About me

Robert Powell : How portraying Christ changed his life

The star of the most impressive TV epic ever, NBC’s ‘The Life of Jesus’, is a 31-year-old British actor who generally plays slick roles. But he starved himself for 12 days before the Crucifixion scene and then, almost literally, died on the cross…

Perhaps no role in recent years has had a more significant efect upon an actor than the part of Jesus has had upon Robert Powell. It was obvious that Franco Zefirelli’s six-episode series, shot in primitive Tunisian and Moroccan locations for nine months, had made great physical and mental demands upon the slight Englishman. But that was only part of the story. For, several months into the shooting, he had already undergone a profund philosophical change.

Robert, whom American audiences have also seen in the films ‘Mahler’ and ‘Tommy’ explained it to me this way: “There was an aspect of Christianity that always distressed me. The meaning of Christianity is so simple, but its tenets are complicated. This is what put me off. Before I began this film, I had no particular interest in religion and absolutely no opinion of Christ.

“Now, I do believe in Christ and His divinity, even though I do not necessarily go to church. Prior to being cast in the part, my knowledge of Christ was limited to Sunday school teachings and religious stories, all on a rather immature level. I knew this would never be enough for me as an actor, to work with in developing a character. So I read the Bible through thoroughly, which I’d not done before, taking it apart and analyzing it. I also consulted works of reference and commentaries on the Bible because I wanted to obtain other people’s ideas as well.

“An actor has to be objective when interpreting a part. Nonetheless, after playing Christ for all these months, it would be difficult not to really believe in him.” Concluded Robert.

We were talking during a break in the day’s shooting, sitting amidst camera equipment and makeup boxes, with hundreds of Tunisian extras sprawled out on the ground around us, within what was meant to be the old city of Jerusalem.

Robert was no longer the man I got to know during his days on British TV. Gone was his slick, sophisticated image, his witty, offhand manner.

Physically now, his hair fell below his shoulders, his mustache and beard were appropriately long and unkempt. But one sensed that the greatest change was within the actor himself. He seemed to be in the throes of self-examination: humble, yet excited by the discoveries he was making about himself.

“Several scenes have particularly moved me, such as the filming of the Sermon on the Mount. Franco shot it just as the sun hit the groves of cypress and olive trees and came across the fields. But generally, it was fairly dark and the hundreds of extras descending in groups, illuminated by the fires they made to keep themselves warm, made a stunning sight. Hamfway through the scene, I was so affected by its beauty that I began to cry. Franco decided to keep that in the movie, just as it was.

“My interpretation of Christ doesn’t bear a relationship to any other actor’s handing of the part in previous movies about Him. I hadn’t seen any of these other films, like The Greatest Story Ever Told and King of Kings, and thought it better, actually, that I hadn’t.

“I see Christ as a combination of man and God. He is a man who went against the political winds of the time. He is not an angry Christ, although he is capable of extreme indignation. Nor he is a cozy man. He never does anything by degrees and expects the same from others. His followers must give away not a few things, but everything, before they come with Him.

“The one moment when God does leave Christ is when He is nailed to the cross. It is, of course, God’s master stroke, having Christ die in the same manner as any human being. There’s nothing to it becayse He knows Christ will go on, that he is immortal.

“Theoretically, the Crucifixion was not supposed to be a difficult scene for me. But I was slightly nervous, nevertheless, perhaps due to the fact I’d literally starved myself on a diet of cheese for 12 days before the shooting, in order to look worn.

“I was bound to a horizontal bar, which I carried on my back through a section of the street. It was terribly heavy, because Franco insisted that the tremendous weight would put the right feeling of sufferance into me. It did. At the spot of Crucifixion I was lifted, by means of ropes and trained stuntmen, to the vertical bar which formed the cross.

“Unfortunately, on the first take the horizontal bar began to slip down. I could have had my back broken if someone had not caught the rope controlling the bar and pulled it back up. As it was, my arms were lacerated. We did it on a pretty cold day, too, since it had to be shot against a rainy sky. I was fortunate not to have come down with the flu.”

Robert have a solemn glance up to the heavens, as if in silent thanks. Anne Bancroft, who plays Mary Magdalene, dressed completely in black, passed by and greeted Robert. He smiled, then turned back to me.

“I’ve been asked if I thought Christ had a sex life. My feelings are that he did not. Essentially, all energy is sexual, but how and where it is concentrated is what is important. Christ’s energies were devoted 100 percent to his mission.

“Sex, I feel, is not necessary for everybody. For example, I’ve been in work situations where all one’s drives are channeled into the job, and I was only using about two percent of my potential energy as compared to Christ. Also, one might remember that Christ was not just an ordinary man.”

Robert stomped out the cigarette he was smoking and immediately lit another. “My cigarette consumption has doubled since starting this film. It’s due to a variety of things – nerves , fatigue, less food. I’ve been working nearly 11 hours a day.

“Sometimes I’m concentrating so hard on the part that I’m oblivious to people and objects about me on the set. For example, the other afternoon I walked into a grating and cut myself. I was lucky: I could have hurt myself badly.

