Belgian actor Mehdi Dehbi is best known for appearing in “Mary Queen of Scots” and “A Most Wanted Man” on the big screen, as well as stage work in plays including “Romeo and Juliet” and “The Just Assassins.” But his very first role, at age 3, was playing Jesus when his parochial school staged scenes from the Bible. Now, he has brought his career full-circle, in a sense, by taking on the titular role in Netflix’s “Messiah,” in which his character is believed by some to be to be a savior, while others think he is a con artist.
How did you tackle the uncertainty around whether or not your character, Al-Masih, was a true messiah or if he was a manipulator?
Whatever people want to project on him or on the story or on the show is part of the show itself. The show doesn’t want to impose anything on anyone ideologically or politically. It’s really a show that invites people to experience, rather than tell them what to believe. So whatever people want to project onto the character or onto the story, it’s totally valid, it’s totally fine. When it comes to my work and how I approached the character, there was a pact I made with the creator, Michael Petroni, for me to keep all of the intentions, all of the inside work, to myself. And to this day I’ve kept it to myself, so I think I’ll keep on doing.
But even without getting into the details of what you believed about him, you had to have a clear idea.
How were you able to formulate that? Did you have all of the scripts and the entire arc right from the start?
We had the whole script. It really worked like a film. Working on this felt like working on movies, and all 10 episodes really felt like one, so I had the whole story and could decide from what was written. With this part, you can read the script and have stereotypes in your mind, so I had to get rid of all of the stereotypes and cliches and the skins that I didn’t need to play the role. And when I arrived on set on the day, I knew I was ready. I didn’t know the day before, but on the day I was ready.
What historical or other works did you rely on to help strip away stereotypes but still have him rooted in reality?
To me, religion is the structure, and beyond the structure is the essence of things. And what was more important than anything else was the essence of teachings of what he was saying. I read a lot of books on figures from every religion and stories of yogis and more recent figures like Osho and Jiddu Krishnamurti. And then I saw a lot of movies about Jesus and the Buddha, and I had to understand what I wanted to avoid doing. To be genuine and authentic, it had to come from within me.
Al-Masih is a very still, calm character who often spends scenes in perfect posture, not moving at all. What does it take to get into that headspace and perform that physicality?
I was already, on a personal level, looking for that stillness in my life. With working on him, I pushed that even further. I felt like working on him required me to stay silent and to be within myself and to basically stay contained throughout the whole shoot. It was challenging, and it was isolating, but the part required that.
Aside from the physicality, what scene or character choice did you find the most challenging to crack?
More than a scene specifically, it’s really being with the character for a year and not getting out of character for a year. I had six months of prep and six months of shoot, and this is a long time to stay with such an intense character. So my life really was pushed aside, and that was hard. And also with my fellow actors, I really wanted to be more available to them after set when they wanted to go and socialize and do things, but I couldn’t. So those were the two most painful things. But working on set was not painful; I love working, and working on characters like that gives you so much understanding and strength about you as a person and about the world.
What did you learn about yourself as a performer from taking on this role, and what did you learn about religion, or people’s responses to religion?
I did a lot of very deep spiritual work prior to having “Messiah” come into my life, during and after; that’s just my journey. For me, acting is a spiritual thing, and it has been throughout my whole life, so the more I learn about my craft, the more I learn about human beings. Humanstry, I call it: the artistry of being human. It requires you to do the work yourself. So, for example, whenever he said things like, “You have to shed your burdeons and you have to shed your fear,” how could I myself say those words without really understanding what they meant for me, personally? So I did that. But when it comes to religion, I think that spirituality has not much to do with religion. I think that religion is interesting, but in the case of this show, spirituality goes beyond religion.
Did you gain new perspective on international relations from working on the show?
We were very fortunate to have real Syrians — real people who have fled the country, and who lived the war — and be connected to reality. These people had beautiful faces and eyes and energies and were telling you incredible stories about their lives, and you are in the fiction of that, and all of a sudden you come back to a strong wall of reality, and that was beautiful and inspiring.
What role is the right one to follow in the messiah’s footsteps?
I believe in the law of attraction, and when I was three years old I was raised in a Catholic school, and every Thursday we went to the church and we played scenes of the Bible, and the first role I ever played in my life was Jesus. And in my mind I always knew and I always had somewhere there that I wanted to not specifically play Jesus but a spirit close to that kind of beautiful, vibrating love. And it came. I’m very grateful for that, and I feel like after this, I’m very open and grateful for whatever will happen, but right now I don’t know how to answer that because I’m not finished with him.
Things you didn’t know about Mehdi Dehbi
Born: Liege, Belgium
Other artistic talents: “I make music, I write poetry, and I direct theater.”
Most recent binge-watch: “Messiah”
Last book he read: “Thirst” by Amélie Nothomb
How he relaxes on set: Classical music