OUARZAZATE, MOROCCO. When the story of Jesus is told, the name of “Herod the Great” is rarely accompanied by applause.
That is not the case on the central Moroccan set of National Geographic's “Killing Jesus” in late October 2014.
We're off to the side of a towering, multi-tiered set standing in for The Temple in Jerusalem, bearing witness to endless repetitions of a shot featuring Herod and an assortment of priests ascending the steps. Kelsey Grammer has been off to the side of video village watching as robed stand-ins went up and down the steps making sure the light was right, serving as a cheerleader to get the shot and move on.
Grammer's motivation becomes clear an hour later when the shot is finally locked and a bellowing voice declares, “That's a wrap for Kelsey Grammer.”
For one brief moment, Herod is beloved by all and takes in the adulation from the cast and crew.
[Grammer later claims that he wasn't thinking of his own exit when urging the director to get the shot. “I actually started to worry about John Rhys-Davies,” he says of his equally heavily costumed co-star. “I thought 'This is not fair to him.' It”s challenging.” Rhys-Davies, for his part, was sitting happily in the shade talking off-the-record with reporters about an astounding array of topics.]
Soon after, Grammer has stripped down to casual clothes and is settled in a tent, eating a late lunch with co-star Eoin Macken. Grammer plays Herod the Great. Macken plays Herod Antipas. This is the sort of thing likely to confuse some potential viewers, but not the ideal core audience from NatGeo's audience of Bill O'Reilly/Martin Dugard bestseller. [Grammer confuses things even more when he admits that when he was 17, he played Herod in “Jesus Chris Superstar,” nodding to Macken, “But it's your Herod.”]
There's a small group of reporters on the set and we've been broken into secular and religious press. The secular group, a trio of international reporters and myself, are the people more likely to get confused and we're chatting with Grammer about what drew him to the role.
“Well listen, you know, honestly it”s a job,” Grammer says. “That”s what draws you to any character. I got a phone call a month ago and they said, 'Do you want to come and play Herod and we”re going to shoot in Morocco.' I said 'Yeah, why not. Send the script over and I”ll have a look at it.' And usually when you read your character”s gone by page 13 you think well, that”s not a very big deal. But in this case I thought, 'That”s perfect because it”s just the right amount of work. It makes an impact and off he goes.' So I get away in a clean get away and it appealed to me. I piggybacked the family on a trip to London because we”d just had a son. We wanted to visit the family and my wife”s from England so they said, 'Sure, we”ll throw on some tickets for them and we”ll fly you to Morocco from London and it all came together.'”
It would be a massive understatement to say that Grammer is being just a little disingenuous here. There are things Grammer almost certainly does merely because they're jobs, but “Killing Jesus” isn't one. Grammer is a man of faith and he's never been shy when it comes to discussing his ideology or his religious background. Members of the religious press contingent reported that in their roundtable, Grammer got choked up several times talking about the subject matter. That didn't happen in our secular group, but Grammer was certainly passionate when the idea was raised that faith-based productions might sometimes face challenges from wide audiences.
“Gosh, I think faith is a wonderful thing,” Grammer says. “And I even think religion”s a wonderful thing. I know a lot of people want to say, ‘Religion”s the only reason that man has had any trouble at all,” but you know what? World War I and World War II were not fought because of religious reasons. So the greatest amount of cruelty to one another, the greatest amount of death has been rained down upon each other by simple ideology and acquisition or whatever, but very rarely honestly just motivated by religion. There are some instances and some of the more current in which we are facing that element. We”ll see how that works out but I don”t have any difficulty doing a show that”s about faith or doing a show that actually even is affirmative about faith.”
On the subject of religion, Grammer waxes rhapsodic, “And what”s wonderful about religion? Some of the greatest achievements ever have been achieved as a result of the Church. The Catholic Church, I”m not Catholic but yeah, the Church for instance, you take a walk through the Vatican and to your right is the double helix staircase build I think in 1138 or something. So that the model for the human DNA was actually built by an artist 1,000 years before they discovered it. Pretty remarkable. All of the great music ever written is based upon the Mass. I mean it”s pretty extraordinary stuff and I think it”s done the world some good. And if you take a look at some of the mosques in the world, it calls you to worship the kind of beauty that”s in there. The intricacy, the expression of <an and his connection to the universe and to his Creator has brought about some of the most extraordinary things ever. And unfortunately some, you know, some war. And that seems to be part of it as well but that”s in the Bible.”
