On the set of “A.D. The Bible Continues”

Jeff Pfeiffer

Here in Fint, Morocco, flies buzz around baskets of fruit under small, sun-bleached houses, the sort where, 2,000 years ago, Jesus would have stayed. Only a crew member, whispering in Arabic on a cellphone, takes you out of the moment.

NBC’s 12-episode A.D. The Bible Continues — fittingly launching on Easter Sunday (April 5) — is that realistic.

On this sweltering day, the Crucifixion is being shot. Wearing a loincloth and a crown of thorns, Juan Pablo Di Pace, who plays Jesus, reclines as a makeup artist fixes the nail on his foot. “I grew up in a Catholic home where you don’t question it too much,” he says of Catholicism. To prepare for the role, he spent time alone in the desert.

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A.D. explores the stories following the crucifixion of Christ, a time when Jesus’ disciples are hunted yet charged with spreading his word to the world. Director Tony Mitchell finds these stories quite relatable to contemporary issues. “People care about holding on to their jobs, the reins of power. For me, it’s a win/win. The faith audience will really enjoy it, and new viewers will come to it.”

“It all comes from a place of respect, but it’s also a damned good story,” showrunner Richard Bedser says. “It’s the earliest days of the Magnificent 12. They don’t know what’s going to happen.”

On set, actors read the New Testament, and plumb materials looking for ways to relate to their characters. “Simon Peter is a straightforward, working-class fisherman and you have to embrace it,” Adam Levy says of his character. “That is quite close to myself.”

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Richard Coyle, who stars as the Jewish high priest Caiaphas, paces outside the cafeteria tent. He wears a medallion heavy with gems, representing the tribes of Israel. “We don’t know a lot about Caiaphas, his reasoning, his deliberation,” Coyle says. “Does he think he is doing the right thing?” Nearby, a rabbi teaches Kevin Doyle, playing Joseph of Arimathea, how to recite kaddish, the Jewish mourning prayer.

Jodhi May wears intricately embroidered purple robes, and plays Leah (Caiaphas’ wife), whom she describes as “pretty much fictitious as there is so little to go by regarding the women. They are really brave to have written an intelligent woman in the first century, a strategic woman with a grasp of geopolitics.”

Another strong woman is Chipo Chung’s Mary Magdalene.

“She is an interesting figure because when you look at the Bible, you can see there is more to the story than we are told,” Chung says.

Three months after our set visit, and 6,000 miles away, executive producer Roma Downey and husband Mark Burnett cuddle on the patio of their Malibu estate, enthusing over A.D., which they hope isn’t a one-season show. The set alone is reason to expect it won’t be, considering it took 500 Moroccans three months just to build the temple.

“Many of the actors feel they stepped into another world,” says Downey. “When it’s filmed with extras and animals and cameras and donkeys, it’s like stepping back in time.”

A.D. The Bible Continues airs on NBC Sundays at 9pm ET beginning Easter Sunday, April 5.