Muslim-Raised Actor Haaz Sleiman on Jesus Role: ‘Me Playing This Part Highlights His Teaching’

TCA 2015: Nat Geo’s “Killing Jesus” star tackles spirituality questions with fitting poise

Actor Haaz Sleiman was raised Muslim, and describes himself as “spiritual” today, which makes it all the more interesting that he’s playing Jesus in the National Geographic Channel movie about the son of God’s life and death — the combination of those two facts is something that certain religious groups have taken an exception to.

At Wednesday’s Television Critics Association press tour, Sleiman answered questions about his own faith with grace befitting the religious figure he portrays in Bill O’Reilly’s “Killing Jesus.” Sleiman explained that the two religions aren’t as different as many people assume, for starters.

“Islam believes that Jesus is a prophet, and they honor him — highly — and they respect him and they follow his teachings,” Sleiman told the media in Pasadena. “So, for me, as somebody who was raised Muslim, it is an honor to actually play Jesus, just because of that.

“But I also, myself, for the past 10 years, have been shaped by Jesus,” he added. “I really believe in his teachings.”

Sleiman specified that loving his neighbor and living in a non-judgmental fashion — among other teachings of Jesus — saved him from the once “dark relationship” he had with himself.

In terms of any criticisms that have come about the casting — most publicly via certain Christian conservative groups — about a man raised Muslim playing the Catholic Messiah, Sleiman summed it up beautifully: “I think me playing this part highlights his teaching in a very nice way.”

Directed by Christopher Menaul, the three-hour TV event is based on the best-selling book by O’Reilly and Martin Dugard. It also stars Kelsey Grammer, Stephen Moyer, Emmanuelle Chriqui and Rufus Sewell. Ridley Scott, David Zucker, Mary Lisio, Teri Weinberg and Charlie Parsons are among the executive producers.

“Killing Jesus” is expected to premiere globally on National Geographic Channel in 2015 in 171 countries and 45 languages, and in Spanish on Nat Geo Mundo.