Joseph Mawle plays Jesus
Joseph Mawle's reaction when his agent told him he was being considered for the role of Jesus was, perhaps, predictable.
"I laughed," he says. "Later that day I told some friends and their reaction was the same as mine – a lot of hilarity and a lot of mickey-taking, which went on and on. Including from my mum who just thought it was hysterical. She said if you get the part, it will make me mother Mary."
The light-hearted mood changed a few weeks later when, after a successful series of auditions with the producer and director of The Passion, Nigel Stafford-Clark and Michael Offer, he was offered the role.
"I was outside the house when I got the call," he remembers. "I didn't know how to react. I think I was dumbstruck for about three hours. At first I felt nothing. I think maybe it was fear. Maybe I did not quite believe that I'd got the role. In fact I was in shock for about three weeks."
After that he had to face up to the reality and the responsibility of playing the biggest role of his career so far. He admits he has been riding an emotional roller-coaster ever since.
Following in the footsteps of actors like Robert Powell, Willem Dafoe and Jim Caviezel to play Jesus was daunting in the extreme.
"It is in some ways the biggest role you can take on. There were times I got quite shaky about it and thought I'm really scared," says the 33-year-old son of a Warwickshire farmer.
Transforming himself physically, at least, was a relatively straightforward process.
"The first thing is to grow your hair and beard. So they said don't shave. I'd just done Foyle's War and Clapham Junction and it had been pretty short for both of those so I had a long way to grow in two months."
Preparing mentally for the role was a more difficult process.
"When I started to do research and looking at books, there was one quote that I really resonated which was 'God didn't cheat'. What this means to me is that Jesus was a man," he explains.
As he began the eight-week film shoot in Morocco, it was a thought he held on to.
"I would put myself in a reality map. Doing the Last Supper, for instance, I thought: 'what if I was sitting here with my best friends and saying guys this is the last time I'm ever going to see you'. That to me is beyond my understanding. The idea of death is petrifying but particularly that form of death. To say I am going to actually let this happen is quite a weird thing to get your head around," he explains. "That gave me a way of understanding."
His time in Morocco was gruelling. "The job was fearful and wonderful in equal measure. The amount of pressure and the amount of pleasure was the same," he says.
"It was a pretty lonely experience. And although I had amazing support from a cast of more experienced actors when I was on set, I couldn't stop working, couldn't switch off. I'm a little bit like that anyway. I probably am a bit too focused and intense," he reflects.
Given that he has overcome bigger challenges, however, it was no surprise he survived and thrived. Mawle's life was changed when he was 16 and he contracted an airborne virus, Labyrinthitis, which left him with severe hearing difficulties. He still has permanent tinnitus and has to wear two hearing aids most of the time.
"At the time it was very scary," he says. Yet it was instrumental in convincing him to pursue an acting career. Mawle gained a scholarship to the Bristol Old Vic which he left in 2002. Since then he has barely looked back.
His breakthrough role came in Soundproof, the acclaimed BBC Two drama in which he played a deaf man. When plans for The Passion got under way, its executive producer Hilary Salmon, who had worked on Soundproof with Mawle, immediately thought of him for the role of Jesus.
Mawle is aware of the impact this role may have on his young life. Playing such a high profile role is likely to bring bigger and better roles. There are already whispers of major movie roles. He, however, refuses to dwell on what may lie ahead for him.
"For me the whole thing has always been about telling stories that I care about. I certainly haven't picked my roles. They have all come by chance or fate or whatever you want to call it. I've been lucky that a lot of them have been things that I've ended up feeling very passionately about," he says.
"I love doing what I do and I want to carry on doing it if I possibly can."