Killing Jesus

How Bill O'Reilly's game-changing storytelling led to National Geographic's three-part miniseries on the death of Jesus: A conversation with actor Haaz Sleiman

Photo by National Geographic

Bill O’Reilly, most commonly known for his polarizing political talk show on Fox News, happens to be quite the compelling writer. In 2011, he published publish Killing Lincoln, the first in his “assassination series,” detailing the events surrounding the controversial president’s death. The book was written with incredible historical accuracy, and though some of O’Reilly’s truth-telling claims have been recently challenged, a great effort went into using as hard of evidence as possible in nearly every paragraph. The book was, by almost any measure, considered a success. So much so, he penned the follow-up, Killing Kennedy, the next year. It was also a hit.

They made TV movies from both books. While certain liberties were taken on both projects, National Geographic aired the first two in the series using the books as the basis for the storytelling arch. Both were produced by Ridley Scott’s team (Scott Free) and part of the reason for the movies’ success is how dedicated that team has been to the franchise, putting their money where their mouth was with millions of dollars in budgets. They landed Tom Hanks to narrate Lincoln’s tale, and when it was aired in February 2013, it set the ratings record for the network. The second TV movie, Killing Kennedy, was the standout among a number of other cash grabs dedicated to the 50th anniversary of John F. Kennedy’s death thrown together for television. Rob Lowe played the ill-fated Catholic POTUS, and amid much hype and a full marketing onslaught, millions of people tuned in to see how Kennedy’s assassination would be portrayed. When the dust settled, both movies were nominated for multiple Primetime Emmys.

The third assassination in this series is Jesus of Nazareth. Just like the first two books, O’Reilly and his research partner and coauthor Martin Dugard are very keen to note they approached this historical figure’s death the exact same way they approached the previous two presidential deaths: by putting social and historical events at the center of the story, rather than literal religion or agenda. It captures a fascintating 360 portrait of the story from three distinct points of view: Jesus and His followers, the religious leaders of the day and the Roman elite who, also deeming themselves gods, had a small issue with his followers gaining traction. Because of it’s authenticity in production and it uses O’Reilly’s research as the main vein of the script, watching it is hyperreal, and the Bible was one of the most brutal books ever written.

That’s the whole point of the story, though, because the miniseries is Jesus’s story. The books say it was a group of people on jury duty who, whether it was of free will or destiny, ultimately sentenced Jesus to death with no evidence. He was a nuisance. When Jesus was a kid, King Herod, the self-appointed King of the Jews, heard of a promised “king” born in his kingdom — the supposed “king” of the race he deemed dirty and unworthy with a fake god and happened to make up a portion of his kingdom — he allegedly executed killed an estimated 20 male children.

Jesus’s story is messy. So is ours. That’s why he’s the protaganist of the bestselling book in history, and when it’s done as well as it is here, it’s a heat check. I spoke with Haaz Sleiman, the man tasked with playing the most popular man in history, and he described it best: “The story will haunt you.”

Hi, Haaz. How are you?
I’m great. How about yourself?

I’m doing fantastic. I actually couldn’t be better.
I love hearing that.

A lot of people are going to ask you what you did to prepare for this role, because it’s probably the most epic role anyone could possibly play. But everybody has a conception of who Jesus is. What was your idea of Jesus, and what did He look like to you before you got this role?
To me, probably the most beautiful person to ever exist because of what he stood for. But that feels like a judgment towards other people, and I don’t want to do that because His teaching is about not judging others. The reason why I say that is because He saw beauty in all of us, in everything, in humanity. He didn’t judge humanity. He didn’t put any conditions on humanity. He just said, “Love your enemy.”

For me, before I even got to know I was going to play Jesus, I had a very strong, unbelievable appreciation for Him and love for Him. I was heavily inspired and influenced by Him. I found out it was an absolute joy. At some point before, I was terrified, because I was like, “Oh my God. Can I do Him justice?”

Yeah, I’ll say (laughs).
Yeah, and I was like, “Am I worthy enough?” Then — every time I said that — I kept thinking of what His teachings were. It’s almost like hearing His voice. His voice would be, “Of course, I’m worthy. Of course I can, just like anybody else can.”

I would think in my mind, I would imagine He would respond because of how His teachings were and His story was. That’s what it seemed like for me. Ironically enough, it’s Him who actually helped me. What He represented and who He was is what helped me with the role. It’s ironic, right? He Himself is what gave me the strength to do this and play Him.

I don’t know if it’s ironic so much as perfect. It sounds more like a perfect fit.
It’s perfect. It is. It is perfect. It’s just overwhelming. If you ask me, it’s a little overwhelming. It’s an amazing feeling. I have such gratitude for it, and sometimes it’s an overwhelming emotion.

This is going to play nationally. I know you’re from Lebanon. Did you see or have you seen any different reactions from a Western crowd? Have you shown it or talked about it in the Middle East? If so, how did they respond to it?
Yeah, in the world, it hasn’t yet premiered. In America it, will premiere on March 29 on National Geographic on Sunday.

