There’s something that feels a little incongruous about arriving in the palm-tree-lined, sun-dappled environs of Hollywood and sitting down with Ewan McGregor to talk about, of all things, Jesus Christ.
We’re ensconced in the hip digs of Los Angeles’ NeueHouse, a seven-story co-working space where Orson Welles once broadcast and where creatives and young entrepreneurs downstairs are going about their work. McGregor—who’s been busy over the last year or so with projects like American Pastoral, his directorial debut on which he still has a few weeks of post-production to wrap up—occupies one of the upstairs meeting rooms, here to promote a different film that’s also one of his more ambitious to date.
The film is the soon-to-be-released Last Days in the Desert from writer-director Rodrigo Garcia. Its ambitiousness stems in part from requiring the 45-year-old Scot, whose list of acting credits includes Trainspotting and the Star Wars prequels, to portray the Son of God.
In the film, McGregor is put into the dusty shoes of a tired, hungry Jesus as he’s fasting in the wilderness. According to the Biblical telling of this episode from Jesus’ life, he must also overcome various temptations from the devil during his desert wanderings—exchanges that the film recreates in the form of imagined encounters with a petulant, proud, menacing Lucifer.
McGregor plays that role in the film, too.
Talking about the double duty gives him a chance to explain not just what went into portraying two giant figures but also how he approaches his craft. That includes just what it is that this Los Angeles transplant looks for when deciding whether to say yes to a script.
Last Days in the Desert is reflective of something McGregor finds himself doing more of these days—looking for ways that he, a husband and father of four, can increasingly let the sensibilities of a dad inform his portrayals. Even when he’s playing, well, the Messiah.
“At first, you’re sort of slightly overwhelmed by the idea,” McGregor says of playing Jesus. “And by your imaginings of everyone’s expectations—and your imaginings of getting it wrong. And then, of course, you realize that doesn’t help.”
He dived into books about the historical Jesus, but eventually gave up. One thing that did help him is that the film—well received by critics when it premiered at Sundance in January 2015 and set for a limited release on May 12—is propelled by a spare, 62-page script that Garcia told Paste could easily have been 58 pages.
At its core is a straightforward character study—one that’s less about recreating Biblical text and more about showing us a man on a journey.
That’s the thing McGregor says hooked him on the part, one of several projects he has teed up at the moment. In addition to American Pastoral (based on Philip Roth’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel), McGregor is also in Disney’s Beauty and The Beast remake (out next year) and in the forthcoming thriller Our Kind of Traitor, based on a novel from John Le Carre. He’s signed on to return for the Trainspotting sequel hitting theaters next year.
But that’s all yet to come—let’s talk about his portrayal of Jesus.
“There’s really a sort of side that’s ‘What did you do to yourself to play this role?’ that we award now,” McGregor says about the extremes that some actors chase, which he tries to steer clear of. “But actually, like great design and like great music and like great cinematography—if you’re aware of it, it’s not as good as it could be. If you’re not aware of it, if it’s feeding you subliminally—it’s brilliant. And I think acting should be like that, too. Being truthful and real is what I’m always striving for.”
Both McGregor and Garcia pointed out to Paste how the relationship between fathers and sons is one of the undercurrents that runs throughout Last Days in the Desert, something McGregor happily latched onto to try and nail the role of Jesus. No surprise, since he’s well into middle age now—he gasps theatrically when revealing his age—and has been a parent for the last 20 years.
“I just think as I’m getting older, there’s more scope, maybe” in the roles that come his way, he muses. And it’s in the last five years or so, he continues, that he’s seen an increase in roles coming his way that are either those of parents or ones that let him project a fatherly air.
For another example of this, he makes references to 2012’s The Impossible, about a family caught up in the aftermath of the 2004 tsunami in the Indian Ocean. McGregor played the father in that film.
Jesus’ omniscient father in Last Days in the Desert is never shown, of course. But McGregor said there were plenty of scenes where he very much felt like the father himself, and others in which he felt like the son.
“As an actor or any sort of artist, you’re drawing on your experience of the world, and you want to make a comment about it in your work,” he says. “Well, for 20 years my main experience of the world has been that of a dad. Because when you’ve got kids, they’re sort of your every waking moment. All your decisions are based round about them.”
In Garcia’s script, the story of Jesus is given a quiet, atmospheric treatment. It builds slowly, with “Yeshua” (the Hebrew pronunciation of Jesus used in the film) mostly wandering in silence at first.
At the outset, it’s not immediately clear who he is or where he’s going. He pours rocks out of his shoes. He hides from the sun in makeshift shelter. At night, he shivers and prays. (“Father, speak to me.”)
The rocky terrain of Anza-Borrego Desert State Park, a couple hours east of San Diego, was used to resemble the wild lands outside the Jerusalem of Jesus’ time. Ewan’s Jesus eventually meets a family living in the desert—a taciturn father, a son who wants to see the world and peppers Jesus with questions about what it’s like in Jerusalem, and a sick mother.
Jesus also eventually crosses paths with the devil, who at one point asks Jesus if “these things He expects of you—do you think anyone will care? Men, of a thousand years from now?”
These are the kinds of roles that McGregor says he’s still chomping at the bit to tackle—textured character portrayals that more often than not turn on quiet moments and on finding the human, vulnerable center.
He says he’s less interested in the extremes of acting—crying, breaking down, “tearing a room apart”—than he is in making a statements about the world, about life. Part of that comes, he explains, from “just being able to listen really well” to a director, which he says is tougher than it sounds.
Last Days in the Desert is a guidepost of what the job is about for McGregor these days—authenticity, yes, but also about just letting the warmer, fatherly side shine through.
Watch a featurette on the making of Last Days in the Desert below: