On Jan. 7, at the biannual Television Critics Association Press Tour in Pasadena, California, National Geographic Channel offered a press conference for its upcoming three-hour movie version of the bestselling book “Killing Jesus,” written by Fox News host Bill O’Reilly and historian Martin Dugard.
Click here for a Hollywood Reporter story featuring a behind-the-scenes look at the production.
Previously, the cable network dramatized the writing duo’s “Killing Lincoln” and “Killing Kennedy,” but considering the precarious condition of Christians in the Middle East, “Killing Jesus” is timely, to say the least. It was shot entirely in Morocco (also where History’s “The Bible” was filmed), with a multinational cast tackling 93 speaking roles.
Among the actors present were Kelsey Grammer (first row in the picture, at the extreme left), who plays King Herod, and Haaz Sleiman (first row, second from the right), who plays Jesus. Born in the United Arab Emirates then raised in Lebanon, Sleiman may be the first actor of Middle Eastern descent to play Jesus in a major production, along with the first one raised a Muslim.
Based on the previous two adaptations, “Killing Jesus” may or may not resemble the book — a history-based look at Jesus’ ministry and the events surrounding the Crucifixion, which has had its share of critics — but from the conversation with the panel, it does appear that the producers and screenwriter Walon Green are taking their subject matter seriously.
Whether “Killing Jesus” has any of the historical and theological peculiarities of “Exodus: Gods and Kings” (directed by Ridley Scott, whose Scott Free productions is also behind all the O’Reilly adaptations) remains to be seen.
More, including some one-on-one interviews I did with Sleiman and Green, to come as the spring premiere draws closer. but here’s some of what I heard at the press conference.
Asked about playing the part, Sleiman said, “I will start by saying that I was raised Muslim — I’m spiritual, but I was raised Muslim. And in Islam, we believe, or, Islam believes, that Jesus is a prophet, and they honor Him highly, and they respect Him and follow His teachings. They put Him right side-by-side with the prophet Mohammed. A lot of people don’t know that.
“So, for me, as somebody who is raised Muslim, it is an honor to actually play Jesus just because of that. But I also, myself, have for the past ten years been heavily shaped by Jesus and His teachings. I really believe in His teachings. They have affected me in such a positive way in many different forms and shapes. So, when I got this part, it was a very profound and personal experience.
“Then, in terms of people of the Christian faith, regarding some of them maybe having a certain reaction [to me playing the part], one way I would look at it is — I cannot speak for Jesus, but I certainly can quote His teachings. And He says, love your neighbor as you love yourself. He says, love your enemy.
“So, if Jesus were alive, and He saw that I was playing Him, how would He react to the fact that I’m playing Jesus? That’s the best way I can answer this is that He wouldn’t judge it, and He wouldn’t judge His own enemy. So, on that note, I think that’s the beauty of what He stands for, He stood for. And me playing this part, in a way, highlights His teaching in a very nice way.”
Thinking on this, I asked Green about C.S. Lewis’ “trilemma,” from “Mere Christianity,” in which the author wrote: “I am trying here to prevent anyone from saying the really foolish thing that people often say about Him: ‘I’m ready to accept Jesus as a great moral teacher, but I don’t accept his claim to be God.’ That is one thing we must not say. A man who was merely a man and said the sort of things Jesus said would not be a great moral teacher.
“He would be a lunatic — on a level with the man who says he is a poached egg — or he would be the Devil of Hell. You must make your choice. Either this man was, and is, the Son of God, or else a madman or something worse. You can shut Him up for a fool; you can spit at Him and kill Him as a demon; or you can fall at his feet and call Him Lord and God. But let us not come with any patronising nonsense about His being a great human teacher. He has not left this open to us. He did not intend to.”
When I pointed out that, in dramatizing the story, one needs to take a point of view — or to paraphrase Lewis, “Lunatic, Liar or Lord?” — Green said: “I know about C.S. Lewis’ trilemma, and I also know about the advocacy of historical Jesus. There’s also people that believe there was no Jesus at all, and that the entire thing was an assemblage of legend and myth. I have read about that and looked into it. I believe, in going into this, before I even read the book, that Jesus was a real person. There is a real character like this, that much of what Jesus said and is in the Gospels, He probably did say, if not directly in that form in some very similar form.
“To say that He had to be a madman, you could say that about any extremely committed religious figure. If a person takes on a personal passage like that, and knowing, in the case of Jesus or anybody else who decided to be a messianic figure in this world at the time, ‘Yes, I’m probably going to die for this, but I’m willing to do it’ — to say that’s madness is degrading to the character.
“It’s really about commitment. It’s about a person who comes out of whatever His youth was with a degree of commitment that nothing else in his life is important to him except this, and he is willing to give his all for that.
“And having given the message of love is what makes Jesus unique. In giving that message, that means that you have to give yourself over. You have to live that message. You have to die and suffer without cursing those who torture you. You have to do all of those things. That’s, to me, the wonder of this human being, of Jesus as a human being. So, I think the Lewis idea is just dismissive and simplistic.
Grammer chimed in: “Also, I think C.S Lewis might have been actually playing the devil’s advocate, because he drew his own conclusions, which most people know about, which is that he was divine. So maybe that was just a setup.”
When Sleiman was asked what he did when he found out he first got the part, he said he called his mother. Saying she was “ecstatic,” he added, “She’s Muslim, as I mentioned before. And I remember that she was saying to me, ‘Bless you for playing Jesus. Peace be upon Him.’ So, I was like, ‘Wow, that’s so interesting.’ I was surprised by that in a way, and I thought that was kind of lovely, as a Muslim woman saying that to her son who is going to play Jesus.”