National Geographic’s film Killing Jesus tells of the religious unrest, political cowardice, and brutality of humanity in the face of the Prince of Peace.
Muslim raised, Lebanese-born actor Haaz Sleiman shines as Jesus the film, alongside an all-star cast including Jonathon Rhys-Meyers, Stephan Moyer, and Kelsey Grammer. Based on Bill O’Reilly’s and Martin Dugard’s New York Times best-selling nonfiction book Killing Jesus, the film follows the events leading to the Jesus’ crucifixion.
Sleiman, previously known for his inspiring role as “Tarek” in the award winning film The Visitor, breathes new life into his portrayal of the most influential man in history and embodiment of love, Jesus of Nazareth. Within his portrayal Sleiman focuses on the humanity of Jesus, the love and compassion that urged Him to heal, and the transformative power of Jesus’ teachings.
Sonoma Christian Home Editor at Large Susannah Hicks had a fascinating conversation with Killing Jesus star Haaz Sleiman about the love of Jesus, this role, and the magnificence of God and His creation.
SCH: I had an opportunity to watch the film last night. I thought you brought such a beautiful essence of peace and compassion, and highlighted Jesus’ humanity in such a beautiful way. Congratulations on such a brilliant performance.
HS: Thank you so much! That really means a lot to me, because that role is like probably… I don’t know how to describe it. For me personally it was so important that I gave my all. The love that I have for Jesus is so immense, that really was my guidance throughout the whole experience. So for me to hear that people or yourself felt that way means the world to me, because that’s exactly what I was trying to do.
SCH: I recently read that you were studying the life of Christ very close to the time you received this role, and that you were going through a rough spot in life and His teachings really helped you. Can you tell me a bit about that? Did you ever dream that you would play the role of Jesus?
HS: No, I definitely never dreamed it. Especially because I was so heavily influenced by His teachings. Even if I wasn’t, an actor wouldn’t dream of playing Jesus because it’s probably the most difficult role to get and play. And how many actors have played Jesus? Not that many. So the odds are very, very low. It’s not a very likely thing to happen. And then on top of it, you know, I was going through a rough time in my life.
Before I even found out that I was auditioning, I was in a phase in my life where I was not seeing things clearly and I was blinded by judgment, fear, and other things that were unfortunately beating me down. So I think for me how it happened was through a friend of mine who is very spiritual, and who had read all the different books from the Torah, to the Bible, to the Quran, and about Buddhism. He is a very spiritual person, and he was heavily influenced by His teachings, and he is guided by love.
Everything he does is because of love, and when this person came into my life in a very critical time I was at a low place, and he started to help me. And as he was really making me learn about Jesus’ teaching – and that’s when I really started to discover it. Even though I had grown up as a Muslim and I knew about Jesus, of course; I actually respected him highly. In Islam he comes before Mohammad. People don’t know that. He is mentioned in the Quran more than Mohammad. So for me I always respected Him as a prophet.
So aside from that, my friend started to give me His teachings and I started to apply them in my life. To not judge myself, and to not judge others, and to love your neighbor as you love yourself. The more I did that the more it truly transformed my life, and it was one of the most beautiful things for me. I remember many times when I actually dealt with people – people that I really did not like, people that I really had issues with – and I remember applying those teachings and it really transformed everything.
The same people that you could say were my enemies – I actually applied what Jesus would say to do and they became the closest friends that I’ve ever had. It changed me. It’s amazing. So when he said, “Love your enemies,” there are treasures behind these statements, treasures and gifts behind these statements, and I became a more spiritual person.
I’m not really religious. I don’t practice Islam. I’m just spiritual, but I’m so inclusive. It all comes from Jesus. If you look at his story, he never left anyone out. It didn’t matter who you were, what you believed in, where you came from, the color your skin, whether you’re Roman, or this or that, or like a peasant, or a king.
SCH: Jesus broke down all of those social, ethnic, and political barriers in such a brutal period in history.
HS: Right, right exactly, such a brutal time. So for me, that to me is ultimately the thing is to be inclusive because, again, we all come from the same place. It doesn’t matter what you believe in, we all breathe the same air. No one has more right or less right to breathe that air. And on top of that we all die, and when we die we can’t take anything with us. That highlights Jesus’ love, love for all equally. No one is better than anyone in terms of the love the God has for all of us.
SCH: That love that you speak of with such passion really came through in the film. I think that’s what felt so fresh and authentic about your portrayal. You referenced growing up as a Muslim; did that affect how you approached the role of Jesus and was there any hesitation taking on the role?
