Mary is cast as an adolescent


Spotlight on: Catherine Hardwicke

November 24, 2006|By Chris Kaltenbach | Chris Kaltenbach,sun movie critic

Catherine Hardwicke has made a career of depicting teenagers in extraordinary situations, first with Thirteen (2003), about a girl who falls victim to a perfect storm of adolescent rebellion, then with Lords of Dogtown (2005), which lionized the young men and women in the 1970s who turned skateboarding into an extreme sport.

But her new film trumps both of those earlier efforts. The Nativity Story, opening Dec. 1, tells the story of Jesus' birth by focusing on Mary, the young Nazarene girl chosen by God to bear his son. Two thousand years later, no teen has ever found herself in a comparable position, nor one for which she was as unprepared.

"This is the story of the most famous teen-ager in the world," the 51-year-old director says over the phone from San Francisco, where she had attended a screening of the film a day earlier at her parents' church. "Pretty much, I think, when she prayed to get closer to God, she didn't expect to get quite that close."

Hardwicke can make light of the challenge now, but when she was trolling for scripts earlier this year, Hardwicke was not at all sure she wanted to take on the opening chapter of the Greatest Story Ever Told. The script, she says, was included in a stack of possible projects sent by her agent. For one thing, she wasn't sure what new she could bring to the story, one that was brought to the screen as far back as 1910's La Nativite.

"At first I thought, `I'm not going to be interested in this, this is just a simple story,'" says Hardwicke. "But then I started getting drawn in, I started imagining ... I never thought of Mary as a real girl. I didn't think of Joseph and the problems he had to face.

"And then I did a little more research, and I found out that Mary was 13 or 14 years old, by all accounts. And I thought, what about all the girls, the kids that I know? What if this happened to them? That's kind of mind-blowing, amazing. I thought it would be fun to go back and do something completely different."

Still, tackling the project proved a little intimidating. She was, after all, following in a long line of storytellers that began with a couple of guys named Matthew and Luke, and that over the centuries has included everyone from Michelangelo to Cecil B. DeMille. But then, Hardwicke says, she realized how much leeway that tradition really gave her in telling the story. Artists of every era, she notes, have felt comfortable in adapting the story of Mary to fit their times.

"I almost felt better, less intimidated, when I went running around Rome to some of the cathedrals, looking at some of the beautiful paintings of Mary," she says. "You'll see her painted in High Renaissance garb. And I thought, `Well, maybe not everybody got it perfect. They did their own interpretations.'"

Key to Hardwicke's interpretation was being as true to the actual events, and to the period, as possible. The Gospel accounts of Christ's birth don't exactly flesh out the narrative, but rather drop tantalizing tidbits that imply far more than they reveal. She and screenwriter Mike Rich pored over the Gospel texts, the historical record and the work of archaeologists studying the period.

"That was the fascinating challenge that Mike Rich and I tried to deal with in the film," she says, "to take these simple passages and fill them with life, try to really feel that they were living, breathing, crackling, alive people."

Her determination to be as true to the period as possible extended to casting. Hardwicke says she didn't want to cast big-name actors, especially if they couldn't believably portray first-century Israelites, Romans and other natives of the Middle East.

"I said, `The only way I want to do this movie is that Mary is 13, 14 years old, and she has beautiful, olive-colored skin and looks like she's from the Mediterranean region,'" she recalls. "The studio bought it. They said, `We can accept that idea, you're on.' So I went home, and I was like, `I'd better start making a list of possible actors.' And there was no one on the list. I was like, `What did I just set myself up for?'"

A few days later, Hardwicke says, she thought of Keisha Castle-Hughes, the New Zealander who had been Oscar-nominated for her turn in 2002's Whale Rider. Castle-Hughes had the right complexion, and at 15, she was the right age.

"But when I finally got her on the phone, that Kiwi accent was so strong that I just about had a heart attack," Hardwicke remembers with a laugh. "But she came to Los Angeles to audition, and we sent her with our dialect coach for one hour. When she came to meet me, she had completely lost the Kiwi accent and talked with a beautiful, light Israeli accent, which is what we were going for."

However The Nativity Story goes over with audiences, Hardwicke is satisfied that she accomplished what she set out to do, to try and put a human face on this most iconic of teens, and to familiarize her audience with a time and place way outside their realm of experience.

"In Dogtown, I tried to just really take you back to the skateboarding kids of the 1970s," she says. "In Thirteen, I tried to put you right at the kitchen table ... fighting and feeling what it's like to be this kid. In this one, I thought I would just try to do the same thing - total immersion in another world, one that we're not used to thinking of."

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