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Robert Powell

Speaking for Jesus, an interview with Robert Powell

Image: Robert Powell on The Real Jesus Of Nazareth, S1 E4

In 1977, British actor Robert Powell was cast as Jesus for Franco Zeffirelli's Jesus of Nazareth. Acting alongside Hollywood greats, like Anne Bancroft, Christopher Plummer and James Mason, Powell gave the performance of his life. The series was a huge success and was watched by millions of people worldwide. Even the Pope watched it, loving it so much he officially endorsed it, quite the review.

Forty years later and Powell returns to the character in Robert Powell on the Real Jesus of Nazareth. The four-part series follows the actor as he travels through the Holy Land exploring the life of Jesus Christ, asking questions and challenging the perceptions we have. We caught up with the actor to find out more.

"It's been very different returning to the story of Jesus because I was returning in a completely different way. This was one of the reasons I wanted to do the series. Originally, forty years ago, I was avoiding Jesus completely. Franco Zeffirelli and I originally thought that we could combine the divine Christ with the human one and that we would be able to show the human side of him, but we discovered that it was just not possible.

You go as an actor and work subjectively but the moment you start to try and play him as a real person you lose the divinity completely. With this story, the most important element that this character has to be is extraordinary. So from that moment on, I played it objectively without any recourse to giving him any particular idiosyncrasies, quite deliberately avoiding the normal human things. To try and play a god and get the idea of it is a shortcut to a nervous breakdown. So, I backed off completely. I found a way of doing it that was counter to the actor's normal approach.

The reason for Jesus' success over 2,000 years plus is the fact that he is whoever you wish him to be. He is not a person. He is not a person with characteristics or idiosyncrasies or mannerisms, you can impose on him whatever you like. However you wish your Jesus, to be, that is your Jesus, and that is why people can take him with them wherever they go and everybody has a different one, a different image in their head. I think that that's what we allowed in our film. The tens of thousands of letters that we got all said the same thing, "it's exactly how I imagined him to be," on that level we succeeded in spades, we really did. We managed to make it so non-specific.

I once had a letter from someone who worked in an old people's home in South Africa. She said "I showed the film to the people at the home, and I sat next to an unwell woman in her eighties. When it came to the crucifixion I looked at her and she was sitting there with tears running down her face and a huge smile, she died two days later. That was the last image she had before she died." Wow, you suddenly realise the power of something like this, it's phenomenal. I always try and play it down but I've been gobsmacked over the years. I get stopped in the street now in Greece, even with short hair, glasses and no beard.

I think that role and film has had such a hold on culture because we managed to reach such a big audience and because we were so non-specific in our approach to Jesus. There are some other fantastic performances, like Pasolini's in 1964, but for every person who says what a great performance you'll have ten thousand who say "that's not my Jesus, thats not how I imagined it and therefore I cant watch it." By presenting them with something where they do all the work then you can be Jesus for everybody. I never had anyone say that's not how I imagined him to be.

It's been so exciting returning to the journey. I had no responsibility to the audience really and I could ask all the questions I liked, I was so fascinated by seeing if there was anything to be found."