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Nicholas Pinnock on Playing Black Jesus in ‘The Book of Clarence’

The Book of Clarence, Jeymes Samuel’s follow-up to all-Black Western The Harder They Fall, is, without doubt, the funkiest biblical epic ever put on screen. The film, which opened across the U.S. on Friday, Jan. 12 — nicely nestled between Christmas and Easter — is a combination of comedy, drama and satire, at turns sacred and profane, a mash-up of Monty Python’s Life of Brian with sword-and-sandal epics of another era, from The Ten Commandments to The Robe.

LaKeith Stanfield leads an A-list cast — which includes James McAvoy, David Oyelowo, Anna Diop, Benedict Cumberbatch and Alfre Woodard — as the titular Clarence, a street hustler and religious skeptic in early A.D. Jerusalem who spots Jesus Christ preaching to the masses and thinks imitating a Messiah might be a way to make some easy cash. This is not your father’s biblical epic. Clarence likes to get high. A lot. There are jokes about the crucifixion and masturbation. The chariot race is as much Fast & Furious as Ben-Hur. And the soul- and hip-hop-infused soundtrack, featuring more than a dozen songs from Samuel (including one with Jay-Z, a producer on the film), is distinctly 21st century.

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But perhaps Samuel’s most radical move comes in the casting of Nicholas Pinnock as Jesus. “The first time in the history of cinema that you’ve seen a Jesus of Black skin,” says the British actor.

Speaking to THR ahead of the film’s U.S. release, Pinnock discussed representation, how he convinced Samuel to cast him and why he “expects and welcomes” a backlash from conservatives to his groundbreaking performance. “Bring it on!”

Talking to THR after The Book of Clarence premiere in London, director Jeymes Samuel said he didn’t want to cast you as Jesus in this movie, because you two have known each other for so long. So how did you end up landing the part?

I had been speaking to Jeymes about another role. I’ve known Jeymes for many, many, many years and I’ve known about this film for a long time. We were talking about the script. And there was this line that Jesus says, and I said: “He should say it like this.” Jeymes went: “Hold on.” He called a colleague and said: “Listen, the line is written like this but Pinnock says it’s better like this. What do you think?” I did it again for him and his friend said: “I think he’s right.” And Jeymes said: “Oh, I hate that. I hate it when he’s right.” That’s something Jeymes does. He hates me the more he likes my work. That was the point he decided that it had to be me as Jesus.

How does one prepare to play the son of God?

There’s very little to prepare because Jeymes is so specific about what’s on the page, there’s very little work for you to do. He doesn’t want you there as a robot. He wants you to bring your labor to his cooking. But there’s so much that he’s already given you that there’s not a great amount of prep that’s needed. Jeymes is such a brilliant artist, and I say artist because I’m not going to confine him to writer or director or composer. He’s an artist. And he’s such a brilliant artist, that when he presents something to you that he wants to collaborate with you on, the work is done. And when you think about the fact that ever since most people on this planet, in our Western society, have been born, we’ve known about Jesus, known of a Jesus of some description. What we all know about Jesus through the Bible, through all the stories that we’ve heard through, all the many depictions of him we’ve received through Sunday school and the churches that we’ve been to. So I’ve been preparing my whole life to play this role. There was very little to do except honor it.

What I liked about the film is it’s such a loving tribute to the big sword-and-sandal, biblical epics of the past: Ben-Hur, The Robe, etc. Were you a fan of those films growing up?

Robert Powell in Jesus of Nazareth was the thing when I was a kid. We watched it every time it came on the television. I was very conscious that I didn’t want to do the same old Jesus that we’ve seen. Because there is a lot of newness about this Jesus. This is the first time in the history of cinema that you’ve seen a Jesus of Black skin. I remember calling Jeymes up one time when he was scouting and prepping in Italy before we started shooting, and I said: “Jeymes, I’ve been working on Jesus’ voice. Just go somewhere quiet and close your eyes.” He stepped out of the office, closed his eyes and I presented him with an accent that had a shade of African in it. And that’s why for the rest of the cast he added accents. I felt if this was something we were going to do for the first time, to depict Jesus in a way we’ve never seen him before, then why should he sound like the Jesus that we’ve all heard before? Like Robert Powell? I thought we’d add a different flavor to it, and give it some authenticity with how it looks.

I don’t want to mischaracterize the film, because it’s a really fun, really entertaining, very pop culture movie. But what do you think the significance is of having, for the first time on screen, a Black Jesus, a Black Mary and Joseph, a Black Mary Magdalene, and so forth, given that we’ve never seen them depicted like this before?

