Playing Jesus Christ was a kind of dream come true for Cliff Curtis.

Unfortunately for the Kiwi actor, the movie Risen looks at the crucifixion and resurrection parts of the New Testament. The first time we see Curtis as Jesus, he is nailed to the cross. No, not with nails. But spending hours with his arms outstretched while shooting in the heat of Malta - doubling for ancient Jerusalem - was tough.

"Yeah, it hurt," laughs Curtis down the line from the Mexico shoot of season two of zombie television series Fear the Walking Dead. " It was definitely painful. But that's the gig."

Curtis says he used meditation techniques to deal with the discomfort. But depicting Christianity's founding symbol, was both "surreal" and "awesome" for the actor, who was raised a Catholic, though lapsed in his teens.

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"It's a role I have jokingly always wanted. Being raised a Roman Catholic, he was my first superhero. I had a crucifix near my bed. I wanted to be a priest when I was a kid."

Risen is directed by Kevin Reynolds who directed Curtis in his first Hollywood movie, the 1994 Easter Island saga Rapa Nui.

When Curtis got the call about the role he was perplexed.

"I talked to Kevin and said, 'Dude you know how old I am? Do you know my work. The roles that I played? And you want me to play Jesus? Jesus was crucified in his early 30s and I'm in my latter 40s. Before we go any further I better send you some pictures of what I look like now, so you know'."

Still, the producers weren't put off. They told they wanted a Jesus who not only looked like he came from a Middle Eastern country, but felt like a real man.

"Ah I can do that. I was a builder. I was a carpenter of sorts. I'm working stock. He's like a working-class Jesus, not this guy who floats around in the clouds. I related to that possibility. I can be a working-class nobody Jesus."

Risen has Joseph Fiennes as a Roman officer on a mission to disprove the resurrection. The Sony-backed film is largely aimed at faith-based audiences - something that gave Curtis some initial qualms.

"I do my best to choose quality projects. You win some, you lose some. But I really liked the script. I thought it was an interesting take on it."

Playing Jesus adds yet another ethnicity to the many Curtis has played. It also balances out playing all those villains earlier in his career.

"Oh yeah. I was also a bit nervous. You could really stuff this up. Because there are such huge expectations from many believers in the world about what Jesus should or should not be. But I don't think I embarrassed myself, and I think I did my best to honour what my role was."

He shot Risen after his acclaimed portrayal of Genesis Potini in Dark Horse, which is finally getting a US cinematic release next month.

Also out next month is the second season of Fear the Walking Dead, the zombie plague spin-off series in which Curtis plays the lead, Trevor Manawa.

"Affectionately I think Trevor Manawa has been set up as the least likely to survive the apocalypse in season one. This guy is not going to cut it. There are much more capable characters than mine. Fortunately or unfortunately, that trend continues in season two. I am hoping he gets his act together or he is not going to make it through to season three."

Risen opens at cinemas today.