In writer/director Rodrigo García’s ambitious “Last Days in the Desert,” Ewan McGregor plays both Yeshua/Jesus and the Devil himself. García’s film, shot by the legendary Emmanuel "Chivo" Lubezki, winner of the last three Oscars for Best Cinematography, imagines the 40 days of praying and fasting that Jesus underwent in the desert before the Crucifixion. As Jesus converses with the Devil about his father and his place in the world, he meets a family (Ciarán Hinds, Tye Sheridan and Ayelet Zurer) who come to symbolize many of the elements inherent in the story of Jesus, including the role of free will vs. control and the timeless dynamic of fathers and sons. McGregor, who just finished shooting his directorial debut, an adaptation of Philip Roth’s “American Pastoral,” spoke to RogerEbert.com last week about the challenges in a film like “Last Days of the Desert,” working with Chivo & Rodrigo, and even all he could tell us about “Trainspotting 2.”
I’m curious how you play the micro and the macro in a movie like this—how you keep in mind your part in a movie with such deep philosophical themes while also staying true to the moments of your character. How do you balance those two things?
You have to play the truth of each moment, really. That’s all. You’re not really playing “themes” as an actor, you’re just playing the moment. The themes are in the script and the themes are there, and you understand them, but you’re playing the moment and trying to find the detail and the truth. The themes and the larger picture are things that you discuss with the director and the writer, but you’re not really playing that, I don’t think. Maybe you are in part of your consciousness, but not really.
Did you have a religious upbringing that impacted how you approached this film?
I didn’t. I wasn’t brought up in any religion. At school we had things happen and churches and prayers said at morning assembly. But I didn’t grow up like that, no.
What kind of research do you do? Do you speak to people of faith and ask how they would approach it, or is that something you entrust more to Rodrigo?
I did read a lot. And I realized that it would help me to reach out and discuss other people’s feelings and thoughts about him; the character in the movie and how I feel about him and how I wanted him to be and how I wanted him to feel. I had to bring it into me. There are a lot of books, especially recently, that try to discount him as the Son of God and are more about who he was or who the writer really thinks he might have been. But that just wasn’t really helping me because the character in our film is the Son of God, you know what I mean? And I wanted to play him as such.
Does being a parent change the way you approach the role? So much of the film is about parenthood—Jesus to God, or to Tye Sheridan's character, etc.
Well, the whole film is really … in one respect it’s about Jesus and this family, but really all of the scenes are the exploration of the relationship between a father and a son. I think Rodrigo set down to write a film about fathers and sons and ended up with sort of the ultimate version of that story—God and his son. That’s what I thought all of the scenes were exploring. We didn’t set out to make a “biblical film” or a “religious movie,” and I don’t think we did. We set out to make a film about that relationship between fathers and sons and it happens to be about that one.
How did the conditions impact the final product? Was it as difficult as it looked?
No, it was beautiful. It’s really beautiful. The desert we shot in was Southeast of L.A., sort of directly east of San Diego. It’s a beautiful desert called Anza-Borrego. We shot five weeks. We would get out there, generally speaking, around 4:30 or 5:00 in the morning. Chivo wants to shoot the sunrise and also the sunset. So we were out there all day. There’s no cell signal. And it’s a very small crew—maybe 15 to 20 people and only 4 actors. It was just a very quiet, concentrated experience. It was lovely. When you’re in the real environment—when it’s hot, it’s hot, and at night it’s cold—it’s all adding to the work you’re doing.
How is Rodrigo different from other directors you’ve worked with, or is he?
He is. All directors are different from each other. I really, really liked working with him and want to do it again. And working with him and Chivo. They’ve had a long relationship and known each other since they were kids. And Rodrigo was his operator for some time. Being with the both of them, it was quite incredible to watch them work together. And being the third spoke in that wheel was incredible. He’s very uncomplicated in his approach, which I really like. He’s straightforward in his notes. He’s enormously deep in his thoughts. He’s a thinker. All of that is poured into his writing. On set, I found it to be a very important film for me to make, from the moment I read it. The style of the film, his rhythm, the unique pacing of the movie—it became a very important movie for me. And it was through pre-production, the shoot, and now in this stage, even still. I’m very close to it. It’s become a very special film for me. Because of him, I think.
Would you say it’s impacted the way you approached “American Pastoral”? When you’re directing, do you think back on those you’ve collaborated with?
Yes. Yes. You know how you like to be directed. And that’s how you try to direct. I’ve taken all my years of working with directors and I know what makes me tick and what’s best for me, and I’ve tried to take that forward in my directing. I’ve learned an enormous amount by doing it, but before I learned an enormous amount by those I’ve worked with.
You mentioned this movie being close to you and you’ve lived with it for so long. It premiered at Sundance 16 months ago. Is it unusual to live with a movie for so long and not “put it on the shelf”? You don’t mind living with this one in particular?
No, not at all. It has been a long time. That happens for one reason or another. I’m not sure why. I’ve always been keen to get it out because I want people to see it. I think it’s such a beautiful movie to look at. It’s really thought-provoking. It’s such a simple tale and yet it makes your head spin. I’m just excited for people to see it.
Can you tell us anything about “Trainspotting 2” before we go?
[Laughs] No, not really. I mean, we start pretty soon. We shoot for a couple months in Scotland. More or less the same people involved. I can’t tell you anything about it. [Laughs]