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 with show creator Michael Petroni and actor Mehdi Dehbi about how this series evolved, bringing all of the story and characters threads together, not fully defining the answers for the audience, putting together such an international cast, finding a character whose motives could be questionable, working with two different directors, the biggest production challenges, and how far ahead they’ve already thought about the story.
Collider: It’s one thing to get the seed of an idea, but it’s a whole other thing to have so many characters and all of these different storylines woven together. So, how did this all start for you?
MICHAEL PETRONI: It was big. Once you actually get to that point, it does seem almost unmanageable, as a story to tell, like when we were in the writers’ room. But to back up, it’s an idea that stares everyone in the face, really. To me, the thing that made it land, as an idea for a TV series was to really take that, “What if?,” very seriously, and not make it a fantastical version of the show. It’s such an audacious premise, so to make it realistic and engaging and believable, you have to have your audience try to take it at least somewhat seriously. That’s what made me engage with it and go, “I think there’s validity in this idea.” It actually is a way of talking about the world that we live in. What everyone is feeling in the world that we’re living in, right now, is a need for some meaning.
It’s one thing to have an idea, but then it starts getting bigger and it has this global scope with all of these characters who are in all of these different places. How did you bring all of those threads together?
PETRONI: We actually had more, but we had to start paring it back a bit, to be honest. The whole trick of the show is to never give away who this man is, so to do that, it’s a Rashomon approach to the portrayal of that character. By the end of the season, what you have is a mosaic of points of view about him, but you never know who he is, ever, which then lands it back in the viewer’s lap and asks them, “What do you think?”
And it’s not just putting it back on the audience, but it’s also telling the audience that whatever you decide is okay.
PETRONI: Yeah. Whatever you decide is okay, and whatever you decide is your experience of the show. Everyone actually has a different experience with this show. It’s not a singular experience. You want to talk about what your experience with the next person because it’ll be different. That was a big thing. Me and my writers made very clear to ourselves that we weren’t going to be giving any answers and we weren’t going to be preaching any message. We were just telling a story and representing it from all of these different points of view. And then, you have to sit in that point of view and tell the story from that point of view, for that character.
Mehdi, what’s that like, as the actor in the middle of that? Does it feel more challenging to find a character like that, or does it feel more freeing?
MEHDI DEHBI: It feels like a Russian doll. You open it and you’re excited, and then you see another and then another. It goes very, very deep. It was probably the most intense and challenging experience I’ve had, as an actor, not only because of the largeness of the role, but also the time. It was a whole year of my life. I had six months to prepare, and then six months to shoot, so I was with the character for most of a year. That was an experience, in itself. I’ve never done that before. Usually, it’s two months, or a month and a half, and then you’re done. A year was really something.
PETRONI: I think it was particularly challenging for Mehdi because of his character. The deal that I made with Mehdi was that he wasn’t to tell me what his motivations and what he thought he was, as that character. That was challenging for him, as an actor who has to come from a motivation, but then keep that motivation secret from his fellow actors. It had its own set of challenges, just playing that role.
Did it feel different, depending on who you are acting with?
DEHBI: Yes, absolutely. And I have a lot of one-on-one scenes, so I was diving into the other actors’ energy. It was very deep and very strong, but in a beautiful way.
Is it more difficult to leave a character like that behind?
DEHBI: I haven’t left him yet. I didn’t have to think of leaving him forever ‘cause it’s a series, so that’s a good thing. I’ve had a discussion with the character and I told him, “Please let me come back to myself.” I asked Michael, at the end of the shoot, “Would you be okay with me cutting my hair soon?” His first reaction was, “No, Mehdi.” The whole work was there, and he understood. That really helped me to come back to myself. That’s important.
Michael, what was it like to do the casting for this? You have such a global story and an international cast, but you also have very specific characters, so did you have very specific ideas?
PETRONI: Yeah, I did, and I was really stubborn about them. Netflix was very patient with me and my stubbornness. I wanted certain people, but I got just about everyone that I wanted, in the roles. I wanted them all to have the particular quality that they all bring to their role. It’s very international, and the casting process was very international. We used casting directors from all over the world. Junie [Lowry-Johnson] and Libby [Goldstein] commandeered it all in L.A., but we were all over the world, casting people. It was a massive process to cast it. There were about 240 speaking roles to cast.
With the main roles, especially, was it a situation where, when you see the right actor, you just know?
PETRONI: Sometimes it’s very immediate. With Mehdi, it was incredibly immediate. As soon as I saw his audition, I knew that he was going to be the one. I wanted to talk to him, though. As soon the audition was over, I just requested to speak to him, as soon as possible. It was important that I saw who Mehdi is, and not just his interpretation of the character. I knew what it would take to play the role. It takes full immersion. So, it was when I actually spoke with Mehdi in person that I was absolutely certain and I became very confident with him in the role because I knew that he has a certain energy in himself that could stand up to the role.
