Mary Magdalene director Garth Davis responds to ‘whitewashing’ criticisms

"For me, the most critical, important thing was that I made the most emotionally compelling Mary," he says in reaction to questions over Rooney Mara's casting

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Director Garth Davis knew what he was getting into when he announced the follow-up to his award-winning 2017 movie Lion.

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“It is the second album,” Davis says of his latest feature Mary Magdalene, referring to the fabled difficulty musicians face when following up a debut hit.

Lion received six Oscar nominations and took home two Baftas (for best supporting actor, Dev Patel, and best adapted screenplay). So, naturally, expectations are high for his new biblical drama, a re-telling of the crucifixion of Jesus Christ through the eyes of Mary Magdalene.

I think that because Lion was such a big success, my biggest fear was just being pigeon-holed,” he says. “That aside, I’m sure people will compare Lion to this, which may go well or not go well, I’m not sure – but I do feel really proud of this piece of work.”

His follow-up, however, has been under scrutiny even before release. When the trailer was revealed in November 2017, viewers criticised it as yet another example of white actors taking on roles that should be played by people of colour. Mary Magdalene is played by Rooney Mara, and Jesus Christ by Joaquin Phoenix.

For me, the most critical, important thing was that I made the most emotionally compelling Mary,” Davis says, “and Rooney just has such a unique quality. She has an otherworldliness, and in her silences – there’s no other actress like her – she just creates these universes. And all of that was just so critical in bringing to life Mary’s character, so I felt that I had to choose that.”

Tahar Rahim, the Algerian-French actor who plays Judas Iscariot, adds that he doesn’t consider whitewashing when he takes on a role.

I don’t even think about it really,” he says. “When I see a movie I just want to believe in what I see and that’s what happened. You’re an actor. When you’re an actor you just try to do your job as good as you can.”

The initial reaction to Mary Magdalene, which also stars Chiwetel Ejiofor,  has perhaps been driven more by Mara’s previous screen credits than the film itself. After playing Tiger Lily in the 2015 movie Pan, she admitted that she ‘hated’ being part of the whitewashing controversy. “I can understand why some people were upset and frustrated,” she told the Telegraph.

Meanwhile, director Davis and lead actress Mara have indeed formed a strong creative bond. Mara shone as Dev Patel’s girlfriend in Lion, and the duo are also reportedly set to adapt A House in the Sky, the memoir of Canadian journalist Amanda Lindhout, who was held captive by Somalian militants for 15 months.

“I love working with Rooney,” he says. “In life you come across vey special people, and we have this great intuition together. I would love to keep working together.”

Mara adds that the prospect of working with Davis again was the primary reason she agreed to the role after some initial apprehension.

I really wanted to work with Garth again and just hearing him talk about Mary and about the story and about what he wanted to bring to it, it sounded so beautiful to me,” she says. “It sounded really important and something I wanted to be a part of.”

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Mary Magdalene is out in UK cinemas on Friday 16th March