For an actor, playing one of history’s most revered figures is bound to have overwhelming challenges, not the least of which is whether an audience will believe you in the role.
For Diogo Morgado, who is currently portraying Jesus Christ in the new film “Son of God,” the challenge was rewarded by an unexpected vote of confidence.
“I was concerned, because my mother and my grandmother, they’re both really religious, really Christian,” Morgado told me during a recent interview. “And I called my mom, and she said, ‘You know what? In five minutes, I didn’t see you anymore. It was just Jesus.’ My own mother said that. That’s way more important to me than 100 million [people], because as long as one person feels that connection, our job would be done.”
Whether it matters to Morgado or not, 100 million people have seen and have likely passed judgment on his portrayal of the revered Christian icon.
One year ago, producer Mark Burnett and his wife, actress Roma Downey, sparked a television frenzy with their 10-hour History Channel miniseries event called “The Bible,” which recreated the religious text’s most notable narratives from the books of Genesis to Revelation.
Morgado, a Portuguese native, former model and telenovela star, appeared in the miniseries as Jesus and helped draw a staggering 100 million viewers in total, including 13 million for the first episode. The series’ overwhelming success came as a shock to most, but Burnett and Downey were so confident in the power of their project during production that they were simultaneously planning a jump to theaters.
“A lot of people don’t know that we had ‘Son of God’ well under way before the series came on the screen,” Burnett told me, explaining that the film is a two-hour cut of “The Bible” miniseries featuring only the story of Jesus’ life with enhanced special effects, a new musical score and additional scenes.
“When we were filming the miniseries in Morocco, we would gather our cast and our crew weekly to look at the [series] that was emerging,” Downey said. “And as the Jesus narrative began to unfold, I said to Mark, ‘Wow, we should have been making a film. This is beautiful, I’ve not see the story presented in this way before. Diogo’s performance is amazing.’ We decided there and then that we would make a film. And so we were shooting extra scenes, additional footage, and we started the editing process alongside the editing process for the series.”
While the film will primarily attract those of the Christian faith – the “Son of God” website even includes links to faith-based resources for churches, schools and community groups – Burnett and Downey say the movie is not exclusive.
“Everything begins with intention, and our intention on this was to create something that would bring people together,” Downey said, adding that her teenage children were wowed by the film’s special effects. “It’s an engaging, exciting – as Mark described, almost like a thriller.”
“The political thriller aspect, I think, is something for a secular audience,” Burnett elaborated. “If you have never read the Bible or don’t really know who Jesus is – and not really sure you necessarily want to know – if you’re sharp, you’re gonna get taken on this very, very intense political thriller. And yet, in the center of it all is this really personal love story, which is the most important story ever, right?”
It’s been 10 years since Mel Gibson made headlines with his graphic Crucifixion film “The Passion of the Christ,” and nearly 50 years since Max von Sydow took on the role of Jesus in the 1965 epic “The Greatest Story Ever Told.” The full story, from the Nativity to the Resurrection, has not been presented on the big screen since.
“In the past, ‘Christian movies’ have been presented with good intentions, but not always with excellence in production value,” Downey said. “I believe that ‘Son of God’ stands shoulder to shoulder with any other epic movie.”
This November, Burnett and Downey will bring their larger-than-life storytelling back to television when NBC broadcasts the 12-hour miniseries sequel to “The Bible,” entitled “A.D.” According to Burnett, the series will begin with the Crucifixion and retell events of the “first few decades” that followed.
“It’s got everything – like ‘Lord of the Rings’ or ‘Game of Thrones’ – but wrapped in historic accuracy and scriptural accuracy of the tensest times,” he revealed. “How did 12 guys take down Rome? These Disciples. Unbelievable, right?”
As for a return trip to the big screen after “A.D.,” don’t expect Burnett and Downey to repeat the ambitious task of producing a feature film alongside a TV series.
“We always joke that the real challenge was how do you do all that and be a married couple,” the actress quips. “We really are so grateful, because it has deepened our marriage and our friendship and our faith.”
The opinions expressed are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Comcast.