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Robert Powell The man chosen to portray Jesus talks to Sue Clarke about his most demanding role
Robert Powell the man chosen to play Christ, comes to the door of his secluded Hampstead home wearing blue denims, pink shirt and no shoes. He pads down the hall into his ground floor flat, and firmly closes the thick pine door on the world outside.
He settles into an easy chair and begins to talk about his role as Christ in Sir Lew Grade’s £4 million The life of Jesus which Italy’s Franco Zeffirelli will direct. The first of the six hour-long episodes is planned to appear on our screens at Christmas 1976.
“Along with every other actor in the country my photograph and name had been presented to Franco right at the beginning,” Robert says. “Initially Franco works on a feeling and a face – and he rejected them all!”
“My name kept cropping up. From different sources and various people. Sir Lew was at a dinner party in Cannes and they were discussing the series and someone said, how about Robert Powell? Thyen at a different time, Sir Lew’s wife said to him, have you thought of Robert Powell? So I did a screen test which seemed to go very well and that was it.”
Is he intimidated at the thought of playing a man who means so many different things to people? “I’m not intimidated by it,” he replies thoughtfully. “It has special problems and, of course, it’s a daunting prospect because finding the actor’s truth about Christ is extremely difficult.
“There are so many barriers in the way, quite apart from the conception of a man who is a God which is very difficult. So many people have created Christ in their image for the last 2000 years that finding the original one is complicated. I’m working on it at the moment.
“The other problem is that awesome responsibility when you know that two billion people are watching – almost as soon as I open my mouth, a percentage will consider it a blasphemy!
“It is strange, you know, I’m reading the Gospels at the moment and I can find no evidence of the kind of Christ people seem to have invented and created. For instance, the irony and paradox of me being criticised for my lifestyle (he and Pan’s People dancer Babs Lord were living together before they were secretly married recently) – the hypocrisy of those who are doing it. I had to forbid my father from sending a letter to one newspaper saying ‘Dear Sir, Let he who is guiltless cast the first stone’. I have learned with the Press that te one thing you must never do is hit back. Besides, it was all so ludicrous that I laughed.
“Mind you, the minute it was announced I would play Christ, it was guaranteed that they would try to find something to sully my name. If that’s all they can find, then I’m extremely surprised and flattered that it was the worst thing they could come up with”.
Robert’s annoyance at having his private life charted against his professional capabilities ebbs away as he takls about the challenge of the new role.
“I’m going in on the same level that I went in to Mahler with Ken Russell,” he says, “I don’t know Franco very well, but from his previous work it is obvious he is a master of the art. His visual sense in movies like Romeo and Juliet is breathtaking so I know that side will be taken care of.
“We have discussed the approach and we have similar ideas. In reading the Gospels, there is no evidence of Christ, meek and mild. I can find Christ the compassionate, the gentle, but I also find a very temperamental, aggressive, passionate and often angry man a lot of the time. We will go for a man that sort of breadth who is an enormous figure. I do believe Christ lived as a person. I don’t think there is any disputing that.”
The series will be filmed in North Africa and Israel, on locations Robert has never visited before. “It will be very hot, an extremely hard and very slog – six or seven months. There won’t be much time for relaxation – up at dawn, work, eat, sleep. It’s a very hard life, filming, but not one I would change – except sometimes!”.
While he prepares for the mammoth task ahead, Robert was enjoying his role in the theatre – as Tristan Tzara in the Royal Shakespeare Company’s production of Tom Stoppard’s “Travesties”.
“It’s two years since I last appeared on stage – once bitten, twice shy,” he says. “I was a little chary about doing anything, because the ingredients didn’t add up to 100%. Then Trasvesties came along and it was an astonishingly good move for my career. It was perfect timing. It showed people that I could work in the theatre and that I could be funny – it takes me away from being tortured!” He grins. His “sensitive and tortured” look won him roles like Mahler, the BBC’s Shelley and Jude the Obscure and the recent highly sucessful Looking for Clancy.
The potential success that an international TV series might bring him leaves Robert unmoved. He’s been told too many times how a role is going to “make him a star”.
“From an actor’s point of view, there are two good points about playing Christ in this TV series. First, there will be very few people who won’t know who I am, which has always been a problem in America. People don’t know my work over there. I have had more response from Tommy – where I did five minutes work and don’t even speak! – than anything I’ve done. I was flown to New York for a screen test on the strenght of that. Didn’t get the part though!
“The second thing is that if I was 21 and offered ‘Christ’ and no one knew me, I think I would be finished. I’d have to wait ten years for a career. But I’ve been around for a while (he’s 31) and people do know I do other things.
“My career has been sort of planned. There is choice or rejection at any given point. I made the choice not to continue with Doomwatch (when Robert’s Toby Wren died in the laboratory, audiences protested vigorously). I chose twelve months ago to stop doing television and concentrate more on films – which is a choice that was out of my hands really because there are so few films.”
Robert Powell’s success has been achieved gradually, not as some overnight bolt from the blue. The money he makes goes into his new home which has an air of peace about it, and it was that feeling that made him choose it above fifty others. It also has a garden for which he has great plans – a friend has worked out a landscape look for it, complete with a listing of 50 different varieties of plants and where they will go.
“I’m passionate about my garden,” Robert says with a grin, peering affectionately at it through the arched French windows. Where you and I might see only bare earth, he is already visualising a blaze of colour. “It’ll be very rambly and very packed so there’s no weeding to do…”
He’s also immensely proud of the lighting system in the living room which has high ceilings and is freshly painted white. There’s a large picture on one wall – an abstract in shades of cream and pale brown. A spotlight in the centre of the ceiling throws a beam of light on its exact shape, so it appears that the picture itself is the source of light. To complete the room’s lighting, there is an oval dome-shaped lamp in a corner which has a central ball that glows like the sun at the touch of a dimmer switch.
Robert’s latest toy sits on the deep-pile chocolate brown carpet. It’s a video-tape recorder. “My lady records shows for me while I’m at the theatre and I can watch them at night when I get home.” Robert smiles gently as he looks around and adds quietly, “living the life of a ‘star’ does have its advantages!”
Photoplay Film Monthly, November 1975
Vol 26 N° 11
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