Actors prepare at St Beuno's for dramatic missionary roles

Martin Scorsese directs Andrew Garfield on the set of 'Silence': Kerry Brown/Paramount Pictures
Martin Scorsese directs Andrew Garfield on the set of 'Silence': Kerry Brown/Paramount Pictures

Actor Andrew Garfield has been speaking about his experience of undertaking a seven-day silent retreat at St Beuno’s spirituality and retreat centre in North Wales, in preparation for his role in the Martin Scorsese film Silence, which is due to be released in the UK in the New Year. Scorsese has been passionate about making the film since he read Shūsaku Endō’s novel of the same name back in 1989; and it is due to receive its premiere in the Vatican within the next few weeks.

The novel tells the story of Fr Sebastião Rodrigues SJ (played by Garfield), a Portuguese Jesuit priest sent to Japan in the 17th century to minister to Japanese Catholics suffering under a brutal regime. But he is also there to find out what had happened to his mentor, a priest rumoured to have renounced the faith under torture (Fr Ferreira, played by Liam Neeson).

Describing Silence as a novel about “the necessity of belief fighting the voice of experience”, Scorsese was determined to bring Jesuit authenticity to film, so he engaged as adviser Fr James Martin SJ – editor at large of the Jesuit weekly America – to work with the actors, including Garfield (best known for his role in two Spider-Man films) and Adam Driver (Star Wars – the Force Awakens). Driver plays Fr Francisco Garrupe SJ (Garrpe in the novel), Rodrigues’ missionary companion in the film.

Using his imagination

In preparing for the role, Andrew Garfield met with Martin for spiritual direction, and they were in regular contact via email and Skype. He then set out for St Beuno’s, where he would undertake a seven-day silent retreat. “If I’d had 10 years, it wouldn’t have been enough to prepare for this role,” Garfield told Paul Elie of the New York Times. “I got totally swept up in all things Jesuit and very taken with Jesuit spirituality. The preparation went on for nearly a year, and by the time we got to Taiwan, it was bursting out of me.”Liam Neeson plays the role of Fr Ferreira in 'Silence': Kerry Brown/Paramount Pictures

Garfield helped to understand and develop the character of Fr Rodrigues by undergoing the Spiritual Exercises of St Ignatius Loyola. Devised in the 1520s, these invite the ‘exercitant’ to use the imagination to place him or her in the company of Jesus, at the foot of the cross. The Spiritual Exercises are a creative and flexible programme of prayer centred on the life of Christ, through which we can develop a deeper and more active relationship with God and the world. And Garfield found the experience had a profound effect upon him. “On retreat, you enter into your imagination to accompany Jesus through his life from his conception to his crucifixion and resurrection,” he explained. “You are walking, talking, praying with Jesus, suffering with him. And it’s devastating to see someone who has been your friend, whom you love, be so brutalized.”

Liam Neeson is no stranger to playing a Jesuit priest. Raised as a Catholic in Ireland, he starred in The Mission, Roland Joffé’s 1986 film about Jesuit missionaries in South America. The advisor for that film was Fr Daniel Berrigan SJ, the Jesuit poet and pacifist, who died earlier this year at the age of 94. Neeson recalls Berrigan celebrating Mass on location in Colombia with the actors — including Robert De Niro and Jeremy Irons: “I remember Father Dan saying, ‘Do you know that Stanislavski based his ‘Exercises’ for actors on the Spiritual Exercises of St Ignatius?’ I’d come all this way to hear that! That had a real effect on me,” he said.

Living the spiritual issues

Andrew Garfield had already spent two days at St Beuno’s when he was joined by his co-star, Adam Driver. Pledged to silence, the two actors did no more than wave when they saw each other in the refectory. Driver describes Silence as “the story of a crisis of faith,” adding that he tried to apply the ideas of faith and doubt generally. “It could be faith in your work, in the project or in a marriage; it could be doubts about the work or the project or the marriage. When you think about it that way, it’s very relatable.”

The Jesuit missionaries in Japan: Credit Kerry Brown/Paramount StudiosThe actors also lost a considerable amount of weight for their roles in Silence. “It’s about control,” says Driver, “and as an actor you want to have control. But it’s also about suffering: It gives you information you can use in the role.” But it was the spiritual regime that they underwent that most impressed Scorsese – particularly Andrew Garfield. “I’ve spoken to people who’ve attempted these exercises and only lasted for three days … This young man actually did them!” He says that the actor would get into such a meditative state while walking around that sometimes he started the camera without telling him, so as not to break his concentration. “Rodrigues is on a heated and delicate journey,” says the director. “Over the years, I’ve auditioned lots of actors for him … With some I needed to explain the spiritual issues. Andrew actually lives with them.”

Fr James Martin has also praised Andrew Garfield’s portrayal of a Jesuit missionary in the 17th century. Before he left for Taiwan, Martin gave him a cross he had received as a gift while a Jesuit novice. “Andrew got to the point where he could out-Jesuit a Jesuit,” Martin told the New York Times. “There were places in the script where he would stop and say, ‘A Jesuit wouldn’t say that,’ and we would come up with something else.”

You can read Frances Murphy’s preview of Silence in the latest issue of Jesuits and Friends. The winter edition of the magazine also includes a tribute to Fr Daniel Berrigan SJ, the advisor to The Mission.

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