In The Young Messiah, Cyrus and Betsy Nowrasteh adapted Anne Rice’s novel Christ the Lord, hours of research, and conversations with Biblical experts into a screenplay about the early life of Jesus of Nazareth. Unlike many Biblically-inspired films, this film focused on Jesus’ experience as an adolescent boy returning from exile in Egypt rather than his birth or passion. In the film, Italian/American actress Sara Lazzaro delivers a stunning performance as Jesus’ mother, Mary. Heading into the Easter weekend, she spent time with ChristianCinema.com, sharing about her preparation and experience in portraying the most famous woman of all time.
As the conversation began, Lazzaro shared about the casting process with absolute humility. “A role like Mary really asks you to strip down to the core,” she admitted. “I tried to work to be as honest as possible with myself and what she could be.”
Lazzaro’s own relatability and personal accessibility were noticed by the producers; an earthy quality that anchored her performance in reality stood out. These qualities helped provide the link between the historical Mary and the Mary, Mother of God, adored for centuries.
“Mary is a paradox. She’s the most famous woman but she’s so mysterious. There’s no single picture that captures her definitively. And yet we have a very visceral reaction to her.”
While there is not much documentation, and very little actual Scripture to go by, Lazarro said that the screenwriters made it easy for her to settle into the role. “It was just my job to tell the story that Cyrus and Betsy were trying to tell. While the book shows her as quiet and silent, Mary made noise, quietly. When the child Jesus refers to Mary, he says, ‘When my mother spoke, everyone stopped because she had something to say,’ and ‘when she’s quiet, she has a living universe within her.’”
The young actress shared that in every scene in the film, that she was aware of her need to be aware of what was happening, as a sort of “living nerve” within the story. But her comfort level with her fellow actors, especially Vincent Walsh (Joseph) and Adam Greaves-Neal (Jesus), made it easier. She calls Walsh a friend for life, and acknowledged the distinct persona that Greaves-Neal brought to the role.
“There’s a certain wisdom and knowingness in Adam’s eyes that sets him apart from other actors his age,” Lazzaro said.
In one scene, as Mary shares with young Jesus about his birth and Mary’s experience, emotions gripped the actress. “I’m crying, and in between takes, Adam is asking me, ‘what’s wrong?’” Lazzaro said with a chuckle. “Having the children around was a reminder that we were delivering a portrayal and couldn’t get hung up in our own worlds. The need for Adam and the other children on set to play kept us grounded in reality.”
Lazzaro’s own depth showed up in her time on screen, as well as her reflection on the role in The Washington Times. The daughter of an American mother and an Italian sportswriter father, her desire to tell stories that matter, humbly, comes from her own upbringing. “My father was a sports journalist in Italy, but he was always concerned with telling the stories of the humans behind the sports,” she shared. “I remember him traveling to the countryside to interview an Olympic boxing champion who was now a farmer by day, and a clown for children’s parties on the weekends. His willingness to let the story speak for itself was powerful for me.”
It’s the story of Mary and her ‘first family’ that speaks to the audience through The Young Messiah, thanks to the script, Cyrus Nowrasteh’s direction - and the work of Lazzaro. “Cyrus really helped me find the sense of Mary having to give up her son, to know all along that this would happen but to have to really embrace it,” said the actress.
This sense of Mary’s loss hit particularly close on Good Friday, as the end of Jesus’ life, the little boy all grown up, was broached. What did Lazzaro think her character would have done, facing the tragedy of the cross? “I’d be at the foot of the cross. Where else would I be?!” She exclaimed. “You follow this little boy, you play with him, watch him grow, see him become a man, and realize who he’s become. Of course you’d stay to the end! Mary is the anchor to reality; she’s the mother to the end.”
While Christians wrestle with Jesus’ death during the Easter holiday, the reminder that Jesus was always Mary’s baby boy forces the audience to experience a view of Jesus from another direction. It has certainly impacted Lazzaro, who was able to see Mary as something specific: a mother.
“You can’t play the icon,” Lazzaro shared. “It’s just not possible. But the role of Mary was a spiritual journey for me, even as the film itself is a trip, a spiritual and physical journey.”
One scene in particular made the experience come together for this young actress in a powerful way. As the actors headed out to film a scene involving crucifixion, the sky clouded, and everyone’s sensitivity to what was filmed rose. “It’s in the midst of this terrible news about terrorism, and beheadings,” Lazzaro remembered. “I was looking at these crosses with stuntmen hung on ropes and thinking that it’s disappointing that violence hasn’t changed.”
“I had this instinct to protect Adam from it, and when we walked out, he sort of ran ahead. And then he stopped and looked up. And here’s this little child looking up, with a stunt man hanging there looking down at him. It’s sort of a premonition, that even if you don’t know where this is going, you can feel it.”
Lazzaro is convinced that the movie can put the audience in touch with themselves, but letting them realize who they really are. "If you open your heart to let the movie touch you, that's enough," she said. "I had a lifelong atheist approach me with tears in his eyes after a screening. He felt like he had just watched his mother, and remembered things she had told him as a child."
That's the power of films like these. Yes, The Young Messiahgives us a glimpse of Jesus’ childhood, and a hint of what came later. But even more so, we it reminds us of the beauty of Easter to show us that God wasn’t finished with Jesus on the cross - and He’s not finished with us yet either.