“Bless you for playing Jesus, peace be upon him.”
This was the reaction of Lebanese-born actor Haaz Sleiman’s mother upon learning that her son had been cast as Jesus in National Geographic Channel’s “Killing Jesus.” The three Abrahamic religions will collide on March 29 when the television special premieres, and the 24-year-old Muslim actor stars as Jesus, the Jewish rabbi that Christians believe was God in the flesh.
The television movie is adapted from the New York Times bestselling book by Fox News host and Roman Catholic Bill O’Reilly and Martin Dugard. Sleiman digested the book among others in preparation for the role. He says he was excited to portray Jesus, a person he describes as “the ultimate teacher” who has “heavily influenced” his life.
Both the book and film retell Jesus’ crucifixion and accounts of his resurrection. Muslims do not believe either of these events occurred, and although Sleiman says he was not aware of these historical discrepancies prior to accepting the role, they were not concerns for him.
“As an actor my number one focus was to be on the same page with the writer, director, and producers,” he said.
Christians believe that Jesus was both divine and human, while Muslims accept only his humanity. The script’s focus on this aspect of Jesus is something that Sleiman said was important to him.
“The idea that we got to focus on the humanity of Jesus was very inspiring and empowering to me,” Sleiman said. “It is what Jesus came to show us, the beauty of humanity and the love we are capable of having towards one another; even to love your own enemy.”
When Sleiman was asked for his reaction to any disapproval from conservative Christians to a Muslim playing Jesus, the actor replied, “I cannot speak for Jesus, but I can quote his teachings and he said, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself’… How would he react to me playing Jesus? He wouldn’t judge it. He wouldn’t judge his own enemy … playing this part highlights his teaching in a very nice way.”