If you’ve read the Bible, then you probably know a great deal about Jesus and his teachings. While inspired by biblical passages, Last Days in The Desert, from director Rodrigo García, is an original story of Jesus. In García’s film we see Jesus, as played by Ewan McGregor, as he wanders through the desert en route to Jerusalem. On this journey of prayer and solitude Jesus comes across a family that provides Him shelter. The family’s teenage son, Tye Sheridan, looks up to this visitor while questioning his own relationship with his father (Ciarán Hinds), his dying mother (Ayelet Zurer), and his desires to leave the family trade and continue with this visitor to Jerusalem. Jesus has his own struggles too, as his efforts to communicate with his Father falter and as the voice of Satan (also played by McGregor) becomes continuously louder. The film is more spiritual than religious, offering questions on familial ties and the bond between a father and son — something the director can very much relate to in terms of his own relationship with his father, the late author Gabriel García Márquez.
We spoke with Sheridan about retreating to the desert, his own relationship with his father, and the beauty of dirt removal.
What was your initial impression of García’s script?
I remember meeting with Rodrigo — I was probably 16 at the time, cocky 16-year-old from Texas — and I sat down with Rodrigo and he said, “I’m making this film and it’s a father and son story.” He started telling me about it and he said, “You would play the son of this man who is tied to his land and his home and you’re very rebellious, you want to get out and break away from everything that that stands for.” He asked me if I wanted to do it and I said, “Yeah, that sounds great.” And I asked him about an accent and he said, “Well, as long as you don’t sound too Texan you’ll be fine.” And so when I read the script I fell in love with it immediately. I think this film is very much a coming of age story about being a man, what it means to be a man, what it means to have your own intentions and desires in life, and where you draw the line between family and your internal desires. I have a very strong relationship with my father, [my character] does as well. I think for generations what one man means to another is almost unexplainable but in the movie you get a sense of what that means, that relationship between a father and a son. That really popped off the page for me.
And then, with all that being said, did Rodrigo mention in that first meeting that Jesus would be involved?
We weren’t making a Jesus movie. But he was Jesus. Literally that’s what everyone kept saying on set, “This isn’t a Jesus movie. This isn’t a movie about religion. But you’re Jesus.” This is a movie about existence and life and destiny and fate and families and drama. I grew up Christian but the structure of the film is very basic and simple with underlying themes that are very complex. I approached it like a father-son drama. I think we all did, that was the consensus. It was very much about the relationships between these men and what the father means to the son and what that role means and becoming their own person. How much does your father influence you and how much is it your job? Are you expected to grow up to be the man you were raised by? Or can you be a different man? Then you have Ewan’s character who is very much a gypsy and he gets caught up in the drama of this family, this father and son. It’s almost a tragedy.
There’s a scene where the dynamic of your relationship with Jesus and your character’s father plays out on a cliff. That moment really stuck with me, and I’m wondering how that was to film?
Ciarán was actually really afraid of heights and he had bad vertigo. So him hanging on the edge of the cliff — spoiler alert — we did it, and it was very safe. We had cranes and cables and stuntmen and this and that but we were actually hanging off the edge of that cliff. I remember there was this weird draft the day we were shooting this and Ewan and I looking up over the edge of the cliff, and there are all these shots that are kind of a low angle on us when we’re leaning over the cliff. There’s constantly sand blowing up into your face and into your eyes. So until they say action you just close your eyes and you open your eyes. The film is very real and very gritty and we went out to the desert for six weeks. We were all very isolated from whatever life we knew to be our own. We were able to create this environment that felt real but was almost a realm of fantasy and served as the setting in this movie.
How was it to be so immersed in the setting of the movie?
I feel like I was in and out. When we were in it we were in it and everybody was in it. We were all out in the desert together and Ewan and I, everyone is just working and sleeping then working and sleeping. There’s no time for play in between. Ewan and I would sit in the makeup room, we’d go in at 4:30 a.m. every day, both have long hair, and we would get makeup and dirt thrown on us every day. And then we’d go to work for 10 hours. Then after the sun went down we’d go to bed and do it all over. They literally would just pour dirt in my hair. I think the bathtub in my hotel room was black because I would literally come home and it would take me two hours to clean all the dirt out of my hair.
Ideally, what do you hope people take away from the movie?
I hope people come out of the theatre and it stays on their mind and their brain. You finish it and then you question what it meant, what the message is, the themes, and how you understand it. I think it’s all up to you to decide what the movie means to you. I think the message of the film is strong, at least the impact that it had on me. I remember my family watching it for the first time and really liking it and coming away thinking of the film a lot and reflecting. The film makes you self reflect on your relationships in your life and what it is. It just makes me think about my relationship with my parents and my relationship with my family and loved ones. It’s about faith and it’s about destiny and it’s about love and companionship and brotherhood and fatherhood but I don’t think it’s directly about religion or a strong belief towards anything. This movie is what you want it to be. And that’s up to you to decide.