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Director Describes Search for the Perfect Satan in 'The Young Messiah

Rory Keenan plays the demon in the movie "The Young Messiah," 2016.

Rory Keenan plays the demon in the movie "The Young Messiah," 2016.

By Cyrus Nowrasteh

It’s one thing to write about Satan — or the devil or the demon or Lucifer any other incarnation of evil you’d like to name — but it's another altogether to picture him. He is, after all, the ultimate trickster, master of disguises, duplicitous to his rotten core, the rebel who dared to take on God himself. If Jesus is the prince of peace, he is the dog of war. If Jesus is wonderful counselor, he is the vile perjurer.

In paint, TV and film, we’ve seen him in guises ranging from a well-manicured sophisticate to a claw-footed, dog-snouted monster, to a veiny headed homunculi, to a horned, fanged, tailed red-faced skull, and everything in-between.

But our movie, "The Young Messiah," is not a horror film. All we knew going in was we wanted him to be appealing, handsome, and blue-eyed to reflect the glory of the skies and seas. In other words, to be what he thought he was — the finest of all, a challenger to the divine, blinding in his charm.

When an actor named Rory Keenan auditioned, he nailed it. He is a former child actor who transitioned into adult roles, is a marathon runner and abstains from all vices that might impact that. He also happens to be a natural blond. That triggered a new take on what we had envisioned, so we exaggerated it. After all Lucifer derives in part from the Latin word ‘lux’ meaning light and II Corinthians says that Satan — or the demon, as we called him — masquerades as an angel of light. He was the most handsome and favored of all the angels. He was beautiful, impressive and blinding.

He approaches young Jesus almost seductively, which is one of his many tricks. He doesn’t appear dangerous, he doesn’t look scary. But he is both, and Jesus sees his essence clearly despite the superficial disguise. The demon is nothing if not vain and arrogant, so vain and arrogant that he thought he could trick even God.

The demon’s tricks of course are not limited to looks. In our film he preys on human weakness, feeds on our worst impulses. He begins and continues throughout to play on the power of rumor. To whisper in ears notions of suspicion, urging on bad behaviors, destruction and violence. He suggests to the bullies in Alexandria that Jesus killed Eleazer. He prods witnesses to the miracle at the river when Jesus cures his uncle to say that it was the devil who did it, that Jesus was a charlatan. He helps the centurion locate Jesus in the temple. He smells fear and pride and pushes until those emotions become overt destruction. There’s nothing he enjoys more than devastation and chaos. After all, chaos is the opposite of creation and order, the opposite of God.

Like one early viewer remarked, “He’s always hanging around, because that’s what the devil does.” He looks for his opening, always.

To that end, he knows there’s a force in Jesus he cannot beat. So he approaches Jesus at his weakest, when he’s ill. Like any bully, any unethical opponent, any hungry and bloodthirsty beast, Satan is thrilled to take advantage of the easy mark. It takes no energy, no brains, no creativity...just lust, desire, an overwhelming force. Who is easier than a weakened, suffering, sick child? It’s like stepping on an ant or arm-wrestling an infant. Of course, he didn’t reckon on the power within Jesus.

In the script we had the demon transforming, showing the true ugliness beneath. With hair and make-up changes, his eyes blotted to black, his hair grew tinged with ashes, black veins popped on his face revealing the hideousness that is his true being whenever he was thwarted. Patience is not his forte. Delayed gratification isn’t in his wheelhouse.

In editing, all that came to seem excessive, redundant in a way, and frankly like a different kind of movie. Keeping him shrouded in an illusion of beauty felt truer, more powerful, and in the end, more terrifying. After all, hasn’t everyone alive met him some time or another without special effects, per

Rory Keenan stars as the demon in "The Young Messiah," which opens in theaters March 11, 2016.

haps in the dark, or in despair, or out of the corner of your eye or in the rumble of a lie.

Movies are often about heroes and villains and ours is no exception. As a filmmaker I knew intuitively that in order for the audience to understand the challenges that Jesus faced, and really feel and understand the weight he carried, I had to get Satan, Christ's chief nemesis and a villain to us all, just right.

Cyrus Nowrasteh is the award-winning director of "The Path to 911," "The Stoning of Soraya M" and the "The Young Messiah," which is now in theaters across the U.S.

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