By ANGELA DAWSON
Front Row Features
HOLLYWOOD—As Hollywood was going all politically correct in admonishing the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences for not having enough diversity in its Academy Awards nominations this year (and last), Joseph Fiennes inadvertently touched off his own mini PC explosion in revealing that he would be playing African-American pop star Michael Jackson in an upcoming British TV satire called “Elizabeth, Michael and Marlon.”
Though casting for the half-hour Sky Arts special had been announced months earlier and was shot in late 2015, the outrage boiled over during Fiennes’ recent publicity tour to promote his new film, “Risen,” a Biblical epic in which he plays a fictional Roman military tribune nonbeliever who undergoes a spiritual transformation after bearing witness to Jesus Christ’s resurrection.
“There is both a casual ambivalence and quiet hostility towards broadening the range of opportunities for non-white stars to truly thrive in the mainstream, and things like casting a white man to play Michael Jackson only serve as further proof that there are filmmakers who are deeply determined to tune out the cultural conversation,” scoffed Stereo Williams of the Daily Beast as news of Fiennes’ Jackson portrayal reached fever pitch in the media.
Other outlets on both sides of the Atlantic also condemned the cross-race casting on the TV special, based on a Vanity Fair article about the possible celebrity road trip. Soon Fiennes found himself in the awkward position of defending his role on his next project while promoting his current one, a faith-based film due out during the Christian season of Lent.
Asked during an interview whether he was surprised when he was called on to play the King of Pop, Fiennes responded, “I must admit, I had the same reaction, to be fair.” But he also indicated that it wasn’t unusual to play a character that is unlike himself.
The TV special focuses on the possibly true unlikely road trip that Jackson, Elizabeth Taylor and Marlon Brando took from New York to Ohio following the 9/11 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center in 2001. No airdate had been scheduled on the Sky Arts website as of press time.
“Liz Taylor is played by the brilliant Stockard Channing and Brian Cox is Marlon (Brando),” said Fiennes, prior to the brouhaha. “So they go on a road trip. It’s a short, tongue-in-cheek short, fun little journey.”
Meantime, Fiennes, younger brother of actor Ralph Fiennes, was eager to talk on “Risen,” in which he plays a character named Clavius, a powerful Roman military tribune, who is tasked by Pontius Pilate (played by Peter Firth) to solve the mystery of what happened to Jesus (referred to in the film by the Hebrew name “Yeshua”) in the days following the crucifixion, in order to disprove rumors of a risen Messiah and prevent an uprising in Jerusalem.
Clavius is a battle weary warrior who witnesses the “death” of Christ on the cross and the encasement of his body in a tomb sealed with a giant heavy rock. When the tomb is discovered empty the next morning, Clavius is then assigned the task of investigating the incident in a sort of CSI: Jerusalem fashion. He calls in witnesses to his office—the Roman soldiers assigned to guard the tomb as well as others—to get to the bottom of the missing, controversial religious figure. What he discovers in the course of his investigation is something even he, a believer in Roman gods, cannot imagine.
Kevin Reynolds, who shares screenwriting credit with Paul Aiello, directs the drama. “Harry Potter” villain Tom Felton plays Clavius’ dutiful aide, Lucius, and Cliff Curtis (“Fear the Walking Dead”) plays Yeshua.
Fiennes, who married Swiss model Maria Dolores Dieguez in 2009 in a Roman Catholic ceremony, has two daughters. They visited him on the set of “Risen,” which was shot in Malta and Spain.
Q: Originally, the script was going to be about one of the apostles, but then Kevin Reynolds came along and thought it would be more interesting if it was told from the point of view of a non-believer. Was that when you came onboard?
Fiennes: Yes. I was called when the script was pretty much as we shot it. I wasn’t too familiar with its beginnings but as I understand it, Kevin was asked to tell the story. He was searching for an angle and he came up with the idea of a Roman military officer, a non-believer, whose conditioning is diametrically opposed to the thrust of the main narrative, and that would be the angle from which to tell the story.
Q: Did you do any research on your own? Did you watch “The Robe,” (a 1953 drama about a Roman soldier who wins Jesus’ robe in a dice game) and other Hollywood biblical movie predecessors?
Fiennes: No, I was staying from “The Robe,” although I can’t wait to see “Hail, Caesar!” It’s funny. My brother and I have biblical movies in the same year.
“The Robe” is evangelical and of it’s day and time. There was always that sense that within a week, three important days in terms of the Resurrection, is a short span in which to change someone’s condition. It’s not like ‘The Robe.”
Preparation is everything to an actor. That’s just a given. My way into this was two ways: the door to Clavius for me was gladiator school and working with a detective.
Q: What did you do in gladiator school?
Fiennes: It sounds more fun and romantic than it is.
Q: Is that how you got to be so muscular?
