Joseph Fiennes is apparently looking to court controversy these days. When he’s not defending his decision to portray Michael Jackson in an upcoming British made-for-TV movie, he’s discussing the religious and racial politics of his new film, “Risen,” in which he stars as a Roman officer charged with investigating the death of Jesus Christ to prove he’s not the messiah. Oh, and in the movie — for once — Jesus isn’t a white guy.
It’s interesting how this is two different movies in one, going from a procedural to a religious film. Was that part of the appeal for you?
Certainly the appeal for me was taking a narrative that many of us know so well. I’m not giving anything away by saying it picks up kind of where Mel Gibson left off in terms of we start at the crucifixion, resurrection and ascension. Which is a pretty tall order to get into one movie. But what I loved was it kind of takes the stigma off it being a bible movie by giving our main protagonist the journey — and that main protagonist being a non-believer, being a Roman tribune who’s there to put down these insurrections. So the narrative being carried through the eyes of a nonbeliever is brilliant to me.
The steps of the investigation felt very methodical and detective-like.
The investigation was interesting. I took the opportunity to sit with a detective for a day because it was structured with these interrogations. So I tried to borrow — from a modern perspective — how you would interrogate, and it seemed to me it probably wouldn’t have changed much. Just being threatening. [Laughs] Also, I went to gladiator school, which helped me in terms of precision and warfare and the way they fought.
What’s the first day of gladiator school like?
Bruises, bruises. I mean, I really was like, “Ow! Ow!” They’re wonderful guys, but they’re hardened alpha males.
Is putting on the Roman centurion uniform some sort of rite of passage for British actors?
Yeah, it is. [Laughs] Look at that, six-packs instantaneously! I felt like such a loser at the end of the day taking it off. The other thing — not to digress or be too humorous — is how did the Roman army nearly take over a huge portion of the world in sandals? I mean, gladiator school was tough enough, but three months in sandals with no socks and no cushion was brutal.
Speaking of brutality, while it’s not “The Passion of the Christ,” your crucifixion scene is no picnic.
Yeah, and they even toned it down. I think they had to edit it, as it was pretty graphic. It was very moving on the day, just in terms of seeing somebody strung up like that. It’s not the greatest look. And we had some amazing extras, some of whom were 80-something years old. They just had amazing responses to it. It was pretty intense.
You also have a non-white Jesus, which is still rare in film and TV.
No, he’s not Caucasian. I feel like nobody’s really mentioned this. I mean, there’s such a furor with the Oscars — and I’m not going to wade into any of that — but just in terms of casting, yes this is a big step forward just in terms of getting the casting right and moving away from the golden, blue-eyed boy and delivering the right type of casting. It’s brilliant. I’m really proud of that.