Interview: Juan Pablo di Pace on the humanity of A.D. The Bible Continues and playing Jesus like “a little child”

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A.D. The Bible Continues is coming to DVD and Blu-Ray tomorrow, so some of the cast and crew are doing the publicity rounds again. I had the privilege of speaking to Juan Pablo di Pace, the Argentinian actor who played Jesus in the series.

You can read that interview below — and once you’ve done that, check out my earlier interviews with Chipo Chung, who played Mary Magdalene, and producers Mark Burnett and Roma Downey, who also produced the hit miniseries The Bible.

The part of Jesus: was this something you were campaigning for, as it were, or did someone call you out of the blue and say they wanted you for the part?

Di Pace: No, no. I mean, when I first heard about the project — they said, “Hey would you audition for Jesus?” — I kind of was very not so sure, because we’ve seen that a hundred times, and done very well, so I thought, “Well, what else can we bring to the table that hasn’t been done yet?” And then I received the script, and then I read it — both episodes one and two — literally, like, in 40 minutes, the two episodes. I ate them up, and I cried like a baby, and I thought, “Well, this is definitely something new to bring to the table,” because this is a story I know, that I’ve grown up with, and yet it was so beautifully told and so well-written, and the characters were so defined, and almost seen in a light that I hadn’t seen before, which is a very human way of telling the story, and telling how it felt and how they doubted and how they struggled through this whole process of carrying on with the word of Christ. So I just thought, “Yeah, I really, really, really want to be part of this.” And so, yes, I campaigned, I did everything I could. I remember the director was in London and I was in L.A., and we never actually met, but we did all the casting process online, and after three takes, they offered me the part. So that made me really really happy, but then of course, I had to figure out how to play him! And that was a big challenge.

Did you know at that time that your character would be coming back in later episodes, to meet Paul for example?

Di Pace: Kind of. Jesus was always going to be in the beginning, because the story starts with the trial and the crucifixion, and then episode two is the Resurrection and the Ascension to heaven. They had mentioned that, and I was very happy to go back, because I loved– I had withdrawal symptoms when I left the first time around, I thought, “Oh my God, I don’t want to get rid of this tunic and these shoes.” Every time I stepped onto the stage as Jesus, it felt like someone was pouring some honey into my body. It was amazing, an amazing feeling. And then when I had to let go of it, it was hard. And I’ve heard other actors that have played him that have said the same thing, that it’s a very hard character to shake off, not because we become Jesus — because we don’t — it’s not about that, it’s about the fact that– you talk about someone giving you a really warm blanket when it’s really cold, and you go, “This is amazing.” So yeah, I was very glad to be asked back, and to get back into those shoes.

At the time that you auditioned for the part, had they written the script for the later appearances, or did you only have the script for the first two at that point?

Di Pace: Yeah, I only had the script for the first two, and I think as we started shooting, they realized that they wanted us to do more of him, because the story is really about the apostles and how they continued the message of Christ throughout the struggles with the Romans and the turmoil that was going on at the time, the tortures that they faced. But they did think, “Yeah, maybe we need to bring Jesus back to refresh the memory of why they’re doing what they’re doing.” That’s the beauty of television, I don’t think anything is set in stone, when you first start filming there’s always room for change and development of things, and I think the story, the way they did it, is brilliant.

You mentioned earlier that when you read the script it was a human way of telling the story, and it sounded like you were referring not just to the Jesus character but to all the apostles, the humanity of it, right?

Di Pace: Of course! There are different factors about that. I think the fact that Roma and Mark Burnett chose international diverse actors to play these key roles — like, Mary Magdalene is half-Chinese, half-African, and we have John from Gambia who is a Muslim, and Peter, Adam Levy, is a Jewish man, I am South American, there was a Buddhist in the shoot as well — that made the project really interesting for me, because I think it talks about not only what we are united as a society now, I think one of the things we need to learn in our lifetime is to accept other, different people, and to live with diversity, because that’s who we are as a globe. So until we all learn that, things are still going to go a bit weird. But also, it reflects what Jerusalem could have been like back then, all those cultures coming together in this sort of melting pot. And also from the writers’ point of view, from the screenwriters, they gave a humanity to each single character, I mean even to Pilate or Caiaphas or Claudia. They all have a really strong point of view, and I don’t think it’s– it’s not something that they picked lightly. Sometimes I feel that in religious content, religious drama, it’s almost told like a tale, like an account of facts, and in A.D. The Bible Continues it’s drama, it’s real drama that we like to see on TV today, seeing the characters struggle and doubt and be completely in conflict with each other, kind of like House of Cards. I think Mark Burnett said this is House of Cards meets Game of Thrones in its aesthetic, because it is about people, it’s political intrigue mixed in with the message of Jesus.

Referring to the humanity of the role, I have to say that I was really struck– I’ve noticed this is a bit trend lately in Jesus films, but especially while watching A.D., I was really, really struck by the vulnerability of your performance of Jesus, in the first episode in particular of course. Jesus in other films has often suffered, obviously, but something about the way you played the character, he wasn’t just suffering but he seemed almost scared. Was that what you were thinking of at the time you were playing the role?

