Movie News & Reviews

Joaquin Phoenix approached ‘Mary Magdalene’ role with great respect

Jesus Christ is one of the most portrayed characters in film history. He's been played by the likes of Jeffrey Hunter, Ted Neeley, John Hurt and Jeremy Sisto, to name a few. Joaquin Phoenix adds his name to the long list as he portrays Jesus in "Mary Magdalene," the story of the woman who has been called a sinner and canonized as a saint. Taking on the role in the feature directed by Garth Davis ("Lion") is Rooney Mara ("The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo").

Phoenix had only a few concerns about taking on the much-played role.

"I am not really familiar with the other films," Phoenix says. "But, I always think there is hesitation when you take on a role that has such a great significance for such a large audience. Even when I played Johnny Cash in 'Walk the Line,' I was nervous about that.

"Part of the key struggle of acting is to get into the personal feelings of the character and not think about them objectively. Not think about an audience viewing them. That's more difficult when the character is well known and close to a lot of people."

Phoenix is convinced if the film had been called "Jesus" rather than "Mary Magdalene," he would not have been as interested in playing the role. He liked the opportunity to explore the story that has rarely been examined to this extent in a feature film. Phoenix knew the story, but it wasn't until he started making the movie that he fully appreciated the part women played in Jesus' life.

The final element that convinced Phoenix came through his discussions with Davis. He liked that while the film would certainly deal with the divine, the production would also emphasize his human traits.

The film follows Mary Magdalene as she flees the marriage her family has arranged for her, finding a sense of purpose in a radical new movement led by the charismatic, defiant preacher Jesus of Nazareth. Her joining Jesus and his followers defied her patriarchal society, but it is through her choice that she has a spiritual awakening.

"The key for me was to acknowledge he was a man. I think what the film is talking about is the human and divine can coexist and they can coexist in the same person," Phoenix says. "I think the mistake that we make sometimes is making one or the other exclusive. It was important for me to find that and I think it was unlocked with Mary.

"When Rooney and I were working together, it was important to find some playfulness and some joy that they found. It was important that we explored all the colors that were available. The temptation is to play the divine, but if you were just divine, there would be no struggle. The power of his story is his struggle."

Davis started casting with finding the right actor to play Mary Magdalene and Mara was an obvious choice. The pair had worked together on his award-winning "Lion." Not only did she show her skills in "Lion" but she has starred in "Carol," "Her," "Una" and "The Secret Scripture."

"Rooney can play such atmosphere in her silences," says Davis. "Mary Magdalene was living in this world that did not understand her and had this yearning. Rooney could get all of that across with one look. I felt that was a very refreshing way to capture the character."

Mara found the role to be quite different. This was not like playing a character based on a fictional crime drama as with "Tattoo" or even playing someone who lived in recent years. There's not a full story of Mary Magdalene, so pieces of her life had to be created for the script. The main thing she also wanted was play her in a way that humanized her.

Once Davis had cast Mara, he knew he had to find an actor to play Jesus, who could mirror many of those qualities. He also needed to find the right person to play Jesus not as if he was being held up above everyone but was like everyone else in many ways. That's when Phoenix became part of the production.

Taking on the role is just the latest in a long career for Phoenix. There has not been a year for him that has provided him with as much diversity as 2019. Not only does Phoenix play Jesus in "Mary Magdalene," but he takes on the role of Batman's greatest foe in "The Joker" set to open in the fall.

Phoenix calls it his great luck to be able to play so many different types of roles because that's the driving force for most actors.

Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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