From Jeffrey Hunter and Max von Sydow to Robert Powell and Willem Dafoe, the actors who play Jesus have been strikingly European, ethnically speaking. Even Campus Crusade's Jesus movie, which once advertised the fact that all the Jewish supporting characters were played by local Israeli actors, cast British actor Brian Deacon in the central role.

Haaz Sleiman in 'Killing Jesus'

Haaz Sleiman in 'Killing Jesus'

Over the last few years, however, filmmakers have been aiming for greater accuracy in their depictions of Jesus and his kin. As controversial as The Passion of the Christ was, Mel Gibson did make a point of altering Jim Caviezel's appearance, going so far as to digitally change the actor's eyes from blue to brown. The Nativity Story cast a Maori girl as the Virgin Mary and Palestinian and Iranian actors as her relatives. The Lumo Project, whose Gospel of John came out on Netflix last year, cast an actor of South Asian descent as Jesus.

And now, Haaz Sleiman—born in the United Arab Emirates and raised in Lebanon—may be the first actual Middle Eastern actor to play the Middle Eastern carpenter at the heart of Christian faith in an English-language movie. The film in question, Killing Jesus, is an adaptation of the book by Bill O'Reilly and Martin Dugard, and it airs on the National Geographic Channel on March 29 (Palm Sunday).

Sleiman, who was raised Muslim, might be best known for playing an illegal immigrant in The Visitor, which earned him an Independent Spirit Award nomination in 2008. Sleiman spoke to me after attending the world premiere of Killing Jesus at the Sun Valley Film Festival in Idaho earlier this month. What follows is an edited version of our conversation.

So how was it, seeing the finished film?

I have to see it again. That's just how it works, man. You watch it and there's a lot going through your mind, and you want to see it again.

I did a movie called The Visitor that I shot a while ago, and the director, Tom McCarthy, I remember he screened it for me at the agency, and before he screened it, he was like, "Watch it, and then we're going to go to the bar and get some drinks." He knew why I needed to get some drinks, because as actors, you watch it and have expectations. I actually hated my work in The Visitor, but then it was one of the most well-received things I've ever done in my life. So I don't want to make it about me, I don't want to talk about me.

In terms of the film itself, I thought it was beautiful. I always thought from the script it was beautiful, and the intention that they had for it, so seeing the film was not in any way an exception, and I just loved the idea of telling the story in the most humanly way possible, and the final product didn't in any way disappoint in that sense. And that's the most important thing for me. A lot of these productions make it sort of ethereal and otherworldly and not relatable almost, and I think in this production, we were able to somehow hopefully make the movie relatable—I think we did—and I'm really proud of that.

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One of the really interesting things about the film is the focus it gives to Jesus' family. Practically the first thing we see the adult Jesus do is throw some food at James. Was that a piece of bread or something?


Haaz Sleiman in 'Killing Jesus'

Haaz Sleiman in 'Killing Jesus'

And then of course, later on, you have the scenes where you meet your brother, and you talk about the fact that he doesn't believe, and then he's there later on for the Passion as well. So any thoughts on that?

Absolutely. It's about celebrating humanity. So throwing the piece of bread is the fun of it. The closeness and the specificity of the relationship between people, and how beautiful that can be, and the playfulness of that. And I think that is so important. As people, we all have families, right? Who cannot relate to that? Even if you didn't have maybe the best experience of family, you can still understand and get what that means and what that represents, for a human being growing up, and what family means in terms of your growth as a person. So it's a heightened state of caring and love and connection with family.

During the Q&A, you talked about how, when you got the role, you talked to your mother about it. What were her words again?

"Bless you, my son, for playing our prophet, peace be upon him."

Right. I thought that was interesting, because we've heard plenty of talk about how you can't depict the prophets [in some Islamic traditions], and I know that in Egypt there's been controversies over films about Joseph and so forth, and it was interesting to hear that your mother encouraged you like that.

Well, in Islam, Jesus is a prophet, and if you look at Mohammed and Jesus and Moses, it's not like Moses is better than Jesus and Jesus is better than Mohammed. They're all so highly respected and honored and followed and they're all there for a reason. Jesus is probably even more important than Mohammed in a way. He came before Mohammed, and I think he's mentioned in the Koran so many times, people would be shocked.

