Mara: I grew up thinking Mary Magdalene was a prostitute

March 13, 2018
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The star of a controversial new take on the life of apostle Mary Magdalene says she believes “this is an important story to tell”.

“It was a huge undertaking. A scary thing to take on,” says Rooney Mara, who plays the titular character.

The actress co-stars with her partner Joaquin Phoenix in director Garth Davis’ new take on the story of Christ, this time told through the eyes of his most faithful apostle.

“In the beginning I was a little bit reticent about taking it on, because I wasn’t really sure I wanted to make a film about religion,” she says.

“I went to Catholic school and it just seemed daunting to me. But the more I spoke with Garth and the more I read and the more I learned, I knew it was an important story to tell and something I wanted to be a part of.”

:: Joaquin Phoenix on spirituality, violence and feminism

Phoenix and Mara
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Joaquin Phoenix and Rooney Mara co-star as Jesus Christ and Mary Magdalene

Mary Magdalene, or Mary of Magdala, has been Catholicism’s most misrepresented character, after Pope Gregory the Great declared she was a prostitute without any historical backing.

“I didn’t know anything about her before. I grew up thinking she was a prostitute, like many other people,” says Mara.

“I thought it was about time to have a female perspective from this story. I thought it was an interesting way in – we had never seen it through a woman’s eyes before.”

For Davis, who was nominated for an Oscar last year for his debut movie Lion, this is not a movie about religion.

“I don’t practice religion. I am a spiritual person,” he says.

“When I read the script it just made sense to me. I love themes of love and forgiveness.

Rooney Mara
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Pope Gregory the Great first painted the picture of Mary as a prostitute

“I loved the inclusiveness of Mary and telling the story through her point of view. I felt like this was a great opportunity and it just struck something in me.”

The film follows Mary’s journey towards Christ, as well as her tumultuous acceptance process among his male apostles.

One of them, Peter, is played by 12 Years A Slave star Chiwetel Ejiofor, who plays this historical character with more humanity than ever before.

“I thought Peter was psychologically complex,” he tells Sky News.

“Making it part of the story helped illuminate moments in the Bible that always seemed a little removed, where I couldn’t fill in all the blanks.


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Is it dangerous to shoot a religious movie?

“And actually taking a more human approach, and psychologically complex approach, and placing it on the contemporary understanding of the dynamics and relationships between men and women, human respect, equality and justice, was actually pretty revelatory.”

The same happened with the largely misunderstood character of Judas, played by Tahar Rahim.

“I was surprised to read a different Judas,” Rahim says.

“He is emotionally complex. He is someone who has an amount of faith in Jesus which is unshakeable. He believes in him like no one else, and he betrays him for a reason: an excess of faith.”

There are dangers associated with any religious movie. Not just the fear of ostracising different faiths, you also risk defying old beliefs.

Mary Magdalene
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Mara says it was daunting to take on such an important role

However, Ejiofor says he doesn’t see religion as a theme to avoid, but something which Western society should accept and approach differently.

“There’s a lot of talk at the moment about secular societies. And I don’t really believe there was ever such a thing as a secular society, not really,” he says.

“And I think we’re so steeped in religion in terms of our psychology, philosophy, social interaction, justice and government and gender dynamics, that everything is based on religious terms and religious ideas.

“We judge the days of the week over how many days since the birth of Christ. We are surrounded by religion in the West.

“This believe that we are slightly separate from it or that it’s a ‘ye olde’ stuff is just not true.

“So I felt like actually exploring these stories, dealing with religion, spirituality, in a forthright way. It feels exactly right to me.”

:: Mary Magdalene opens in UK cinemas 16 March



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