• Golden Globe Awards

Willem Dafoe, 1988 – on Playing Jesus Christ

Willem Dafoe spoke to the journalists of the Hollywood Foreign Press in 1988 about playing Jesus in The Last Temptation of Christ directed by Martin Scorsese from the 1955 novel by Nikos Kazantzakis.
“It seems like the most logical thing to do would be to read the source material, but I didn’t, which is interesting, because I didn’t want to burden myself with any expectations or be influenced by any images, so you try to free yourself from them as much as possible. I wanted to do the walk and do the talk, to place myself from ground zero, actually paring down, rather than gaining a knowledge. I had to start out from a place that was very neutral and get away from any preconceived notions of what Jesus should be like. I placed myself in a very centered place where I could react off the different events in the story, and the most important thing was to approach it moment by moment.”
“I did read some theological stuff and some historical perspectives on the time, so I could get a feel for what was happening politically at the time. I would read a little bit just so I would know whether they wore their sandals in the house or not.”
“I was keeping in mind that this is not an interpretation, it’s total invention. It uses some elements of reality, but it’s a work of fiction based on a novel, not an interpretation of the New Testament, so we have to break this idea of accountability to the Bible. It’s an expression, an exploration of one man’s faith, it’s about a struggle between the flesh and the spirit.”
“I didn’t interpret Jesus, I was Jesus, I was a particular Jesus in this particular film, which has its own sense of truth, and that’s why I am saying the film is its own defense, I’m not gonna try to convince you of that, but I’m fascinated by this fact versus fiction question.”
“Sure, it changed me, because intense experiences change everything, but that is private. I agonized for a long time, ’Is that fair to keep that stuff personal?’ And I thought yes because it occurred to me that Martin Scorsese asked me to do this role. This is his labor of love and I’m to be the point man on this film. He never asked me what I believed or what my religious background was, and he felt perfectly comfortable with that. He got to know me, and he knew who I was without that kind of institutional identification.”
“Any film affects you because it’s three months of accelerated living, and this was a special one because it provides you with a structure to think about enormous spiritual issues that maybe you don’t always have the discipline to think about. So, I had a terrific crash course in some things that I was very lazy about thinking about, some of the centerpieces of Jesus’ teachings like forgiveness and the power of love. And I continue to think about those things every day, everything is still in process.”