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Killing Jesus Exclusive: Haaz Sleiman on Peace, Love and The Last Supper

This Sunday, the new National Geographic Channel movie Killing Jesus will dramatize the crucifixion in an epic TV event. Haaz Sleiman plays the title character. Whether you’re religious or not, you can imagine it must be the role of a lifetime. So when the cast of Killing Jesus presented a panel to the Television Critics Association, I asked for an interview with Sleiman himself.

Meeting me in the lounge of the Langham hotel in Pasadena, Sleiman proved a technophile, marveling at my Macbook Air. He’s a fan of Apple products. Killing Jesus premieres Sunday, March 29 at 8 PM on National Geographic Channel.

Killing Jesus

Nuke the Fridge: I’m a very philosophical person myself, but I’m hesitant to discuss Jesus’s philosophies because people think it’s religious and may get turned off. Does Killing Jesus explore the philosophies that aren’t necessarily religious, they’re just about being a good person?

Haaz Sleiman: Yeah, absolutely. First of all, what’s really different about Killing Jesus is the fact that, for the first time portrayed in film, you’re telling that story not only from the religious point of view, but historic approach, socially and politically. Once you do that, it puts a different perspective on it that is not religious only anymore because you’re really exploring the times of that region during that time, how things were politically, socially, culturally, how people were in their struggle and so forth. That shaped who Jesus was as a child, as a human being, and also how it led him to become who he was and to preach the message of peace and love. You don’t have to be religious to understand that or you don’t have to be religious to understand that if somebody’s walking around preaching a message of peace and love, that that’s not necessarily religious. It’s really just, in a way, celebration of what humans are capable of. Because really, essentially for me, what Jesus’s story is is a celebration of humanity and its beauty. That’s all Jesus wanted to do. He wanted to show us what we’re capable of in our own beauty and our own empathy and compassion for one another. You do not have to be religious to understand that.

Nuke: Peace and love are pretty general.

Haaz Sleiman: Also, if you want to talk about his teachings, I know your point is that once you talk about his teachings it becomes a religious thing.

Nuke: I want to talk about it. I’m hoping this movie gives us an opportunity to.

Haaz Sleiman: Well, his relationship with his friends, his disciples which are his friends, his relationship with his mother, his family, making him as human as possible for us to relate to that. What happens in other productions, they make Jesus very ethereal and otherworldly. It makes us judge ourselves as a result because we’re not that. In this, we didn’t want that. We wanted to make him as human as possible in everything, whether it be his relationships, whether it be his journey, his frustrations, his challenges because we wanted to show that that is the beauty of us as human. Even when he says love your enemy, or love your neighbor as you love yourself, those are big ideas because they’re not easy to apply. Again, one can argue that when you have such an idea about “love your neighbor as you love yourself,” would you say that is religious concept? Or would you say that is a concept that transcends religion?

Nuke: For me it transcends and it becomes political because Gandhi and Mandela practiced that too.

Haaz Sleiman: But that’s the thing. You cannot do stuff like that and not be political. Political is just part of our being, our existence. It’s part of humanity. That is part of human nature. It’s part of our existence. It’s about not judging any of that. It’s about having the ability to look at the bigger picture. I think people like Jesus and people like Gandhi saw the bigger picture. They were able to see the big picture. That’s why they were able to touch so many lives or people. Otherwise when you’re caught up in either the lies or you’re distracted by the noise that we’re all immersed in, it’s hard to see things for what they really are.

Killing JesusNuke: Jesus was all about not judging, right?

Haaz Sleiman: Absolutely, not judging and seeing beauty in everything. Even seeing beauty in the people that caused him harm and pain. So he didn’t judge them and I think one of the hardest things is not to judge, for us as people. That’s why I feel like, when I bring it down to its essence for me, I say it’s a celebration of us humans. That’s what this story’s about because when you say that, there’s no judgment in that statement.

Nuke: Did you get to recite any great speeches from The Bible?

Haaz Sleiman: I did many, like the Sermon on the Mount. Obviously the script is everything. I know the Sermon on the Mount obviously was there and it was a very powerful speech and it was an amazing scene to do. There were quite a few, quite a few beautiful speeches. Also a lot of great ideas, big ideas that, whether you’re religious or not, it doesn’t matter. It really touches you and it really makes sense. Going back to what you were saying about if you could actually approach it without having it be called religious, absolutely yes. Definitely. Killing Jesus definitely does that.

Nuke: Of all the movie Jesus actors, you’re the actor in my memory who looks the most like Jesus might have actually looked coming from that region. Was that gratifying?

Haaz Sleiman: I wouldn’t say gratifying because I can’t take credit for the fact that I was born in the Middle East. God created me and I was born there.

Nuke: That the filmmakers had the, not foresight…

Haaz Sleiman: The initiative.

Nuke: Initiative is better.

Haaz Sleiman: To be more authentic, maybe. Absolutely, National Geographic is fantastic. They are brilliant at doing that in everything they do. They always want to be as authentic as possible. With Killing Jesus, they took it up a notch. They are so thorough in the details that they have gathered, factual details about historic events that took place around that time. Political and social events that shaped their lives in that story. That has never been shown before, so they did that so thoroughly and beautifully. Casting was no different. They did the same thing. They really wanted to be as true as possible which meant that they wanted to create that Middle Eastern believable world as much as possible by casting people that are from there. They ended up doing that. For me, I just feel so lucky that I get to be that guy.

Nuke: Do you do an accent for the role?

Haaz Sleiman: A Middle Eastern accent. We wanted the fact that he’s from there, regionally, we wanted to make that come out even more with the dialect. So we made it a general Middle Eastern accent roughly.

Killing JesusNuke: Is there a big scene of The Last Supper?

Haaz Sleiman: Yes, it’s a great scene. What’s so great about it is it’s not like the Renaissance paintings, with this big table, opulent with Jesus in the middle and all the disciples surrounding him. Rather it’s very simple, humble and it’s in a circle. Basically everybody’s equal and it’s very touching too because it really shows Jesus in a more human and vulnerable way, knowing that this is going to be the last time he’s going to see his disciples which basically became his family, his friends. In that sense it really also shows something that we’ve never seen before.