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Matisyahu on The Possession, Playing an Exorcist, and Still Being More Jewish Than Drake

If you find yourself trying to place that familiar face in The Possession, that's Jewish rap/reggae star Matisyahu performing the Jewish exorcism on a little girl who's been possessed by a Dybbuk (a demon that's been let out of a box meant to store it for eternity). If you're surprised that the musician is now acting, consider that he's been doing so before he ever started writing original music. (He even previously shot a tiny indie film with Elisabeth Moss called A Buddy Story, but it wasn't widely distributed). Now that he's shaved his beard, he's hoping to branch out and play a wide range of characters. Matis took a break from his current Spark Seeker album tour to chat with Vulture about going full-frontal in Equus, getting rid of his facial hair, and losing a role to Justin Timberlake.

What was your experience with acting before this?
As a kid, I was really into performing, I would do choruses, I would do musicals, whatever it was. And then, as a teenager, I got into an acting class at SUNY Purchase for gifted kids, and that really turned me on to material beyond musicals, Sam Shepard, and Christopher Durang plays. I don't know why, but I was a troublemaker, and I was acting out. I was a troubled youth type, and I was into drugs — I left home when I was 17 and hitchhiked around the country, living that lifestyle. And I ended up at a therapeutic program in Oregon, and I took one or two classes at Central Oregon Community College,  and one of them was an acting class. I wrote a monologue about my experiences on LSD and following Phish, and it was pretty intense and graphic. The director, who was at that point toying with the idea of doing Equus, then wanted me to play that role [of disturbed youth Alan Strang] because he thought I could relate to that raw place. And he was right.

So, you did Equus, nudity and all?
Yeah, full-on nudity. I think it was his last year as a director there, and he wanted to go out with a bang. It was an amazing experience. The next year, I played Wesley in Sam Shepard's Curse of the Starving Class, and then I came back to New York and went to the New School. And I did some acting in college. But then everything stopped when I was a junior, in the fall of 2001, when I started becoming religious. Once I became a full-on Hasidic, I stopped everything. I stopped music. I stopped acting.

Once you got back into music, you turned down a lot of opportunities that were in conflict with your beliefs  — no commercials for nonkosher food, no reality TV show, no Howard Stern. Do you have any restrictions about what kinds of roles you would do as an actor?
At this point, it's not relevant anymore. In those days, there was a time when I wouldn't leave my house with my glasses on so that I couldn't see the hot girls on the street billboards. I wouldn't shake someone's hand. I wouldn't stage dive because women might touch me. But it was easier to keep that in mind as a musician. You can just decide not to play on a Friday night. As an actor, there's no way you can make those kinds of demands on a studio.

So, why a horror movie? Are you a big horror fan?
No, not at all. When I was about 10 or 11, someone showed me A Nightmare on Elm Street, and ever since then, I'd kept away from horror movies. But they reached out to me for this, and so I basically came in and tried out for it. Equus was also very intense and required someone to freak out a bit, so I thought, Okay, I can be intense. I know some Hebrew, and I'll yell it pretty loud. I can do that. But when I was doing it, I guess I wasn't giving them as much as they needed, so the director asked me to hold his assistant down. He told her to fight me. And she was ripping my shirt, punching me, kicking me, and screaming, so it was really scary — I had to grab her and flip her. And after that, Ole believed I would be able to do that scene. I think he also had me on hand so I could tell him if he had the right hat, the right prayer, so I could lend some authenticity.

Do you believe in Dybbuks?
It's more of a metaphor. There are these ideas in the Torah, and for me, this feels completely relevant to me and my life. I think of the box as being sealed off, and opening the box is coming to face with your demons. Sometimes the demon is attracted to purity, like the purity of a child, so you're trying to get back to that purity. The negative forces in the world can only exist because they feed on holiness. I don't know about you, but I certainly have those demonic capabilities, like when I'm letting myself go and I don't keep myself in check. That's the dark side pulling you down until you have nothing left. And in the film, I'm the guy using my knowledge of Judaism and my voice to help that little girl. And that's kind of what I do in real life. My character was faced with the decision of leaving his neighborhood, and he left in order to help a non-Jewish family. He saw that humanity was bigger than one race or religion, and I kind of feel like that's what I do. People really ripped me apart for going out in the world and playing music for non-Jews, but that's not the issue for me.  

You had your beard for this movie. Were you surprised at the backlash when you shaved it off, that some people thought you were no longer representing?
[Laughs.] People forget how long it takes for a movie to come out. It was afterwards. I just went into a Supercuts on the Upper West Side, and I walked back and forth a few times outside to make sure no one was in there, because I wanted to be somewhat anonymous. I was not surprised, but you know, it's still in my music, lyrically. It's still representative. I still eat kosher. I don't perform on Shabbos. But now I can just go under the radar. And you know what? It grows back!

Does it change your position on Drake? You said before you were more Jewish than him.
It changes it — but only slightly. [Laughs.]

What would you like to do next?
I actually auditioned for the recent Coen brothers movie [Inside Llewyn Davis], and that would have been awesome. When I tried out for that, I don't usually drink or smoke usually, but I had a drink of Scotch and a couple of cigarettes to get my voice all raspy. But Justin Timberlake got the role. Whatever. It would be cool to play a singer next time.

Photo: Eric Charbonneau/Getty Images