Listen: Brian Deacon talks to Sheridan Voysey about his big-screen role as Jesus.
On the 30th anniversary of The Jesus Film, actor Brian Deacon was interviewed by Sheridan Voysey on Hope Media’s Open House program, about what it was like to play the role of Jesus, and about his own personal beliefs. This is an abridged transcript of that fascinating interview.
By Sheridan Voysey
It’s been 37 years now since a film was released that would change the lives of millions. It is The Jesus Film, based on the Gospel of Luke, starring British actor Brian Deacon in the role of Jesus.
Watched by more than 6 billion people, it’s the most viewed film in history. It’s been suggested that more than 200 million people to date may have come to faith through its influence. As a result, there are probably millions of people today who, when they think of Jesus, picture the face of Brian Deacon.
Brian Deacon: The Open House Interview
Brian, welcome to Open House. Thousands of actors applied for the role of Jesus260 were screen tested, you got the job and I guess the rest is history. Your agent was a little bit nervous about you applying for the role though?
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Yes, my agent called me up and said, ‘Would you like to do a test tomorrow for a film about Jesus?’ I said, ‘Yeah, why not? What’s the role?’ He said, ‘Well, to play Jesus.’ I said OK to that and he said they were going to bike a parable [script] over to me. I went along, was tested and shortly afterwards they offered me the role. And it was then that my agent said to me he didn’t think I should do it. I thought, well why send me up there in the first place!
I was a 30-year-old actor. My career was pretty successful and I think the challenge was such that I had to have a go at it. But I did know that other actors who’d played the part found it didn’t exactly push their careers further afterwards.
Would you say that it’s particularly been detrimental to your career? You’ve done film and TV afterwards.
Yes I have, but not as much. I think one thing for me was, I was basically out of England for the best part of a year and the film was never shown here. So I kind of disappeared off the radar. Where have you been? What have you been doing? People in the industry didn’t know.
One guy said to me, ‘It is going to be very difficult to [get] in other roles, because you’ve now played Jesus.’
Also I remember touring America when the film was released and meeting people in Los Angeles who were potential agents. One guy said to me, “It is going to be very difficult to persuade people to cast you in other roles, because you’ve now played Jesus… people will find it difficult to think of you for instance, playing a villain or a lover”. I suddenly became aware that I was in a sphere of influence that meant I had to be careful about the other choices I made, which I found quite distressing, really. I thought, ‘Yes, I know it’s Jesus we’re talking about here, but I am an actor coming to this role and that’s how one should be perceived.’ Unfortunately, that is not the case. Now I understand why, of course.
Preparing For The Role Of Jesus
Let’s talk about how you prepared for the role. I heard that you read the Gospel of Luke 20 times.
Oh yeah, more. I probably read the Gospel every day, certainly every evening after filming. They were very thorough, the people on the film. They had a massive document of about 300 pages that had been put together by all sorts of different religious scholars, and that gave a lot of background information. And I was given by somebody else a commentary on Luke… and I read that pretty thoroughly. I just really tried to see how I felt about it. What was happening to me when I was reading it emotionally, intellectually.
Did you actually have people pull you aside and say ‘look the Jesus I know wouldn’t have done that or said it that way’?
Yes, that happened all the time. A lot of Christians in America were financing the film in some way. There were collections in massive congregations and I think at some stage, people who’d collected the most money were actually flown out to Israel and given extra roles in the film. They weren’t in the least bit shy about saying ‘I think you have to play it like this’.
Very, very hard for somebody like you in your position then to meet everybody’s expectations.
Yeah, ‘cause what you don’t want to do is sort of play a sort of middle of the road type thing, so that you don’t offend anybody. I think that’s a mistake. I remember reading an interview with Jim Caviezel, who played the Passion Of The Christ, where he basically said “I don’t think you can play Jesus, if you’re not a committed Christian”. And I thought, I don’t agree with that, because every actor has to come to a role with some sort of scepticism. .
