One man, playing both Jesus and the Devil? Rodrigo Garcia’s new film Last Days in the Desert at Sundance sounds like it could be a broad comedy. Instead, it’s a light-on-dialogue character portrait of very human Biblical figures, both portrayed in subtle tones by Ewan McGregor.
Garcia (Albert Nobbs and HBO’s In Treatment) zooms in on Yeshua (as he’s called here) wandering the desert, meditating for 40 days and 40 nights on the nature of his divine mission. He’s looking for a sign — a voice from the sky, a burning bush, anything — from his father. Instead, he receives only suggestions of the Almighty’s fallibility and vanity from his evil companion. McGregor, playing both roles thanks to camera tricks and the work of his longtime stand-in Nash Edgerton, is differentiated only by the Devil’s smug smile and jewelry.
The production shot for five weeks in Southern California’s Anza-Borrego Desert State Park, with Oscar-winning cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki (Gravity, Birdman) capturing the vast landscape and intimate conversations. McGregor spoke with Yahoo Movies about the film after it screened on Monday.
Was it disorienting to go back and forth between the two characters?
No, not really, because I had my friend Nash [Edgerton] working with me on those scenes. I would just play to him, and I was getting something back; I wasn’t doing it to a piece of tape on a stand, and I wasn’t reading with a stand-in who’s not a very good actor.
I think the demon was harder to get right. The takes that Rodrigo’s chosen managed to make it more subtle. Because there were some takes that were a bit over-the-top or angrier or vicious. I guess what’s more interesting is seeing these two men who look exactly the same.
The Devil almost seems like the other side of Jesus’ psyche more than an actual physical character.
I think the film is open to anybody’s interpretation, and I like that. But I played them as he’s the Devil and he’s Jesus. A lot of what the Devil is saying to Jesus is trying to create doubt and f—- with him, really. But that being said, I was never trying to suggest that this was just another sort of Jesus’s doubt. I always imagined that they really were two different people.
So often in our culture, we’re shown Jesus as a calming and certain figure. But your portrayal is of him as a man, not a deity. How do you think religious people will react to that?
I can’t imagine any issue with it, because there’s never a moment that he’s uncertain of his faith. I played him as the son of God and a man who is in the desert for 40 days and 40 nights to meditate on his path, the path ahead of him, which is to go out and preach and dedicate his life, ultimately and completely, to spreading the word of God, his father.
He’s not in the desert being uncertain of, “Am I the son of God?” He’s just wanting some clarity, some connection with his father, who has set this task for him. And he’s not hearing him, he’s not able to communicate with him. And that became a very human thing.
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