Created by Michael Petroni, the Netflix original series Messiah follows CIA officer Eva Geller (Michelle Monaghan), as she uncovers information about a man (Mehdi Dehbi) who’s gaining attention all over the world because some believe him to be the Messiah. As Eva digs deeper into the origins of Al-Masih and her sole focus becomes determining whether he’s really a divine entity or a con man, his followers claim him to be a miracle worker.
At the Los Angeles press day for the new series, Collider got the opportunity to sit down and chat 1-on-1 with actor John Ortiz (who plays Texas preacher Felix Iguero) about what drew him to Messiah, weaving so many storylines and characters together, how this story pushed all of the cast to emotional depths, being able to trust their showrunner Michael Petroni, his character’s complicated family dynamic, and shooting a tornado sequence.
Collider: What was it that drew you to Messiah and made you want to be a part of this show?
JOHN ORTIZ: The first thing that I loved about it was the script, just the written word and how ambitious it was, but you never quite know how it’s gonna translate in the execution and whether all of those multiple layers are gonna coexist the way they do. That’s a major accomplishment.
With the subject matter and even with a character like this, it could have gone wrong, in so many ways, and I like how it just really focuses on the character of it.
ORTIZ: Yeah, and that’s something that was really important to all of us. I was actually very mindful of the trajectory remaining as grounded as possible because it’s so intense. The circumstances are pretty extreme. (Show creator) Michael [Petroni], to his credit, wasn’t afraid of pushing it and pushing us, emotionally, to depths that I wasn’t quite ready to go to. I thought, “Okay, let’s save that for Episode 10,” and he was like, “No.” So, there was a lot of trust that it took to go there. The challenge was to keep it as grounded as possible. Another thing that makes the show unique is that you have this massive canvas with big issues, and yet it’s so specific. It’s not treated in a fantastical way. It’s treated in a realism that’s exciting to me, and that I think is gonna be exciting for viewers because it’s not so removed. But, it was really challenging to navigate those waters.
It sounds like it must have been a blessing to have a showrunner like Michael Petroni, who could really communicate what he wanted with his cast.
ORTIZ: It was. And he wasn’t directing [the episodes], which I think was really smart because he was able to be objective, in a way, even though he wrote it. In the heat of the moment, when you’re shooting, it’s great to have that mind that can see it all and that can see the big picture of things. When he did come in to say something about what’s happening, they were carefully selected words, which spoke louder.
Did it help to have just two directors on this, with James McTeigue and Kate Woods, who did big chunks of episodes?
ORTIZ: Yeah, it did. First of all, it was great to keep the integrity of the story as together as it should be, in terms of the core of it. The relationship between Michael, James and Kate, the two directors, was really tight. And because there were only two of them, it just made that communication and them being on the same page, easier to accomplish. But because there were only two directors, they had a lot more on their plate, so they were a lot more invested in the story, and their relationships with the actors and the crew was really deep, in a way that was shared among us all. It felt like more than just a job, or a gig. Folks like really cared and were a lot more invested than on your average show.
All of the characters in this really go through some things, so it seems like all of the actors involved really got pushed a lot. How was it, as an experience, to really delve so deeply into the character?
ORTIZ: Yeah. For me, personally, I dig deep, no matter what I do. Sometimes, I don’t need to dig as deep with some stuff. So, it was great to actually dig as deep as I usually dig, with this particular show, because I needed it and I was gonna be asked and demanded to go there. That’s just what this character is. I felt it was in my wheelhouse. I have an emotional accessibility, where I can just access some of those things, thankfully. It’s not easy, but I have that, so it wasn’t too much of a jump for me.
Is there a fun in not providing direct answers about the characters around this supposed Messiah, and getting to define that for yourself?
ORTIZ: What’s interesting is that, even though he’s the central figure in the show, his name is given to him by the other characters. Al-Masih is not his real name. This shift of perspectives that happens within the show, with these multiple storylines, is executed in a way that is about Al-Masih being a reflection on what everyone else is going through, at a particular time in their lives, and that’s ever-changing. Even within one character, that can change. And what’s really exciting is that audiences have a similar experience, in watching it. They’re gonna have certain judgements and feelings about Al-Masih or other things that are happening, and it may change within the course of viewing all 10 episodes, perhaps multiple times. That’s really exciting and cool. It’s like a ride. It’s a thriller. There is suspense, with Eva chasing Al-Masih and uncovering his origins, but it’s also a mystery. Who is this guy? Let’s figure it out. And that’s entertaining.
You have a scene in a big tornado. How was that to shoot?
ORTIZ: That’s right. That was a lot of fun to shoot. A lot of stuff was green screen, obviously, but we were there. We had to react and we had to run, and we ran a lot. We were very sweaty, but it was cool. The stakes were really high. And then, through the magic of movie-making, it looks pretty cool.
What was it like to have the balance for your character, with his family and then this other thing that he’s seeking and keeps projecting that onto this man?
ORTIZ: That was interesting. Just the set up, alone, of someone who has such a strong belief in God, and yet he’s has a lesser belief in himself, and then through the occurrences of these unexplainable events, it puts him in a place of having a renewed sense of purpose. And the reason why he has a lesser belief in himself is because of the burdens that he has – the financial burdens of his tiny congregation, issues that are happening personally with his family, and stuff that a lot of people go through in life. When he has this renewed sense of faith, through the coincidence of Al-Masih and life-changing events in his own life and town, he says, “I believe. I’m following. This means more than anything. It’s for the greater good.” That quickly shifts because the real challenges in this religious journey that he takes are more about the challenges of life and the humanness that occurs, and issues with his daughter, his wife, and his father-in-law. He reacts in a way that is in contradiction to everything that he thought he had footing on, when it came to religion. It’s almost an exact contradiction, and that, as it would with anyone, makes you stop and wonder.
Messiah is available to stream at Netflix.