If there’s one thing that spouses and producing partners Mark Burnett and Roma Downey (bottom row, center) learned during their hands-on promotional efforts for their History Channel miniseries “The Bible,” and its theatrical spin-off, “Son of God,” is that a lot of people in the modern world, especially media types, may not be especially conversant in Biblical themes and characters.
So, at the beginning of the press conference at the biannual Television Critics Association Press Tour in Pasadena, California, for “A.D.: The Bible Continues,” their 12-week NBC miniseries — premiering Easter Sunday, April 5 — beginning with the Crucifixion and then drawing from the Acts of the Apostles and the Epistles, Burnett asked the actors present to introduce themselves and their characters to the assembled press.
“Good afternoon, everybody. My name is Adam Levy. I play Peter, the Rock, who denied Jesus three times, and He still made him the boss.” (Top row, left)
“How are you doing, everyone? My name is Emmett J. Scanlan. I play Saul, a k a Paul. And I spend the first half of the season trying to kill these beautiful people.” (Top row, right)
“My name is Cipo Chung. I play Mary Magdalene, and Mary was the first witness of Jesus in His resurrected form. So, He chose a woman.” (Bottom row, left)
“My name is Babou Ceesay. I play John, the beloved Apostle, and I was the only disciple who was actually present at the Crucifixion.” (Top row, center)
“My name is Juan Pablo di Pace. I play Jesus”– then he spoke in Spanish, which was not transcribed — “And yes, thank you very much, Mary and John, for being at the Crucifixion. The other guys, I forgive you.” (Bottom row, right)
When Burnett was asked about his beard, which is reaching Old Testament patriach proportions, Levy quipped, “He’s the 13th disciple.”
“Listen,” said Burnett, who also producers “Survivor,” “The Voice,” “Shark Tank” and many other shows, “I can’t act. I thought maybe a big beard might get me a little part. But Roma is saying no.”
I talked to several of the cast, and Burnett and Downey, later in the day, but here’s a sampling of what they said at the press conference for the miniseries, which is still filming in Morocco. After the Easter Sunday premiere, it runs for consecutive Sundays.
Argentine di Pace (who was wearing a little gold cross), on playing Jesus: “It’s a huge responsibility. It’s a daunting thing to do. Very few people have had the chance to play him, and it’s certainly hard to do. I come from a Christian background. My mother is a religious painter. She has a painting in the Vatican. So, I grew up with all of that. My name, actually, Juan Pablo, comes from John Paul II. So, you know, it was going to happen at some point. But yes, it’s a huge responsibility, and I’m absolutely humbled to be playing Him. It certainly is the role of a lifetime.”
Burnett on the ethnic diversity of the cast (which doesn’t attempt to reproduce the ethnicity of the original people, such as having Gambian actor Ceesay playing John): “This is a story that millions have died for and millions live for. And we feel the story should be reflective of the world, how the world looks and how America looks. I think we really achieved that in a huge way.
“But in the end, it comes down to the best actors for the roles. But we are, obviously, thrilled, especially with the current comments in our industry today of the lack of diversity in roles and nominations, that we happen to have a very, very diverse cast that are reflective of the world. We even have an Irish guy.”
Quipped Scanlan, “That’s saying something.”
Downey added: “We wanted people to be able to turn on the television set and see themselves in this story. We have gathered a big international cast. We’re representing over 15 countries, as we put this cast together.”
Chung (born in Tanzania, raised in Zimbabwe) on the power of love: “That’s what really excited me about the script and the concept when I first read it, that it was about Jesus and the impact that He had on the disciples and how that extended. But really, it was about social change, about how this small group of people managed to change the world. I love the fact that Martin Luther King and Archbishop Desmond Tutu, with Truth and Reconciliation in South Africa — and the ripple effect of that approach to violence and to oppression — because the world that Mark and Roma have created really shows that the times that they were living in were completely brutal, where torture and murder and torture like crucifixion were really quite commonplace. So I really felt that the theories of social change extend onto the world we live in today.”
Burnett on the launch date: “We didn’t make it thinking we’d get an Easter Sunday premiere. We had no idea when it would be on. But, how fortunate. As you know, we are people of dep faith, and we believe God’s hands are all over it, and it was always intended to be on Easter Sunday.”
On the tone of the production, Downey said, “The episodes are certainly fast-paced, filled with political intrigue and the religious oppression of the times, but it goes from big and epic to the sweetness and intimacy of relationships.”
Burnett added: “It’s like taking ‘House of Cards’ and dropping it into the first century in Jerusalem — it really is — adding in huge action scenes as well. But 2,000 years later, clothing has changed, transport has changed, electronics, finance, [but] people haven’t changed. The governments are still doing the same thing they were doing under Roman rule, trying to maintain your power at all costs, and it was a very explosive time. It was a time that changed the history of the world. There’s no question.”
On whether his mother might be doing some new paintings of Christ, di Pace said: “Well, I believe she’s working on a new series of paintings that may have some kind of similarity. … And she was at the Crucifixion. My real mother was at the Crucifixion.”
Scanlan on the life changes the role inspired for him (and proof you don’t need to be a saint to play one), starting with when he asked his 12-year-old daughter whether he should play Paul or do a different project: “She isn’t shackled with the burdens that we carry as adults. She’s free. She lives in the imagination. She still a child. Christmases are magical again. So, I wanted to talk to her, and I pitched her both the jobs, as I would my agent. She turned to me, and she said, ‘Daddy, every time you talk about ‘A.D.,’ you sound happy.’ ‘So I went, ‘Thank you, baby, love you,’ hung up the phone and looked up — whether it was consciously or unconsciously — and I said to the Man Upstairs, ‘I’ll tell you what, if I get this job, I’ll propose to my girlfriend.’
“Now, my girlfriend [Claire Cooper] plays Herodias in the show, by the way. And anybody who knows me — like these guys — knows that commitment is a massive fear. So I said, ‘If I get this job, I will do whatever was asked me to do and propose to my girlfriend.’ And as I say that, my phone bings. I — I almost cursed there. I swear to you, my phone bings, and I open the thing, and it’s an email that I got the job. I look back up and say, ‘Any chance you didn’t read that?’
“So, long story short, I proposed to her on Christmas Day. Juan Pablo’s going to be the minister. That’s a true story. So, that was freaky.”
Ceesay on what he took away: “The most powerful thing that cames out of ‘A.D.’ for me is this idea that once the Crucifixion happens, and after the Resurrection, the message is left in the hands of people, just people, against the might of Rome, against a completely different ideology, a very simple message, one that’s not popular, that’s just ‘show some love, some patience,’ and that this small group of people did actually change the world through luck, faith, courage. We talk about dying all the time. ‘We’re going to die today.’ ‘We’re going to die tomorrow, for sure,’ and here we are.”
Added Levy: “Peter holds the secret that Jesus told him that, ‘You will die for me.’ I can’t tell the rest of the gang, because they may run.”
And here’s the official trailer …