Trouble On The Set
Those seven months of filming in Israel were pretty gruelling, I believe.
Well they were long days. My call was usually at 4 o’clock in the morning, to be in makeup at 4.15 because they put on a prosthetic nose onto me every day. Then we’d have a quick break, first jump in a car and drive for an hour and a half to get to the locations and generally be back by about 7 o’clock at night. So they were long days, and six days a week of course. We were down in Ram Aallah on our way down to the Dead Sea and it would be 40 degrees or something down there. So it was quite interesting to be out in that kind of heat and just sort of spending an entire day sitting on the top of a mountain.
And there were some difficulties in actually producing the film wasn’t there? You went through different cameramen and directors.
Well we had two directors which was unfortunate, because you hope that the director who starts the movie is going to finish it. And I think we had three or maybe even four lighting and camera men. There were days when there was an awful lot of anger and people being quite abusive at times. And I think this upset some people and they felt – I can’t work on this, and yes they left. So there were times when it wasn’t the happiest of sets, let’s put it that way. In fact, we even had one day when the disciples went on strike. [Laughter]
I heard about that. And Jesus had to be called in. [Laughter]
Well they came down to this tiny little caravan that I was sitting in at 8 o’clock in the morning, and said “look umm, we won’t call you to the set yet, there’s a bit of problem”. It was a contractual thing.
It was to do with wages or something, wasn’t it?
It was a bit naughty, because I think some of them were happy with what they were getting and then they talked among themselves and I think they realised that there were different sort of rates of pay… they got together and said ‘well we’re going to knock on a producers door and say we all want this much’. In the end I think the producers had to agree.
Was There An Enemy At Work?
It wasn’t the happiest of sets at times. What do you put that down to? I mean some Christians would actually talk about the whole issue of spiritual warfare, that this is a story that is actually going to touch a larger number of people all around the world, and if there is an evil one, he’s going to be out there to try and disrupt that. How would you think of that kind of explanation?
Personally, it’s not one that I would necessarily buy into. They found an understudy for me, an American guy with sort of hippy, long hair, a beard, and was in Israel… to try to convert Jews into Christians. They got him to come along and stand in for me when we were lighting the set.
One night in the hotel in Tel Aviv I was staying, I was on the 15th floor… there was a fire below us.
One night in the hotel in Tel Aviv I was staying, I was on the 15th floor, and … there was a fire, it was below us. It was pretty frightening really because we had to try and get out of this building. And the next day I met this guy Tom and we were sitting under an Olive tree, doing Sermon on the Mount, I think. And he said, “I heard about the fire last night in the hotel”. I said yeah “It was pretty frightening, really”.
And that was exactly the point he put to me. He said, “You’re doing God’s work here, and of course this doesn’t please Satan…” I found that quite disturbing, and I thought, “I don’t really want that little worm burrowing its way into my head and thinking that way. Because then I’m gonna become paranoid.”
I can understand that a lot of people would say that’s the reason there were so many difficulties on the film. That there were people, or a sort of force or spirit or whatever out there that wanted to disrupt it as much as it possibly could.
The Most Impacting Parts Of The Jesus Role
I want to talk about the scenes that moved you most or that you found most difficult to do.
Often the scenes that moved me the most were the very simple things. Raising Jairus’ daughter, curing a blind man. Things like that, that were fairly simple…there was a humanity about them. It struck me every time I read Luke, this contradiction…this humanity…when Jesus is being arrested in Gethsemane and asked for it to be taken from him – however not my will, but thine be done. He knows that he will suffer pain in the way that all of us do. That somehow he’s not exempt from that.
Some of the most difficult things to do are things obviously like the crucifixion…physically extremely difficult, but also emotionally.
One thing I found was lack of direction. Lots of people inputting, but there wasn’t anybody really sort of sitting down with me and saying “I think you should be thinking more like this or like that”. As for interpretation I felt pretty much on my own.
