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Joaquin Phoenix talks world peace, feminism, and balancing human with divine in 'Mary Magdalene'

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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. We caught up with Jesus himself, aka the legendary Joaquin Phoenix, who has 2 hotly anticipated films coming out this month: both Mary Magdalene and Lynne Ramsay's You Were Never Really Here.

Don't forget to read our interviews with the director Garth Davis & writer Philippa Goslett, and with stars Chiwetel Ejiofor & Tahar Rahim too. 

When you're offered the role of Jesus, is there any hesitation at all?

I definitely hesitated, and I think at first I started reading it and then I put it down, and I think it was like a month later I was asked if I’d read it and I said “Oh, nah, I don’t know,” so I read it again. And the second time I started reading it I found i tot be really emotional. I don’t know why I wasn't picking it up the first time. When I actually finished it, I thought it was really beautiful. I don’t know how, but I’d never heard of the book of Mary - I didn’t know about that discovery. I thought that was really interesting, and it was a perspective about this movement that hadn’t been explored, and that seemed like a mistake to me.

So I became interested in it, but I still wasn’t sure of course. Then I met Garth [Davis, the director] and he talked about astral projection, and I thought “I have to work with this guy!” He’s really sincere. I really don’t know why but I felt that this is an experience I really had to have. I just have to be a part of this.

How do you prepare to play Jesus?

Of course you approach something like this and you feel everybody’s expectations, and that’s really daunting and overwhelming, but then I just had to remind myself that he was a man. And I had to try to find some personal connection in some way to feel that. I suddenly realised, and it’s probably very obvious to you all, but I realised for the crucifixion to be a real sacrifice and to mean something, it means that he’s human and he has these human feelings. He didn’t want to die, but he was willing. And I think that’s how we approached some of these ideas.

When Garth and I talked about the healing scene on the beach - it was a time when if you were physically or mentally disabled, people thought you were possessed by demons, and you were on the fringes. The power of what we were exploring was saying, here was this man that really saw you, and would touch you and look at you and validate you when everyone in your community would shun you. And I thought that was such a beautiful idea, instead of literally curing blindness. It was a curious thing because I didn’t really think about it until we started shooting the scene: the famous part where Jesus pulls sand from the ground and spits in it and rubs it in their eyes, and it says they open their eyes and they could see. And I was like, if you rub sand in somebody’s eyes… that would suck! The first time that you see, you’re like “What the fuck!” So I though, wait a minute, this doesn’t make sense. Until I was doing it, I never questioned that. So then when we were there on the sand, I was like, Garth, I can’t rub this sand in her eye! That’s crazy! So it was something we discovered in that moment, and realised it was more about touching her and seeing her, and that’s what the healing was. 

How many of Jesus’ more introspective moments were in the script, and how much did you bring to it as an actor?

A lot of that is in the script, and in the biblical text. It’s full o this struggle and those moments of not wanting to die. It’s the struggle between the spirit and the flesh, and that’s something that’s all over the bible. He was actually sweating blood at the crucifixion - it’s fucking unbelievable, right? An unbelievable description. It’s amazing. It’s a really powerful image, isn’t it? … But we didn’t do that. 

The biggest challenge playing this role, I’d imagine, is balancing the human with the divine. It’s such an abstract thing to play. How did you do it?

I think Jesus was saying that we all have access to the divine, and I do believe that as well. I think part of his teaching was that you don’t have to be a leader of a synagogue or a man or a church leader to connect with that thing, whatever it is that you want to call it. We all have access to it, we all are flesh and spirit. So it just confirms in some ways what I’ve always naturally felt.

Part of it is finding contemporary figures as well that lived those values. When I think about Sister Helen Préjean who goes and sits with death row inmates and forgives them — that’s so powerful. And there’s a man, Reverend James Lawson, who was active in the civil rights movement and worked with Dr. King and he still teaches a workshop on non-violence in Los Angeles that I attend. And he’s somebody who actually experienced people trying to kill him, and found the power not to react with violence. So I think people like that were a real inspiration for me.

Why do you attend that workshop that you just mentioned? What is it that interested you in that?

In a way, finding ways to not be reactive emotionally. I think that a lot of our aggression and violence are things that are learned, and we can train ourselves to react to things differently and to find a way to communicate non-violently. And when I say non-violently sometimes I don’t mean literally, physically violently, sometimes just verbally violent. My mom has a peace-building organisation and she worked in restorative justice for years, and when you start learning about restorative justice and you see the effects of it, and you learn about peace-building — and not just this hippie idea of “Oh, everything is cool, peace,” but actually putting in work and developing techniques — there’s something really appealing about that to me.

Whether it’s as small as how you treat your friend, or whether it’s a bigger world stage. And I think oftentimes we have this expectation that politicians, world leaders are supposed to figure it out. Sometimes it feels very frustrating when you see the state of the world and you feel overwhelmed: “Well, fuck, everywhere I turn there’s violence and there’s hunger and disease and it’s overwhelming.” In that case, you think “Well, what can I do in my own life? How can I behave in my life? I have this expectation that other people are going to solve these problems.” And there’s nothing wrong with encouraging that and being active politically, but there’s something that I can do right now that is certainly going to affect the world, or affect my world. And so I want to try and learn how to do that.

That almost reflects Mary’s interpretation of Jesus’ teachings, which is different to Peter’s more revolutionary interpretation. So do you agree more with her, that the power is inside us?

I do believe that. In religious or spiritual practises I think that sometimes we put the effort in for something that’s going to happen in the future — this idea of going to heaven, or finding enlightenment. Like, “I’m going away for five years and I’m going to meditate on this mountain, and then I’ll be enlightened.” And the thing is, every moment in every day you have the opportunity to be enlightened. Being enlightened is being willing to constantly work at your life, and try to be the most considerate, empathetic, thoughtful person that you can be. It’s not about achieving this one state, and then you’re fucking zen and everything’s groovy and you just float through the fucking air.

Every day you are going to have challenges, and you have the opportunity every day to be the most enlightened person that you can be. So what I loved about the book of Mary and the idea behind this film: that the kingdom of Heaven is within you — it’s about accessing that, and I thought that was beautiful and a necessary way of looking at things. Or at least, that’s my philosophy. 

How do you think the Mary Magdalene of this movie fits in to our present cultural context, when we are living such an important moment for feminism?

Yeah, it’s un-fucking-believeable that it is still happening. That Pope Gregory issued a statement saying that all the Marys in the bible represent the same Mary, and came up with that she was a prostitute. In the bible you’ve got two options for women: either you’ve got the virgin or the prostitute, the sinner. And here was the story of Christ’s ministry through her eyes, and it was excluded from the official books. Somebody made that decision to exclude her observations and feelings about the life of Christ and her experience.

Clearly, she was an integral important part to the movie — she was the only disciple that we know of that was there at his crucifixion and his resurrection. Clearly, obviously a very important figure. There’s no mention in the bible of her being a prostitute at any point. So these were the things that were created, I assume, as the church became more formed and clear in its vision of what it wanted to be. There seems to be an overt intention to exclude women from that process. And so I think it’s totally relevant to what we still see today.

Mary Magdalene arrives in cinemas March 16th.

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