Scottish actor Ewan McGregor has played many beloved roles, but his latest may be the most iconic yet.
In “Last Days in the Desert,” a new film by Colombian director Rodrigo Garcia, McGregor takes on the monumental task of portraying both Jesus Christ and his nemesis, Lucifer — arguably two of the most well-known figures of Western religion.
Actors can usually tell within the first few pages of a script whether it’s going to be a good fit for them, McGregor said in a recent interview with The Huffington Post. When he began reading the script for “Last Days in the Desert,” he recognized the challenge and signed on right away.
The film, which hits theaters on May 13, opens with austerity. A “holy man” roams the desert carrying little more than a jug of water. He sleeps, walks, drinks, and gazes questioningly into the distance.
Several scenes later, when Lucifer reveals himself to Jesus in the holy man’s own form, the action begins.
“When [the script] arrived I had no idea what it was about,” McGregor said. “Nobody speaks for first three or four pages.”
Eventually, McGregor said he realized who this “holy man” was and that he was being invited to play a character who actors have been trying to capture on the big screen for decades. “I was totally hooked in,” he told HuffPost.
In the Christian gospel, Jesus goes into the Judean Desert to fast and pray for 40 days after being baptized by John. During this time, Satan tempts Jesus in a series of three conversations, but Jesus resists his wiles. Garcia’s film fleshes out this narrative by introducing an imagined chapter of Jesus’s time in the desert.
We encounter Jesus, who is referred to by his Hebrew name Yeshua in the film, toward the end of his 40 days when he happens upon a family in the wilderness. He becomes enmeshed in their lives for several days, hoping to remedy the internal conflicts between father, mother and son. All the while Lucifer baits him, trying to distract him from his path.
Despite his excitement to play the roles of Yeshua and Lucifer, McGregor said it was intimidating to play the son of God.
“It’s daunting to be approaching a piece of work where you’re playing Jesus Christ, very daunting. It took up most of my thoughts in terms of the two characters.”
McGregor said he focused more of his preparatory work on the Jesus character, reading everything about the founding figure of Christianity that he could get his hands on.
“Many of the most recent books were trying to disprove the ‘son of God’ nature of his life and were writing more about who he might actually have been. [But] I was portraying Jesus who is the son of God,” McGregor said.
Christian theology presents Jesus as equal parts human and divine, which can present challenges to filmmakers.
“I have no idea how you write God,” Garcia said on a recent call with reporters. “So I focused on the human side.” The human side of Jesus would undoubtedly be tired, hungry, and insecure after 40 days of fasting, the director said. And that’s the Jesus he tried to depict.
“We were showing the human side to him, exploring the human side of a young rabbi who is aware of the path that’s been set in front of him,” McGregor said.
“When I started thinking about those real human qualities about communicating with his father… I found him there. I found a truth to those sides of his character. [But] I was always mindful of that fact that I was playing Jesus whose father is God.”
The theological implications of the film were not lost on McGregor or Garcia, though neither says he is particularly religious. At a recent screening of the film at a church in Los Angeles, the church’s reverend said that the character of Jesus had altered his feelings about the gospel. McGregor’s Jesus is empathetic, frustrated and often confused — not the infallible godhead we might imagine him to be.
When HuffPost relayed the reverend’s sentiments to McGregor, the actor let out a deep exhale and said he understood the responsibility that came with playing Jesus.
“You can’t approach something like that without being a little freaked out by the nature of it,” McGregor said. While he didn’t set out to satisfy everyone else’s expectations for the role, the actor said he tried to do justice to Christian theology.
“I’m very proud that people are responding to the Yeshua in this story in a way that makes them feel that it’s the Jesus they recognize from their own imaginings of him,” he told HuffPost. “That I’m very proud of.”