Haaz Sleiman relaxes in the simple cafe of a 400-year-old casbah in tiny Tamnougalt, Morocco. Grime-streaked and dressed in a simple cloth robe, the actor is nearly beatific, having just wrapped a pivotal scene in Killing Jesus, National Geographic Channel’s latest and most ambitious epic culled from the popular book series by Bill O’Reilly and Martin Dugard.
Sleiman introduces himself, then smiles and gestures at the Atlas Mountains visible through an ornately grated window and says, “Every day I am grateful, because it is overwhelmingly beautiful being here. Morocco is such a beautiful country; it feels like you are on a movie set just looking at the homes and architecture and the people and the set-ups they have. And to just be a part of this! How many times in your life can you say ‘I get to play Jesus Christ’?’”
It’s a responsibility that Sleiman doesn’t take lightly — for reasons that go far beyond his career.
“I personally believe in Jesus,” says the Lebanon-born, Los Angeles-based actor. “I am not religious, but I am very spiritual so it’s kind of profound that I get to play him when I have been going through a certain stage in my life, trying to put my energy to applying his thoughts and ideas. That is what actually saved me out of the darkness I was in: To not judge others so you, too, not be judged. To love your enemy. All these beautiful, powerful ideas that, today, we still struggle with.”
Sleiman credits his social circle for helping him take the first steps on what he sees as a God-driven journey into the Moroccan desert — and a new chapter in his life.
“The timing is very interesting to me,” he explains. “I am getting more spiritual and it was due to some friends that I look up to who were constantly quoting Jesus and sharing with me a lot of his teachings. Now I am given the opportunity to tell that story. It was as if God were saying, ‘OK, now it is time for you to give back.’ It is very poetic that this has all just fallen into place.”
But, Sleiman admits, the gravity of playing a man sacred to more than 2 billion people around the globe — coupled with vocal pushback from some conservative Christian outlets over his own Muslim upbringing and the book’s presentation of Jesus as a historical rather than divine figure — weighed on him.
“There’s a lot of pressure,” Sleiman says, leaning in to make his point. “You are playing the most famous man in history and you don’t want to, in any way, disrespect them — because I have nothing but respect for all of the divisions in Christianity and I don’t judge any of them. So I hope I did not do anything in a way that would make them feel that I had crossed a line regarding their faith. However, it is also very important to me to show Jesus’ humanity, because, for me, what this story is about is a celebration for us as humans.
“Yes, Jesus is the Son of God and the Divinity,” Sleiman continues, “but we all have God’s love within us and that is the divine within each human being. So it is very important to celebrate humanity — our beauty, our power, our abilities, what we can do for one another, our compassion, our empathy, our ability to withstand challenges and our ability to move on and let go. Which is kind of what the Crucifixion and Jesus’ death resembles — letting go and starting anew. Anybody who is in the darkness has to be able to let go of the darkness to get into the light. Not to be ethereal in my conversation, but I think there is a beautiful metaphor to that: If you find a way to let go, to let go of the darkness and to get into the light, it’s freedom!”
His understanding of the power of Jesus’ teachings firmly entrenched, Sleiman got to work studying the physiological effects of flogging and crucifixion so his most difficult scenes would ring true and the politics of the region to give him empathy and understanding for the sociopolitical positions in which his followers and detractors were mired.
“I know that Jesus has been played a lot of times,” Sleiman says, “And he is played very ethereal, otherworldly, very divine — and again, it is not right or wrong. For me it is not a criticism in any way. But it’s so inspiring to have somebody like Jesus do what he did, given the circumstances. The people as a collective in that time were so oppressed and there was so much fear and they were so hungry for hope. It took a lot of courage for someone like him to go against the system — and especially to go against the temple. It became like a corporation … it became politics mixed with religion mixed with economics. Jesus was just simply trying to bring it all back to the truth.
“Today, we don’t have that,” Sleiman continues. “It has become a world where we accept things for how they are, and the big corporations are, in a way, the monarchies of the modern world. It is very different situation but still very similar if you ask me. I think the difference is today people are a little less prone to be uncomfortable and do something difficult in order to make a change. I can’t help but wonder if something like this happened today — how would that unfold?”
Killing Jesus premieres Sunday, March 29 at 8/7CT on National Geographic Channel.
Photos: National Geographic Channels/Kent Eanes