 “Not only is the role taxing, but so are the elements which we’ve been up against. We’ve had sand blown in our faces by a wind machine and incense filling our lungs on numerous occasions. Franco wants to give the picture a feeling of age, like the old Italian paintings, which is why he has done all this.

“Of course, it has also been a matter of adjusting first to Morocco, where we were for several months, and now to Tunisia. People sometimes ask why we didn’t shoot the movie in Israel, where it actually took place, but it wasn’t feasible for several reasons. The primary reason is that the original places are now tourist spots. The second reason is equally pragmatic: Overheads are less in north Africa.

 “After this movie I would like to tackle a modern character,” Robert told me.

“I want to make people laugh. Lately I’ve been cast in too many historical roles. I guess I have the sort of timeless look which fits any character from Shelley or Mahler to Christ. It’s nice, but I don’t want to become typed either.”

An attractive blonde with long hair and clear, bright eyes came over carrying a thermos of coffee. She was in slacks and a warm jacket. Robert introduced her as Babs Lord, his wife.

“I wouldn’t have known how to manage here without Babs. She’s kept me in tow so I could concentrate on the script. Babs has supplied me with coffee when I needed it and kept an eye, with only minor success, on my cigarette consumption!”

They met at the BBC, in the television studios. They were introduced by mutual friends and a whole group went out to dinner together. Babs was a member of a popular dance troupe. Robert managed to get her phone number that night and invited her out to dinner, alone, a few days later. It was as simple as that. They’ve been together ever since.

“We’ve decided to get married not long before I was due to fly out to Morocco. There were no studio pressures put upon us to do so because of the Christ role. We had been considering it for some time and we just thought it was the right moment.”

They’ve taken a ‘flat’ in Hampstead, an artsy section of north London, which they’ve filled with modern furniture – “except for the odd bits we’ve brought back from Morocco and Tunisia, like carpets and cushions, a tray and teapot. We’ve left one room simply with cushions and low lighting. It’s the ‘relax room’.”

Robert’s been in show business 11 years and never without a job longer than three months at a stretch. He had himself written out of a popular British TV series, Doomwatch, because his role didn’t offer enough of a challenge.

“For an actor, I am remarkably well adjusted? Which doesn’t necessarily mean I’m also a well-adjusted human being. Certain signs indicate that I am, though. I only dring moderately and I do not take drugs.

“I believe that being an actor gives you much more insight into yourself than people in other professions have. For several years I had frequently experienced moments of depression. When someone suggested that I see a psychoanalyst, I scoffed at the idea. Afterwards I gave it further thought. Hadn’t I read about Marlon Brando and other actors seeing psychoanalysts?

“So I went – for five hourly sessions. I talked and talked. At the end of the week, the psychoanalyst said to me that I didn’t really have a problem because I knew it existed. I could find the solution without his help. He dismissed me. Since then I’ve had other problems, but I cope, like everyone else. I’m a great survivor.

“I must say, I feel happier and much more together since Babs and I married. We both seem to have an acute awareness of each other’s moods, our ups and downs, which is very important in a relationship. When one of us has an indecisive moment, the other compensates with strenght. It is rather like two actors working together at different speeds.

“Essentially, I am very intense person, whereas Babs is fairly calm. Again, we balance each other out. We never have arguments. I don’t row in a relationship. If we don’t agree, we discuss it and try to sort things out.

“Often, Babs is inclined to keep her thoughts to herself and she grows very quiet. I become very moved by her behaviour at these times and I try to bring her out of it. That’s when my sense of humor comes to the fore. I usually succeed by being funny.

“When we get back to London, Babs will probably return to work. She doesn’t want to stay at home, nor would I want her to. She’d like to become involved with dancing again. She could have continued with her career after we married, but she came with me because we both felt that if we were separated at this point, it would put undue stress on our relationship.”

To keep in shape, Robert has been practicing his tennis on the hotel court. Fortunately for his lean, gaunt image in The Life of Jesus, he hasn’t been able to whip up one of his “angel pies” – made with meringue and fresh lemon topping – while on location. “I’m not such a bad cook when I get down to it.” He said modestly.

Zeffirelli, in golf cap, windbreaker and boots, looking very much the picturesque director came, over.   

“We are going to need Christ in the next scene,” he said to Robert.

“He’s ready,” replied the actor.

“Every day I feel very privileged to be playing this part, to be sharing the experience. Living this story, it is impossible not to be affected by it. I think that I am a much humbler person already. At the beginning, I thought of this project merely in terms of a script and visual images. But having to say the words of this man, who changed the course of life and history, the character has come alive for me and his ideas have become real.

“What annoys me is that 2000 years after his death, no one actually pays attention to Christ’s message. In the Middle East Moslems and Christians are killing each other, and Ireland Catholics and Protestants are battling.”

Robert paused and shook his head. “He shall not, I hope, have died in vain.”

Then he rose, his gray, coarse garment tumbling to his feet, and walked to join his director in the center of a Tunisian town square which, for now, had become Jerusalem.


By James Barclay, Movie Stars magazine, May 1977