LOS ANGELES – Bill O’Reilly may be in hot water for allegedly exaggerating his exploits as a war correspondent, but that should do little to dampen interest in “Killing Jesus,” the latest TV movie based on one of his bestselling books.
Previous O’Reilly adaptations, “Killing Kennedy” and “Killing Lincoln,” are the two most watched programs in the National Geographic Channel’s history, attracting more than 3 million viewers for each premiere. This production has even higher ambitions, with airings in 171 countries and 45 languages.
That’s a pretty big investment for a story that’s been told a trillion times.
But executive producer and screenwriter Walon Green contends that his team has a unique take. “The movies that have been done about Jesus have basically been from the point of view of Jesus,” he said. “This is a film that’s really placing a man in his times.”
Shot in the Moroccan desert with a crew of 250 people and 4,500 extras, the film feels so authentic you can almost taste the sand.
The movie avoids Bible thumping. While there’s plenty of preaching, Green’s script is more interested in the man than the miracles. In other words, don’t expect to see Jesus walking on water.
“I think all viewers will really like this film because they can immerse themselves in the human story of this guy,” Green said. “Most people think he’s a good guy, but others think, ‘Uh-oh. This is a bad thing. I don’t know how we are going to deal with this. What if he really catches on and becomes huge? The Romans will come down on us like they’ve done with other apocalyptic people. Will the death of this one man save others?’
“These are not questions that are necessarily religious. They are questions that involve the moral conundrums of today or any time.”
“Jesus” doesn’t just focus on the trial and crucifixion.
At a running time of three hours, the movie covers his entire life and includes figures not often featured in Biblical pics, including the tyrant King Herod (Kelsey Grammer) and his daughter-in-law Herodias (Emmanuelle Chriqui), who schemed with her daughter, Salome, to kill John the Baptist.
Both actors tried not to judge their characters too harshly.
“She did some pretty heinous, despicable things, but when I look at it, as a woman at that time, there weren’t such great options,” Chriqui said. “Once I was able to let go of the judgments, a lot of the truth came to the surface, and that was really amazing and fun.”
Grammer said he figured out how to play Herod once he decided that the king would sleep with a dagger by his side.
“I discovered that he killed some of his own children. That’s just what he did,” he said. “That actually helped me to understand that he wasn’t necessarily evil. He was just a guy who had to do some very despicable things to maintain balance, power and all sorts of things in his own life.”
No one had a bigger challenge than Haaz Sleiman, who plays the title character. His Jesus is more relatable than many we’ve seen in the past, enjoying drinks with his disciples and displaying a sense of humor and more frequent flashes of self-doubt.
How do you channel one of history’s most famous figures?
“I’m going to sound cheesy right now, but that’s OK,” Sleiman said. “The first thing that I thought about was love. I just connected with that feeling of love and having that intention that that’s what’s going to lead me through the whole journey as I do this film and to always remind myself that that’s what this is about, that every time I look at the cast members, every time I look at the crew, the producers, that I have love for them with no judgment no matter what they say or do unconditionally.
“It’s not the easiest thing to do, but I strive for that. I aspire to do that in my life on a personal level.”