Playing in theatres nationwide to both critical and public acclaim is director/co-writer Kevin Reynolds’ “Risen”. Believers and non-believers alike know the fundamentals of the “Easter story”; from The Last Supper to Judas’ betrayal of Christ and Christ’s arrest and subsequent Crucifixion, Resurrection and Ascension. For the faithful, the text as set forth in the Bible in chapters 14 through 16 of the Gospel of Mark, is the very foundation of the Christian faith. But what about for the “non-believers”. That very question is what elevates “Risen”, setting it apart from other faith-based or Bible-based films, and tapping into a perspective that can resonate with all.
Starring Joseph Fiennes as the Roman Tribune Clavius, Tom Felton as his aide-de-camp Lucius, Peter Firth as Pilate and Cliff Curtis as Yeshua (Jesus Christ), Reynolds takes us on a journey that follows in the vein of many of the best procedural detective shows on television today. Following the death and burial of Yeshua, the body has mysteriously disappeared. Murmurings begin among the followers that God has answered their prayers and delivered them his Son who is now risen. Pilate on the other hand, doesn’t believe it and orders Clavius to find the missing body and the perpetrators who removed it from the stone crypt, lest there be an uprising among the faithful.
A quiet and gentile man, it’s easy to see the passion Joseph Fiennes has for “Risen”. His eyes sparkle as he engages with me on aspects of his character and the film as a whole, while he becomes animated, yet thoughtful and smiling, on discussing the philosophical aspects of forgiveness and redemption interwoven within the fabric of “Risen”.
We kicked off this exclusive interview talking about Kevin Reynolds’ storytelling approach and how that impacted Fiennes, himself a Christian, and his interpretation of Clavius in terms of identifying with the character and getting into the mindset of this intellectual Roman. Clavius isn’t just a soldier. He’s a very intellectual man, a very aware man and a very open-minded man. Fiennes immediately agreed with the assessment. “True. You’re right. That’s very interesting that you picked up exactly on the right level of man. He prays to Mars so we know he has a spirituality there. He is a Roman Tribune. He is pretty much the highest level in the Roman Army. The next place would probably be the Senate. He’s probably at the end of his military career. Amazing that he survived. A lot of them didn’t past their 20’s. He’s exhausted. He’s probably suffering from some form of post-traumatic stress or borderline. He looks up to authority, to Pilate, but I think he’s exhausted by it.”
Key to assuming Clavius’ persona was the intensive training Fiennes undertook at gladiator school and in working with a police detective. “Out of that, I found at the gladiator school in Rome, they knew to the Nth degree about the way the Romans fought; the warfare of the Roman. I got to look at some moves with the gladiator and the swords. They were like surgeons. They didn’t slash and do all that. They were very precise. Like a boxer. Bam. In, out, take him out, move on. They didn’t waste time bludgeoning or anything like the Celts or the Germans with the huge broad swords. They were surgeons. They had the gladius. It was small, it was a stabbing device. So, he’s a surgeon. So, you’re right. He’s spiritual. He’s analytical by virtue of the way he fights. He would only go for the jugular or the tendon or something. You wouldn’t just go anywhere. He would go to places where it would take you out. Make it count. Surgical. Economical. Intelligent. And spiritual. The right man to go find the job, the body of Christ, who we know is a hoax.”
As he continues, Fiennes excitedly starts to relate key plot points as if reliving the film shoot. “We know that here’s these zealots. They’re going to promote the idea that He rose in three days and they’re gonna cause more problems and get more people rallying behind them you’ve got to quiet. This is the man for the job. And what I love is we know the narrative. We know the crucifixion, the resurrection, the ascension. We’re gonna see that. [But] Clavius doesn’t know that. So what we get as an audience member is that wonderful collision of events. Something’s gonna happen! And then when [Clavius] is in the upper room and he witnesses what he witnesses, his world comes crumbling down. And I love that. Now, he’s prepped for change in many ways because he’s exhausted and, as you say, he’s intellectual, and he’s spiritual in the capacity of praying to a Roman god.”
For Fiennes, “I love that idea that in God’s plan, he’s the man for the job. We’re gonna change him. We’re gonna introduce him to a world elsewhere, a life elsewhere, something he could never dream of.” As part and parcel to Clavius’ search for the missing body, Fiennes loves the interrogation scenes with the townspeople. “He thinks they’re all nuts. And they’re not breaking. He’s trying everything.” In working with a detective, Fiennes asked all the right questions for approaching the interrogations. “How do I break them? How am I ruthless? How am I empathetic? Any which way. Can’t get in there? What is it? What is this faith that they have?” And it’s through that journey that Clavius’ world comes crashing down. “And then he turns. And I love this journey.”
