Stephen Moyer has arrived on the Ouarzazate, Morocco, set of National Geographic Channel’s Killing Jesus with just three hours of sleep after a numbing 20-hour journey to the remote city by land and air. Fortunately, his exhaustion serves the intensely pivotal scene he is about to shoot.
Standing in a crowded courtyard on Ridley Scott’s sprawling Kingdom of Heaven set, Moyer — who plays Pontius Pilate, Roman governor of Jerusalem — is locked in a final showdown with the high priest Caiaphas (a simmering Rufus Sewell) over Jesus’ fate. Pilate urges Caiaphas that scourging is punishment enough for the battered man before him, but Caiaphas will not back down, bellowing for the radical’s execution. Knowing he cannot rule without the support of the powerful priest, Moyer’s Pilate nods his head in resignation and hurries away from the scene.
Relaxing in his trailer after the shoot, Moyer discusses Pilate’s dilemma.
“There is quite an interesting scene at the front of the film where, when he first gets to Jerusalem, he puts the emperor’s face on banners, which is idolatry, so he is on a back foot from then on and needs the priests to be his conduit,” Moyer explains. “One of the questions I think is interesting is when this type of story is being told is we don’t know about what else was going on at the time. The story is always about Jesus, but we don’t know how many other decisions Pilate was having to make, how many other councils he was taking, whether this was even important to him.
“This was a man who was causing a fracas, if you like, and it was definitely something the priests wanted to be rid of, but was this actually, in reality, just a moment where he’s like, ‘OK, great, just get rid of him’?” Moyer wonders, “because we all know that this wasn’t written down until long after the event. But that’s the version that we’re telling, and that’s the story we’ve been taught since we were children and the story our children’s children will be told.”
Moyer says that he appreciates how the script, based on the bestselling book by Bill O’Reilly and Martin Dugard, lends dimension to the tumultuous path that led Pilate to make a decision that would change the course of Christianity, giving him some breathing room as an actor.
“I really like the fact that Pilate does it with a nod and I put that little moment in of him walking away — because he feels he’s been pushed into this position,” Moyer says. “He doesn’t necessarily believe that this man deserves to die but when you know the story as well as we all do, and we’ve so many definitive versions of it, I think it’s very hard to tell it in a different way. So you look for little details to make it yours. … I think that Pilate is pushed into this. Caiaphas exonerates himself by pushing it, by making somebody else make a decision for him.”
Moyer also believes the film’s focus on history over divinity lends nuance to Jesus’ journey and the true power of his legacy.
“There is an interesting moment in the script where I don’t think that Jesus has even come to understand who he is, or what he is,” Moyer explains. “It’s that famous moment where he goes to see John, his cousin, and because he’s heard that he’s baptizing people and Jesus says ‘I’ve come to be baptized’ and John says, ‘But it is I that should be baptized by you’ — and the way that it plays in our story is that’s a key moment where Jesus kind of goes, ‘Oh, well maybe I am more than I thought I was.’ I think it’s important that we don’t necessarily see God talking to Jesus; we see him making this thing up — and I don’t mean that in a blasphemous way. I mean he is creating who — and what — he is as he goes along.
“He never specifically names himself the Son of God. You always see somebody say it — sometimes it’s Pilate that says it, sometimes it’s Herod — ‘You say you are the Son of God and Jesus says, ‘No that’s what you say I am.’ That’s not in our version.”
Like many of his castmates on the Killing Jesus set, Moyer says he does not adhere to a specific religion, but finds this story fascinating from a historical and sociological standpoint.
“I have had an interesting relationship with religion myself over the years and it started out in Sunday school as a kid,” Moyer says. “I am not religious — I don’t have that in me and I specifically moved away from it — but I am still fascinated by it. I often think that atheists often become kind of obsessed by the Bible, interestingly. Having a belief system of any kind is a faith in its own way. I often say by even saying the word ‘faith’ out loud you have to believe in something.”
By Pilate’s side as he acquiesces to Jesus’ crucifixion is his wife Claudia (a luminous Tamsin Egerton). Moyer says he found their relationship intriguing.
“There are some good moments between us where they are obviously in love, they are obviously a team, in the very modern way of kind of putting it,” he says. “She’s there to be his beauty and he’s there to run the place, but it does feel like an interesting, modern union. I don’t know whether Pilate necessarily regards her as his equal, but he is certainly interested in her judgment,” he says, “and I tried not to look at her at the end, because I know that she’s feeling that this is a bad decision. She says, ‘You will feel the wrath of his followers.’
“But they were together until the end; we know that much — they went off and retired together somewhere!”
Ultimately, Moyer says, Killing Jesus is filled with subtleties that allow viewers of all religions — or none — to explore the origins of a remarkable time in history that has, 2,000 years later, united 2.2 billion people around the world.
“It’s so interesting, isn’t it?” Moyer smiles. “I wonder what the truth is. We all do. And yet ultimately, not only do we know how it ends, we have all been led to believe by the gospels that Jesus knew that it was happening, and that Jesus made this decision that what was coming to him was for a reason. You know the fact that there’s that moment before the Last Supper where his mom says, ‘Am I going to see you talk in the temple?’ and he says ‘No, that’s over. That’s over now, and the tide has turned and everything’s changing now.’ We don’t know whether that’s how it played out, but I do think that it’s interesting when he accepts his fate. It’s almost as if nothing that Pilate could have done would have made a difference anyway. Pilate is an instrument of the procedure.”
Killing Jesus premieres Sunday, March 29, at 8/7CT on National Geographic Channel.
Photos: Kent Eanes/National Geographic Channel