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Choosing actor to play Jesus is fraught with peril

by JOHN ANDERSON New York Times News Service on February 19, 2014 11:00 AM

When matinee idol Jeffrey Hunter starred in the 1961 version of “King of Kings,” snarkier critics called it “I Was a Teenage Jesus.”

When “The Last Temptation of Christ” played Paris in 1988, with Willem Dafoe as a conflicted Messiah, the theater was firebombed. In both “The Robe” (1953) and “Ben-Hur” (1959), Jesus was a character, but his face was never seen — out of respect, perhaps, but maybe out of caution, too.

Filming the Passion is fraught with peril. So is the casting of a personage whom millions of Christians consider divine. There’s little question that when “Son of God” goes into wide release on Feb. 28, bringing Jesus back to mainstream theaters for the first time in a decade, it will invite a certain level of scrutiny.

[PHOTO: The Portuguese actor Diogo Morgado as Jesus in the new “Son of God.” He is the latest film actor to play the role, one going back to 1898. Mr. Morgado is more fair-skinned than historians might call for, but he could “portray the lion and the lamb,” one of the producers said. Casey Crafford/20th Century Fox)]

Portuguese actor Diogo Morgado, who bears more than a passing resemblance to Brad Pitt, plays the title role.

His looks will surely tax the patience of historians who say that Jesus, as a Jew of first-century Palestine, was probably more-dark skinned than the fair-faced Morgado, who early on inspired the Twitter hashtag #hotjesus.

“It’s a compliment, obviously,” Morgado said, “but I don’t want that to take away from what we tried to achieve. The best story is the story that gets to the most people. If the message of Jesus was love, hope and compassion, and I can bring that to more people by being a more appealing Jesus, I am happy with that.”

The casting was a no-brainer for the film’s main producers, Mark Burnett, creator of “Survivor” and “The Voice,” among other reality shows, and his wife, actress Roma Downey (“Touched by an Angel”). Together, they made “The Bible,” the hugely successful 2013 History channel miniseries that begot “Son of God” (and a coming television sequel on NBC, “A.D.”).

The idea for the film arose during filming of “The Bible,” the third-most-watched series or miniseries on cable last year.

As they were reviewing some scenes, Burnett said he and Downey “realized how incredible this Jesus footage was looking with Diogo.”

He added: “Roma said, ‘We should have been making a movie.’ So we decided, ‘OK, let’s simultaneously shoot footage we can re-edit into a film.’ It took 12 months of editing to get the Jesus story into a two-hour movie.”

It took them a while to find Morgado. “The Bible” was just weeks from filming, and they still had not filled the role.

“We wanted an actor who was strong and charismatic, who could also be a carpenter,” Downey said. “Diogo is 6-foot-3 with broad shoulders. He has a strong presence but also a natural humility. We were really looking for someone who could portray the lion and the lamb.”

The casting of Jesus has gone every which way since a man named Frank Russell appeared in “The Passion Play of Oberammergau” for the Edison Manufacturing Co. in 1898.

More famous instances include Max von Sydow’s solemn turn in “The Greatest Story Ever Told” (1965); the 52-year-old H.B. Warner in Cecil B. DeMille’s silent “The King of Kings” (1927); the very blue-eyed Robert Powell’s intense performance in Franco Zeffirelli’s popular TV production “Jesus of Nazareth” (1977); and, of course, Jim Caviezel’s work in Mel Gibson’s 2004 “The Passion of the Christ,” that most controversial of Jesus movies.

“There was really no major, problematic reaction to Jim Caviezel’s casting and portrayal,” said Bob Berney, who as president of Newmarket Films handled the distribution of Gibson’s movie, which became embroiled in controversy over accusations of anti-Semitism.

“The audience and critics were way more focused on the director.” But he added that both “The Passion” and “Son of God” are theatrical films aimed at wide audiences, and those audiences “expect actors who are believable, but who also have a ‘movie star’ look in the tradition that goes back to early Hollywood Bible epics.”

The Rev. Robert E. Lauder, a priest who teaches philosophy at St. John’s University and has been presenting religious film festivals since 1992, said that as far as the Roman Catholic Church’s position on representations of Jesus, “the only criterion that might exist is that Jesus be depicted with respect.” He added: “I think that creators of films like ‘The Robe’ or ‘Ben-Hur’ knew that people have their own images of Jesus, and no matter what actor portrayed him, some people would not be happy with how he looked. Not showing Jesus’ face avoided that danger.”

Morgado’s face will probably contribute to the fortunes of “Son of God.”

So might its efforts to solicit feedback throughout production from an ecumenical group of advisers ranging from two Catholic archbishops (Donald Wuerl in Washington and Jos← G￳mez in Los Angeles) to evangelical pastor Rick Warren and Abraham H. Foxman, director of the Anti-Defamation League. One goal was to avoid the kind of controversy that surrounded “The Passion of the Christ.”

In “Son of God,” the point is emphasized that Caiaphas (Adrian Schiller) and the rest of the Sanhedrin, or Jewish council of Jerusalem, were deathly afraid of the Roman reaction to Jesus’ preaching, which was seen as revolutionary.

“We try to show the turmoil of the time,” Burnett said, “and how frightened they were in the Sanhedrin about the Romans, who could have shut down the temple and killed thousands of people.”

Morgado said it was his intention to make Jesus a more approachable, human character than has been portrayed in some dramatizations, and balance Jesus’ divinity and his doubts.

“He is a man,” Morgado said, “and it’s OK to doubt. Faith is based on doubt.”

The film does not take modern revisionism as far as, say, “The Last Temptation of Christ,” in which Jesus imagines a married life with Mary Magdalene. “There was never any moment where we were going to consider a romance between Jesus and Mary Magdalene,” said Downey, who plays Jesus’ mother, Mary, in the new film. “That didn’t even get to the starting line.”

Burnett said the intent was to create a story that was true to the Gospels but that also captured the grittiness and terror of the era.

“They were in terrible times,” he said.

“At one point, the Romans were crucifying 500 Jews a day. Pontius Pilate was the fourth Roman governor in 20 years. You have to know he didn’t want that posting. It would be like sending someone to be the ambassador to Afghanistan right now. In a lot of ways ‘Son of God’ is a political thriller.”

When it was pointed out that it’s hard to make a thriller when everybody knows the ending, he laughed. “Yes,” he said, “it’s a little like ‘Titanic.’”

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