VATICAN CITY. It was quite fitting for a Catholic actor and a Christian director of a new streaming series on the life of Jesus to meet Pope Francis on the feast of St. Clare of Assisi, patron saint of televisions and screens.
Jonathan Roumie, who portrays Jesus, and Dallas Jenkins, the series’ director, creator and co-writer, were in Rome as part of an effort to expand the global reach and revenue of the multiseason, crowd-funded series, “The Chosen.”
Jenkins said he told the pope, “I’m a Protestant, but I’m making a show about Jesus that people of all faiths appreciate.” The pope pointed to the bearded, wavy-haired Roumie next to him, asking astutely, “Is he Jesus?”
After Jenkins said, “Yes,” the pope decided to poke some fun, asking Jenkins, “Are you Judas?” sparking a round of laughter.
But, in all seriousness, Jenkins and Roumie have said in multiple interviews, the last thing they are aiming for is to betray the beauty and truth of Jesus.
“I do want people, when they are done watching the show, to feel like they know and love Jesus more or at least want to know and love him more,” Jenkins told reporters.
The problem with most renditions of biblical accounts, he said, is that a two- or three-hour film is not a lot of time to do a deep-dive into the characters, backstories, motives, conflicts and context connected with biblical events.
Not only do the characters often come across as “stiff” on screen, he said, “you go from miracle to miracle, Bible verse to Bible verse, and you never get to know anybody Jesus actually impacted.”
“From a strictly artistic perspective, that is not really good drama, you need to see change, you want to see a character arc.”
“The Chosen” was going to be different, Jenkins said, by looking at Jesus through the eyes of those he chose and changed, and to imagine what their lives and personalities were like and why they made the choices they did.
The finale of season two dropped mid-July and the plan is to make a seven-season show, giving writers and actors the time to fully explore and create “a collection of personal human moments,” he said.
Chilean Father Felipe Herrera-Espaliat, a journalist and officer of the Vatican’s Dicastery for Communication, told Catholic News Service Aug. 10 that the series’ approach reminds him of the way St. Ignatius of Loyola encouraged people to read the Bible and “create the scene in your mind,” activate all the senses and engage one’s feelings.
The reason, he said, is to “get involved so you can take the place of one of the people that is in that scene. I think that’s what they are doing (with the series), and that helps a lot,” because it prepares people for a deeper relationship with and understanding of the Word of God by becoming “part of that scene.”
“That is how literature and art works, you become a part of this, you are a witness of what is happening,” he said. Seeing Scripture from various human perspectives “does not change the eternal truth of the Word of God, but helps you to live that Word and to incarnate it in your own life.”
Roumie told reporters meeting the pope was “a childhood dream realized.”
After years of struggling for success in L.A.’s film industry, his Catholic faith was strengthened after he hit “the lowest point of my life” three years ago, he said. He decided to just “surrender” and give up trying to control every outcome and just let God lead the way.
Soon after, Jenkins gave him a call about the possibility of the new series; Roumie had already worked with Jenkins, portraying Jesus in a few short films with limited audiences. Those projects were good “practice runs,” Roumie said, and doing “The Chosen” “has deepened my walk with Christ.”
When he’s on camera, it’s like the wristband: “What would Jesus do?”
“For me it’s trying to heighten the emotional experience that we have as humans,” he said, and imagine, “How might Christ have experienced joy and happiness and sadness and anger and solitude?”
Viewer feedback has been overwhelmingly positive, said Neal Harmon, co-founder and CEO of Angel Studios, the series’ distributor. The show has high marks from film critics on RottenTomatoes.com, with 100% “freshness” and a five-star average rating from thousands of users.
The app (thechosen.tv/app) is available in more than 180 countries, and the series offers subtitles in more than 50 languages.