Barabbas: Billy Zane takes on ReelzChannel’s biblical epic

Barabbas airs in two parts. Part 1 premieres Monday, March 25, and Part 2 premieres Tuesday, March 26, both days at 9pm ET on ReelzChannel.

Ever watch a movie set in biblical times and get confused — heck, maybe even a little annoyed — that everyone is speaking with a British accent?

Billy Zane has, and that’s why you won’t hear the actor spout anything but his natural American tones for his starring role in Barabbas, a two-part miniseries that tells the tale of the man whose life was spared because the crowd chose to crucify Jesus Christ instead.

“We felt that there’s far too many Englishmen portraying the ancient world,” Zane says, referring to discussions between himself and director Roger Young. “It seems illogical. Why would Judea sound like Liverpool? It didn’t make any sense. So, I just chose to use my American accent, really, and let it be that.”

Zane notes that his accent also functions as a means of differentiation from the other characters, most of whom speak with an Italian accent, this being a Compagnia Leone Cinematografica production and all. The film was shot in Tunisia last year, just before deadly protests ripped through the country.

Barabbas is mentioned only briefly in the Bible, but his story is known largely to audiences from the 1961 film version of Par Lagerkvist’s novel starring Anthony Quinn. In that story, and in the new telling, Barabbas starts off as a brutish thug who has no use for religion. But through his experiences with Jesus and after being spared at the crucifixion, he has a spiritual awakening. In a story with such profound themes, not to mention a cast of characters that includes Jesus and other biblical luminaries such as Mary, Joseph, Pilate and Lazarus, one of the dangers is the drama buckling under the weight of all that piety.

“The challenge I found was to not necessarily to burden it with the reverence that time has put upon the players and the events the story it’s set against,” Zane says. “Treating it contextually, treating it as if these things were happening in real time, in an age when the price of life was quite cheap and brutality was common and life expectancy short. Witnessing things like the crucifixion as if it was capital punishment of the day, and approaching it with a point of view of a mundanity helps to create a sense of access for our audience.”

Simply put — I just left in his longer explanation because it sounded so good — Zane says whittling the story down to its essence makes it more effective.

“It’s the journey of an atheist who becomes a believer. Most biblical miniseries or films, their central subjects are believers. And here we are following a non-believer. He’s just not buying it. He’s questioning, and he gets to ask these questions not only of himself, but of the very people [at the core of Christianity]. He gets to encounter Mary and Joseph and Jesus and Lazarus and really put the hard questions to them and try to understand.”

Billy Zane stars as Barabbas in the ReelzChannel miniseries

Photo: Courtesy of ReelzChannel

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