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Starring as Jesus 'changed my perception of forgiveness'
Joaquin Phoenix rises to the challenge of playing Jesus of Nazareth in new biblical biopic Mary Magdalene. The actor talks to Georgia Humphreys about how he approached the part, the film's timeliness and his own faith.
It seems no role is impossible for Joaquin Phoenix.
The seasoned actor, who has earned his stripes with such roles as Johnny Cash in Walk The Line, is no stranger to playing biographical figures.
But his next film, Mary Magdalene, has turned heads nonetheless.
Set in the Holy Land in the first century, it tells the story of a young woman joining a new social movement led by Jesus of Nazareth - and the 43-year-old portrays the Messiah himself.
"When you first start [a film], so many people have so many different expectations, and you imagine what the expectations are," notes the American actor, who was born in Puerto Rico.
"Every film that I do, there's a point where I say, 'Well, this is mine now, and I have to find a way to internalise this and just have this experience'.
"I can't perform other people's expectations."
Phoenix is a busy man right now - after a two-year break from acting, he can also be seen in cinemas currently as a traumatised soldier in Lynne Ramsay's You Were Never Really Here.
"It was strange because it just went from nothing to these movies that I couldn't say no to," he reflects of his return to the silver screen.
"It just happened that way. I'd never done that much but I think working with the filmmakers and the actors was so inspiring, so that fuelled me."
In Mary Magdalene, he stars opposite his real-life girlfriend Rooney Mara (she takes on the title role), who he is thought to have been dating since 2016.
The biblical biopic, directed by Garth Davis, who Mara worked with on epic drama Lion, recounts the life and death of Jesus Christ from a female perspective.
After defying her traditional family and leaving her small fishing village to set out on the journey to Jerusalem with the disciples, Mary found herself at the centre of the founding story of Christianity.
"It's undeniable what an important figure she was in this movement," remarks Phoenix.
"None of the male disciples were at his crucifixion, and she was at his resurrection - that says a lot, and also shows how courageous she was."
In 591, Pope Gregory claimed that Mary of Magdala was a prostitute, something many people still believe to this day.
And the star notes the significance of how the film shows Mary, arguably one of the most misunderstood spiritual figures in history, in a different light.
"I couldn't help but think of young girls that are religious and have felt like their two examples of them in the Bible are either the virgin or the whore," he states.
"And even if you're not conscious of that, subconsciously it has to affect you and the way that you navigate the world and navigate your faith.
"It made me really excited, the prospect of young girls feeling like they're represented in a biblical context in such a positive way."
Is it more urgent - with the Me Too and Time's Up movements currently waging a war on Hollywood - to portray women in that way?
"It's urgent at any time."
"It's really disheartening and makes you sometimes feel very cynical about humanity."
He's hopeful this fresh and authentic depiction of Mary, who was constricted by the hierarchies of the day, strikes a chord with people.
"At the start of the film, she has an instinct about a connection to God," he explains.
"Because of the patriarchy, she's ridiculed, she's told that she's possessed by demons. And she just says, 'There's no demons here. Trust your feeling - your instinct is right, who cares what your father says or your brother says?'
"And by the end, her new adopted brothers, the disciples, question her understanding and there's this moment where it's her independence: 'I know what I feel and I don't need your approval'. And yeah, it is timely and I hope people are inspired by that."
Asked about his own history with religion, Phoenix is contemplative.
"My parents believed in God. I'm Jewish, my mom's Jewish, but she believes in Jesus, she felt a connection to that.
"But they were never religious. I don't remember going to church, maybe a couple of times."
He continues: "They always had an alternative spiritual understanding of things. But we were absolutely encouraged to have whatever belief we wanted, there was never any kind of dialogue that was imposed on us."
Discussing what he believes in now, the pensive star shares that he's not of any specific religion, then pauses for a long time, as he tries to express what his "core values" are.
"I guess I'm really interested in the idea of forgiveness," he eventually divulges.
And making this movie has changed his perception of what forgiveness - a big theme in Mary Magdalene - really is.
"I always thought forgiving somebody was like you were absolving them of their sins or their transgressions or whatever it is they did, and I started thinking it has more to do with the person forgiving than it is for the other person, it's such a difficult task," he suggests.
"And it's how it changes you that is the power, right? Because obviously you can forgive somebody, but what is that doing? You can't absolve them of what they did.
"But it changes how you feel about it, and I really liked that idea. It's something that really moved me."
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