What it’s Like Playing Jesus: an Interview With Jonathan Roumie

“The Chosen” TV series is spreading like wildfire. Written and directed by Dallas Jenkins, this series chronicles the life of Jesus and His Apostles, giving an intimate yet relatable look into the story of Salvation History. Each of the 8 episodes of Season 1 brings to life a Gospel passage or a New Testament character in a profoundly real and engaging way. It feels like you’re watching any other hit TV show: it’s well-produced, well-written, funny and action-packed. Yet behind this familiar packaging, there’s something much deeper at play, something you don’t see in your average Netflix series binge: each piece of dialogue and each plotline is edifying, prayerful, and leaves you desiring authentic relationship with Jesus. Talk about different!

A big part of its success lies, no doubt, with Jesus’ actor, Jonathan Roumie. Roumie shows us a tender, funny, and personal side to Christ, offering a performance that enriches prayer and invites the audience to know the person of Jesus in a new and intimate way. He has led live streams praying the Divine Mercy chaplet throughout quarantine and is not shy about sharing his love for Christ with audiences of any belief system. So we wanted to dig a little deeper into what it’s like to portray the God of the Universe, and how Roumie’s faith influenced his role on “The Chosen.” I reached out to him with a few questions and here’s what he had to say…

Faith Noah: How did you first begin portraying Jesus in your acting career? What attracted you to tackle such a significant role?
I first got hired to play Jesus in a one-woman traveling show with multimedia elements about the life of Saint Faustina, a Polish nun, who had a series of visions of Jesus Christ where He appeared to her and told her to write everything down that He said. She wrote it all in a diary that you can now read called “The Diary of Saint Faustina” and this led to a widespread devotion called Divine Mercy that became a part of the Church holiday schedule. The first Sunday after Easter is called Divine Mercy Sunday. So this play was about Saint Faustina and how Divine Mercy came to be. In it, and in these multimedia elements, there were scenes where there would be a screen behind the actress playing Saint Faustina and on the screen were projected other characters, other scenes, with whom the actress on the stage would interact. I played Jesus Christ for that show, which traveled around for about four years with the actress that I knew, Maria Vargo, who was going to become my friend and my non-profit theater company partner. The show was still traveling with another actress before the pandemic and if you watch the show, you can still see me. Actually, a version of that play is being turned into a film so, at some point soon, you will be able to see the very first footage of me as Jesus in the film. That was the first time I ever played Jesus.

What attracted me to tackle such a significant role was that I had the opportunity to try to step into the heart and spirit of my Savior, which I had never done before. I had always had an active prayer life but this was an opportunity to deepen that prayer life by trying to imagine how He would react with the people, in this case Saint Faustina, who He was giving a message to.

FN: In “The Chosen,” Jesus is a warm, approachable, and often even surprisingly funny character. What attributes of Jesus do you specifically aim to convey in your portrayal of Him, and why?
My main goal is to portray Christ’s heart and love for all of humanity. For me, as an actor, that begins with relating to my scene partners and everyone around me with a much more open heart, a sense of compassion and kindness. When things have the opportunity to upset a person’s balance of peace, which happens often as humans, I try to see it as an opportunity to rise beyond that and practice compassion, patience and humility as often as I can.

FN: The impact of this series is due in part to the fantastic acting and writing, but also undoubtedly to the centrality of faith to its mission. How has the faith impacted your performance, and how do you integrate it into the role?
My faith has been an integral part in my preparation for the role. In order to honestly portray any character you have to start with personal truth and really define what that is for you, especially regarding certain traits in a character. In this case, doing any and as much research that I could do – so I read a lot, I prayed a lot, and when I had the opportunity to go to Mass, even while I was on location, in between filming days, I would try to go to Mass and go to Confession and receive the Eucharist as often as I could because it just helped me draw closer to Christ and bring more of His humanity and His heart to my consciousness which I would then utilize as best I could in the role in the scenes.

FN: What has your portrayal of the Lord taught you about Jesus’ humanity and closeness with each of us?
Well, that He loves us and that He doesn’t want us to get in our own way by focusing too much on our theological differences. As He chided the Pharisees of His day, it’s not about the letter of the law but the heart of the law, and that for me has been the standard by which I try to practice my faith. That’s not to say that I practice my faith just based on how I’m feeling, of course not; but I’m not getting into arguments over theology with people that differ from my view. I’m not condemning them, I’m not judging them, I’m just trying to live my life with compassion, forgiveness, mercy and humility because I feel that’s what Christ is asking of me. I hold a prayer hour every day, currently on Instagram, at 3:00pm (Pacific), Holy Hour, I try to stress ecumenicism and invite folks of all denominations to join me in prayer. We pray the Chaplet of Divine Mercy, the Litany of Humility and the Litany of Trust and I’m joined by people of all denominations. So the prayers, while they may come in a Catholic container, are ecumenical in their intention and in their outreach because I think Christ invited everyone to the table, not just Catholics or Protestants but all of humanity was invited to take part in the Lamb’s Supper and He invites us every day of our lives to be a part of that by choosing Him. There are so many examples in the gospels of this; the one specifically that comes to mind is one of the ones that we depicted in the show, which was the Samaritan woman at the well [from Episode 8].

FN: Lastly, as we share your words with young people across the world, what would you hope they take away from this show?
First, that Jesus loves them. I hope that they take away that Jesus lived as one of us. He was as human as anybody who is watching the show is in all ways, of course except sin; but that He went through every emotion, every struggle, every trial, every stage of life except old age, of course. He experienced life as a baby then a toddler, He had to learn how to talk, He had to learn language, He had to learn how to count, how to read. He laughed, He cried, He skinned His knee, He felt pain. He felt anger, He felt betrayal, He felt joy, He felt happiness, He felt love. He was a teenager, He went through puberty, He was a young adult; all of those things, He experienced. That by depicting Him in the context of His interpersonal relationships with His friends and with His family, having gone through everything that we go through in life and growing up, that everybody watching can hopefully feel a little bit closer to Jesus as a man, as a person who they might have known if they had lived at that time. And that now, in our own time, in our own century, that we all can feel closer to Jesus through our struggles and trials and through prayer and throughout it all, just how much He truly loves each and every one of us.

The Chosen is available to stream on The Chosen app and for free through their Quarantine-Livestream on Youtube. To join Jonathan’s 3:00 PM PST live stream, follow him on Facebook or Instagram — @jonathanroumieofficial.