Killing Jesus

The Muslim-raised actor starring in National Geographic Channel’s Killing Jesus has defended his casting against the notion that he’s somehow inappropriate for the role.

A reporter at the the Television Critics Association press tour Wednesday told actor Haaz Sleiman (Nurse Jackie, 24), an American actor who was raised in Lebanon, that some Christian conservatives weren’t thrilled with his casting in the project. “In Islam, we believe Jesus is a prophet and respect him and follow his teachings and put him beside the Prophet Muhammad — a lot of people don’t know that,” Sleiman said. “As a person who was raised Muslim, it’s an honor to play that…Personally, I’ve been heavily shaped by his teachings.”

As for his reaction to any disapproval, the actor said, “I cannot speak for Jesus, but I can quote his teachings and he said, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself’… How would he react to me playing Jesus? He wouldn’t judge it. He wouldn’t judge his own enemy … playing this part highlights his teaching in a very nice way.”

Later a reporter asked Sleiman what he first thought when he landed the role: “Jesus!” he said, drawing laughs. Then Sleiman added, more seriously: “I’m going to sound cheesy right now: The first thing I thought was ‘love.’ I really just felt love in the moment. He has influenced me heavily prior to getting this part and there’s nothing more powerful than that, and that’s what’s going to lead me through the whole journey. Every time I look at another cast member or member of crew, that I have love for them unconditionally no matter what they do. That was the first thing I felt — and then I called my mother, who said, ‘…bless you for playing Jesus, peace be upon him.’ I thought that was lovely.”

Killing Jesus is based on the bestselling book by Bill O’Reilly and Martin Dugard and will air as a three-hour film on NatGeo this year. The project costars Kelsey Grammer (Boss) as King Herod and Stephen Moyer (True Blood) as Pontius Pilate and include actors from a wide range of faiths and backgrounds.

Credit: Lewis Jacobs/NBC