30 years ago, director Martin Scorsese set out to create a movie unlike any he had done before. The Last Temptation of Christ followed the life of Jesus Christ right up to his time on the cross. The film would eventually earn Scorsese an Oscar nomination for Best Director (along with two Golden Globes nods), but it would also become the subject of controversy, facing countless protests that succeeded in curbing its commercial success.
Below, the film’s star Willem Dafoe (who played Jesus) reminisces in his own words about meeting with Scorsese for the first time, working on the “most demanding” role of his career, and the controversy that’s followed the flick for two decades, as told to EW.com.
Joining this movie was so simple, but it’s an interesting story, I think. All my friends, all the actors that I knew, were going in on this movie. Even though I had made some movies and had some success with them, my identity [at the time] was still working day-to-day at the theater. But I was jealous because I wasn’t even asked to be seen. I couldn’t even get an audition. I was off their radar.
Then I did a movie in Thailand, came back, and got a call from my agent and he said, you know, Martin Scorsese wants to talk to you. He said he’s got this project, The Last Temptation of Christ. I said, I know I’ve been trying to get an audition! So they sent me the script, I read it, I loved it, and I met with him [Scorsese], had a short meeting, we talked and that was basically it. There was no big decision, it couldn’t have been more direct. Of course, I would have done anything in that movie, it’s Scorsese. But the fact that the role was Jesus was better — it was clear that he wanted to tell the story from the human side of Jesus, he didn’t want it all jazzed up. He wanted to bring it back into the body of a man and I felt like I was ready to do that.
I have so many memories from filming because it’s vivid in my imagination, still — I can remember very specific scenes and sensations because it was one of the most demanding roles, physically, for me. It was full-on. [The hardest part] was being on the cross. Regardless of your religious upbringing, you have a strong association of what that is, and then when you take it onto your body it’s very powerful. I was on this big hill in rural Morocco and could see for miles and the sky was blue, blue, blue.
We were based in Marrakech a lot of the time, but we would go out to the countryside. Hollywood was far away, New York was far away. I did nothing but be on the set, which, if you know the movie, is a lot. What people forget is that it was a low-budget movie, so we had to work very fast, which wasn’t a bad way to do it because Martin Scorsese had it very clearly in his head. He had a great director of photography in the late Michael Ballhaus. We had very limited crew and resources, but I think that disciplined us not to get distracted and helped our very essential approach to the story. There was no off time, basically, I’d go home and read the Bible, read the text, I’d go to sleep.
And the atmosphere was that there were no trailers — I would arrive and I’d simply put on my clothes. There was minimal makeup and we were out in the weather, you know? There was no place to hang out or wait. Which I loved because it made things very fluid, I was always in the camera and I was always in the story. I come from the theater and I’m still a theater actor, so I’m used to working down and dirty.
I remember when it was about to be released they started feeling that there was going to be pressure, some sort of controversy. We showed it in Venice [at the Venice International Film Festival] and they rushed it out to release so they could get the movie seen before the controversy would bury it. That’s my memory of it. And when it came out, the press tour was very blunt because the distribution was under fire, particularly in more rural areas there was a lot of pressure not to distribute the movie. The choice to see it wasn’t made available to people because there were threats against the movie, both physical and in terms of boycotting.
The one thing I do remember is a lot of the opposition to the film [came from people who] hadn’t even seen the film, so they basically didn’t like the idea of it. But I think that was a time also that the religious right — not necessarily the catholic church, but the political right — really saw this as a moment to attack Hollywood. It was a moment that they exploited to make a political move. I thought it was disappointing because it’s a beautiful movie.
This was the strongest reaction to any film that I’ve been in, that I can think of. Movie releases are so strange because you deeply feel that how movies are received, or how they’re marketed, has so many factors — everything from what’s in the news to what happens to the people in the movies. They’re not judged solely on the content, there’s nothing objective. There are movies like Antichrist, which is a great movie but got a distorted reception, critically, when it came out. Some people tried to exploit its extremeness to try to make news. There have been movies where I thought they haven’t had their day in court, but I guess that happens all the time.