I will never forget the first time I was asked to play Jesus. The film was "The Gospel of Matthew," and… Well, now that I think about it, that actually wasn’t the first time. A year earlier I’d been asked to play Jesus – in a church play.
I was shocked when the church asked me. I’d only given my life to the Lord a couple years earlier. As a professional actor out here in Los Angeles, I’d always played “unsavory” characters: boxing promoters, henchmen, the cop that turns bad… you get the idea. Born of an Italian father and Syrian mother, my looks locked me into those kinds of roles. I wasn’t complaining – it was work! But then I was born again, and my heart began to change and those roles became increasingly uncomfortable.
Still, the thought of playing Jesus in this church play – not in a hundred years! I turned it down and volunteered to run the sound board instead. Little did I realize that the Lord was trying to show me something, for it wasn’t long after that that I received a casting notice for “Matthew.” They were looking for a “more real, down-to-earth looking Jesus” as opposed to the traditional statuesque figure. The notice said they were looking for an actor who was born again.
Without taking time for all the details, the next thing I knew, I had a beard and long hair and was on my way to Morocco to portray the Son of the living God. Wow! In the years that followed, I’d portray Him again and again… even to this day in "The Encounter." Double wow!
What’s it like to play Jesus? It’s equally the most wondrous and responsibility-laden experience you could imagine. I’m deeply aware that people across the world make decisions about Him based on what I do before the camera. That’s a huge weight on my shoulders, even as it is an incredible privilege. Every time it drives me deep into His Word and to my knees, crying out to Him. And with each film, His heart and character become more real to me – His love, care, passion and compassion; His tears over the lostness of precious souls; His joy and celebration over us when we turn to Him.
It would take volumes to tell the whole story, but I came to hang my portrayal of Jesus on Psalm 139:13: “I hand-formed you while you were in your mother’s womb.” In other words, in the character of Jesus, every pair of eyes I look into is “my baby.” Oversimplifying, that’s really all I do: I handle each person, no matter who they are, as if he/she is my very own baby.
In a nutshell, this is me portraying Jesus, no matter the film or which episode in "The Encounter” series. I’m often asked, “How is it different to portray Jesus in a Bible film vs. ‘Encounter?’” No difference. The only thing that changes is the costume. As Hebrews 13:8 states, “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today and forever.”
He doesn’t change. He is who He eternally is. And His whisper to us all never alters or ceases: ”I love you, my precious one. I love you, I love you.”
This is the Savior I hope to always portray – Jesus in the fullness of who He unchangingly is – love, joy, faithfulness, truth, and salvation. This is the Savior I pray is discovered through the “Encounter” series.
It is the greatest honor and privilege to represent Jesus in this way, one that never ceases to astound me. It is only by His grace I can do it, and I thank Him every single day. Praise the name of Jesus!
Watch Now: "The Encounter Series"