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How Ewan McGregor Prepared to Play Both Jesus and the Devil

Photo: Mike Windle/Getty Images

With the release of his new film Last Days in the Desert, it’s safe to assume that Ewan McGregor is now the only actor alive who’s played a Jedi, a junkie, and Jesus. In the movie, scripted by Rodrigo García, McGregor’s son of God wanders the desert looking for spiritual answers, and tends to a father, mother, and disaffected son who’ve got their own family problems. But the twist here is that you get a double shot of McGregor: In addition to playing the man they call Yeshua, McGregor also plays the Devil, haunting and taunting Jesus as he tries to do right. Recently, McGregor sat down with Vulture to discuss how he pulled it off.

What sort of pressure did you grapple with when you were cast as Jesus? Did you wonder what religious people would make of your performance?
I was just trying to play him like any other role, really. Who do I think he was? Who do I want him to be in this story? Of course, there’s a massive amount of pressure when you think about playing somebody as well-known as him, but I’ve played people who existed before and it doesn’t help you to think about that too much. Once I got past being overwhelmed, I found myself reading the wrong kind of thing, books about Jesus that are trying to disprove that he was the son of God, and they were all so unhelpful. I realized I don’t really do that anyway: My research for films does not happen in libraries; my research for films happens in my conscious and subconscious imagination. I wasn’t going to find him in somebody else’s interpretation of who Jesus is. I was only going to find him in me.

So what was your “in”?
I could relate to somebody getting frustrated with his father, or feeling that his father is not listening to him or like his father doesn’t understand him. I love my father, but we’ve all been through moments, right, where you’re like “Ahh!” Then there are some really beautiful moments where we see him doubt himself as a young rabbi. There’s a beautiful scene where he thinks the mother is asking him for advice in the dead of night and he speaks to her and we see him saying, “I’ve got to come up with better words.” What a human moment! We’d never imagine Jesus would doubt himself, but there he was. It’s like the moments I have when I’m acting where I go, “Really? Is that the best I could have done in that scene?” We all feel that, all the time, so those moments were what I keyed into.

You’re in scenes opposite yourself for this film, but on set you played off of your body double Nash Edgerton. How does that work? Do your performances inform one another?
It’s a funny one. I suggested Nash — I’d known him for years, since Moulin Rouge, and then he doubled me in Star Wars. Ever since then, like once or twice a year he’s doubled me in something. He’s a great friend of mine. The last thing we’d done together before this was Son of a Gun, and he was hired as an actor to play the getaway driver. I was acting with him for the first time, really, because he’s always been me in things, you know? So on this movie, after I suggested him to Rodrigo to do the stunt supervising because I’ve always felt very safe in Nash’s hands, I realized I needed somebody to act with. We were all staying in this little hotel and every night we would get back and work on what the next scene was between Yeshua and the Demon. It was odd, because you’d have to learn one side of it and then swap and learn the other side of it, and it’s a bit of a brain-twister because you don’t really learn the other lines while someone else is saying them.

There must have been times in your career where you’re acting up against somebody and thinking, Why are they saying the lines that way? And now, finally, you have the chance to be your own scene partner.
That’s right! That’s kind of funny. But the truth is, it really wasn’t as odd as it should have been. I think it’s because Nash was so concentrated, so when we would do a scene where I’d be Yeshua and he’d be the demon and then we would swap, he’d copy the rhythms that I’d just done. He’d say the lines in much the same way as I’d said them, using the same intonation — if there was a pause, he’d make the pause the same length. He was really skilled at copying what I had done, so it was the same scene and the rhythms were the same and so it was easy to key into. But, if you don’t mind me saying, that’s why those characters are so believable in the movie, because I was acting with somebody and he was giving it back to me. Acting is really what goes on between two people; it’s not really about “what I do” and then “what they do.”

You’re dealing with characters that are as iconic as iconography gets, and yet the film is shot in such an intimate fashion that it feels real. While it’s about Jesus, this film could be the story of a normal man’s spiritual journey, too.
Really, the film is an exploration of the relationship between fathers and sons. I mean, yes, it’s a film about Jesus, and it’s a story that Rodrigo invented about Jesus meeting a family during the time he was in the desert. Unless I’m wrong, there’s not a great deal of detail in the Bible about what happened to Jesus in the desert, other than that he was tempted by Lucifer. Clearly he was in there for a reason, to find some answers before going on the path his father laid for him, and that’s what you could say the film is about. But if I’m asked what the film is about, I always say it’s about fathers and sons — it’s just that Rodrigo decided to write about the ultimate father-and-son relationship.

Something nearly as daunting as adapting the Bible has to be making a film out of a Philip Roth novel, but you’ve made your directorial debut on the upcoming American Pastoral. What was it about that project that made you think it was the right time to step behind the camera?
I’ve been living with it for three years — I was attached to play the Swede and directors kept falling off the film. Like the drummers in Spinal Tap, we just kept losing them. In the end, I had this very real feeling that it wasn’t going to happen, and I really wanted to do it. I’ve wanted to direct for a long, long time — 15 years or so — and in that time I’ve only found two things that I’ve really wanted to do: The first of which I just got fearful of and didn’t follow it through, and the second of which I found that somebody else is already making. So this was like the third time lucky, because one day I realized, “Oh, it’s in front of my nose. I should direct American Pastoral.” I suggested myself to the Lakeshore guys, and thank goodness they let me do it, and it’s been the most amazing experience. I’m still not quite finished yet; I’ve got two or three weeks left of post, and then I’m done by the end of May.

Hopefully we’ll see it at the fall film festivals.
I think you will. I hope you like it. It’s been the most extraordinary experience. It’s changed my life.

Ewan McGregor on Playing Jesus and the Devil