Photo courtesy of National Geographic

Photo courtesy of National Geographic

Even if you did a crappy job about this ancient story, it will haunt you because the story is magnificent. Haaz Sleiman

We screened it. It premiered at the Sun Valley Film Festival in Sun Valley, Idaho. We had a screening two days in a row. It was really nice and wonderful to see the crowd. People were crying. People said wonderful things, asked great questions. It was really interesting. Some people were really taken, they had to digest it all. National Geographic’s Killing Jesus brings you a different perspective, adds something new to the religious story we all know about Jesus, which is the intense political, social and historical conflict that led to His execution. In that regard, people were taking that in and asking questions about that.

In the world, I don’t know exactly the dates, but I think it’s probably going to be around Easter when it will premiere in the world — including the Middle East. I definitely don’t know how that’s going to be perceived, but for me, I can tell you one thing. I’m just super proud of it.

I would agree with you. I watched it. I am not ashamed to admit I was crying, too. I could barely make it halfway through before I was like, “Oh, I’m a sinner” (laughs).
(Laughs) It’s not like I’m laughing because you’re crying, obviously, but it’s important that people are touched by it. How could you not be touched by it? Honestly, even if you did a crappy job about this ancient story, it will haunt you because the story is magnificent.

I’m proud, also. National Geographic did an amazing job at making sure they’re as authentic as possible with everything from the set to the clothes to the history of it to Judea to the Romans and what happened politically. I’m just so proud of that, because I think it’s exciting to have one of the most important stories of all time be told in that way.

I’d agree with you in that, too. I watched it, and I kept thinking it was very accurate. There’s attention to detail where other glossed-over productions of Jesus have granted the myth rather than maybe what actually had happened in the story. Watching (the miniseries) actually made me think about how Jesus came to be who He was, especially in the first part of His ministry. When you read the script, did you start to reconsider your ideas for how Jesus’ portrayal? To me, it opened my eyes to a new way He could have been aware of His power, that He had to actually grow into it.
Absolutely, you’re right. That, to me, was an amazing surprise, and I loved it. You know why? Because it made me relate to Him even more. It really, actually, made me feel empowered because that’s what Jesus was all about. He was there to empower us. He was there to make us see what we’re capable of. To see him go through it in that way — it’s not even about arguing His divinity.

Photo courtesy of National Geographic

Photo courtesy of National Geographic

National Geographic did an amazing job at making sure they’re as authentic as possible with everything from the set to the clothes to the history of it to Judea to the Romans and what happened politically. Haaz Sleiman

It’s as simple as this: He chose — as God or however you want to put it — to be born through a woman’s womb. Right? (His divinity) has always been there, but that journey of (discovery) is what makes his journey more relatable to us as human beings. We can be even more empowered when we leave that film and walk away from it and feel like what we are capable of. In the end, it’s about celebrating us, humanity.

Did you find yourself, when you were either going through the scenes when He was a younger man or as He was going through any of the crucifixion, reconsidering any previous thoughts of how that went or even adopt His mindset? I can’t even imagine what that would be, let alone be put in the most realistic position without actually doing it.
Listen, there was that scene where I was carrying the beam, the cross, and I’m dragging it. He has to drag the cross before He’s crucified. The soldier punches Him and tells Him, “Well, love me! Love me, Jesus! Why don’t you love me now?” I’m telling you man, after I said, “I do love you. I do love you,” I went and I sobbed. I couldn’t stop crying. I was sobbing relentlessly. I had to stop myself because it really touches me. That’s what it’s all about. The ability to do that is what it’s all about. It’s not easy. The fact that He did that is everything to me. That’s the best way I can answer that.

I don’t know if that answers your question, but it touches me so deeply because I get it. I know it’s the truth. For me, I’m just in awe of it. Did it change my way of thinking? It’s more I’m just in awe of it and I aspire to be that way. I hope that one day I could do that.

Yeah, I don’t mean to change your thinking. There are things about Jesus’ teaching that regardless of religion are very pertinent today. Like in the scene where He starts preaching about loving your enemies and people start rejecting it and telling Him, “You’re crazy. That’s weakness.” You could hear that happening on a football field today. Is there anything you took with you that you were like, “Man, that’s something I really, like, I need to work on that.”
Yes, absolutely. You hit it on the… man, that’s perfect. You said it beautifully, and that’s exactly it. I think, “Wow, I want that. I want to do that. I want that in my life. I want to be able to be that person that can love his enemy.” Absolutely part of me thinks, “How the hell? How do I do that?” It’s really the most difficult thing, but it is really the most freeing and empowering thing you can ever do. Love is the most powerful thing. There’s nothing more powerful than love. In that sense, if you are connected with love, then you can probably get to a place of loving your enemy. It’s more powerful, there, to love your enemy than to hate your enemy, actually. Think about it.

Yes, of course.
It’s funny. In that scene, he said, “It’s weak. You preach weakness.” No, it’s the opposite, because love…

You know?

It takes more of a man to love his enemy.
Yeah, absolutely. Yes, in that sense, you better believe it. I am trying to do that, and I’m in this film doing just that. That was probably the most powerful — and the strongest — thing that affected me and resonated with me.

The miniseries premieres Palm Sunday, March 29, as a three-hour docudrama.

Killing Jesus was posted on March 12, 2015 for HM Magazine and authored by .