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I've heard that there's an entire chapter on Mary.

Oh absolutely! Absolutely. So it's an honor for me, as someone who was raised Muslim, to play him. It's beyond an honor. Now, I know that in Islam, they sometimes say you cannot put a face on Mohammed, and equally they say you cannot put a face on Jesus. I think they came to celebrate humanity and show us how beautiful we are. So yes, absolutely, for me, it is in no way degrading to them, because that's what they came for—for us. Why else would God send them to us, if that's your belief? So if we feel like it's degrading to be human, that is exactly the problem that we've been dealing with all our lives, for all the centuries: that we think being human is degrading and unworthy. That is why there's so much pain and suffering, because we believe that.

Haaz Sleiman in 'Killing Jesus'

Haaz Sleiman in 'Killing Jesus'

What scene did you like filming the most? People always ask what's the hardest scene; I want to know which one you liked the most.

Hmm. I liked many. I don't want to sound cheesy, but I loved scenes like the leprosy scene, or the scene with the child that was possessed. And the mother, Mary, those scenes with his family. I loved those scenes because it was an opportunity to show what we as human beings are capable of, miracles or not. I think of the intensity of the love he had for his mother and the amount of pain that he felt, that he actually had to make her go through that. He knew that he was going to make his mother see her own child go through all of that, but he still did it, knowing that it was for a bigger cause. That's what we as human beings are capable of. And that, to me, was beautiful.

And I also love how he looks at those people, the meek. He never looks at them as weak, he always looks at them as strong. So for me, going on that day on the set, knowing that that was my intention—they are not weak, they are not less than me or anybody else around me—they're equal, is what it's all about. Every day we can walk around and see a homeless guy, a prostitute, somebody who's lost, and right away we feel sorry for them and we feel that they're weak, but actually that's not the truth, and that's why those are my favorite moments.

How about the journey of Jesus' self-discovery? The Jesus you play is very human, and yet he has this sense of a destiny or calling that most people don't have, so how do you make that relatable or play those parts of the story without making him seem like he's out of his mind? Not to put too fine a point on it.

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Yeah, yeah, totally. I know people in my life that are exactly like that, and have healed people, and have done amazing things. I know a person in my life that has been able to pick up on energy just from being in New York and then coming to L.A. because they knew somebody was going to die, and they had to save that person. This stuff happens all the time, every day in our lives today. I think the idea of self-discovery and the journey of that is as human as it gets. And the fact that Jesus, the Son of God, had to be born through a woman says it all for me. He didn't have to go through all that. But no, there was a reason. And so he had to go through all of that to get to that place.

The trick with Jesus films has always been to make him someone you can identify with as a person, but not to go too far with that, because after a while, if you go too far with that, he becomes just another guy, and I think there has to be something a little "strange" about Jesus.

It's funny that you say he has something strange or different. Do you know how many people have that quality? Human beings that have that quality that you're talking about? You'd be surprised, but there are many human beings that have that quality, that specific thing that you call otherworldly or strange and it's different. Because here's the thing. If you really want to bring it down to the essence of it all, we think being human is weak. But we don't think enough that it is beautiful and powerful and compassionate.

It takes a certain kind of consciousness and awareness to be able to do that. But it's about having the ability to not judge. When Jesus goes and says, "I do love you," to somebody who is punching him and beating him up, then it's exactly what I'm talking about. It's really the most difficult thing, to not have judgment, but it's the most freeing thing. And so Jesus didn't say it for no reason, when he says, "Judge not so that you not be judged."

What about saying "tear down this temple" and stuff like that? Isn't he judging the priests?

No! It's no different from someone coming and waking you up. "Wake up! Wake up, stop!" In humanity, it's okay that we have these different emotions. It's about not judging even that. It's about being able to move to a more elevated place, which is what he did. Yes, he reacted in that way, but he also had a plan. He was trying to provoke them, so they could actually crucify him so he'd fulfill the prophecy. So he was doing that for a reason, too.

Peter T. Chattaway writes about Bible movies and other films at his Patheos blog.