And yet it actually had such an impact and has been seen in 220 countries now. It’s been translated into 1,050 languages, so you must have done something right.
I don’t know what it is about the film, really. I haven’t seen it for a very long time now, but whenever I did watch it . . . I can see all the mistakes that we made and we desperately wanted to go back and re-do the whole thing. But at the same time there is a heart to it. There is something within the film that does reach out, and that to me has always been there every time I’ve seen it. There’s something that moves you and reaches you.
A ‘Lapsed Catholic’ With A Mixture Of Beliefs
Brian, you once described yourself as a lapsed Catholic. How would you describe your spiritual outlook today?
Well, I’d say I am still searching. I think it’s a journey that I’m still on. I was fairly loosely brought up as a Catholic. Around about my early teens, when I began to understand the differences in the Christian belief system, the divisions and different factions, I found that quite difficult. I had thought we were all singing from the same song sheet, but to hear people within the Christian church arguing amongst themselves about different interpretations—it turned me away from it, I must say.
But I never completely abandoned [faith] or anything like that. I looked at comparative religions and still have my own spiritual belief system, which is very much my own and not one I would impose on others.
And how have you formed that? Where have you pulled those beliefs from?
From everything really—from everything that one does in one’s life. There is nothing within Christianity that I find I have a problem with. I think the Ten Commandments is a pretty good system for all of us to live our lives by. There is nothing complicated in there; it’s telling you how to lead a good life. I remember meeting a Parsi in India and he said his religion was very simple. He said, ‘We speak good words, think good thoughts and do good deeds.’ Very simple.
There are all sorts of different elements to it, but [my belief system] I think is still based on a Christian faith, although I hear other things in other faiths that I think are pretty reasonable. It’s always been a private thing for me.
How ‘The Jesus Movie’ Impacted Brian’s Spiritual Beliefs
You’re one of a handful of people in history who have played the role of Jesus in an in-depth way. I’m interested to know if playing him shaped or altered your faith or outlook at all.
I think it probably did at the time. I think I probably got as close to being a true believer making that film as I ever have done. I had to question certain things within myself. There were times when emotionally I felt pretty raw. I’d turn back to the Gospel, and I did have conversations with God or the Father at those times and ask for some help and guidance. I could never be sure whether it was there or it wasn’t there, but I did certainly feel closer at that time.
I think I probably got as close to being a true believer making that film as I ever have done.
Now, [producer] John Heyman used to make this point to me. He said, ‘You might be one of the greatest Hamlets we’ve ever known, but it’s my belief that you’ve given your talents because God has touched you on the shoulder and chosen you to represent him in this way…This will be the most important role that you’re ever going to play.’ I didn’t want to believe that, of course. It meant the end of my career. But I could see what he was saying to me, and at that time it was quite difficult for me to either accept or reject that notion.
So if there was one thing that was holding you back from believing in Jesus not just as a historical figure but, as the Gospel of Luke would suggest, as God-incarnate, what would it be?
That’s a difficult question. I suppose I’m naturally a sceptical person and tend to believe what I can see or can have demonstrated to me, whether that be in mathematics or science within this infinite universe that we exist in. I mean, I have lost people very close to me and wanted to feel that they were going on to somewhere else—that there was a life beyond this mortal existence. But I couldn’t decide whether that was my want or what I could believe in.
I probably would like to think that, yes, there is something beyond this…a higher power
I probably would like to think that, yes, there is something beyond this; there is an existence; there is a higher power who is omniscient, omnipresent and there to help us if we ask for that help. But I just can’t take the last step. I can’t really say any more than that. I know that the people who do believe say, ‘Well, where’s the problem, old luv? Just open your mind up, open your heart.’
Yes. There is a certain step of faith to be taken into the unknown, and I’m sure many people have talked to you about that.