Di Pace: Yeah. I think that’s a very, very good point you make, and thank you for noticing, because that was the purpose to that. I think because there has been so many portrayals of him, that I wanted to bring my little grain of sand into the equation and do something that made sense to me, as a human being, the way I saw him and the way I felt he probably would have been like at that time. I think, for a man who says, “Father why have you forsaken me,” there needs to be real fear. He is completely alone, and I think I saw him as a little child at that point. Because sometimes I do think, “Why does Jesus have to be beyond pain, and beyond suffering, when in fact they’re doing the most horrible thing to him and he’s taking it, he’s accepting that pain?” So yeah, I think it was very important to give him that human quality. I wanted him to be a real man, not only on the cross, but also when he comes back and meets with the disciples again, there’s a real happiness to him, to see his pals, to see his band of brothers. So that was a discussion I had with Mark and Roma and the director, and they all agreed that it was a way of portraying him. And I even had some discussions with the director, because there’s always this idea that he was a superhuman, that things didn’t upset him that much, but I don’t know, I kind of stuck to my guns and I really wanted him to be as vulnerable and human as possible, and scared, just like a little kid.

That’s fascinating. There’s two sides to this next question: There’s a lot of Jesus films out there, but a number of them have kind of skimped on the Resurrection or maybe even haven’t shown it, whereas practically half your performance is the Resurrection appearances. The other side of that question is how do you feel about the fact that you kind of missed out on the ministry of Jesus: you didn’t get any of the Sermon on the Mount or the miracles or any of those things?

Di Pace: Yeah, of course I would have liked to have done those things. In fact, I think in the earlier version of the script, there was a Last Supper and there was a Sermon on the Mount, but because they really wanted this relentless dynamic beginning to the series, they went straight to the trial and the crucifixion. I would have loved to have played those scenes, because it would have given me yet another kind of reason to go into the crucifixion, however I think it just benefited the series immensely to start at such a strong point. And then, what I think about the fact that they sometimes skim over the Resurrection? Yeah, it was really thrilling to do something that hasn’t been done before. Because it’s true, the whole series was about the beginning of the church, how the apostles built the church, so to put the emphasis on the Resurrection was very important for these guys, these apostles, to really go forward and continue the word, you know? I do think I was lucky to be part of a really stunning-looking Ascension. I think the Ascension of Christ in this particular series is quite epic, you know? You never see all those angels and the sky kind of turning crimson like that, and the wind. It was just like a painting by Michelangelo. It reminded me of The Final Judgment at the Vatican, and it’s very exciting, because I don’t think it’s been done in quite this way before.

The look of the Ascension in this film actually reminded me of an old silent movie called Christus. It was made in Italy almost exactly a hundred years ago, and in that film, Jesus rises into heaven, and then he seems disappear into this angelic vortex — the movie quotes one of Dante’s poems, and I think the image is based on a Gustave Doré woodcutting depicting the angels in heaven — but you have to go back to the silent era to find that kind of imagery.

Di Pace: Yeah. I think we’re getting back to the richness of what man has created in art in general, the cinema and paintings. I think the content, the series, the films that we see are so filled with this beauty. The stuff that we are able to do now in film is incredible, so to go back to those references is key. Movies like Lord of the Rings, for example, or even a series like Game of Thrones. They really make use of that very Renaissance-like art, and I think it all adds to the story, to the greatest story ever told, with this aesthetic, is the best way of telling it.

If you’ll forgive me moving from high culture to low culture–

Di Pace: Go on.

Thank you! As you know, the actor who played Jesus in the previous Bible series, when he appeared on TV there was this hashtag — #HotJesus — and I think there was a brief reprisal of that when your Jesus was on TV. I saw an episode of Beyond A.D. where you expressed some concern about that, I think. It seemed that you didn’t want to encourage too much of that. Can you talk about that?

Di Pace: Yeah, yeah, I still believe the same. It does nothing but take away from the message and what we were trying to achieve. Sure, it’s very flattering to me as a person, as a guy, but I don’t think it adds anything. If anything, it sort of belittles the message. It just meant too much to me, it was such an important moment of my life to do that, that it just kind of cheapened it. So yeah, I stand by what I said. I’d rather remember that time as a proud time rather than a hashtag.

Other stories have surfaced about the seriousness with which you took the role. There’s a story about how Chipo [Chung, who played Mary Magdalene] and some of the actors from Killing Jesus went on a camel ride and coincidentally bumped into you. The story I heard was that you went looking for solitude and kept bumping into these other actors.

Di Pace: Yeah, that’s true, that is true! We had four days off, and basically I planned this trip to the Sahara desert to be on my own for three days and just kind of get ready and be in solitude, and then, yeah, this little bit where you go, before you step into the desert, which is like a little construction with a little bar with food and showers and bathrooms and stuff, and so within this pit stop there with the guy who was driving me out to the desert — I’m sorry, before we took the camel to go to the desert — and all of a sudden I’m in the bathroom and I hear all these voices in English, and I go, “Hold on a minute,” and they were actors from A.D. and Killing Jesus. They had also planned to be there at the exact same time in the middle of the desert, and we ended up spending that night all together — which was fantastic — and shared stories, and then they left, they went back, and I stayed on my own, and it was the randomest thing to be there at the same time in the middle of the desert with the same people.

The show was cancelled but there’s been some talk about bringing it back or reviving it as a digital series. Have you heard those rumours?

Di Pace: I heard. I don’t know what the truth of it is. I saw Roma literally a week ago, they honoured her at the Salvation Army, and she was devastated about the cancellation, but those two are such a force of nature that I really think they can do anything that they set their minds to. Literally, they do. So if they want to go ahead and continue it, they will, because nothing will stop them.

I don’t know if there would be room for another Jesus appearance in the series after this, but would you be up for coming back to it?

Di Pace: Sure. If they do it, I will do it.

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