Rosebud-based actor Caleb Gordon landed the role of a lifetime this year. The 26-year-old was chosen to be Jesus in this summer’s edition of the Canadian Badlands Passion Play. First presented back in 1994, this Passion Play is no ordinary theatre show. For starters, it’s staged outdoors in a natural canyon bowl in the Badlands near Drumheller, a region whose resemblance to the landscapes in the Middle East lends the production a level of hyper-reality. The cast contains over 200 actors, supported by 40 backstage staff, and with audiences numbering around 2,100 per show, the actors play to the kind of crowds that you’d normally associate with a rock concert. Here, Gordon gives us his thoughts on being chosen to play the ultimate biblical rock star himself.
Had you been in the Passion Play prior to being chosen to play Jesus this year?
“This is actually my eighth year. I started out in the Canadian Badlands Performing Arts Summer School and I was cast as a thief on the left of Jesus, which was absolutely terrifying because nobody wants to be in just a loincloth in front of 2,100 people every night. But somehow I did it. It was a great experience for 17-year-old me. From there I went into the role of Judas. I actually put that on a resume and it got me a job in Lethbridge. The manager specifically wanted to talk to the person who had been Judas in the Passion Play.”
Any other roles?
“Yeah, plenty. I’ve been the man born blind, a guy named Noah. I’ve been a Roman soldier, a temple guard. I’m coming up to about 2,000 hours on this site.”
So you’ve played pretty much everyone except Mary Magdalene, and now you’ve landed the big one.
“My mother was always pushing it, like ‘Caleb, one day you’re going to play Jesus!’ And I was like, that’s nice mom, but it’s not really my goal. It wasn’t something I was striving for. But then last December, Brian the director called me up and said that he wanted to meet and he asked if I was interested in the role of Jesus. He said they were doing auditions, but they wanted me to ‘keep my schedule open.’ Obviously, I still had to do my audition, but here I am.”
This has got to be one of the hardest and most demanding roles for any actor. What are some of the things you’re doing to get yourself in the right head space?
“It’s very physically demanding. I’m using a lot of the techniques I’ve learned at Rosebud [School of the Arts]. A lot of yoga. Getting myself out of my head and into my body, because, while it’s a wonderful role, you don’t want to get anything wrong!”
I’d imagine the crucifixion is particularly demanding. How does that play out?
“We just rehearsed it last Sunday night. The engineering of it has to be precise, but the execution has to be very organic.”
I would assume it’s very challenging portraying someone that inspires such a deep and emotional response in people. Audiences get mad if they feel an actor misplays their favourite superhero. This must be 100 times more intense.
“It’s something I’ve had to think about, and realize that I cannot and will not ever meet everyone’s expectations about who they believe Jesus was or is. That said, I think my portrayal so far has been focusing on Jesus’s humanity. He’s not some two-dimensional being – he’s someone who you would know and would see as a friend. That’s what I’ve been angling for, someone you would be friends with.”
Does the Passion Play change from year to year?
“It is always the same story, of course, but this year is actually a new script [based on the gospel of Luke]. When I first started we were playing based on the Gospel of Matthew and then in 2011 they wrote a new script based on the Gospel of John. They want to eventually have a script based on every gospel book and cycle through them every five years.”
I can imagine being in this production can feel pretty surreal at times.
“Always. The best moments are on stage though. My most striking moment ever, and the reason I came back, was in my first year. I was playing a temple guard in charge of the arrest of Jesus and I had my spear leveled at somebody and I remember, for a moment, looking out at the setting. If you’ve ever been out to the Badlands you know how beautiful it is – we had a film crew out a year and a half ago and they said it looks more like Israel than Israel. And I remember looking out and for a brief moment thinking: Am I actually Caleb Gordon in the current century? And then I looked to the right, and there’s the audience, and it was like okay, we’re still here. There are some extremely surreal moments, but it’s nice to know it’s still acting. I am, thankfully, not actually Jesus. That’s a huge responsibility that I would never live up to. But I have all these friends, production people, cast members who are always willing to connect with me, see how I’m doing. Humour is always the best language.”
And you have your previous experiences to draw upon as well.
“It’s going to be vulnerable but it won’t be as terrifying as it was when I was crucified at 17.”
The 2016 Canadian Badlands Passion Play runs July 8 to 24 (evening and afternoon showtimes). For information visit canadianpassionplay.com.