Obviously, I have razzed AD: SECOND HELPINGS OF BIBLE quite a bit. But if there’s one thing that’s worth highlighting about show, it’s the diverse cast. Hollywood’s still churning out absurd whitewashed spectacles like Exodus: Gods and Men, and yet AD, a network television miniseries, managed to assemble a more interesting ensemble.
That’s because (after making their miniseries The Bible) producers Mark Burnett and Roma Downey seem to have committed themselves to make a real effort to broaden their casting for the sequel. Their pick for Mary Magdalene: Chipo Chung. The Chinese-Zimbabwean actress has appeared on Doctor Who and Sherlock; she also popped up in Fortitude, a popular UK
TV show set in the Arctic that’s destined to be the next prestige drama nobody’ll shut up about. But she’s also an activist, speaking out about diversity in the film business and serving as a trustee for S.A.F.E., which tackles issues like HIV education through theater.
We chatted about her philanthropic work and her approach to one of the most fraught characters in Western history, Mary Magdalene. Also go-kart racing.
You’ve worked on a lot of different kinds of projects—Doctor Who, Fortitude. What drew you to this particular project? How’d you end up on AD?
Well, I love historical epics. As a kid, growing up, I loved Gone with the Wind. That was my favorite movie. And doing period dramas—I think that in fact was one of the first things I said to my agent when I came out of drama school, was I wanted to do British period dramas. But there aren’t a lot of people of color in those dramas. So I was thrilled to get this part, because it is really a sort of Hollywood classical style and seriously period in terms of the costume. And that attracted me.
And then, as far as the character is concerned, I love that she’s a representation of the divine feminine. In religions we often get perspectives from men, and I love the fact that she’s a woman who’s touched by God.
I was wondering—it’s an interesting project because it does seem to me it’s a traditional telling of the story and it’s from a very Christian perspective and traditionally women have been left out of that story or played a secondary role. Do you feel you got the creative freedom to play that role as the you described it?
What’s lovely about AD is that Mark Burnett and Roma Downey, they do a lot of consultation about the scripture stuff. But they’re actually very open and free about the parts that aren’t so specific in the Bible. So there’s a lot of creative license, and Mary Magdalene in the Bible, the most important moment for her is the scene of the resurrection, which is episode two. But after that, she’s not actually mentioned again. So they have a lot of freedom to explore the mythology of her—who was this woman who was working in a man’s world and how did she get around? So as the story develops, there’s more license with her than with the other characters, like Peter and Saul, who are very tracked in the Bible.
It starts off as a story that people know. But as it goes on, it’s actually a story people don’t know at all. And I think you’ll see it’s very developed. But it has its own style. To me, what was attractive about it—it’s about this group of activists living in a very tumultuous and dangerous world in which they’re persecuted. And that’s sort of first century but it’s also very twenty-first century. It’s not unfamiliar territory if you look at the world that we live in now. And that’s really fascinating. Because there are a lot of religious conflicts, political conflicts. For me it’s about working through really violent social change. They get thrown into prison a lot, and they live in an apartheid system. And I come from Zimbabwe, so you know, I look at South Africa when I was growing up and it’s not dissimilar to that.
I hadn’t thought about it that way but I suppose because she’s a character who drops out of the Bible, you do have this creative freedom, so you really do get to create this character. Who do you imagine her to be? What’s the core of Mary Magdalene as you’re playing her?
Well, she’s a woman in man’s world. I do think of her as an activist and I think there have been women activists in social movements. There always have been. There are places where there is war going on but the women are holding it all together. I actually think about my mom, because she was an activist during a war and the men were all fighting and my mom was looking after kids in a refugee camp, making sure they got an education. In times of war you always think about the soldiers, but you don’t realize there are women doing stuff that holds society together. Those are the kinds of women that I think about.
That’s interesting, because that’s a story that’s in the Bible but they don’t necessarily get top-billing in the historical epics that are based on the Bible.
Yeah, even if you read the Bible, they get, like, a mention. The Bible’s got clues but doesn’t go into much detail about the women. But one of the clues to it, one of the chapters says that Mary Magdalen, Joanna the wife of Chuza (who comes up as a character in AD in a few episodes), and other women supported the disciples from their own means. That basically means they were bankrolling it. I’m like, What? Hold on a second, here. The men go out and do all the preaching and stuff but the fact that the women were the ones supporting the movement—I find those little clues fascinating.
And I do love the fact that—when I got the casting breakdown for it, it said she’s a leader amongst men. And I did have a lot of respect for the producers for going for that, because in the Biblical tellings of Mary Magdalene, I don’t think anyone’s told that story.
You mention you love period pieces but you don’t see as many roles for yourself. and one of the things that struck me about A.D. was that it was a much more diverse production.
Well I think that, bless Mark and Roma, because they do take consultation seriously and they did The Bible and I think their friends most likely in the Black church said to them, you know, we really didn’t see ourselves in that. And I say enough respect, really I do, that they took that onboard and made that part of their agenda when they were casting this. It’s really funny and kind of silly, because Jerusalem is in the Middle East and in the Bible there’s a lot of traffic obviously with Egypt and Ethiopia and Libya. So the people of that time would’ve looked like that.
I’m from Africa myself, Zimbabwe, and wonderfully AD’s being shown all over Africa at the moment, at the same time. And there’s huge Christian following in Africa. I even heard that in about twenty years there’s going to be more Christians in China than in America. So it’s really a universal story. But it’s important for me, obviously, because it’s the kind of drama that I always imagined I wanted to be in, so I’m very grateful.
Are you seeing more opportunities, or do you continue to feel frustrated?
In some ways I think it’s really sad that we always have to bang on about it, because if we don’t bang on about it, things slide back. They do that year on year and they do that decade on decade that you don’t talk about it—things will slide back to the position really of the people in power and how they see the world. And you always imagine your own background or what you’re familiar with. But at the same time I’m really encouraged because I do believe in activism and I do believe in speaking truth to power and even though it is difficult, I do know that as a Black woman, which is sort of the bottom of the pile in terms of demographics, even though things are bad, it’s probably a better time that it’s ever been.
Tell me a little bit about your work with S.A.F.E.
Well, I love S.A.F.E., because I’m from Africa and I set off for New York and London because I wanted to be an actress and I watched Hollywood movies. And I came across a little video of this group in Kenya who were doing a play about HIV. But the quality of the work they were doing was extremely high. They were very talented. And I was really moved by it, because I saw that they were just as talented as I was but they were using their talents to literally save people’s lives. Because at that time people wouldn’t go to hospitals, because they were scared and there was a lot of misinformation about how HIV was contracted. When there were actually drugs in hospitals but people wouldn’t go into the hospitals to get them because they saw the hosptials as sort of funeral homes.
So yeah, I spent a good five years of my life really committed to fundraising for the project and being quite hands-on really, in helping them to design their theater programs and to raise money for them and to get other people engaged with it. And I’m still involved, I still sit on the board.
So what do you do for a good time when you’re busy playing Mary Magdalene and the Apostles?
Although it’s quite serious material, we do have a lot of fun on-set. It’s been an amazing project for making friendships. and I’ve heard it said on set many times by many actors with much more experience than me that it’s the happiest set they’ve ever worked on.
I imagine the weather was much better than Fortitude.
Oh, yeah. Morocco’s just an absolutely stunning country. And there’s good opportunities for, like, go-kart racing out in the desert.
Photo via NBC.