The female characters on this show are very interesting, especially Michelle Monaghan’s character. I love that we really get a sense of what they have to give up, in order to go after and achieve what they want.
PETRONI: That was really important to me. If all of the characters are introduced from a personal perspective first, you don’t know what their role is in the show and you don’t know what job they do. That was really, really intentional. I didn’t want it to be a lazy or spoon-fed experience for the viewer. There’s a temptation to start Michelle’s character in the CIA, or doing her CIA business, but that would have just given the audience a lot of assumptions about her, which then you would have had to work through, before you got to who that person is. So, we started all of the characters from their personal experiences. Almost all of them are introduced in a very intimate and somewhat vulnerable way. Michelle’s character has a very strong social mask and she clings to that, as a shield for protection, but underneath that is a whole lot of turmoil, pain, and questions. For an actor to play that, you need a lot of complexity, and Michelle was perfect, in that way. Also, that role needs a lot of gravity, just to balance against the gravity of a character like Mehdi’s, and Michelle brought all of that to the role.
Mehdi, it’s so interesting to watch what you do with this character because he could have been so big and flashy, but you play him very differently and as someone who’s just very centered in who he is. Was that there, in the scripts?
DEHBI: It was written like that. It important for me to get rid of all of the stereotypes that come with when you get a script that reads Messiah. I watched a lot of movies with messianic figures to understand what I was going to avoid doing. And then, it was written like that – silent observant, direct and centered, as you said.
PETRONI: And Mehdi brings a lot of that to the role. It was one of those very lucky situations, where the script met the right actor.
Michael, how did you decide on your two directors, James McTeigue and Kate Woods?
PETRONI: I really was keen on having as few directors as possible, so that it had a consistency in its vision ‘cause I think it needed that. I think both James and Kate had a very good understanding of my vision for the show, so it was easy to entrust them with it.
Mehdi, what was it like to work with two different viewpoints for this shoot?
DEHBI: It’s wonderful to have just three people to deal with, for a year. You have Michael, who’s always there, and then you have James and Kate. I felt very grateful for that. It’s true that when you get to change directors and shoot the whole series of 10 episode, all mixed, and then you go from one director to another, it gets confusing, especially on with a role like this. When I saw Michael on set, it was something stable for me to relate to. It was the same with James and Kate. I’m grateful that we had a strong, small team like that.
Does he feel like a character that you have a real sense of? Do you feel like you know his purpose?
PETRONI: But he’s not going to tell you what it is.
DEHBI: It’s like channelling a spirit. There’s a sense of truth that’s undeniable for me to bring forward, and then, of course, it has to be aligned with the Michael’s secret vision of this show, and I think it’s aligned.
Was that something that you felt, going into it, or was it something that you figured out, along the way?
DEHBI: I felt a call, and I answered it before it arrived. I believe that acting is a spiritual thing. It’s not surprising, but at the same time it is, that it came into my life. And I turned 33 during the shoot. So, there was a lot of crazy stuff happening with that role. But I feel like the stars were aligned.
How do you typically look for a project or a role?
DEHBI: I really look for the storyteller and the storytelling. That’s what’s most important. And I’m not an actor who’s obsessive about working. I can not work. I’d rather work on something that has content and meaning, and that is an open window for the world, rather than something that I would regret, a year later, and tell myself, “This did not help. It closed opportunities to talk or to exchange.” For me, this job is supposed to help people. I need strong and large roles in stories that open people up. I take it seriously and I take it spiritually.
Because of the type of character that Al-Masih is, you wonder whether he could be evil, or if he really is someone to be followed, and you go back and forth on that, throughout the season.
PETRONI: I think that’s true. I think with every episode, you have a different feeling and opinion about it, and it changes from episode to episode. That’s good. The intention of the show is to have an audience engage with it, and not be told things.
When it came to shooting this, what were the biggest production challenges?
PETRONI: The challenge was the number of locations and the number of location moves. The production was very big. It was like a big circus that goes everywhere. There was a lot of outdoor stuff, and there were lots of deserts – the deserts of Albuquerque and the deserts of Jordan. We had a lot of exposed terrain, so that was difficult. So, the number of locations and number of location moves was a lot, but that’s what makes the show what it is. You can actually feel the big canvas that it was painted on.
PETRONI: Yes, mostly on the production side with the logistics of it. There were a lot of teething issues, but we got there. You can’t do a show of this size, and not experience growing pains on it.
Have you thought about where the show goes next, if you are allowed to continue telling this story?
PETRONI: I’ve got a good idea. There are a couple of seasons, where I absolutely know where the show goes. It’s interesting because it was a such a massive undertaking to do this season, and yet when we finished editing it and we sat down and watched it, we got to the end of it and it felt like just the beginning. It really did. It was almost daunting to me that it felt like the beginning of the story.
Messiah is available to stream at Netflix.