Fiennes: It’s how I got my bruises and bumps. (He chuckles.) It’s run by a guy named Darius in Rome. He’s actually a physical archeologist. He and his team source all the copy and all the material in Italy of the depictions of military warfare in frescos, murals, fabrics, paintings, sculptures. He knows all the ancient styles of boxing. So he takes all that knowledge and breathes life into it. The use of the shield that they use for defense. The exciting thing for me in how they proceeded in warfare or combat was with great precision and economy. They’d only go once with the sword in a stabbing motion and then retire and leave you to bleed to death. They wouldn’t bludgeon you. If we met a line of Celts, the Roman army would be flanked 10 by 10 and then fight and then flanks with open and the fresh guy would take his place. That was the mindset of the character. Gladiator School sounds great; it feels very Russell Crowe. But it’s the sense of getting into the military mindset, which I found really exciting. That, for me, led to the detective story. So I met with a detective because it’s structured in a way where we have these interrogations with the followers of Christ. I felt like the character emerged through the physicality into the mentality. So that was really interesting to me.
Q: As a father and a family man, how did this role affect you?
Fiennes: I’m going to be really frivolous and say what affected me was wearing sandals for 2-1/2 months. It was brutal! (He chuckles.) My family joined me as they do whenever possible in Malta and in Spain, which was great. Galilee was Spain and the desert. That was where Clint Eastwood shot his spaghetti westerns, in Almeria. Malta was Rome, the tombs and the catacombs.
There’s always a sense as an actor where you’re pertinently looking for that connection with your character and I really felt that with Clavius. I felt he was a man at the end of his military career, getting ready to go on to the senate as ambition would take him, especially in that high standing. I felt like he was done with the industry of death. He probably was bordering on post-traumatic stress in some ways. Just the accumulations of crucifixions and death must have an effect.
My character has a rosemary plant on his desk because he wants to get rid of the smell (of death). Remember (TV detective character) Columbo always had the cigar? The detective I spoke with said a lot of guys smoke because death smells, it gets into your nostrils and you take it home. So a lot of people smoke. Hence, Columbo smoked to get rid of the stench of dead bodies, which I found fascinating. I took that idea and had rosemary on my desk. So you have the idea of washing, cleansing, cleansing, cleansing.
Q: Which scene was most significant to you?
Fiennes: Given that he just walked out of the room, I’d have to say my scene with Cliff. There was a moment where we had our private methodologies and ways in. I know Cliff took a vow of silence with anyone that wasn’t in the (disciples) group.
Secretly, I was very jealous. They were always had such a great time. There was always this noise from the other tent of laughter and jokes, and I was in my leather (Roman soldier wear) alone. Towards the end of the shoot we got to film that scene (on the hilltop rocks). It was the first time we ever spoke on camera was in that scene. We saved it for that moment. Not only is it a delicious scene, I wanted to keep the emotion and the quality of that interaction of what it held for Clavius. Whether it was a dream sequence or not, we’re not sure. Was it a dream? Was (Jesus) really there? Was it a real conversation? Nevertheless, it’s a lovely scene. And I think it hits on the head the sense of faith and what is faith to you. What Clavius witnesses none of the others have witnessed. Bringing Jesus down from the cross and then the Resurrection. That journey is extraordinary and yet intellectually he can’t quite work it out. He can’t give himself up to it. I love that. I think it’s a great takeaway. We like to philosophize in theologic terms.
Q: Is this film exclusively for Christians, or a wider audience?
Fiennes: It goes back to a sense of through investigation and through creativity and imagination as well as having scripture and being respectful to that, there’s this balance between someone’s creativity and finding the truth through creativity as well as much as adhering to the conservative line. I’d love for this film to open to an auditorium that wasn’t saying, “Too revisionist,” or “Too Sunday school,” but it’s a balance where it’s just a great film. It offers cinephiles a wonderful journey as well as those who come to see it because they love the story of Christ. That, to me, would be a success.
Q: What does veteran filmmaker Kevin Reynolds bring to a film like this?
Fiennes: The cinematography and the sense of being assured you really feel as a top filmmaker. It’s not rushed. You get a sense of momentum: Tiberius is coming and breathing down Pontius Pilate’s neck. Likewise, Pilate is breathing down the neck of Clavius. You get the feeling of a ticking clock. But in terms of cuts, it’s not sort of overwhelmingly modern and aggressive, in that sense. What you get is a wonderfully collaborative experience. I especially felt that as an actor. He was very collaborative and very willing to take on thoughts and positions and attitudes of the film.
We both wanted it to be as cinematic an experience. There are wonderful, big shots like when he comes out into the upper room with the light coming down. But it’s also subtle cinematography there and direction and sensitivity. What Kevin gives us is absolute authenticity and economy, and it’s not over the top. It’s not baroque. It’s rather like the Roman kind of philosophy. It’s economic. It’s epic. When I watch it, I fell as though I’ve been picked up and dropped off in Judea. And it’s amazing. It feels authentic.
Q: Where did you film the crucifixion scene and how long did it take?
Fiennes: That’s Kevin in his research and his detail. That’s a veteran for you. It was at least three days. It was incredibly hot. Some of the extras were 80 years old. They are from Malta and they’ve worked on films before. They gave authenticity in the casting, the background artists. It was shot in a gulley; it wasn’t up on a hill. We were a little concerned whether the faith-based would be outraged over that.
Just because it’s been portrayed one way doesn’t mean one has to follow that route. Kevin’s idea was that it was like a factory. I think this comes from research that the crosses were on an axis. Each day, they’d put more convicted men on the cross, then take them down and drag them off to the pit. All of that detail is born from Kevin and his imagination of what went on. It was brilliantly researched.
Q: Did you wife like the film?
Fiennes: She did. She liked it enormously.