Monday, April 3, 2023

Jonathan Roumie on playing Jesus in The Chosen


For Jonathan Roumie, the star of “The Chosen,” playing the Son of God is an act of faith.

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By Tish Harrison Warren

I typically don’t like religious movies and TV shows. I find them corny or mawkish, the kind of thing that certain believers feel they are supposed to watch but that lack any real artistic merit or appeal. I truly hated Mel Gibson’s “The Passion of the Christ.” But about a year ago, a friend of mine, whose taste in art and culture I respect, recommended that I watch “The Chosen,” a multi-season television series about the life of Jesus and those around him. I watched it with my family. A couple of episodes in, we were hooked.

Instead of a straight retelling of the Gospels, the series creates back stories and extrabiblical subplots for Jesus’s disciples and critics. It began as a small, crowdfunded project and has blossomed into a hit, soon heading into its fourth season. The Times reported in December that it has been viewed by 108 million people globally and “has become a bona fide phenomenon in many parts of Christian culture, attracting a fervent ecumenical fandom while remaining almost invisible to others.” It’s also gained a bit of a reputation for being liked by critics who, like me, don’t normally enjoy so-called Christian entertainment.

My family and I were drawn into the story — not an easy feat for a 2000-year-old plot that has been worn thin with familiarity. My 10- and 12-year-old daughters even asked if we could read the gospel stories again to compare them with the show. The actors make characters like Jesus, Mary Magdalene and Peter seem approachable and relatable, real people living complicated lives. It feels more like a smartly written drama that happens to have the incarnate God as a main character than a typical religious drama.

Jonathan Roumie plays Jesus in the series. Off the screen, he is a devoted Roman Catholic who says he views his faith as “the core” of who he is. This week, as Christians around the world celebrate Holy Week, which focuses on Jesus’ final days and culminates in Easter next Sunday, I wanted to talk with Roumie about how playing Christ has affected his life as both an actor and a Christian. This interview has been edited and condensed.

Tish Harrison Warren: There’s been an enormous positive response to “The Chosen.” How has that been for you? What’s it like for millions of people to look at you as Jesus?

Jonathan Roumie: When you’re walking in the street and somebody calls out to you as Jesus, the first reaction is like, That’s so bizarre. But, Oh, they must be fans, is the thought that follows. It becomes super humbling and strange. I’ve had to reconcile it with God and be like, “OK, you put me here. So I guess I just have to get used to this.”

The first thing they want to do is get a picture and acknowledge your work. But then it’s not just about the character you’re playing. It’s like, “Let me tell you what this has meant to my personal faith,” and that’s when it becomes bigger than I had ever imagined.

When people see celebrities, they may get excited. But fans associate you with God. That’s a unique burden. They watch you heal people on TV every week. There’s a different emotional response to that.

I’ll give you an example where it really affected me. I was promoting Jesus Revolution at an event at SoFi Stadium. Security came over to me and said, “Hey, there’s a woman outside and she has her son with her and he’s in a wheelchair. Do you want to meet them?” I said, “Yeah, of course.” So I went out and I introduced myself. We’re talking and she says to her son, “It’s Jesus from ‘The Chosen.’ ” He had cerebral palsy where he couldn’t speak, but he indicated that he recognized me. She said, “My son here has cerebral palsy. Our favorite episode of ‘The Chosen’ is when they lower the man with cerebral palsy through the roof to be healed by Jesus.” I noticed her choice of words. We hadn’t said “cerebral palsy” in the series and in the Bible, the man is only referred to as a “paralytic,” but she’d personalized the story in light of her son’s experience. And she said, “We knew you were going to be here, and I thought, wouldn’t it be great if God did that for my son?” And I kind of panicked inside. I thought, I can’t do that. I don’t have that power. I said, “It would be amazing if God healed your son. I, unfortunately, don’t have that gift as far as I know, but I would love to pray for you and your son if that’s OK.” And I prayed, thanked them, and hugged her son, and they seemed like they were so happy. I turned around and I broke down into tears. Because I couldn’t fulfill that expectation. There must have been, deep down, some kind of disappointment. That was one of the hardest encounters for me. It still chokes me up even thinking about it.

Very often, I don’t feel worthy of playing Jesus. I struggle with that a lot. But I also acknowledge what God has done for my life as a result of playing Christ and how God has changed my life.

On set in season one — it was the first time in the series where I actually started preaching directly from Scripture as Jesus — I was standing at a doorway looking onto a crowd of about 50 extras, dressed as people coming to hear the teacher. This overwhelming anxiety swept over me. I had to tell Dallas Jenkins, the creator of our show, “Hey, man, can we stop for a minute?” He said, “Why?” I said, “Because I don’t feel worthy to be saying these words right now.” He pulled me aside and said, “Listen, man, none of us are worthy to be here doing this, but God has chosen you and I and everyone else here to tell this story at this time. So know that you are meant to be here.”

