The premiere in New York
When you’re headed to West Africa at the height of the Ebola scare, it’s comforting to know you’re going to meet Jesus when you get there. Such was my fortune in October of 2014 when I flew to Morocco to spend a week on the set of Nat Geo’s production of Killing Jesus, the channel’s third TV-movie adaptation of as many books in the popular Bill O’Reilly series that began with Killing Lincoln and Killing Kennedy (and now boasts a fourth, Killing Patton). But the big question was this: What or whose Jesus would I be meeting? O’Reilly’s bestseller, co-authored by Martin Dugard, took an intentionally historical approach rather than a spiritual one as it examined the events that led to Christ’s crucifixion. Yet, as with Killing Kennedy, Nat Geo was dramatizing — not documenting — that account.
Their manipulation of Antipas to kill John the Baptist evolved into one of the film’s more compelling subplots. “We were trying to find that dynamic of why did Herodia wanted John the Baptist killed,” said Eoin Macken, who plays Antipas. “Why did she want these things to happen, why did Antipas not want it to happen? She was driving what was happening, while Antipas was reluctant. He’s being pulled by the church, and then Rome, and then Pilate, and then by Herodia — you see Antipas being puppeted by her — and so he’s just trying to navigate his way through this.” …
It’s a hot Tuesday morning in late October on the outskirts of Ouarzazate, a city in the heart of Morocco, and Jesus is having trouble getting birds to fly. More specifically, an actor playing Jesus is having trouble. He’s standing in a replica of the Jerusalem temple, and he’s shooting the scene in which Jesus turns over the tables and scatters the animals that Jewish pilgrims are being pressured to buy for their sacrifices. In take after take, the actor — Haaz Sleiman, best known perhaps for playing an illegal immigrant in Tom McCarthy’s The Visitor — flips the tables while the followers of Jesus chant, “Down with the moneylenders!” Every time they shoot this sequence, Sleiman grabs a wooden cage full of doves or pigeons, opens it, and turns it on its side to shake the birds free — and every time he does this, most of the birds cling to the cage. A few do take flight, though they don’t go very far. Instead, they perch on the top of the colonnade and turn to look back down at the temple courtyard.
Like the journalists who have come from halfway around the world, the birds want to see how this movie is made. Eoin Macken, who plays Herod’s son Antipas, says he was inspired by the “sensitivity” with which Grammer played the aging tyrant, even as Herod — who famously executed two of his own sons — orders the deaths of the children in Bethlehem. “You kind of understood him,” says Macken. “He was going through pain, and I think that was very important, because there are some moments with the two of us where we don’t particularly like each other, but there’s a connection.” …
OUARZAZATE, MOROCCO — It’s the one story where spoilers are impossible. Still, National Geographic Channel is determined to make “Killing Jesus” as dramatic as the channel’s recent projects, “Killing Lincoln” and “Killing Kennedy” were. Kelsey Grammer tries Herod on for size. The madman with the flowing gray locks, boils on his face, brandishing a knife looks familiar. Then he talks. It could be no one but Kelsey Grammer as King Herod in National Geographic Channel’s “Killing Jesus.” “These characters loom large in our history,” Grammer says. “They require a kind of size.” The man who tied the record for the longest-running character in primetime and is on Broadway in “Finding Neverland” has a sense of humor about himself. “He’s famous for being big and loud and ugly and killing children, so I got the offer,” Grammer says. Eleven minutes in, Herod dies – dramatically, of course — at his son Antipas’ feet. “He is a presence,” says Eoin Macken who plays Antipas. “He is a bull in a China shop. He is the most charming bull that ever existed. He is evil but you kind of like him.”
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Ouarzazate, MOROCCO – After a very warm morning on the set of Killing Jesus, actors Kelsey Grammer and Eoin Macken changed out of their heavy biblical garb and met the visiting press in a tent down the hill from the “Temple” to chat about National Geographic’s upcoming series and their roles in it, as King Herod and his son, Herod Antipas, respectively.
Both Grammer and Macken shared some fascinating insight on the project, including their thoughts on its central figure, Jesus Christ. Here are excerpts from that conversation: …
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“Back in October, I spent three days on the Morocco set of National Geographic’s “Killing Jesus.”
You can see the first part of my coverage, Kelsey Grammer’s thoughts, here. Grammer was paired with Eoin Macken, who plays Herod Antipas in the telefilm and, toward the end of the interview, Macken mentioned that he was preparing to return to work on NBC’s The Night Shift. I couldn’t resist asking if he’d get the chance to do more key art riding a motorcycle in the ER. Macken was… Amused.”
“Killing Jesus,” the highly anticipated TV movie from National Geographic Channel starring Haaz Sleiman, John Rhys-Davies, Kelsey Grammar, and many other talented Hollywood veterans, airs this coming Sunday, March 29 at 8/7 C. After viewing the film, I have to say: “Killing Jesus” stuck closer to the four Gospels in the Bible than I had expected. It is a Scott Free production (Ridley Scott’s production company), which — as I learned with “Exodus: Gods and Kings” (which Scott directed) — might mean a more liberal departure from the text and the intent of the Bible. “Killing Jesus,” however — adapted from the popular novel of the same name by political commentator Bill O’ Reilly and Martin Dugard — follows a generally faithful retelling of the Gospel accounts (with a few caveats, which I’ll explain below the Parent Guidance section) and adds an extremely well-researched thrill ride of factual, extra-Biblical political drama that existed in Israel during Jesus’ lifetime.
From the film’s press materials:
“More than 2.2 billion people around the globe follow the teachings and principles of Jesus of Nazareth, but the political, historical and social collusions that led to his brutal demise bring new context to the familiar story. KILLING JESUS dives deep inside the historical story of a man whose message and preachings led to his persecution and execution by a group of conspirators who saw him as a threat to their power.”
What really happens on—and off—the set of The Night Shift? Like any new kid, series star Eoin Macken was overwhelmed by the possibilities when he left his home in L.A.’s Venice neighborhood to film the series, but just a few months later the Irish-born actor knows the Duke City just as well as any native. And that knowledge can come in handy in some unexpected situations. …
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