‘Killing Jesus’ star Haaz Sleiman talks crucifixion, spirituality and pressure

[Read my more exhaustive “Killing Jesus” set report here.]

OUARZAZATE, MOROCCO. It's late October in central Morocco and Haaz Sleiman is worried about crucifixion.

Because context is important, it should be noted that Sleiman is sitting in a tent on the set of National Geographic's “Killing Jesus” and he's playing Jesus. We're deep into production on the adaptation of Bill O'Reilly and Martin Dugard book, but director Christopher Menaul has saved perhaps the hardest scene for late in the shoot.

“It's a messed up way to die,” Sleiman reflects. “It's probably the most gruesome awful way to die and comparing to any other kind of torture it's like the ultimate because it's also humiliating. They have you walking naked and dragging the beam.  I mean the thought of me as Haaz walking with a beam naked, nothing… It would mortified me.  I mean I would be terrified.  So imagine someone actually really had to go through that.  And if I had to do that on the set? A part of me would have liked to walk naked, to be honest with you, because it would be terrifying for me and that would feed me so much to work with as an actor, but just even that on it's own made me feel something very profound like for people who went through that.”

He reflects, “I am a little bit afraid to be honest with you, and not to be dramatic I'll tell you why.  Because I try as much as I can to really believe that I'm going through this and to believe it in my body so there's going to be a pain.  Even if they're not cutting through me I have to somehow trick my mind to feel the pain otherwise it's going to be just forced and acted out.”

Sleiman has another unusual reason to be worried. He's heard from other Jesuses that crucifixion, even crucifixion for television, is hard. The title star of History's “Jesus Code” is also shooting in the same Moroccan city and  he and Sleiman spoke about the experience and the amount of time spent on the cross, even attached to a harness.

“He said he lost the feeling of his nerve in his arm hurt.  And I'm like, 'Well it came back right?'  He's like, 'No it's still gone.'  I'm like, 'Are you kidding me?'  I'm like, 'Well that's not good.'  So one has to make sure that I'm okay as well, because once the production is done it's me and myself and I,” Sleiman says.

Of course, Sleiman's nervousness isn't just about a difficult day of stunt-shooting for his character. He's aware that he's playing a figure who is worshipped as a messianic figure for billions. 

“[I]t's always daunting because you don't want to disappoint,” Sleiman says.  “But then if you go in that direction then you're doing the wrong thing.  If you're like worrying about 'What people are going to think?' then you're not going to be truthful, you're just worrying about the outcome.  So I think what's important is the truth for me; what it is for me and my body and how it feels when I'm on the set and the story that we're trying to tell, and then whatever happens after that you left to go.  I mean you can't control – I'm definitely not interested in trying to control people's reaction because that's what ends up happening if you're worried about what people think you're trying to control how they're going to react to what you do.  And it's impossible.  It's an illusion if you think you can do it.  And if you try, good luck.”

And in certain corners, Sleiman's casting was immediately greeted with concern. It wasn't that certain Christian groups took exception to Sleiman's acting gifts, which have been showcased on the big screen in the Oscar nominated “The Visitor” and on TV in “Nurse Jackie,” “24” and “Nikita.” No, Sleiman's own faith was the problem.

“I'm not religious,” he says. “I was raised Muslim, but I'm very spiritual.  So I consider myself a Christian/Muslim/Jewish/atheist, all of it.  I like to be inclusive of everyone.  It doesn't matter what your belief is, it's all about one truth, which is we all come from the same place.  No one can argue with me about that.  And we all breathe the same air.  No one can argue with me about that.  So those are the truths that interest me and are part of my spirituality.”

The groups taking issue with Sleiman's casting didn't praise National Geographic for bringing in an actor of Middle Eastern descent. Born and raised in Lebanon, Sleiman is almost certainly closer to Jesusian than a Jim Caviezel or Willem Dafoe. Sleiman's casting also stands out given that “Killing Jesus” was produced by Ridley Scott, whose “Exodus” is being accused of racial whitewashing as this conversation is taking place.

“Listen, it's very important and it's great and I'm glad that I get to be part of that,” Sleiman says.  “I never signed for that and it's a wonderful plus to do this with that in mind the fact that National Geographic is really wanting to make sure that they can be as authentic as possible with the region and all of that.  And so I think it's great because it also creates an opportunity to have a dialogue about it, which has been happening.  And I think it's time.  It just makes sense that we would have something like that.  And I think why do I think it's important?  Why not?  Why not?  Think about it: Why was it only white Jesus' before?  That's how I would answer your question then by that question.  It shouldn't be a really big deal, honestly, that's what I think.  Meaning the fact that this is happening, but it's interesting that it is a big deal.  But that's what's interesting that it is a big deal and it shouldn't be, but it is.”

Performance-wise, Sleiman is asking himself What Would Jesus Do, but in a very specific way.

“[W]hat I'm trying to do is try to make him as human as possible,” he explains.  “I'm interested in that more than ethereal otherworldly qualities.  Because when you cut him he bled; when you punched him he feels the pain so I don't differentiate that from anything else that makes him human, you know, desires, Mary Magdalene.  I mean like getting angry.  Maybe sometimes like reacting in a way that you wouldn't think Jesus would react, but as humans we have all these different facets and I'm interested in – the story for me as a whole is more about us humans and just honoring us and our beauty and just all of our facets without judgment.  And I think partly then showing his humanity would be part of the bigger picture for me.”

“Killing Jesus” premieres on Sunday, March 29 at 8 p.m. on National Geographic.