Robert Powell on his role (I found in a website):
Oh his role as Jesus of Nazareth, arguably one of Zeffirelli's finest
films, Powell has had plenty to say over the years:
"I asked what his first thoughts had been when he heard he had been
given the role of Christ. He laughed. "I wished they hadn't asked me,"
he said. "But, having been asked, I couldn't possibly have turned it
"I was apprehensive. You see, with any other role one has a chance to
turn in a faultless performance. With this particular one I knew there
was no chance at all. A man can't play a god."
"Aside from your misgivings," I asked, "did you enjoy playing the
"No," came the short, sharp answer. "That's a question not many people
ask and I'm glad you did because it's important. It was the hardest
thing I've ever done. It was also the most physically exhausting. I
lost a stone during the filming. There is no other part where in every
scene you are it. There's no other part where I've had to learn seven
foolscap sheets of script every day and there's no other part where
I've been unable to use any of my own personality.
"For example, if I arrived on the set one day feeling a bit irritable
or fed up, normally I could use those emotions, but with Jesus I
couldn't. But, although I didn't enjoy it, I don't regret having done
"Of course," he added, "now that I've seen it, I would like to do it
all over again - and do it better."
'I feel like I'm king of the remakes'
"'Thank God Babs was there,' Powell says of the long months he spent
filming Jesus Of Nazareth in Morocco and Tunisia. It was a
star-studded cast: Lord Olivier as Nicodemus, Ralph Richardson
(Simeon), Peter Ustinov (King Herod), Anne Bancroft (Mary Magdalen)
not to mention James Mason, Anthony Quinn, Christopher Plummer, and
Ian McShane as Judas. 'But it was an extraordinarily boring experience
for most of the actors,' he admits, as they spent weeks on stand-by
awaiting dramatic weather effects for their scenes. Then there was the
food and Tunisian wine. The camera crew's joke was to beg Powell,
please, to change it back into water.
Deliberately, he says, he tried to avoid being emotionally moved by
the part. He wasn't a religious man, and still isn't. 'Particularly
when I was on the cross, it was incredibly cold. And rather than bring
me down between the shots, they left me up there, gave me a dressing
gown and a pair of slippers, and my wife would hand me a cigarette. In
fact, it got so cold I think I was handed a brandy too.'
Almost despite himself, though, there were moments when he was
touched, particularly filming the Sermon on the Mount. 'There were
several thousand extras, shafts of the setting sun over the hill. I
saw these thousands of upturned faces who I don't think could
understand me because they were Moroccan. I thought I'll pitch it to
them, so I raised my voice and, across the valley, I could hear it
coming back and so could everybody else. And it just had a very eerie
effect. The crew were all in floods of tears. It was as if one had
been slightly touched by an external force.' Jesus Of Nazareth never
made Powell a rich man, he was paid a flat fee of 20,000 for nine
months work and not a ha'penny more for repeats all over the world.
And he wasn't tempted by a business offer to market Jesus sandals and
jeans: 'Good god, no. I wanted another 50 years of being an actor. If
you capitalise on things like that, who's going to take you
"I looked in the mirror and realised I was looking at the image of
Jesus I had retained from my childhood. It was the image English
people recognise as Christ: Holman Hunt's Light Of The World. Except I
wasn't blonde. But my silhouette could only have been of one man -
Christ. It was extraordinary."
The film was shot in Morocco and Tunisia. Laurence Olivier, Rod
Steiger, James Mason, Anne Bancroft were co-stars. It appeared - six
compendious hours of it - to respectful approval. "The secret to the
success of the film is down to the fact that it's not idiosyncratic.
We were trying to reach thousands of people, all with the same image,"
says Powell. "But the 10,000 letters I got from viewers all said the
same thing: 'It's exactly how I imagined Him.' That's because I did
nothing. It's a blank canvas on which the audience paint their own
image and think their own thoughts. Which is why I was angry with
"At first, Powell says, he tried to make Jesus sparkier, more of an
individual. He stopped when he realised that "the more I made him a
man, the less I made him divine". Didn't Olivier give him any tips on
how to act the part? "Yes, he gave me the best note I have ever had. I
was doing the 'spirit is willing - pause - but the flesh is weak'
line. He said: 'Bobsy, do you mind if I say something? Never pause if
the audience know what you are going to say next.'"
occasion, the director asked Powell to shout "I am" when Jesus is
asked if he is truly the son of the living God. He duly yelled. After
the take, Olivier opined: "Bobsy, I think Jesus would have been
quietly proud of being the son of God, don't you?"
In this, my own comment is: I don't think so. Christ abandoned his self or ego. He was aware of the adoption or fusion with God like Hindu experience. Neither he needed to shout nor be cocky.
If one experience
from playing Jesus - aside from the hell of the crucifixion - is
seared into Powell's mind it was hearing his own voice echoing off the
mountains during the Sermon On The Mount and actually listening to the
words - "There was me, the extras and crew in a flood of tears, rapt
at what is, I am convinced, the most profound piece of writing in
-- The film is a remake of Cecil B. DeMille's 1928 classic
-- Filming took place over 9 months in Morocco and Tunisia. Most of
the extras were locals.
-- The film's budget was $25 million, a sum considered extravagant in
-- Originally cast as Judas Iscariot, it's said that when Franco
Zeffirelli looked into Robert Powell's eyes, he knew that he was
better suited for the role of Jesus. Mr. Powell accepted, and later
received more than 10,000 letters from viewers telling him that he was
"exactly the way I thought Jesus would be".