On TV and in the movies, Jesus has been played by various nationalities, including Americans, Brits, and even a Swede (Max Von Sydow in The Greatest Story Ever Told), and there’s never been a religious litmus test for taking on the part.
But critics have long complained that, while Jesus’s mother was Jewish, most of the actors who play him are of non-Jewish European descent (which is nothing new, since depictions of Christ in art over the centuries have varied from olive-skinned with dark hair and eyes, to blond and blue-eyed, and just about everything in between).
In National Geographic Channel’s production of Killing Jesus, based on the historical thriller by Fox News host Bill O’Reilly and historian Martin Dugard, which will film in Morocco, producers have opted for casting that’s geographically closer to the original.
On Oct. 6, the casting for the movie was announced–click here for more details–and the coveted title role went to actor Haaz Sleiman.
Born in the United Arab Emirates and raised in Lebanon–but resident in the U.S. since he was 21, when he came to America in hopes of becoming a recording artist–Sleiman got lot of positive attention for playing a Syrian illegal immigrant in the 2007 indie film The Visitor.
Here’s an interview he did in 2009:
Today, the actor reacted to the announcement, reposting the story about it from The Hollywood Reporter, and writing:
This is one of the most powerful and inspiring stories ever told. I’m honored and humbled to be given this gift. Jesus’ message of peace and unconditional love is as vital today as ever, no matter the color of your skin, gender, beliefs or nationality. The story is a celebration of our magnificence as humans and the strength, compassion, and empathy we can uphold towards one another.
Although casting a Muslim in the role of Jesus could be considered provocative, National Geographic Channel spokesman Christopher Albert told Breitbart News that it wasn’t even a consideration.
In an email, he wrote:
We hired the best actor for all the roles. That was our one and only criteria for casting this movie, which we are incredibly excited about. Haaz in particular blew us away in The Visitor, and was on our short list from the start.
When he came in and read for producers in L.A., we knew we had the perfect actor for the role. And we, of course, don’t ask anyone what their religion or any other affiliation is when they audition for a part and certainly don’t discriminate based on religion or anything else.
Killing Jesus is set to air globally on National Geographic Channel in 2015.