Haaz Sleiman, a Lebanese-born American with a Muslim upbringing, was selected to embody the person of Jesus in National Geograhpic’s Killing Jesus. Based on Bill O’Reilly & Martin Dugard’s best selling book by the same title, the film seeks to capture the human dynamics and political milieu behind the controversial death of Jesus of Nazareth.
Below are excerpts from my recent interview with Haaz that quickly moved from a dialogue on the film to a riveting conversation about the Jesus that Muslims revere and that Christians follow. Rather than highlighting differences, we were drawn into an exploration of a world where Muslims, Jews, and Christians learn to walk our common ground. We imagined what would happen if we all embraced the teachings of Jesus to love God, love neighbor, and love enemy.
Enjoy the interview and be sure to check out the film, Killing Jesus, on the National Geographic Channel this Sunday, March 29th at 8/7C.
Jer: There have been so many films about Jesus. What were you trying to accomplish with your portrayal of Jesus that was unlike any of the past?
Haaz: It was a huge undertaking. In the film, we sought to capture the historical significance of that moment as best we could, but with a fresh perspective. In my work, I wanted Jesus to become as human as possible. I wanted to capture his hope, uncertainty, disappointment, and fatigue. I sought to portray a Jesus who grew in His understanding of his own significance.
Jer: How was your experience of portraying Jesus different from any other role you’ve played?
Haaz: Oh man! When I found out that I would be playing Jesus, I was both excited and completely overwhelmed. How can I possibly play a more significant role? It’s probably ruined me for life.
But here is the bottom line. Unlike any other character I’ve played, I love and believe in everything that this character stands for. I’ve been shaped by this character. I’m seeing the world from a lens that isn’t as darkened by judgment. My vision of life and others is no longer so narrow. It has expanded. It now seems limitless. This was the ultimate experience as an actor.
Jer: You’ve said before that, as a Muslim, you’ve been “heavily shaped” by the teachings of Jesus. What do you mean by that?
Haaz: As a boy growing up in a Muslim home, I was taught that Jesus came to show us the beauty and potential of human beings. I was taught to revere Jesus and His teachings as truth. I was taught that Jesus is a prophet who is equal, if not superior, to Mohammed because he came before and consulted Mohammed. As a matter of fact, if Mohammed was with us today, he would tell us to follow the teachings of Jesus.
There exits a major misunderstanding between Muslims and Christians. It is around Jesus and I think it is because we are choosing to see all of our differences rather than to pay attention to what we share in common. We’ve lost sight of our shared teaching to love our neighbors.
Jer: Let’s press into that a bit together. We live in a global context where religious tribalism and extremism seem as fierce as ever. I know you’ve received criticism from conservative Christians who can’t understand how a Muslim could portray Jesus. I can imagine that you’ve taken equal criticism from conservative Muslims who see the portrayal of the prophets as haram (forbidden) and from Jews who don’t appreciate the way they are characterized in the film. How have you responded to the criticism and could you comment on how you understand your portrayal of Jesus as something beautiful…even helpful…in today’s world?
Haaz: I’m asked frequently if I’m worried about the criticism. Absolutely not. I feel so lucky to have been given this opportunity. The uniqueness of Islam, Judaism, and Christianity coming together in my portrayal of Jesus is creating space for necessary and important conversations to be had. Here I am, a Lebanese-born Muslim, sitting and talking to you, an American-born Christian about this. You’re getting to know me and I’m getting to know you. We’re learning about and from one another in the space of love. Is not this what Jesus was about?
This role provided me the opportunity to become a person who builds bridges between Muslims, Jews, and Christians.
Jer: You have a unique opportunity to do just that. You’re a Lebanese-born Muslim playing a Palestinian Jew who is believed to be the founder of Christianity. That is the most complex sentence I think I’ve ever spoken and the most complicated reality I could imagine trying to embody. Yet, what simplifies all of this is the core tenant of the monotheistic faiths, which Jesus seemed to embody: Love of God and Love of Others. How did your experience of playing Jesus impact your understanding of Islam, Judaism and Christianity?
Haaz: I’m going to answer in a very simple way. Do you remember that moment in the film when someone asks Jesus, “If there’s one thing from the Torah that captures what this is all about, what is it?” Jesus said this: “Do not unto one another what you would not have them do unto you.” In other words, Jesus tells them to love their neighbor as they love themselves. That is the beautiful truth at the center of Islam, Judaism, and Christianity. It is a vast, expansive, limitless truth.
This is the magnificence of Jesus. He took what seemed to be so complex for all of us and made it common and simple. And so rather than commenting on how this experienced shaped my understanding of these three religions, I will comment on how it shaped me. I have committed to living everyday of my life with limitless love.
Jer: Last question. Can you give us a behind-the-scenes perspective on the most challenging scene for you to film?
Haaz: The crucifixion was, hands down, the most challenging thing I’ve ever done in my life. As soon as we began, I wanted it to be done. It’s crazy. It was technically difficult, physically demanding, and emotionally challenging. Not to mention, just as we began to film the scene, a huge storm blew in. Everything was upside down. The cameras were shaking. The tents were flapping in the wind. We had to shut down production and shoot another day. I just went to my own space, turned on some music and danced. I needed to do something to escape the darkness of that moment. According to some sources, the same thing has happened every time a crucifixion scene has been filmed. It’s almost as if God is telling us something.