Yes. It’s when we get to the thing that is most important in a way, which is this belief in a God that is omnipresent, always there and who will create for you a spiritual world away from this life. This resurrection, the virgin birth—these things one could argue are some of the most important elements in Christian belief—these are the things I have the problem with.
Also, I cannot believe that God exists if he’s not all those things: kind, caring and understanding, because he is omniscient and omnipresent. But if he is all of those things, what about hell-fire and damnation? Why would God set up a system that has one burning for eternity and another living in heaven? Why would any God want to do that? I find I just can’t get anywhere near that, you see.
Couldn’t that also be answered, though, in the very role that you’ve played? The Gospel would suggest that God didn’t want anybody to go to that place and so he came in the person of Jesus to reconcile us back to himself. God has done everything at his end, so to speak, yet maintains our human freewill to either accept or reject him.
Well, perhaps, perhaps. I don’t know the answer to that.
The fascinating thing is that The Jesus Film has had a part in seeing over 225 million people become Christians, yet the lead actor who plays Jesus isn’t a committed Christian.
Well, there’s certainly a contradiction there, isn’t there?
Would He Do It All Again?
Thirty years on, would you do the movie again?
I probably would, and with the same sort of enthusiasm with which I did it before. Because, again, one can see it’s a challenging role and an opportunity that very few people have. I’m sure I’d read it, be moved by it, want to try and tell the story and give other people the opportunity to look in upon it.
When I made the film I had no way of knowing that it was going to be used as an evangelical tool. That’s why it has been seen by so many people. But people haven’t paid for their seats, if you see what I am saying. Showing the film to all these people is fantastic, but my difficulty comes with the notion of going to other faiths and saying, ‘Your faith is wrong and this is the right one’.
I mean, what’s the word? Proselytise.
I guess that would also come down to the way you acted out the part of Jesus. If you were acting that role with the goal of proselytising, as you say, I wonder whether you would have played a different role than you did. Instead, you read the Gospel of Luke umpteen times and simply portrayed what you saw of Jesus in it.
Yes, exactly. For me it was a journey that by its very nature had to be a journey of humanity, reaching out to others, trying to get others to understand a point of view, but also a journey which others couldn’t share with him—his own pain of knowing what was to come and how that suddenly became frightening enough for him to ask to have it taken away.
It was that reaching out to others with compassion and love, that understanding of others’ situations, that was the thing you could play as a character in the film.
Impressed By Jesus’ Compassion
Maybe my problem is not necessarily with Jesus but with how his message is given to us today. This is a totally different debate, of course, but there are churches in America and all over the place that are homophobic. I don’t think Jesus would have been.
No…Jesus was the first person to reach out to everybody who was despised. I think the homosexual community are often one of those groups that are despised.
Yeah. When I find that sort of thing is being, not necessarily preached from pulpits, but certainly accepted from the pulpit, then again I say, ‘Hang on, how are you representing Jesus or his teachings to me?’ Not in a way that I believe they should be.
I think of a book called Imitating Jesus, written by another of your countrymen—Richard Burridge from King’s College. He makes the important point that Jesus taught a standard of morality that was even more demanding than the Old Testament… Yet he was also known as the ‘friend of sinners’. Prostitutes loved him. Despised tax collectors loved him. Samaritans were befriended by him. Biblical morality is very demanding, yet Jesus gravitated towards the very people who were least likely to live by it.
Yes, very odd isn’t it? That’s where he seemed to feel most comfortable—as well as with those who turned back to him or took a step towards him.
Jesus also said, ‘Suffer the little children to come unto me’, and that you won’t get into heaven unless you think as simply as a child thinks—with that kind of acceptance. There you go, I’m sort of answering a question for myself here, rather than trying to have an intellectual debate. It’s really not that complicated.
The full transcript of this interview is in Open House Volume 2 by Sheridan Voysey. All images from Facebook.com/JesusFilmHD.