Part 1 of our conversation with the actor who stars in the first multi-season series about the life of Christ.
ZR: The Chosen was released the week before Palm Sunday and all eight episodes are currently available online via the web site, You Tube, and VidAngel’s streaming app. The series is the top crowdfunded media project in history and is being shown in about 180 countries. Tell me how you learned of this project.
JR: I’ve had a relationship with Dallas Jenkins, the creator of the show, for six years. We first met when he was the media director for his church and I was cast for the role of Jesus in a short film he made called The Two Thieves. I read for the penitent thief and then he had me read for Jesus a couple of days later, which I was initially disappointed about because it meant I likely didn’t get the role I wanted, plus Jesus had like just five lines. (Laughs) But I was happy to do it. It was the second opportunity I had to play Jesus on film. The following year we did another set of vignettes, and then another set, and then he did the short film called The Shepherd, which was the pilot for what would become The Chosen. Six months later I got a call from Dallas who said, “I think we’re going to do a series, would you be up for playing Christ again?” And I said, “When do we start?”
Playing the most significant religious and historical figure to have lived, let alone the man we believe is the Son of God, is a daunting prospect for any actor — were you reluctant to take it on?
No, because in addition to the vignettes I had filmed, as well as a project for St. Luke Productions in which I had played Jesus, I had been doing a “living” Stations of the Cross so it had started to become clear to me that playing Christ was going to be in my life for a while. And being a man of faith. I felt that God must have a reason for it and I tried to stay open to that. I had some sporadic thoughts about whether I’d get pigeon-holed playing Jesus or just doing faith-based projects, but I tried not to give into that fear and allow myself to trust that God had a plan.
How was it to play Jesus once the cameras were rolling?
During one scene I had a moment where I felt completely overwhelmed and whether it was my own fears, or the evil one working on my mind feeding it with all sorts of nonsense, I had to stop for a moment and talk to Dallas because I wasn’t feeling right about it. I said “This is really difficult for me,” and he asked me why, and I said, “Because I don’t feel worthy to be saying these words, filling these shoes, preaching to these people …” And he said something to the effect of, “None of us are worthy [to be doing this] … you’re not worthy, and neither am I … that’s the story of this project,” but that God wouldn’t let us fail. So his reassurance reminded me what we were there to do, specifically us … and that moment stuck.
None of us are worthy, we’re just trying to do our best to bring the Master’s example and the story of His life to the world in a way that’s never been done that allows Him to be accessible to people and humanizes Him, as opposed to strictly deifying him. We get that he was God, but a lot of time we don’t see His humanity so we feel divorced from a relationship with Him because we don’t realize He suffered in the ways we do — in all ways but sin.
So that was a bit of a turning point for me and I still have to remind myself at times that it’s okay, that I was chosen to do this. I’m in this position doing this particular show and not somebody else for whatever reason God has ordained me to it. Every day, I am reminded of my humanity, which leads me to humility.
Has your faith always been important to you?
I was raised with the faith. I was baptized Greek Orthodox. My father was Greek Orthodox and went to Catholic school in Egypt, where he’s from. My mother is Roman Catholic. Both of my parents were very devout and when we moved from New York City to the suburbs finding an Orthodox community was difficult so my father was comfortable going to the Catholic Church since he was raised essentially with both faiths. I made my first communion and confirmation as a Catholic and attend a Catholic Church. If it were more available, I would probably go into Greek Orthodox churches more often … What I don’t see ever changing is my love for the sacraments and my devotion to the sacraments and what I get from experiencing them. Looking back at everything the Church Fathers wrote about and believed, this is the truth that resonates with me.
I just concluded a 40-day Holy Hour of prayer I was doing on my Facebook page live throughout Lent, praying the Chaplet of Divine Mercy. It was something that was placed on my heart to do and thousands of people of different denominations watched it. Whenever people started to bicker about theology or pick at things, I would shut it down because it’s not what I want to have happen … I now have a number of non-Catholic fans and prayer warriors praying Divine Mercy and some have expressed the desire and progress towards conversion, which is a beautiful thing. Obviously people don’t convert people, the Holy Spirit converts people; all I can do is lead in my way and if if God decides He’s going steer them towards the Catholic Church, I think that’s beautiful. [Roumie has also begun another 40 day Holy Hour on Instagram which he invites everyone to join — @jonathanroumieofficial.]