Throughout the process of doing the series, my faith life has increased. I’ve found more ways to pray. I’m constantly trying to get closer to God, and to get a lot more of him into my life, and get rid of more of myself, to be as much of an open vessel as I can.

In “The Chosen,” when Jesus heals people, his response is laughter and joy. I find that Jesus is often portrayed in art and film as kind of a stoic sufferer — aloof and silent. And you’re a warm, laughing Jesus. Was that something you decided with the director, or did that just happen naturally for you?

I think God, recognizing the joy of one of his children being healed and having a heart full of gratitude would be delighted. What father or mother upon seeing their child healed and now relieved of pain or suffering, does not take delight in that?

Jesus was fully divine and fully human. Just by the nature of a scripted television series and the breadth of the story that we’re attempting to tell, it is written very human. The show is about the relationships between Jesus and his disciples. Relationships are often little things — actions, laughs, winks, nudges. Specifically, with healing, the series allowed me to really step into my imagination and think about what God must feel like when he heals people. And my first instinct is to be delighted in their relief. I believe Jesus would have experienced the completeness of the emotional spectrum on an exponential level to an ordinary human. The fullness of suffering, the fullness of joy, the fullness of happiness, the fullness of pain.

You recently played a lead role as Lonnie Frisbee in the film “Jesus Revolution,” which hit theaters in February. Is it different to approach the role of a regular human being, like Lonnie Frisbee, versus Jesus? Christians claim that Christ was without sin. That seems very different than our experience of the world. Is it hard to play someone with no sin?

I can lend more of my own flawed humanity to a character like Lonnie Frisbee than I ever could for Jesus. Jesus’ humanity is the best and purest qualities of the emotional spectrum. Happiness, sadness, joy. If there’s anger, it’s righteous anger. If there’s wrath, it’s righteous wrath, because it’s God’s wrath, God’s sense of justice.

There’s a temperedness that has to exist when playing those stronger and harsher emotions, because it can never get out of control. Jesus is always in control. And if he’s angry, then he’s earned it. We know from Scripture when he flipped tables for the money changers, that was because there were thousands of visitors on the Passover that were being taken advantage of by the tax collectors and the money changers on temple grounds. That kind of anger is coming from such a pure place of righteousness and justice. It never devolves into anything that sacrifices the purity of his humanity.

With other characters, if a guy’s angry and wants vengeance, he says things he shouldn’t say. I’ve been in that position. I know what it’s like to be really annoyed with somebody and to say something that I shouldn’t have said and have to go and apologize. Jesus didn’t have that.

There has to be a lot more control when playing Jesus versus other characters. It’s actually more freeing to play human characters than it is to play Christ. The nature of the challenge to be like Christ is so much greater! At the end of the day, I prefer to spend more time being closer to Jesus, because my life just gets better when I try to emulate him more.

The show has received criticism for making up extrabiblical stories and embellishing the Bible. What do you think of that?

This is a television show. It’s inspired by the Gospels, and many scenes are direct translations from the Gospels.

That said, there are many instances in Scripture where some characters appear for a sentence or two, or some really dramatic things happen that are succinctly described with no unnecessary information, no description of people’s state of mind or emotions. It’s just the crux of what you need to know. That wouldn’t make for a very good television show.

We expand upon that in a creative way, just as any of the painters of the Renaissance created scenes of art. It would be like somebody saying to Michelangelo: “You can’t put that tree there. We don’t know that it was there.” We have to have a similar kind of approach to creative expression.

All of it is meant to act sort of as an icon to point us in the direction of God and the Holy Scriptures. It’s not meant to replace the Bible or replace Scripture. It’s a creative interpretation of the Scriptures that does, in my opinion, a very fine job of honoring them and their intention.

We take such great pains to that end, that we have a biblical consultation staff: a messianic rabbi, an evangelical theologian and a Catholic priest. I mean, they get the script before we even get the scripts! And if it seems like something is going to be a little too off the mark, then it comes out.

How has playing Jesus shaped and changed your own faith? Has playing the person that you see as God himself shaped how you approach God?

It does. It has made me consider him in a variety of contexts that make him more accessible to me. By playing him, getting to explore all of these scenarios, imagining what it must have been like to have been there with him, to be one of the disciples walking alongside him. What was it like when they camped out? When they had to get food? How did he eat? Considering all of these things forces you to examine day-to-day life and recognize that Christ can identify with my humanity because he accepted humanity as the God of the universe. And what kind of humility does that take? And how much more humility can I bring into my own life by following his example?

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