EXCLUSIVE: In what may be one of the bolder casting exercises in some time, Joaquin Phoenix is being eyed to play Jesus Christ in Garth Davis’ Mary Magdalene opposite Rooney Mara. A deal is still some way off being done, with scheduling believed to be one concern, but if this goes down it would be a clear statement of intent from the filmmakers about the kind of film they’re trying to make.

Phoenix is the very definition of a mercurial talent, transforming from role to role, whether the stoner private detective in Paul Thomas Anderson’s Inherent Vice, the lovelorn writer forming an emotional connection with his phone’s operating system in Spike Jonze’s Her or even as Johnny Cash in Walk the Line.

Playing Jesus could offer a defining moment for the versatile and unpredictable Phoenix. He doesn’t necessarily invoke – physically at least – some previous seminal portrayals such as Jim Caviezel in Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ, but Phoenix does certainly possess the acting chops and intensity to bring the character to life.

Buzz has been growing about Mary Magdalene ever since Deadline broke the news that The King’s Speech producers See-Saw Films were putting the project together, with Universal on-board for international and the Weinstein Co. taking domestic. Rooney Mara joined the mix shortly after in the title role. Were a deal struck with Phoenix, this would raise the curiosity about the project even more with the assembling talent indicating an edgy, decidedly indie take on the greatest story ever told. It is set to be an authentic and humanistic portrait of one of the most enigmatic and misunderstood spiritual figures in history.

A devoted follower of Jesus Christ who is believed to have witnessed both his crucifixion and resurrection, Mary Magdalene has been portrayed a number of times on screen. Barbara Hershey played her in Martin Scorsese’s The Last Temptation Of Christ, which infamously included an imagined scene of Mary Magdalene and Jesus making love and having a baby together (although the scene is revealed to be a dream sequence as Jesus, on the cross, briefly ponders life as a mortal). A largely silent Monica Bellucci played her in Mel Gibson’s The Passion Of The Christ, while Anne Bancroft portrayed her in the 1977 mega TV production Jesus Of Nazareth. Most recently, her character was at the heart of Dan Brown’s global novel phenom The Da Vinci Code as well as the Tom Hanks-starring movie adaptation.

At a certain point in the Middle Ages, Mary Magdalene developed a reputation as being a repentant prostitute, though none of the four Gospels — in which she is mentioned a dozen times (more than some of the apostles) — support that description.

Davis will direct the new movie from a script by Helen Edmundson and Philippa Goslett. Production is set to begin this summer for an anticipated release in 2017. See-Saw’s Iain Canning and Emile Sherman, who have grown from strength to strength ever since they conquered the box office and awards season with The King’s Speech, will produce.

Davis and See-Saw already have Lion, with Mara, Nicole Kidman and Dev Patel, coming down the pipeline. They also worked together on the TV series Top Of The Lake. The film will be overseen at Universal by Focus managing director Peter Kujawski and recently appointed co-managing director Robert Walak, who negotiated the deal along with UPIP Business Affairs head Alexander Jooss. Walak joined Universal from the Weinstein Co last October. Film4 co-developed the project.

Universal will release the film in all international territories except Australia and New Zealand, where it will be handled by See Saw’s longtime partners Transmission Films. Film4 co-developed the film with See-Saw.

Phoenix was last seen in Woody Allen’s Irrational Man and is set to star in Casey Affleck’s Far Bright Star as aging cavalryman Napoleon Childs, who leads a team of men to hunt down the Mexican revolutionary Pancho Villa, only to find himself ambushed and left to survive in the desert. He is repped by WME and Sloane Offer.