In the beginning, there was The Bible. And the ratings were miraculous.
Indeed, so many folks tuned in to watch the lavishly produced miniseries when it aired last year on the History cable network, The Bible begat not only a sequel — tentatively titled A.D.: Beyond the Bible, and set to run next year on NBC — but also a feature film: Son of God, the birth-to-crucifixion-to-resurrection-and-beyond story of Jesus Christ.
Like The Bible before it, Son of God comes to us from the husband-and-wife producing team of Mark Burnett, the British-American TV mogul behind such successful reality shows as Survivor and The Voice, and Roma Downey, the Irish-born, stage-trained actress best known to television viewers as the benevolent seraphim Monica in Touched By an Angel.
But there was no mistaking her assurance that her new and improved version is, if not superior, then more attuned to contemporary sensibilities.
Downey — who also plays the key supporting role of the Virgin Mary in Son of God — visited Houston two weeks ago to spread the good news about her movie, which opens in English and Spanish language versions this weekend in theaters across North America. She seemed at once winningly gracious and unabashedly enthusiastic, sounding as though she already envisioned multitudes massing at the multiplexes.
Of course, if the prophecies of trade papers and industry insiders are to be believed, Downey has just cause for optimism. Advance ticket sales are nothing short of humongous, due largely — but by no means entirely — to mass purchases by churches and faith-based groups. Does that mean the Biblical-based drama (which, not incidentally, is being released by 20th Century Fox) can compete with more traditional Hollywood product?
Well, consider: Earlier this week, The Hollywood Reporter, keen on the 2 ½-hour epic’s potential as an audience magnet, posted the provocative headline: “Box-Office Preview: Can Son of God Crucify Non-Stop?”
In Houston, Downey politely acknowledged the merits of previous films — ranging from George Stevens’ The Greatest Story Ever Told to Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ — based on the gospels. But there was no mistaking her assurance that her new and improved version is, if not superior, then more attuned to contemporary sensibilities. And she smiled when a visitor pointed out the obvious: In sharp contrast to Gibson’s controversial 2004 passion play, Son of God seems to better understand that Christians don’t continue to worship Jesus because he suffered and died — they worship him because they believe he triumphed over death.
Nothing like a story with a happy ending, right?
CultureMap: After playing an angel for nine seasons on television, you’re now playing Mary, the Mother of God. Does this qualify as a promotion?
Roma Downey: [Laughs] Hey, listen, all I can say is: From Touched by an Angel to The Bible and The Son of God — can you see a theme in my life at work here?
CM: I would image one of your biggest challenges as a producer — maybe your biggest challenge, period — was finding the right actor for the title role. Because, let’s face it: In addition to everything else, Jesus Christ had to be, literally, the most charismatic man who ever walked the earth.
RD: It was the most important piece of casting that I’m sure I will ever do. We were just a few weeks from beginning principal photography and we still had not found him. There were millions of dollars at stake here. But I just knew I would know him when I met him. And I hadn’t met him.
I was looking for someone who was strong and charismatic. Who you would believe you’d want to get up and follow. But who had humility and kindness. Who walked in grace. Really, I was looking for someone who could be the lion and the lamb. And we put it out there in prayer. I sent out an email to everybody I knew with the header saying: “Looking for Jesus.”
And through a series of amazing coincidences, we were drawn to Diogo Morgado, who’s a beautiful Portuguese actor.
CM: When did you know this was the guy?
RD: When we reached out, we were sent some videotape on him. And there was a spark in that tape that I saw that made me want to meet him. But when I tried to contact his people, I was concerned that he might be in Lisbon, because he’s Portuguese, and I was in Los Angeles. And that was going to be a long way to go for a meeting. The good news was, I was told he was traveling, and that he would be in LA. It was providential. So I said: “Could he be over here at 3 o’clock this afternoon?”
And the next thing you know, he is walking down our pathway. I called my husband, and we were peeping out the window like a couple of kids. And when he walked down the path, I said: “There he is! There’s our Jesus!” He walked through our door, and into our lives.
"It’s an invitation to a gathering. And I think it’ll touch people’s hearts. When hearts are open, grace can move in."
I can’t imagine anyone else in this role. And I think for generations to come, his performance will be a standard. This movie will still be touching people’s lives when we are long gone.
CM: At the risk of sounding blasphemous, you’ve got lots of familiar dialogue in this movie. I’ve talked with several actors over the years about the challenge of taking a very familiar line — anything from “To be or not to be” to “The name is Bond, James Bond” — and not feeling or appearing self-conscious while saying it. Did you notice any of your actors struggling with this challenge?
RD: To a certain extent, I think every one of the actors experienced moments like that. In Diogo’s case, we sent him when he was initially cast to Jerusalem for a few days, so that he could be there — alone – and walk in the footsteps of the Lord, and have some time for contemplation. And he shared with us that while he was there, he was re-reading the gospels, and preparing in the best way he could for a very daunting challenge ahead — to play Jesus. And he realized that you can absorb everything — but then you have to let it go, and just allow the role to flow through you. Because, really, our job as actors requires us to take any line you say, and find the place in you where it’s the first time you’ve ever said it.
CM: It’s been reported that the 1979 film titled Jesus has been translated into more languages than any other film ever made, to be used all over the world as a missionary tool.
MD: And it has brought more people to Christ than anything else that’s ever been used as a missionary tool.
CM: Well, it’s entirely possible that, down the road, your film will be distributed just as widely, for the same reason.
RD: And with that comes a huge responsibility. Because we’re bringing the gospels to the screen, we had the responsibility to take it seriously, to tell the story accurately, and to be true to the sacred text. And to that end, we worked with theologians and scholars each step of the way. With faith leaders across all denominations, from Joel Osteen here in Houston to Rick Warren. Cardinal Wuerl, Sam Rodriguez, T.D. Jakes out of Dallas ± they all worked with us to hone the message, and to find a place where we all come together.
You know, I think sometimes as Christians, we are known as people who speak out against things. And isn’t it beautiful when we can be speaking out for a thing?
CM: Just to clarify: Son of God features material originally seen in your Bible miniseries, along with outtakes . . .
RD: And new footage.
CM: At what point did you decide you wanted to do, well, a feature film spin-off?
RD: When we were filming in Morocco, we would gather on a weekly basis to look at rough assemblies. We had an editor on the set with us. And as the Jesus narrative started to unfold, we were looking at it on the big screen, and I said to Mark: “We should be making a film. This is so beautiful. This really deserves to be a stand-alone experience.”
So at that time, we stated shooting additional footage with the intention always of having an editor work at putting this together this stand-alone, cinematic experience.
CM: And as they might say in showbiz circles: You’re got the advantage of having a pre-sold property as your source material.
RD: It’s a larger than life story. And it deserves a larger than life presentation. With the new ways we have to tell the story. You know, we have teenagers at home. And when it came to the special effects, they told us: “Don’t make the special effects lame.” And so we hired the Oscar-winning team that did Gladiator to bring miracles to the big screen.
Look, here it is 2014. And we have a new way to reach people. It’s an invitation to a gathering. And I think it’ll touch people’s hearts. When hearts are open, grace can move in.