Matisyahu is almost unrecognizable. The rapper is at the Four Seasons Beverly Hills to talk about his first foray into acting in The Possession (the number one movie in America) and his trademark long hair and beard are gone. His co-stars didn’t even recognize him. “We were walking in and I was like, 'Hey, remember me?' he said to Movie Fanatic of his fellow actors seeing him for the first time since filming wrapped.
But, then again, even though he plays a Hasidic rabbi in The Possession, some might still say that the hip hop star is being seen for the first time in a new light. When he first hit the charts in 2005 with King Without a Crown, Matisyahu immediately set himself apart as the most unique of musicians.
When we spoke to him, it was clear that his acting career is just getting going. “I love it so,” he said of film work. The process to score the role didn’t deter him either. “Ole (Bornedal, director) met me during the tryout, the audition or whatever it is called,” he said and laughed at his naïve-sounding description of the casting process. As stated in our The Possession review, the acting newbie steals the show and the director could not have cast anybody better.
Ever the performer who emits his “lines,” or specifically verses, with his innate musical talent behind it -- naturally that’s what he brought to the audition where he was to act out the powerful exorcism scene.
“I was reading the lines in Hebrew and doing the exorcism, but I’m used to singing them and Ole kept saying, ‘No singing! Stop singing!’ As a matter of fact, he had me holding his assistant down and he had her slapping me in the face and punching me,” Matisyahu recalled.
He was reading from the most important scene in the film. His rabbi character is performing the exorcism that the story’s principals hoped would rid the little girl of a Judaic demon from a Dibbuk box that possesses her, as seen in this The Possession clip.
“His assistant ripped my shirt and I had to scream the Hebrew while I was holding her down,” he said of the audition. Then, his director chimed in. "He said, ‘Now… do the line now!’ I guess I got it [laughs].”
In our Kyra Sedgwick and Jeffrey Dean Morgan interview, the pair admitted that that penultimate scene was completely emotionally draining. For the neophyte actor, he had to recall events from his past in order to nail it.
“About five years ago I was living in Crown Heights in Brooklyn and the style of prayer in Crown Heights is called Chabad, and it’s a take on Judaism that is intellectual. The prayer is not supposed to be emotional. People keep to themselves and it is more meditative,” Matisyahu said.
“Five years ago on Rosh Hashanah I was in Israel and I heard this sound coming out as I was walking around. I found myself in a synagogue that was a different part of Hasidim where they would scream the prayers. I met with the Rabbi afterwards and he told me that a prayer is a war. Back home, I prayed in this one synagogue where they scream, which for a singer is of course not good. I couldn’t help it. I loved it. That’s what I took with me to that scene,” he said.
“There’s a real war. In the Torah, in the Old Testament, it talks about the weapon of the Jews is their mouth. It’s not referring to lawyers [laughs]. The word in Hebrew for a prayer comes from the word ‘to cut’ -- the idea that you’re cutting through forces of evil with a sword through the prayers. That was what I took into the scene… there’s that moment where I’m screaming and losing myself in it. I felt like I was in Williamsburg, I was in that schul.”
Although the film stays close to Jewish tradition in terms of the cultural legend of the Dibbuk box and the belief of ridding demons from a soul, there was one element of the film that caught Matisyahu’s eye for being slightly inaccurate -- the Hebrew writing on the box. “It was upside down,” he said and laughed.
The part of his character that he adored the most was the idea that his rabbi would buck tradition and go with his heart to help this family in need. “He goes for the human empathetic thing,” Matisyahu said.
Morgan’s character comes to see Matisyahu’s character’s father in Brooklyn and begs him to help his daughter who is being possessed by the demon. Morgan comes up empty-handed, until Matisyahu steps up.
“I like that he gets beyond his father and the rabbi and doing what he’s supposed to do. I definitely relate to that full force. I was at one point in that community and I had to decide whether I would go for a music career outside of that world. In the end, I made the right decision.”