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Chiwetel Ejiofor and Tahar Rahim talk 'Mary Magdalene' and #TimesUp

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Mary Magdalene (2018) is a retelling of Jesus’ life story through the eyes of the forgotten apostle: Mary Magdalene, who is often wrongly cited to have been a prostitute. Read our interview with director Garth Davis and writer Philippa Goslett here. Oscar nominee Chiwetel Ejiofor and French actor Tahar Rahim play the apostles Peter and Judas respectively, and we caught up with them about the unique presentations of their characters, as well as how the #TimesUp movement has shifted their perspectives.

What was your initial reaction to hearing that this film was being made?

Chiwetel: Well, I was just intrigued! I didn’t know anything about Mary’s story, so in a way I was a perfect reader of the script, because I hadn’t even investigated Mary Magdalene beyond the perceptions of her, which are that she was a prostitute. I’d always thought that it was slightly far fetched, that on the one hand she’d be part of Jesus’ very tight entourage, and on the other hand a prostitute. But I hadn’t investigated that, so when I read the script, I was just very moved by the story, and it felt very truthful to me. It seemed very plausible that over time this story and this person had been maligned historically.

And then, when I started researching it and realising just how based on truth it was — and truths acknowledged by the Catholic church, not just people’s truths but the church’s truths about Mary Magdalene — her spiritual significance and her religious significance, it just seemed a very compelling, very urgent, very necessary story.

Tahar: I felt the same in a way. When I read the script, I was aware of the fact that she’s been transformed into a prostitute, so I was not surprised about the story, but I was intrigued by the details. Not only Mary, but all the disciples, and even Jesus, are not written in a black and white way. They’re all human: they have their flaws. They follow someone, but they still have some doubts, which is totally human — even if you see miracles. Especially for me, since I’d been offered the part of Judas, I started to investigate Judas, and there’s so many different versions. But this one was the most human I’ve ever read. It was quite challenging and interesting to do it.

To what extent were your characters’ traits based on historical documents, rather than being fabricated to make a coherent narrative?

Tahar: I think there’s a version of Judas like this that I read, but it’s slightly different, because he was wealthy. So that means he couldn’t betray Jesus for money, but for something different. Of course, this is different from the iconic evil vision of Judas. But I think it was the right way to portray it and to write it in a movie today, because it encourages the audience to ask themselves what it means to betray someone, to have faith, and what faith means when you have been betrayed. Very philosophical questions.

Chiwetel: Looking at Peter in the new testament, which is the starting point, you get a broad understanding of the preferred presentation of Peter: as the founder of the church. And then when you look at the gospel of Mary, that dynamic with Peter brings in a slightly more complicated character. He’s a bit more argumentative: pushing and trying to wrestle with these difficult problems, and that seemed very compelling to me. It suddenly took it out of the realm of the gospels and took it into the realm of reality, real people.

These people, these guys and this woman, would’ve been in extraordinarily challenging circumstances, especially after the raising of Lazarus. If you look at these stories and you really invest in them, and have faith in them, and if you take them as truth, when an incontestable miracle occurs and changes the entire landscape of what they’re trying to achieve... It seemed completely plausible to me that Mary would be caught in the middle of the arguments this would raise, and any power she might have had could incense some of the other disciples if she was becoming more powerful than them in her relationship to Jesus.

All of that seemed to be like boardroom dynamics that we still experience. Once Mary Magdalene’s voice was silenced, they were then free to write anything about her that they chose to, and to describe this whole event as a very male-led patriarchal event in the history books, and soften all the other characters a little bit, and suddenly everyone’s nice!

That Catholic church said two years ago that all of their information about Mary Magdalene was totally wrong, and that lends credence to this idea that it’s been manipulated over time to present this more patriarchal agenda.

A lot of people have been uncomfortable for a long time about how a leading historical female figure has been changed and adapted and maligned, and what that says about our society and the culture we live in, and the way we look at history. I think it’s amazing that right now this change has caught fire because it’s so much a part of our contemporary context and has such cultural relevance. 

In the conflict between Peter and Mary, there’s also a lot of contemporary relevance between individuals having faith in institutions versus taking direct action. Though the film presents Mary as being in the right, doesn’t Peter have a point? 

Chiwetel: You could look at it that way! I think what Mary’s advocating is the harder road. What Peter is talking about is what makes you feel better, when you can do something right then and there and change a circumstance, but actually it doesn’t change the overall nature of where humanity is going. So you can build a church and say “This is a symbol of everything being different,” and it doesn’t necessarily change everything in that moment, unless people decide that they are going to change.

That kind of spiritual revolution is still what society is calling out for, in the way that things are happening right now, you can have all of the social or legislative changes that can make it difficult or impossible or illegal to do certain things, but you’re always going to be battling those things until people have a spiritual change of mind. Until they embrace ideas of equality and human respect in a totally different way. And that’s the argument: that Peter’s advocating a legislative change through direct violent action, and Mary’s talking about this spiritual evolution. 

Usually, women are asked about #TimesUp, but how does it feel for you? How aware have you been all these years, since as men you’re not forced to think about it? 

Chiwetel: That’s what’s so tragic about everything. That’s what makes it so depressing, that you feel that you’ve been living in an alternate reality where you have felt that there’s been lots of progress made over time, and then to realise that none of that has been the case and everything has been much worse than you thought it was. That your colleagues and friends have been living in a completely parallel, hellish universe that you just weren’t aware of. It makes you feel stupid and it makes you feel angry, and it simply can’t happen any more. It’s fucking disgusting, what’s been going on. But I’m glad that this stuff has come out, so we can start to address it and do something about it so it doesn’t carry on. 

Do you feel that in the European film industry it’s the same?

Tahar: It’s quieter in Europe perhaps because there isn’t such an important figure who did this. As Chiwetel said, you start to see something that you didn’t even think about before, because society raised us like this. Sometimes you just don’t think about it. But it’s not just a question of the movie business, it’s all over, and it’s good that these women can talk now, and we can contain the men who are doing this. The thing is, powerful people have to know once and for all that they better not use their power to manipulate those with less power.

How has this changed the way you see this movie, since you started filming before the movement?

Tahar: The audience is going to see the movie differently. I’ve always wanted to see more lead female characters in movies than what we have, and sure this film has one, but maybe this whole story will finally make people see that it’s important to strive more and more for equality. 

Chiwetel: I feel like I’m an audience as well, and my landscape is shifting and my understanding is increasing all the time, and in this period it has increased a lot. And so when we started it was cool to be part of this and support it, because I wanted to make sure there are films that are female centric and female driven, but I didn’t realise that it was quite as important as it is. I didn’t realise the scale of the problem that we were dealing with as a society.

Mary Magdalene arrives in cinemas on March 16th.

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