From Jeffrey Hunter and Max von Sydow to Robert Powell and Willem Dafoe, the actors who play Jesus have been strikingly European, ethnically speaking.
Even Campus Crusade’s Jesus movie, which once advertised the fact that all the Jewish supporting characters were played by local Israeli actors, cast British actor Brian Deacon in the central role.
Over the last few years, however, filmmakers have been aiming for greater accuracy in their depictions of Jesus and his kin. As controversial as The Passion of the Christ was, Mel Gibson did make a point of altering Jim Caviezel’s appearance, going so far as to digitally change the actor’s eyes from blue to brown. The Nativity Story cast a Maori girl as the Virgin Mary and Palestinian and Iranian actors as her relatives. The Lumo Project, whose Gospel of John came out on Netflix last year, cast an actor of South Asian descent as Jesus.
And now, Haaz Sleiman—born in the United Arab Emirates and raised in Lebanon—may be the first actual Middle Eastern actor to play the Middle Eastern carpenter at the heart of Christian faith in an English-language movie. The film in question,Killing Jesus, is an adaptation of the book by Bill O’Reilly and Martin Dugard, and it airs on the National Geographic Channel on March 29 (Palm Sunday).
Sleiman, who was raised Muslim, might be best known for playing an illegal immigrant in The Visitor, which earned him an Independent Spirit Award nomination in 2008. Sleiman spoke to me after attending the world premiere ofKilling Jesus at the Sun Valley Film Festival in Idaho earlier this month. What follows is an edited version of our conversation.
So how was it, seeing the finished film?
I have to see it again. That’s just how it works, man. You watch it and there’s a lot going through your mind, and you want to see it again.
I did a movie called The Visitor that I shot a while ago, and the director, Tom McCarthy, I remember he screened it for me at the agency, and before he screened it, he was like, “Watch it, and then we’re going to go to the bar and get some drinks.” He knew why I needed to get some drinks, because as actors, you watch it and have expectations. I actually hated my work in The Visitor, but then it was one of the most well-received things I’ve ever done in my life. So I don’t want to make it about me, I don’t want to talk about me.
In terms of the film itself, I thought it was beautiful. I always thought from the script it was beautiful, and the intention that they had for it, so seeing the film was not in any way an exception, and I just loved the idea of telling the story in the most humanly way possible, and the final product didn’t in any way disappoint in that sense. And that’s the most important thing for me. A lot of these productions make it sort of ethereal and otherworldly and not relatable almost, and I think in this production, we were able to somehow hopefully make the movie relatable—I think we did—and I’m really proud of that.
One of the really interesting things about the film is the focus it gives to Jesus’ family. Practically the first thing we see the adult Jesus do is throw some food at James. Was that a piece of bread or something?
And then of course, later on, you have the scenes where you meet your brother, and you talk about the fact that he doesn’t believe, and then he’s there later on for the Passion as well. So any thoughts on that?
Credit: Peter Chattaway (christianitytoday)