But, as was alluded to earlier, Grammer is playing one of the more hated figures in New Testament-era history, the Roman client king of Judea who is, at the most kind, described as an evil genius and is more frequently just derided as a lunatic. Herod isn't exactly the sole villain of “Killing Jesus,” but the threat from Baby Jesus is so significant that Herod may or may not have ordered all boys under the age of two in Bethlehem to be killed. The Massacre of the Innocents is more a piece of Biblical “history” than actual documentable history, but it's what Grammer knew about Herod.
“See I grew up reading the bible and I went to Sunday school all the time so I felt a connection to it,” Grammer recalls. “But the phrases that I felt the connection to it, you know ‘And he slaughtered the children,” right? 'That were under two.' So I thought ‘God there were hundreds and hundreds of children.” And then I realized ‘Oh it was probably a tiny village and there weren”t all that many people there at the time. I was looking at some historical stuff. There”s a painting where they assume it”s about a dozen children, which made it in some weird way it diminished my sense of the horror which is maybe even more horrible but maybe that”s because I was playing him. But that he took one life in that way is staggering but he was part of the great plan. And he survived in the world he lived in and the world he lived in was the one that was ready for Christ.”
Whatever icky things Herod may have done as rule, medically speaking, Reilly and Dugard are graphic and gross when it comes to describing the problems infecting Herod below the belt. This is not for the faint of heart, but Reilly & Dugard write that Herod had “a horrible version of gangrene that has caused his genitals to rot, turn black and become infested with maggots…”
All together now… Ew.
It's a passage icky and memorable enough that I ask Grammer about how much of that carries over into his character interpretation. Grammer laughs.
“Honestly we made it a definitive kind of choice about his state of disrepair,” Grammer says. “He”s visited by the creature. He”s a little bit nutty. He gets visited by Isaiah, the prophet, and condemned to suffer a pestilence, you know, that kind of thing. And from that time on really is when these things manifested in the narrative. By the time I”m wandering the parapets and just before I expire he”s pretty loaded with stuff. We didn”t spend a lot of time, you know, drawing pictures. I was just walking like my balls were heavy. There was more in there than you thought there was. So a couple of hitchhikers.”
Please note my relative restraint in not giving this story the headline “Kelsey Grammer played his 'Killing Jesus' role 'like my balls were heavy.'”
But once again… icky…
The reality is that for Grammer, this was just another way that the Emmy winner was able to humanize a character who might often be portrayed as subhuman.
Grammer continues, “But I also took that as a kind of a testament to this guy”s will to live and his, you know, to survive in that way for that long. I mean it rained for 30 or 40 years. I don”t know exactly how many it is. He must have survived all kinds of plots on his life and attacks and everything else, and the Romans and the Jews and all of Judea, you know. He was pulling some crazy balancing act for a long time. I mean it was a high pressure job.”
The story being told in “Killing Jesus” is one that, over centuries, has been used many times as a foundation for general Anti-Semitism and for specific persecution of the Jewish people. Out in a tent on the edge of the Moroccan desert, I ask Grammer about this history and why this Passion retelling will be different.
“I think the people, the players in this act, right, the players in this drama were meant to do what they did and that”s all there is to it,” Grammer replies. “And Christ suffering was necessary for it to be believable at all, for it to cast a shadow through the universe. He had to go through all this, somebody had to be the bad guy. It doesn”t mean they”re bad. In retrospect all their actions are actually understandable. I mean ours are. When you get to humanize it, I think maybe I actually put a better face on him in a strange way. But people who are anti- this or that, especially anti-Semitic they may have deep rooted hostility that”s taught. And I really think it comes from that. I”m not sure anybody draws on the New Testament as a reason to hate the Jews. I just think that it was something that happened and became a popular thing. I mean Hitler”s Germany was driven mostly by the fact that they were rich and the rest of the population wasn”t. What became the answer? Take everything they have and their lives. There was a radical form of nationalism. I don”t think it was religiously based at all.”
There will be plenty of new permutations on this story, because “Killing Jesus” is one of a slew of Biblically based productions shooting around Ourzazate. Grammer suggests it may stem from the success of History's “The Bible,” or perhaps something bigger is involved.
“Maybe God said, ‘You know what? We”ve got to start talking about faith again. We”ve got to start talking about alternatives to what”s been happening now. You know a lot of people are abandoning faith and maybe that”s not such a great thing,'” Grammer says. “I don”t know. Maybe it does blithe our experience to actually believe in something bigger than ourselves. Because right now everybody”s doing this all the time and that”s Facebook and this book and that book. And ‘Oh, it”s all about me, me, what”s my page, this page? ‘Maybe we”re supposed to start lifting our heads up again. I don”t know. Maybe it”s bigger than anybody thought.”
“Killing Jesus” premieres on Sunday, March 29 at 8 p.m. on National Geographic.
And be sure to check out our exclusive behind-the-scenes Kelsey Grammer clip above.