The writer and director Dallas Jenkins is an evangelical and you’re a Catholic. How was that collaboration?
It was seamless … There were no adjustments necessary. We’ve always felt the same about this man, we’re both passionate about Christ and I love Dallas as an evangelical brother just as I love my messianic Jewish brothers who love Christ and anyone else who is open to God and wants to know who Christ is and feels connected to me because of my involvement in the show. I’m good with all of it.
How did you prepare for the role?
I read a lot. I prayed a lot. I mostly prayed. My main prayer was that God would remove as much of me as necessary from the performance and allow the Spirit to work through me and lead and guide the role through Dallas and his team’s inspired writing. Their writing process is very much the same way. I prep using a variety of different sources of inspiration and ask for the Spirit to work through whatever I have at my disposal to lead me to the right place.
When we’re filming, I always have rosary beads with me. I have a little leather satchel I carry as Jesus and I usually bring my sacramental “accouterments” and put them in there and keep them with me and when I need to be alone, I’ll just go pray and try to stay focused and secluded enough to be present and open to what God is allowing me to do in a given scene.
One of the things I was struck by was Jesus’ physicality. The way you inhabited the space in the scenes and the way you carried yourself … this Jesus is very masculine but not imposing. I know some of this is natural to your own physicality, but can you share some of the process of how you played Jesus in your body?
It’s interesting you say that because in recent interviews that’s been picked up on and it’s something I was oblivious to. I think there’s a certain authority Jesus has, obviously, and then to have this authority with a sense of gentleness and to lead with love … I think the physicality is a side effect of where I’m at mentally, spiritually, and emotionally as I’m doing the scene. It’s not trying to be this way or that, or to show that I’m strong, it’s just trying to be present and unfazed by conflict and completely trusting in everything that’s happening around me. Mainly, I think it’s just being present to the Spirit. Everything that happens physically is a result of a commitment to that.
Jesus is wonderfully humorous in places, which is something that’s very hard to pull off when playing the Lord of Lords. Was that all written into the script or did some of it happen more spontaneously as the camera rolled?
Dallas and I had been experimenting in our previous collaborations. For one of the vignettes I did with him in 2017, he wrote his first “Jesus joke.” He wasn’t sure how it would go over b,ut it was essentially a self-referential nod to Christ’s divinity; a couple of disciples are arm-wrestling, another comments “I can’t believe [Thaddeus] beat Andrew” and Jesus says “Even I didn’t see that coming.“ And when it was shown at the service on Good Friday, the audience chuckled. It was a warm-hearted, good-natured response that communicated Jesus’ humanity to people, which they loved.
Jesus was Jewish, so I believe he had to have a sense of humor, you know what I mean? Just culturally. And knowing what he would have to go through, dealing with thousands of people at a time, people constantly asking for healings and asking for things; He had to have a way to alleviate stress besides going to the other side of the mountain. So I have to imagine he had a sense of humor.
There were a number of things written, and then a couple other moments where my delivery of a line ended up being funny. I like to play the comedy in a scene when it’s appropriate so I think Dallas trusts me to know how to strike that balance as a professional and as a believer. We’re not trying to do anything irreverent; it’s always coming from a place of being good-natured, and potentially plausible.
Jesus wasn’t depicted as being funny in the Gospels, but we know he laughed, we know he loved children, and they probably would have made him laugh. If you hang out with kids, there has to be a charisma and magnetism there that makes kids want to be around you. If you’re stand-offish, kids pick up on that, We really get the sense that there was something about Him — probably His love for humanity — so how wouldn’t he have a sense of humor?
Part 2 of our interview with Jonathan Roumie will be published tomorrow.
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