There are plenty of movies about Jesus, but "Last Days in the Desert" might have the most intriguing — or strangest — premise: use the same actor to portray both Jesus and Satan.
In "Last Days in the Desert," that actor is Ewan McGregor, who stars both as Jesus — wandering the desert for 40 days — and The Demon, Yeshua's devilish mirror. The movie was written and directed by Rodrigo García, the Colombian filmmaker who made “Albert Nobbs” and “Things You Can Tell Just By Looking at Her.” And "Last Days" is showing at the AFI Film Festival before hitting theaters next January.
When McGregor and García joined us at the Sundance Film Festival, they talked about the ways in which shooting in a real desert affected the movie and how they approached putting Jesus on the big screen.
Ewan, how does the environment in which you filmed affect your performance or your state of mind while you're acting in this film?
McGregor: We were such a small unit and we had such a small footprint, and especially our first week, where we were shooting Yeshua's walking through the desert in different locations, we were moving quite a lot between the shots and between the set-ups. There was nowhere and nothing else to do.
There was no phone reception, there was nowhere to go other than just find a little spot in the desert and sit down and look at the sky and look at the landscape.And that's totally infused in the performance, I think. It's what I used to do when I was a little kid, and now we move so quickly in our modern lives and we don't have time to just sit around.
Last night, I was looking at a scene where I'm playing with some stones. I realized that's something I really enjoy — sitting, playing with stones or sticks, and just looking, thinking, and letting things bubble up from your subconscious. It's a really beautiful, relaxing thing, and I think when you're playing somebody like Jesus who's thoughtful and pensive, that was very helpful.
Writer-director Rodrigo García on the set of "Last Days in the Desert". Photo courtesy of Francois Duhamel.
Rodrigo, people who know the story of Jesus in the desert can interpret it however they want. Some people look at it as history, some view it as parable, some see it as myth, and there are many other possible interpretations. Did you have a main idea in your mind about what this story represented?
García: You cannot go into a story about Jesus without all the things that are a given — you know the context, you know the outcome, you know the destiny. I sort of freed myself in a couple of ways, by narrowing it down just to three days in his life that are completely out of the context of the Gospel, and also I only concentrated on the human side.
As a writer-director, you always have to ask yourself, If this was me, then what? Have you put yourself in that position? There's no point for a director to say, "Well, even if I was God, then what?" Although some directors do that. [laughs] So I avoided the divine side altogether, and I just dealt with the human.
Ewan, I think there are in fact more books written about Jesus than any person in the history of the world, and yet there probably aren't as many books about the Devil. So as you're preparing for both roles, is one more challenging than the other? In watching the film, there seems to be a certain sparkle in your eyes while you're playing the Devil that you maybe don't have when you're Jesus. Is that just the nature of a difference between the characters, or was one actually more enjoyable or easier to play?
McGregor: They became closer than I had imagined. I hadn't given the demon as much thought, it's true to say, going into the film. When you're approaching the start of a movie where you're playing Jesus, the Jesus part of your brain is being exercised more than anything else. [laughs]
It's quite a daunting proposition, so I hadn't really given the demon as much thought. But I'm quite glad, in a way, because if I had approached the demon in a bigger way or a more obvious "bad guy" way...I don't know, there's something terribly interesting about the fact that they're closer than you might imagine.
García: I think the way you played it, it does come out as a brother — his fallen brother. Two brothers, one striving to do good, and the other having fallen already. And I think that fraternal thing between them is one of the achievements of the performance.
McGregor: And you gave me incredible moments to play, where we see the demon's fragility, or his jealousy, or his pride. And there's a moment where we part at the end where there's disappointment in both sides. They've been walking through the desert together for quite a long time, and they're a sort of company for each other. It's quite bizarre.