Released in 1988, The Last Temptation of Christ followed Jesus Christ (played by Willem Dafoe) throughout his adulthood, from learning that he is the son of God, to his conflict with the Romans and his eventual crucifixion. It was a movie based on a book, but not necessarily the Bible — rather, the 1955 novel of the same name by Nikos Kazantzakis, which depicted the religious figure facing various forms of temptation, including doubt, lust, and reluctance.
While the Martin Scorsese-directed religious picture is considered to be one of Dafoe’s best movies, the actor revealed in an interview with Entertainment Weekly that playing Jesus presented huge challenges — and that he struggled with one scene in particular.
“I have so many memories from filming because it’s vivid in my imagination, still — I can remember very specific scenes and sensations because it was one of the most demanding roles, physically, for me,” he said of one of the best drama movies. “It was full-on.”
He continued, “[The hardest part] was being on the cross. Regardless of your religious upbringing, you have a strong association of what that is, and then when you take it onto your body, it’s very powerful. I was on this big hill in rural Morocco and could see for miles, and the sky was blue, blue, blue.”
According to Dafoe, what drew him most to the role (apart from Scorsese), was the opportunity to explore the “human side” of Jesus. “Of course, I would have done anything in that movie; it’s Scorsese,” he said. “But the fact that the role was Jesus was better — it was clear that he wanted to tell the story from the human side of Jesus, he didn’t want it all jazzed up. He wanted to bring it back into the body of a man and I felt like I was ready to do that.”
Like the novel, The Last Temptation of Christ faced a lot of resistance and controversy upon its release, with several religious groups labeling the film as blasphemous. “I remember when it was about to be released, they started feeling that there was going to be pressure, some sort of controversy,” he recalled.
“We showed it in Venice, and they rushed it out to release so they could get the movie seen before the controversy would bury it. That’s my memory of it. When it came out, the press tour was very blunt because the distribution was under fire, particularly in more rural areas there was a lot of pressure not to distribute the movie. The choice to see it wasn’t made available to people because there were threats against the movie, both physical and in terms of boycotting.”
Nonetheless, The Last Temptation of Christ went down in history as one of the best ’80s movies of all time, with the film being nominated for both Oscars and Golden Globes. For more on Scorsese’s latest work, check out our Killers of the Flower Moon review. Or, if you’re looking for more historical epics, explore our guides to new movies like the Napoleon release date and Gladiator 2 release date.