Listen, we can homogenize cinema and stories as much as we like, and they work and they’re great and we can keep churning out the same old shit. We can still continue to absorb the same old shit and digest the same old shit and shit out the same shit. But why, when there is a way of doing it differently? It’s just a story, whether it’s told with people who have Black skin, or Asian skin, it can be people from anywhere, it doesn’t matter. Let’s offer the audience something they’ve never seen before. It’s a story. That’s what we do. We’re storytellers. And we’re filmmakers. We’re not reenacting the truth. There is some historical content, but at the end of the day, it’s a story. The Bible is one big story. I’m not saying that to be blasphemous, but it’s none of us were there and these are stories that have been handed down and handed down where some things get distorted and some things stay authentic and we will never know which are which. In the context of telling stories, with any good story you can put anybody in, of any description or demographic, and still tell a good story. You could have Jesus as a female, and it would still be a really good story. You could have Jesus as someone from China, it will still be a really good story. So why not have somebody of Black skin play Jesus and have all of the Israelites and all the people in that time be Black? Why not?

Nicholas Pinnock
Nicholas Pinnock

There are parts of the film that seem an homage to the old biblical cinema classics, including how Jesus is depicted. You are very mysterious at first, we don’t see your face, much like the Jesus in Ben-Hur or The Robe. How did that approach, being hooded and mysterious, inform your performance?

Jeymes and I were talking about this and I said: “Jeymes, we can’t see Jesus until he speaks.” Because he’s such a mystery. Until he speaks, Clarence has always seen Jesus from afar. Jesus is a mystery to Clarence, so he has to be a mystery to everybody because we’re seeing everything through Clarence’s eyes. And again, I love Jeymes for how collaborative he is. You know genius has no ego. And Jeymes is a genius. But he collaborates really well because that’s part of his genius. So when I suggested we keep Jesus a bit of a secret we included that. From an acting perspective, doing it that way allowed me to play with the mystery, my movement became far more important than anything that my face could do. It became far more of a physical presence and an entity, how I moved was far more important than anything. How I moved had to tell the story.

As with The Harder They Fall, The Book of Clarence has a ridiculously impressive cast. What is it about Jeymes Samuel that everyone wants to work with him?

As I said: genius has no ego. Jeymes is amazingly confident and amazingly self-assured. He will tell you himself that he’s a genius. When he does it, that’s not him bragging. That’s him being very matter-of-fact. But when he’s talking to you about a project, he strips away his ego. Jeymes empowers, enriches and encourages every single person that he wants to work with. He’s a fan of the people that he wants to work with and he lets that be known. When you’re presented with somebody who champions you, who likes your work, who enjoys what you do on screen, who says, “I’ve seen you, I want to work with you and I’m open to what you’re suggesting,” it’s very difficult to say no.

I’ve known Jeymes a long time, long before The Harder They Fall and I’m not sure if people know this, so sorry Jeymes if I’m giving something away, but Jeymes had the idea for The Book of Clarence back in 2004. This is a 20-year-old project for him. He had the title song, he had how it was shaped, he had everything. It hasn’t deviated very much from then. He had this vision. He knew he was going to do it. And, for the most part, he knew the people he wanted to do it with. It just grew and grew and grew. His energy and his vibrancy, this magnetism Jeymes has makes it very difficult for you to not try and work with this person.

The film gets serious at times but it is broadly a comedy. Your character, your Jesus, though, is playing it straight and serious throughout.

As I said: Everything is on the page with Jeymes. It was very clear that if Jesus was, you know, too comical, or was farcical in any way, the story falls apart. We as the audience wouldn’t believe why Clarence would want to follow him. So we had to have a Jesus that was biblical, that was traditional in some ways, but still had its own spin and its own individuality. There’s one moment when he’s saving Mary Magdalene from the rocks and he frees her from the chains and speaks to the audience who are stoning and we get a sense of his humor. But this is the Jesus that everybody wants to follow. We had to deliver him with these shades of seriousness among all of the revelry and comedy that the film brings.

I almost hesitate to ask this but have you gotten any backlash from playing this role? And do you expect any, now that the film’s opening in the United States where we’ve seen so many horrible right-wing tirades online over diverse castings of various sorts in the past?

I expect it and I welcome it. Because there are people out there with minds whose horizons are reminiscent of a tunnel. So please: Bring it on. The more controversy the better. If we do not push the boundaries within the medium that we are investing in, playing in and working in then we’re not doing our job. It’s not art. It’s corporate. And I didn’t step into this business 38 years ago to be a company man. I stepped in it to be an artist and artistically if we don’t change people’s opinions, if we don’t allow people to rethink what they thought was a fixed opinion, if we don’t move people’s emotions in some way, if we don’t cause some friction, if we don’t move people enough, sometimes, to be angry, then we’re not doing our job. I knew stepping into this role there may be some controversy. I knew stepping into this role there may be some people who didn’t like the image of a Jesus with Black skin. I knew stepping into this role that there would be a whole force out there that may be disgruntled by it in some way. I mean not to disrespect, dishonor, to blaspheme, to upset anybody. But I’m not in control of how people are going to receive it. I can only authentically do my job and hope that people will see it for what it is. Some people are going to see it for how they want it to be seen. And that will upset some people. I’m not in control of that. I’m not going to apologize for it either. It’s all down to opinion. I can only do what I do to the best of my ability and hope that those that like it, love it, and that those who hate it, really hate it. And those who are indifferent are the absolute few.

