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Q&A: Singer Matisyahu Exorcises His Demons in 'The Possession'

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Ever since Matisyahu — a Hasidic Jew from New York — debuted his first album in 2004, his spiritual, stripped-down roots reggae connected with many music lovers of all faiths. He has released four albums, including July's "Spark Seeker," which includes songs like "Sunshine," "Crossroads" and a cover of Bob Marley's "Buffalo Soldier."

Although Matisyahu had never appeared on-screen before as an actor, "The Possession" producer Sam Raimi was a big supporter of his inclusion in the horror movie, which opens in theaters on Aug. 31. Matisyahu plays Tzadok, a member of a strict Hasidic Jewish community who is asked to perform an exorcism on a little girl who is possessed by a Dibbuk — an evil, unattached spirit — that has been released from the box that held it captive.

We sat down with the soft-spoken performer as he waxed philosophical about his new album, how his faith laid the groundwork for his performance in "The Possession" and what he found scariest about being on the set.  

"The Possession" filmmakers recruited you for the role of Tzadok even though you had no experience as an actor. What was your initial reaction to being sought out for a horror movie?
I've never been a huge fan of scary movies, but I've done acting my whole life — just not professionally. I did it as a kid growing up onstage in plays and in college, and I made a transition into CAA a few years ago with the intention of doing some acting. But, yes, this is the first role that I got, which was great. I was very pleased.

Lionsgate
How similar is your character's lifestyle in "The Possession" to the religious customs you grew up with?
Well, I grew up in a Reconstructionist home in White Plains, New York — not in a religious setting. I moved to Crown Heights in Brooklyn when I was 20, which is like the Lubavitch center, and spent the last decade immersed in a combination of environments. I spent a lot of time in Israel in Hasidic neighborhoods and spent every day in Williamsburg, an ultra-religious [Brooklyn] neighborhood. On the road and on tour doing music, obviously not, but I have a really good sense of the community and that world.

Your character in "The Possession" is a rabbi's son but is on the fringe of the community. Could you relate to that in your real life?
Yes, 100 percent. My character is a little different in that he's grown up within that world and he is also the son of a rabbi who is the leader of that community. Tzadok has to make the decision whether or not to follow the tradition and the word, which his father says is not getting involved. Tzadok's human and empathetic nature is to help the family whether or not they are religious, Jewish or from his community. I was brought up in a different way, so that was not a new decision for me, but I did find myself immersed within their world and living within a Hasidic neighborhood.

There was a time when I was fighting with the decision as to whether or not a Hasidic man could go out and have a music career in the world and be involved in pop culture. For me, I was able to bring those two things together for quite some time.

A lot of people probably didn't know that there are rites of Jewish exorcism. Before this movie, how familiar were you with Dibbuks and exorcisms?
To be honest, I was not familiar with it. I came across a lot of ideas about angels, spirits and demons in the Kabbalah. I'm familiar with the mystical principles behind it, but I never had any knowledge of the term Dibbuk or heard of a Dibbuk box.

The climactic exorcism scene was filmed in the abandoned Riverview Mental Institution in British Columbia. Did the place creep you or the cast out?
Yeah, I mean, abandoned mental institutions — especially the basement — there is some kind of creepy nature to it, for sure. There are some strange things like exploding lights that happened, but I wasn't around. I walked away with damaged vocal chords, but I wasn't freaked out. Watching the movie is a little freaky — it's scary, no question — but I don't think I was unnerved during the actual performance.

You have a new album, "Spark Seeker," that just came out last month. What does the title refer to?

Fallen Sparks Records
Literally, there is a lot of talk about sparks in the Kabbalah. It talks about when God created the world initially, there was an explosion that happened like a Big Bang but based on vessels and light. The light was too bright for the vessels of this world, and sparks were flying off and being embedded in this second world that God created with the attribute of mercy instead of judgment. The mystics in Hasidim believe in this idea of elevating these hidden sparks from the first world to fix our world.

I have a much less literal sense of it. I am talking more of a sense of looking for sparks, finding sparks, elevating things through music and making connections through human interaction.

You shocked some members of the Hasidic Jewish community by shaving off your beard and going blond. Do you believe some strict religious traditions need to be loosened up?
There is judgment of the appearance, but a lot of the backlash I got was for my distortion of the rules and regulations of Orthodox Judaism. People believe whatever they believe. I think there is a tendency for people to get rigid and caught up in their beliefs of what is right and wrong, and they lose sight of humanity. Being human has to come first before right or wrong. That, to me, is being empathetic, just like in the story about sparks and God creating the world through mercy versus judgment. People need love, empathy and mercy — those are the qualities that need to come first and are much more important.

Now that you've appeared in a movie, do you think you'll pursue more acting?
Music is my first love and the thing that I feel extremely connected to. I feel like I still have a long way to go within that in terms of being able to perform and write songs. But, yeah, I really hope "The Possession" opens doors for me to do more acting because I really enjoyed it.

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