By ANGELA DAWSON
Front Row Features
HOLLYWOOD—Ayelet Zurer presented a challenge for filmmaker Rodrigo Garcia, whose metaphorical drama “Last Days in the Desert” tells a “what if” story about Jesus’ encounter with a family in crisis during his 40 days of reflection in the parched wilderness outside of Jerusalem. She plays a dying woman, whose husband and son are at odds over the boy’s future. The father wants him to remain in the desert; the boy wants to join civilization. In pain and unable to eat, her character is mostly quiet, expressing her concern and compassion through facial and body movements.
Garcia says the problem was “the sicker we tried to make her look, she was still beautiful.”
The Israeli-born actress laughs when told of Garcia’s comment, and humbly credits the phenomenon to award-winning cinematographer Emmanuel “Chivo” Lubezki.
“He makes everybody shine,” she says by phone from her Los Angeles-area home. “I really feel like Chivo has magic in his hands.”
Zurer is dutifully doing a series of interviews to promote the Bible-inspired story. She is supposed to be in Prague filming a communist era-set biographical drama called “Milada,” but due to unforeseen circumstances, production has been postponed until June.
The actress, best known to Western audiences for her role as Eric Bana’s wife in the Oscar-nominated “Munich” and for playing Superman’s mother in “Man of Steel,” is taking the delay in stride. TV viewers may recall her as the oddball art gallery owner courted by Vincent D’Onofrio’s character in the Netflix/Marvel series “Daredevil.” (She reveals she may eventually reprise the role of Vanessa.) She also is set to appear as Naomi in the upcoming reimagining of “Ben-Hur,” which is adapted from the 1880 Lew Wallis novel “Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ.”
In the meantime, the married mother of one is eager to talk up “Last Days in the Desert,” in which she co-stars alongside Ewan McGregor (who plays the Holy Man a.k.a. Jesus), Ciaran Hinds, who plays the father and Tye Sheridan (“X-Men: Apocalypse”), who plays the son.
Q: What was your interest in this project?
Zurer: Rodrigo contacted me directly because he’d worked on HBO’s “In Treatment,” and I had originated that show (called “In Therapy”) in Israel. He knew my work really well through that show. To this day, I consider that to be one of my best roles. So he approached me and said, “I have something that I wish you would say yes to.” He gave me the script to read and I really loved it. I thought it was so poignant and precise and poetic. I just fell in love with it. I also really appreciate his work—him as a writer and a director. I love his movies. I knew the Ewan (McGregor) was attached. I knew him from “Angels & Demons.” I love him as well as a person. All the chips fell together in the right place, I guess. Also, the role of The Woman really touched my heart somehow. On the page, she was almost mute. She didn’t have a lot to say but she was eminent there. She was very alive in the sense that she affects what the boy’s dream is, and she drives the story from her perspective in some ways. So it was a challenge in the sense that I wanted to create a dying person but with a very strong will.
Q: You filmed this in the Southern California desert. How was it shooting on location here?
Zurer: Borrego Springs (a couple hours east of San Diego) was a new place for me. I found it to be amazing. I went hiking there on my days off. It’s probably the best place around to see stars. The desert does two things to you: as an actor, it quiets your mind and your crazy thought process, because everything is slowed down and you don’t have a lot of stuff going on around you. For me, the mother was a very quiet place to because it’s about dying and separating from the physical to the nonphysical had something to do with quiet. So that really helped me. It helped me slow down. My movements were very slow. In fact, I remember Rodrigo coming up to me and saying, “Can you make it faster?” (She laughs.)
I felt her as a very heavy, slow dying person and the desert helped me do that. Also, in the movie, I think it is a catalyst to the ego, and the everlasting wanting of things. It really fleshes out what you fear, when you feel guilt, your wanting as an actor but also as a character. So that was very interesting to me to see.
Q: As a mom in real life, did playing a dedicated mother affect you because mothers always have hopes and dreams for their children?
Zurer: Yes, definitely. This movie is a very personal movie for me because I lost someone to cancer, someone who was like a mother to me two years prior to the filming. So I knew how it looks days before passing away. Also, I have one son; and the woman I play has one son. As a mother, the only thing you want in life is for your child to be able to have their wishes come true, for their dreams to come true and for them to have their own path. When she lies to her son, saying, “Oh I’m fine,” and then she pretends to eat—that really resonated with me.
Q: There’s a moment where the Holy Man can cure her but she pushes him away, aware that she must make a sacrifice for her son to move on.
Zurer: Yes, she’s really egoless. She’s not thinking of herself. Everything she wished for (for her son) is happening. He’s being released; he’s not going to be stuck in the desert. She’s okay with (her death). It’s a small moment in the movie but it’s unique. She’s done with what she was meant to do.
Q: What did you think of Tye Sheridan, who plays your son?
Zurer: He’s so beautiful on the screen. His soul shines through. He’s such a good boy. He was there with his mother and he would study in between. I think he has a great future ahead of him.
Q: You return to this biblical period in “Ben-Hur.” Is Naomi based on a character from the earlier films?
Zurer: It’s not a remake. It’s more an adaptation of the book. I would look at it this way. I don’t see it as a remake. They took the book and kept the legend. Even though, “Last Days in the Desert” is set in that timeframe, I see it more as a metaphor rather than a “Jesus movie,” or anything similar to that. I see it as a movie about relationships between fathers and sons and what it means to be a good son. Will he follow his expectations and dreams or will he find his own path? And what does it mean to his father if he does that? Is it a sin to turn his back on his mother or father? It’s about how we connect by our will—the contradiction of wills or the complementary of will. The only way to solve this conflict is by acceptance and love. So, in a sense, it’s not just a period piece, while “Ben-Hur” is more of a historical piece.
The mothers I play are very different from each other because the mother in “Last Days in the Desert” is egoless while dying, whereas the other one is very egocentric. She thinks about class a lot.
Q: Did you come up with a backstory for the mother in this? She married young and she was her husband’s second wife.
Zurer: Yes. There’s a place where we’re not sure because the devil plays with the Holy Man’s mind and he says (as the mother), “My son is not my husband’s son.” So there’s some seed of betrayal. Rodrigo had asked me if I made a decision on whether that was true or not, and I did. I didn’t tell him, though, until we did a screening with a Q&A afterwards, and he asked me in front of the audience, “So what was true and what was not true?” And I told him what I thought. I only said, “You don’t lie to the dead,” so she gives that answer in the movie.
I had a friend who’s a nurse that works with dying patients, and she worked with me on the body movements. The fact that she’s not eating, we thought about what she could be dying of. So I had it very specific in my mind.
Q: Are you returning to “Daredevil?” Vanessa was away in the last season. Is she coming back?
Zurer: Honestly, I don’t know. I’m hoping because I had a lot of fun playing that role. It was so fantastic to play opposite Vincent D’Onofrio. He’s such a phenomenal actor. I really liked the character and how they wrote her. Cross your fingers, because I really like it.
Q: What can you tell me about the upcoming film you’re shooting in Prague?
Zurer: It’s based on a real life person who fought the Nazis and then the communist regime in that area. It’s a Czech movie, partially financed by Netflix.