HS: Listen, trust me, I was freaking out and I was having doubts. I was thinking am I good enough? Am I worthy and funny enough? Every time I would think of Jesus and His teachings and His love that’s what gave me the strength. I was like, “Of course, I can do this.” I mean if Jesus was here in front of me, I can’t put words in His mouth, but I can take his teachings and apply them to that moment I was in, questioning myself. I do have a damaged psychology in a way. When you think you’re not good enough, or you think that you’re not worthy, it’s a psychological hang up that does not match the magnificence of God’s creation.
SCH: Why do you think you were chosen to play Jesus in this film?
HS: That makes me cry when you say that, and I’m not going to get emotional, but why was I picked? I think honestly, it’s hard for me to say 100% why. All I can say is that there is a God. I believe in God and He has given, all of us, love, and that’s our guidance. It is what guides us in this world and we either choose to let it guide us or not. For me, I’ve been blessed to have people that are sent to me.
I don’t know how this works, but he sends to me signs, people, angels. And I had one person that came into my life and his guidance was love. I saw, I’m sorry (pause) – I was so blessed that God sent me this human being who had been living his life guided by love, through his intentions and direction. And I saw how he had been touching people and changing their lives, and been transforming people, and I’m so blessed that he came into my life.
SCH: How did you prepare to play Jesus? Not just creatively and mentally, but also emotionally and physically.
HS: So I thought going into the film, I want to humanize Him as much as possible, because the story is also about us, human beings, and what we’re capable of. So with that it gave me strength. I had a goal, a passion to show humanity. So with that it gave me strength because I really wanted to make sure that I accomplished it, and it helped me go through the whole thing.
Obviously preparation-wise, it is no different from any role, in a sense, because there is an integrity to the work. So in anything that you play, in any role you have to give it your all, your heart and soul. You have to really understand the character and the story thoroughly inside out. I had a beautiful script to work with and that was a wonderful thing to focus on and to really understand thoroughly. I did a lot of research, read a lot of books, and talked to a lot of people.
So I did everything I could, so that then I could dive into the role really deep. In that sense it’s no different from anything else that I would do. You really want to give it your all regardless of any role you’re playing.
SCH: I think one of the things I found so moving in the way that you portrayed Him is that we saw His own discoveries of the miracles as they happened. You brought such an element of joy and wonder to Him. How did you develop that dimension? What made you highlight that?
HS: You know what? That happened naturally. I do that in my life. I’m constantly in awe of God’s magnificence whenever I go into nature. I laugh like a kid when I see a beautiful creature crawling around or I see the most beautiful of birds flying. And I laugh like a kid with such joy because I just feel like a kid. God is just magnificent. What He’s created, all of it. For me the miracles are no different from that.
Every time I see a beautiful creature, like a huge whale in the ocean swimming, I think that’s a miracle. Every time I look at myself and I’m reminded of my heart beating constantly, that’s a miracle. You know what I mean? So the magnificence of what God’s created is a miracle on its own, something that is like a miracle to me.
SCH: It seems that you were already on a trajectory where you were learning about Him and really being transformed not only by Him, but also by your friend whom you were able to watch live in such a way? How did playing this role affect your belief system?
HS: Yeah, it just took it even further and deeper into what I was already practicing, or aspiring to be as a person. I have to say probably the most powerful impact from playing this role is I’m also keeping in mind the people – that humanity is beautiful. Humanity is magnificent. Humanity is capable of so much when they are aligned with the love that God has given them to guide them. That to me, there is nothing better than that.
SCH: Is that the message you hope that viewers will take away from the film?
HS: Yes, that’s it. I hope so. For people to walk away empowered and feeling good about being human, there is nothing more transformative and loving than that, to be honest with yourself. And what we can do for one another versus people walking away thinking, “He’s the son of God, but I’m just human.” He came to show the magnificence of humans and what they’re capable of. That’s what he came to do.
The passion the Haaz Sleiman breathes into his brilliant portrayal of Jesus is evident. This was not a role the actor approached lightly but rather diligently, full of love, admiration, and respect for Jesus of Nazareth. His focus on the humanness of Jesus, and his own passion for humanity brought a fresh never before seen portrayal of the man some would say is a prophet and others would say is the Son of God.
Don’t miss the special airing of Killing Jesus on National Geographic, March 29th at 8 PM (Pacific).