What would happen if Jesus Christ appeared on Earth today? Would he unite the masses, or cause mass chaos the world over? That’s the main gist of Messiah, the new series from executive producers Mark Burnett and Roma Downey.
Michelle Monaghan plays CIA officer Eva Geller, a skeptic who lands in the middle of the unfolding controversy. She makes it her mission to uncover the real identity behind this religious figure, played by Mehdi Dehbi — whom the public calls “al-Masih,” a term that means “Messiah” in Arabic. Is he the son of God or a potential terrorist looking to dismantle the geopolitical system put in place to maintain global order?
Monaghan met up with Rotten Tomatoes at an intimate reception Netflix through for the series, where she discussed the show’s international appeal, the potential controversy it may spark, and listed off a few of the programs she likes to watch on television and streaming.
WHAT IS APPOINTMENT TV FOR YOU?
Appointment television? That doesn’t even exist, does it? Appointment television as in, it’s Sunday night and I’m going to watch this tonight? I think the last time, honestly, that I did appointment television was True Detective. Yes, I was on it! There aren’t very many places that does programming like that, aside from HBO.
WHAT IS ON YOUR DVR?
I don’t have a DVR.
WHAT IS IN YOUR STREAMING QUEUE?
The Crown, right now. I’m on episode 4 [of season 3], and I love it. Olivia Colman! I mean: The Favourite, Fleabag. She was amazing in Fleabag. So, that’s what I’m into right now: The Crown. Oh, and I’m watching Succession, which I’m obsessed with. Every single actor on that show delivers. I am glued to every single performance. I think they are all so brilliant; they have incredible chemistry, all of them. I love that show. I think there’s also something very juicy about it. You hate to love watching these people. It’s very Shakespearean.
WHAT IS COMING SOON THAT YOU CAN’T WAIT FOR?
Aaron Pruner for Rotten Tomatoes: This isn’t the first time you’ve starred in a series about a religious figure’s following, and the fears and suspicions that can arise from such a movement. Once The Path was over, were you looking to continue in this realm?
Michelle Monaghan: Honestly, I was just coming off The Path and I had no intention of going back to work. And then James McTeigue, who’s the director, whom I’ve known personally for several years, he contacted me and said, “I’m going to send you this script. We’re doing this thing at Netflix.” And I was like, “Listen, I don’t think this will work.” And then I saw the title and I was like, “I’m definitely not [interested].” I had just come off The Path, this isn’t my thing. I’m an actor into a lot of different genres, you know? And then they sent me the 10 episodes, and I spent an afternoon reading it, and I was hooked. The equivalent to binging — binge-reading — I did it. At the end of the day, I was like, “Man, I gotta do this!”
It also feels like you’re flipping the proverbial coin on the “Is it a religious movement or cult” theme, here.
Monaghan: The Path had a very insular perspective. You had one sort of leader, and it took place on a compound. When I did read this and saw the juxtaposition of those ideas, I was like, “Oh, wow, this is really interesting to explore.” And the characters are so very different, as well.
Other recent streaming shows have presented their stories on a global scale — for example, Amazon’s Hanna filmed all over Europe and Netflix’s Sense8, which James McTeigue worked on, shot all over the globe — was that part of the appeal of working on Messiah, for you?
So then, I’m assuming you got to travel to some interesting locations for the production.
Yes. We shot Jordan for Israel. We shot in Iman and all around that area. For me, that was also part of the decision; I didn’t want to be in the middle of the desert out here in L.A. shooting green screen for the Middle East. I really didn’t want to do that. Understanding the level of commitment and dedication to the story. As an actor, when you’re embarking on any role, you can be anywhere that is practical to what you’re doing. So, to be able to be in that atmosphere, that environment, and interacting with that culture … you know, any culture is only going to serve us, and it did. It left an indelible mark on me.
There’s something about being exposed to other cultures, other ways of life, and accepting it without judgment, which is rare to see on TV and in movies. It’s something Anthony Bourdain seemed to do so well.
You just nailed it. He bridged the gap. He provoked conversation. But, he was still himself. He respected the people and their cultures, wherever he went. He never judged them, and I think that’s what’s so important. And, look, I’m not comparing Messiah to anything Anthony Bourdain did. But it’s the way in which he presented different perspectives, it’s precisely that. Look, we don’t choose where we’re born, and unless you have the opportunity to be able to go and experience other cultures, you’re going to have a limited perspective. Isolation breeds misunderstanding. Isolation could be within yourself. It could be within a society, a culture, a country, a religion.
I think that’s just the tip of the iceberg when talking about “the bubble” most of us tend to live in. It’s that same sort of insular perspective that could make someone perceive the concept of a brown-skinned Messiah as problematic. How do you respond to that?
It’s something that excites me. The show doesn’t subscribe to any particular religion. I think what people will find when you tune into the show, is that al-Massih doesn’t reveal himself as the Messiah. It’s the projection of everyone else and what they presume him to be. What I really find interesting about this story is that all the characters are searching for something. Eva’s searching for the truth; some people are searching for actual, physical freedom, you know? What he does, as I see it, is he acts as a mirror to your psyche. Everybody’s looking outwardly at him to be the savior of sorts, when in reality he’s throwing everything back at you.
Two of the main focal points of the show are the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and a refugee crisis that unfolds at that contentious border. The show also spends a lot of time at the Texas-Mexico border. Is Messiah trying to bridge the gap between these events?
What I can say is the show was written in 2016. We didn’t, certainly, have a crystal ball. But obviously, history is repeating itself. So, I think that people will see that. This is an issue that Americans are very familiar with. I think that Americans, in general, are less familiar with the refugee crisis in the Middle East and in Europe. We don’t refer to them as refugees in this country.
There are many layers to the story Messiah is telling. If you had to pick one central message, what do you hope the audience will take away from the series?
I hope people watch an episode and identify with a character and then want to dissect that character. I hope it actually provokes a conversation.
Messiah is now streaming on Netflix.