In the Year of our Lord two thousand sixteen, the latest onscreen embodiment of Jesus Christ trudges out of the rocky mountains of Judea in Last Days in the Desert in the form of one of the most beloved Jedi in the galaxy.
Ewan McGregor’s soul-searching Jesus, called Yeshua in Rodrigo Garcia’s sparse and meditative drama, is a blue-eyed holy man nearing the end of his 40-day walkabout when he stumbles across a family in need of guidance. He befriends them, accepting their plight as his own personal test—all while the Devil, also played by McGregor, taunts and tempts him to stray from his path.
Needless to say, the film’s distinct creative departures from the source material have some Christians up in arms. What would Bible literalists make of the fact that McGregor, by his own admission, isn’t even a believer?
“I’m not a religious person,” McGregor told The Daily Beast recently in Los Angeles. “I’m married to a Jewish woman, so my children are Jewish and my involvement in religion has more to do with the Jewish faith now and not the Christian faith, which I was very vaguely brought up in.”
“My parents were not religious, but my school had prayers at morning assembly,” he continued with a clear-eyed gaze. “So my early understanding of religion was the Protestant faith in Scotland. But my experience is no longer that.”
Not that anyone should expect McGregor, of all actors, to balk at pushing limits in his screen roles.
Early in his career he turned in star-making roles as a heroin-addicted antihero in Danny Boyle’s grimy Trainspotting and a nihilistic gay rock star in Todd Haynes’ Velvet Goldmine. Another notable fun fact: The Golden Globe-nominated actor has gone full frontal more than any other A-lister in Hollywood.
So it’s a different sort of artistic leap McGregor takes in Last Days in the Desert, daring to play the Son of God as a mere mortal tortured by his fate and doubtful of his purpose. Not even the Satanic temptation of a woman’s bare breasts is as troubling to McGregor’s Yeshua as the deep torment of a young, hungry, homeless loner who’s being ignored by a dad he can’t talk to.
“When I started thinking about it in those terms, as a man who is frustrated he can’t communicate with his father—well, there’s not a guy in the world who hasn’t had a moment like that with his own dad, so I understood that,” McGregor laughed.
“I’m very friendly with my dad by the way, and we have a very loving relationship,” he added. “But of course when you grow up, you have moments like that. ‘My dad doesn’t understand me!’”
McGregor considered the vocal Christian critics who have decried Last Days in the Desert as a work of blasphemy.
“We didn’t set out to make a film for those people,” he said. “I think even those people might question or find offensive a film that is absolutely based on the Gospel. But we didn’t make a movie that’s offensive to people of faith. I think that is the truth. We didn’t set out to offend them, or not offend them. We made a film about the relationships between fathers and sons, and the lead character is Jesus.”
McGregor found other ways to relate to the most famous man in human history. “He’s a young guy—younger than I was, because he’s in his thirties,” said McGregor, who turned 45 last month. “He’s a young rabbi, a holy man, and people go to him for advice. There is a beautiful scene at night in the tent of the Devil tempting him. He thinks the mother is asking him for advice, and he gives her a piece of advice—then immediately doubts himself. Like, ‘I’ve got to come up with better words. These words are not enough…’”
“As an actor, I have moments when I think, ‘Was that good?’” he added. “There’s a very human moment for Jesus to be questioning his role as a rabbi. For me that was a very easy thing to contemplate.”
At first, he says, he tried to research the daunting role by studying intellectual texts.
“I’m not an actor who does a great deal of intellectual research on any character,” McGregor began. “Often there might be a skill you need to learn, like fly fishing, or riding a unicycle, or…”
Lightsaber-fighting? I suggest.
He grinned. “A Star Wars reference! Well done.’” (For the record, McGregor says he has not been approached to take part in any future Star Wars movies. Yet.)
He tried reading books about Jesus the man—“books that have come out recently that set out to disprove his ‘Son of God’-ness, which are written about who he really was. Those books to me were entirely unhelpful, because I was playing the Jesus who IS the Son of God. That was our fact—this was what Rodrigo [Garcia] and I were doing. And the Devil is the Devil—although of course when you watch the film, you can have many different [interpretations].”
“You can think the Devil is an embodiment of Jesus’s doubt, and that’s fine, that’s good. I like that everybody has their own interpretation of that,” he continues. “But for me, I was playing Jesus, whose father is God, and I was playing the Devil as Lucifer, a fallen angel who has been in the presence of God and now reigned in Hell.”
“Once I stopped trying to find him in other people’s writings, or other people’s imaginings of him, and started looking for him in my own—who do I think he is, who do I think he was?—then that’s when I found him,” he said.
McGregor recently ventured behind the camera, directing himself in a long-gestating adaptation of Philip Roth’s 1960s-set novel American Pastoral.
“I was attached to it forever, and directors kept coming and going like the drummer in Spinal Tap,” he explained. “I wanted to direct for 15, 20 years but found only two stories in all that time that I really wanted to tell. One, I got the fear and just bottled it and didn’t see it through. The next one I discovered that somebody else was already making that story. And this was the third time lucky and I went, Maybe I can do it…”
“It focuses very much on postwar Americanism, postwar American hope and aspirations being decimated by the ’60s and the Vietnam War, and that generation of young people who fought against it and destroyed it,” he added.
McGregor’s eyes lit up as he let out a laugh. “I just realized I answered a question wrong the other day. American Pastoral is about a Jewish man called Swede Levov, and somebody asked me, ‘Is that the first Jewish character you’ve ever played?’ I said, ‘I think it is!’”
“But I just realized: I played Jesus.”