appearance but also because Jesus was crucified at 33.
“I wondered if they had seen my work,” he said during a recent interview.
Curtis’ first film role was in 1993’s Academy Award-winning drama “The Piano,” which shot in his native New Zealand. In Hollywood, he has played a wide range of roles and various ethnicities ranging from a Colombian in “Blow,” opposite Johnny Depp, an Arab in “Three Kings,” opposite George Clooney and a Latino in “Training Day.” More recently, he has grabbed a lot of public attention as a high school English teacher, who has to save his fractured family in the popular AMC TV series spinoff “Fear the Walking Dead.”
A Method actor, Curtis spent a month living an almost monastic life on Malta while playing Yeshua (the Hebrew term for Jesus), keeping mostly to himself and only speaking to his fellow actors during filming. The normally chatty actor explains that it helped him get into character.
Q: How were you selected to play Jesus?
Curtis: It’s a miracle. Simple. (He laughs.) I was raised Roman Catholic. Jesus is probably my earliest hero. My other heroes were Samson, from the bible, and St. Francis of Assisi. So I grew up with the big J.C. When I became an actor, people would ask me, “What do you want to do? What part would you like to play?” Jokingly, I would say, “I want to play Jesus.” And then I’d laugh, because I don’t have blond hair and blue eyes. I thought it would never happen.
So when the call came through, it was kind of strange. I got an email from my New Zealand rep. I thought it was going to be one of those little indie movies. They explained the plot about a Roman tribune. I wasn’t sure who they wanted me to play. Then they said it’s a very significant role—it’s Jesus. And I was like, “Are you joking? Jesus died in his early 30s; I’m in my late 40s.” I was wondering if they’d seen my work.
Q: Had they seen you in “Fear the Walking Dead?”
Curtis: The series hadn’t happened yet. It was really out of the blue. I’d just finished doing an indie film back home called “The Dark Horse,” which originally was called “Genesis.” My last movie role I played a character called Genesis; and my next movie role was Jesus.
Funnily, the reason I took the role of Genesis, which is based on a real guy (a psychologically damaged chess player) it was because he was bipolar. When he was in the height of his mania, he thought it was Jesus coming to save the world. He was a passionate Christian. So I know that he would have been very proud that my next role would be Jesus.
Q: Were you an altar boy?
Curtis: Yes, I would serve seven days a week. I was very passionate; I was very devout. I was going to be a priest.
Q: What changed your mind?
Curtis: It was circumstances. I realized I had prepared. When I was a child, I slept with a crucifix over my bed. I had a little altar next on my dresser.
Q: How did you prepare to play Jesus?
Curtis: At first it was a bit daunting, but then I realized I’d been preparing for it ever since I was a child. I was an altar boy at the 7 a.m. Mass. On Easter, I served twice a day. I prayed devoutly.
Q: Did you ask God for guidance with this role?
Curtis: No. I’m quite clear it’s a movie and I’m not actually Jesus. What I did, I realized I had all of that, inherently, of who I was. I had to develop an adult relationship with Jesus. What was crucial to me was feeling supported. I spoke to Kevin the director, and Patrick (Aiello), who was one of the producers, and I was really curious as to why I was cast. What about my work made them want me? Was it my rate? (He laughs.)
They said, “We want a real guy. We want our Jesus to be a real human being—somebody who walked the earth with his feet on the ground. We want him to be a real carpenter—somebody who actually builds stuff.” And I was a carpenter; I was a builder. I dug holes. I’ve done community service in various ways. So I relate to the common man. So I thought, “I can embrace that version.” It’s an interpretation of Jesus. I can’t say I’m Jesus. It’s our interpretation of a Jesus.
Q: You spent a lot of on set alone, and you don’t say a lot in the film. Much of your performance is in your face and in your gestures. Can you talk about getting into that space?
Curtis: I realized that I talk a lot and, quite often, I talk a lot of nonsense. So I thought, that’s the first thing that has to go. There were a few stages I had to go through. First, I had to come up with an interpretation that was valid. 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 to Resurrection. The next step was understanding who I was and somehow inhibiting myself from imposing myself on the role. I couldn’t bring my ego to the role; I must be in a state of service of the role and the movie as an actor. But there also was something far greater than that: a lot of the history of humanity is devoted to (Christianity) so I had to be respectful of that. I had to put my ego and who I was aside and think about how to be of service to this role and how this divinity was.
I attempted to take a vow of silence so I lived next to the silent city of 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. I didn’t speak to the producers. I didn’t speak to anyone.
Q: How was it being silent?
Curtis: It was beautiful.
Q: What did you learn about yourself at that time?
Curtis: It’s good for me to be quiet. Silence is really a beautiful thing. Since I was on my own, I got into a routine: I prepared all of my own meals. I was eating very plain, simple food. I really went through kind of a cleansing process because I thought that was really important, that I was as clean as I could be.
Q: What did you think about the story being told from a non-believer’s perspective?
Curtis: I thought the script was a real page-turner. It’s a whodunit. There’s a slightly thriller-esque aspect to it. It’s about who is this guy from the perspective of a non-believer coming to a crisis of his own faith.
Q: What was your favorite scene?
Curtis: I loved the scenes with the apostles. I had one very special scene with Joseph Fiennes but I think my favorite scene is when Joseph comes in and discovers Christ with the apostles. We had this moment of process and possibility. So that was my favorite scene.
Q: What has being in “Fear the Walking Dead” done for you?
Curtis: It’s been fun. It’s too early to say. I could be bitten at any moment. They don’t tell us anything. The second season is unbelievably great. I’m appalled, shocked and surprised with what they’ve come up with. It’s really unique; I never thought it was possible. The greatest concern we had at the beginning was that we were constantly going to be in the shadow of (“The Walking Dead’). But that isn’t going to happen. We are out there. We are solidly our own show.
Q: What’s your craziest “Fear the Walking Dead” fan encounter?
Curtis: None. The fans actually are very sweet. They’re the sweetest people. I met a young boy with leukemia and he was just the sweetest young kid. He was just obsessed with the show.