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Nicholas Pinnock on Playing Jesus Christ



There’s a new biblical epic hitting cinema screens this weekend, but it’s vastly different than the many that have come before it. 

Jeymes Samuel’s “The Book of Clarence,” the British musician/filmmaker’s lively follow up to his wildly energetic all-Black Western “The Harder They Fall,” gives the dusty sword-and-sandal genre a bold, funk-infused remix.

The Legendary film, which Sony’s Tristar Pictures is releasing Jan. 12 and counts Jay-Z among its executive producers, follows a Holy Land hustler and religious skeptic (LaKeith Stanfield) who attempts to fashion himself as a Messiah to clear some debts. The movie also features a chariot-racing Mary Magdalene (Teyana Taylor), an unimpressed John the Baptist (David Oyelowo) and a Virgin Mary (Alfre Woodard) unafraid to hand out slaps to those who dare cast doubt on her sin-free status. And then there’s Jesus Christ himself, played with an air of near-silent cool by Nicholas Pinnock, only revealed to be the all-powerful man behind the robe later on in the film. 

For Pinnock, who is about to start shooting Nia DaCosta’s “Hedda Gabler” adaptation starring Tessa Thompson and also has Steven Knight’s “This Town” series coming up, Jesus Christ is the most iconic role he’s ever taken on. As he explains to Variety, it’s also a role that his friend Samuel really didn’t want to give to him.

How did it feel to be asked by Jeymes Samuel to play Jesus Christ? 

Genuinely, I couldn’t believe it. Because he had called me in to talk about another role and then decided that it wasn’t the right one for me. We were actually due to work together on “The Harder They Fall,” but it didn’t fall in line with his schedule. So I went around to his house and we had a discussion and he showed bits of the script. I started reading something and he was like, “Oh, shit. Yeah, it’s gonna have to be Jesus.” And I was shocked. And really surprised as well and happy, because it’s a great role. Not every day do you get the opportunity to play one of, if not the most, iconic figure in the whole of history.

When I spoke to him last year, Jeymes said he really didn’t want to give you the role because he knows you so well.

He didn’t want to give me the role! I’ve known him for 16 years and he said he didn’t want to give it to me. He was really pissed when he made the decision that, he knew, for him was the right one. 

Yeah, he said you were — unfortunately — too perfect for the role and he had to begrudgingly give it to you.

Whenever Jeymes tells me he hates me, that’s mainly a time when we’re on set and I’m doing exactly what he wants or I’ve just delivered something that was unexpected that he really liked, but he’s pissed at me because it wasn’t his idea. I hate you! But it’s all love. 

I really like the fact that we don’t see it’s you playing Jesus until quite late in the film. You’re mostly hidden behind robes or this holy light. And then suddenly it’s like, “Oh, it’s Nicholas Pinnock playing Jesus, great!” Have you had any fun reactions from people finding out it’s you?

It wasn’t actually written that way. I said to Jeymes that we needed to keep him a mystery. Because he’s a mystery to Clarence, we needed to keep him a mystery to the audience, to keep him hooded until he speaks. And again Jeymes went, “Ah fuck, you’re right.” But we did it and I think it works. And up until recently, on IMDb it didn’t say who was playing him. So many people have told me that for ages they didn’t see you in the film and didn’t know what role I had. And then when the hood came off, they were pleasantly surprised — thankfully pleasantly surprised! They weren’t expecting it and just thought Jesus was going to stay covered the whole time.

Your Jesus is a pretty smooth, chilled guy. Was there a particular mood you were going for?

I think with all the comedy and the chaos of Clarence in his world, what Jeymes wanted was an absolute smoothness and calm to cut through it all. And that’s what I tried to deliver as much as possible and just be as noble and soft and gentle with the Jesus that we were depicting. Depending on how old people are, most people know the Robert Powell version of Jesus, and he went through a gamut of emotions, of anger, frustration, torture and serenity. But this isn’t about Jesus. This is about Clarence. So what we see is just a small part of his story. And so rather than confuse the audience or give them too much of Jesus to think about, is was just give them what they needed. 

You mention Powell’s version. You’ve joined a relatively small number of actors to have played Jesus. It’s also — unsurprisingly — a rather white group. I think there may have only been one Black actor to have played Jesus previously. 

Oh wow. I also think I may be the oldest actor. I’m 50.

How does it feel to be one of possibly just two Black actors to have played Jesus?

For me, it’s just a role. I’m just an actor. It doesn’t really feel like anything. We’re just telling stories and whoever tells those stories should be able to tell their stories. If I played a woman or someone who is gay or outside my demographic, it’s just a story. But, saying that, I absolutely and obviously understand what it means for the community. It’s a modern take on a very old part of history that has only ever been depicted one way. So it’s nice to be able to be part of something that is changing the paradigm and changing the views of how people see it. It’s wonderful. 

Jeymes said he wanted to tell a biblical story but make it look like where he grew up in London.

Totally, because we’ve never seen it look like that before. When they did “Jesus Christ Superstar,” the only actor of Black skin was Judas, which is a very telling message. And it’s now time to just tell it differently.

Do you appreciate that playing Christ is likely to feature high up on your resume from here on?

Probably. It’s definitely the most iconic role that I’ve had the pleasure of taking on. 


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