Notable is that much of Reynolds’ script is true to Scripture. Well known text and verses are included, providing nuggets as identifiable touchstones for not only Fiennes and the other actors as a means of informing the performances, but also for the audience to gravitate towards. “This was a big part of the discussion. We all got on board. Kevin Reynolds and our producers Mickey Liddell and Pete Shilaimon and Affirm Films worked hard with ministers and faith-based communities to make sure that this is correct and respectful of Scripture. What the kind of overwhelming positive response is, is ‘Yes it is and we love the film.’ That’s an amazing thing because normally it’s like, ‘It’s not close and we like it but it doesn’t do anything” or the other side is “It’s a Bible School kind of Sunday School lesson and it’s so conservative. I’m a non-believer and it doesn’t do anything for me.’ But I love the idea that it might satisfy the whole demographic.”
Fiennes has many stand-out moments within “Risen”, particularly in scenes with Cliff Curtis and Steve Hagen. Hagen, who plays Bartholomew, adds lighter moments and light-hearted touches of wide-eyed wonderment and joy to “Risen” as he brings this 1960’s hippie-esque flower power feel to Bartholomew, which in turns elicits wonderful tacit facial expressiveness from Fiennes. The chemistry between Hagen and Fiennes is comfortable and easy, something Fiennes attributes to their prior work together. “I played Cyrano de Bergerac in a production and he played Christian, so there’s that love triangle between Christian, Cyrano and Roxanne, so we already had an affinity. . .we felt very comfortable with each other.”
As for Curtis, Fiennes found him to be “my touchstone through those moments. I love that scene where Clavius kind of tries to threaten [Yeshua] with the nail of the crucifixion and there’s that moment where [Yeshua] catches him and whispers, ‘They’re everywhere. [Where are your disciples?] They’re everywhere.’ I love that. And you’re right. He’s in touch and he’s an untouchable and that’s what Clavius can’t understand. His authority cannot reach this man and that’s an amazing thing.”
But Fiennes also credits the chemistry among key characters to Kevin Reynolds, describing him as “casting the right people in the right turns.” Something which has long proven to be a topic for conversation is how Jesus Christ is always portrayed as blonde-haired and blue-eyed. A testament to Reynolds is his choice of Cliff Curtis who is of New Zealand Maori descent. And while Reynolds cast the right actor with the right emotional resonance for the part, the Middle Eastern swarthiness of Curtis adds another layer of objective historical authenticity to the mix.
As we reflected on some of Joseph Fiennes prior roles, we couldn’t overlook the fact that his choices are very deliberate and in several cases, tied to historical religious or spiritual figures, for one, Martin Luther. “You mentioned Martin Luther and there’s one or two others that are really interesting in that they’re the guys [who] raised the bar in terms of what they believe in. It’s a faith and it’s a positive belief and a moral code and conduct and we all live by that. Sometimes we let ourselves down. So it’s lovely to look at rocks who weather the storm and who are isolated by their beliefs in the face of a greater authority who comes down heavy on them and they just remain solid and they stick to that. And I love that. I’m sort of gravitated towards those sort of voices.”
One voice, however, which we both hope will gravitate to Joseph is that of his brother Ralph Fiennes, who is more than making a name for himself as a director. Remarking that Ralph’s films like “Coriolanus” and “The Invisible Woman” are “fabulous. . .amazing, amazing films”, Joseph laughingly instructs me to “Get on the phone to him! Tell him to cast me!”
But at the end of the day, thoughts turn back to “Risen” and Joseph Fiennes has the final word. “We know the story, but we get to see it through the eyes of a non-believer. It’s almost like we get to visit our own journey again from when we first heard the story to how it arrested us. So whether you’re religious or not, I also think of a second chance – the idea of here’s a man who’s in the industry of death. He’s killed this one particular man and the man forgives him. Wouldn’t it be wonderful? We all take a wrong turn and we’re forgiven. Now you don’t have to be religious to understand the value of redemption, so I love that. I think the success of this, what Kevin Reynolds has done, is possibly served up a film where it’s not Revisionist, it’s not deeply Conservative. It’s creative. It’s true to Scripture and everyone can sit in the auditorium and love the movie.”