Clarence LaKeith Stanfield in THE BOOK OF CLARENCE.
Clarence (LaKeith Stanfield) in THE BOOK OF CLARENCE.

Is the film for you also a way of re-claiming these biblical stories, because it seems stories about Christianity seem to have become ideologically coded, particularly in the United States, as right-wing, even white nationalist.

I don’t think it’s about reclamation. I don’t think anything belongs to anyone really. These stories don’t belong to anyone. They belong to us all. It’s like I don’t believe borders should be a thing because this world belongs to us all. It’s just nonsense. It’s not about claiming anything, I think it’s more about having access. I think everybody should have access to all of the stories. We as a community of people with Black skin should have access to this story. I had this same sort of thing when I played Hannibal Barker [in the History Channel series Barbarians Rising]. I had a lot of people who were highly disgruntled, that there was a Hannibal that did not look like the Hannibal that they had always envisioned. The History Channel decided to go a different way, because, geographically, Hannibal probably looked more like this than how we’d seen him depicted before. A lot of people didn’t like it. But a lot of people need education. And I’m not saying that from now on Hannibal has to be played by someone with dark skin. I’m saying why not? Because unless anybody has got a Google image of the real Hannibal taken on their iPhone back then, why not shake it up a bit? We get so fixated on the truth and authenticity when actually what we’re doing is we are grownups playing let’s pretend and make-believe. All we’re doing is telling stories. So make Jesus Chinese. Make Judas a woman. It doesn’t matter. We know the story. It doesn’t change the story. The same events happen, the same conflicts come up. The same resolutions. It’s just a story.

Look, Laurence Olivier blacked up to play Othello, and no one grumbled about that. No one gave a shit when Spielberg did The Color Purple: A director who was white telling the story of Black people. No one complained. All of a sudden we’re telling a story like this and people are going to complain about it? Let’s look at the math: It doesn’t add up to me. I’m not one of those people who say if you’re from New York, you can only play New York, or if you’re from London, England, you can’t play American. I think that’s nonsense. We are actors and actors act. We step out of ourselves and become something else. Let’s just continue telling stories and focus on that and stop focusing on what color is this person and what ethnicity is this person, what gender is that person. The story is the story. Let’s tell it. let’s reshape it. Let’s rehash it. Let’s remix it. The conflicts and the resolutions are exactly the same. They move us. They make us cry. They make us laugh. We get so fixated and concentrate on the wrong thing. We’re not focusing on: Is this a good story, are we entertained, are we moved, are we educated? The rest is fluff, actually. But we focus on these things so much that we can sometimes overshadow, bypass and distract from people doing some really great work. We shouldn’t politicize it. It’s art. Let’s stop making art a political tool.

Watching it, it looks like the entire cast is having a great time making this movie. What was the mood like on set and were there challenging moments?

The only challenging thing was how to focus and not continue having a good time. Because we had the best time on that set. Jeymes creates an atmosphere that is piling on. He plays music in between takes, he’s hugging the actors. We’re telling stories, laughing and joking. He keeps the energy buoyant. When it’s time to get serious, we knuckle down and we get the work done. Listen, nothing worth having is without its challenges, or without its difficulties, but wherever there was a challenge, one of us, Jeymes or whoever, we found a solution. It was never a big drama, or at least I never saw one. It was one of the best sets I’ve been on, and I’ve been on some really great, great sets.

I have to ask, because LaKeith Stanfield is the star of the film and sort of the focus of the movie. He is the Clarence in The Book of Clarence, playing a sort of con-man Messiah. Hand on heart: Who makes the better Messiah, you or LaKeith?

I think LaKeith’s wonderful, fantastic. He deserves any plaudits he gets from this film, especially playing two roles so well that were so distinctly different. And this is an actor who had been playing back to back to back to back for five years running, I mean, my god, he must have been so tired. But he was there. He was gracious. He was just one of us. But who’s the best Messiah? I mean, Jesus is the best Messiah. Jesus or Clarence? Come on. Clarence is a pretty good Messiah, going from preaching and the only person there is his goat, to having thousands of people listening to him. That’s impressive. But Jesus is the only Messiah.

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