We speak to the actor with a role of a lifetime
The biggest crowd-funded media project to date is a multi-series TV show launched last year about Jesus Christ, called The Chosen.
The brainchild of Evangelical filmmaker Dallas Jenkins and with an advisory team including a Jewish Rabbi and a Catholic priest the historical drama is inspired by the Gospel stories and intended to encourage viewers to read them for themselves.
It presents Jesus Christ, played by LA-based actor and devout Catholic Jonathan Roumie, through the eyes of the people who encountered him. The 46-year old actor was struggling in Hollywood when he decided to put his life and career into God’s hands, and shortly after came The Chosen opportunity.
The Catholic Weekly spoke to Jonathan about what the show means to him and how with growing fame comes a greater sense of responsibility to share his faith tradition.
Watch the video
An edited transcript is below:
Your depiction of Jesus has got the attention of the Catholic world in a big way. How did you come to imitate him in this way?
Yes, once COVID and the quarantine period hit Catholics were like, ‘Hey, what is this?” And we were like, “You’re finally arriving to the party!”
The approach from which I’m portraying him has been from a point of infinite compassion and mercy. I think the greatest attribute that God possesses is mercy.
His infinite ocean of mercy is what makes him so indescribably and unutterably worthy of adoration and praise and that’s been spoken of through the Bible in both the Old and New Testaments. That’s where I have to start otherwise it’s just a very pale representation of who I understand him to be.
Is this an approach partly inspired by Pope Francis’s emphasis on God’s mercy?
Absolutely. Pope Francis is a beacon of hope and mercy for humanity, and a true leader of the Church in our times in trying to communicate compassion for all of society, especially the most downtrodden and poorest among us.
I also have great love for the Divine Mercy devotion. I’ve been praying the Divine Mercy Chaplet online in the last few months since the outbreak of COVID-19.
Was that scary to come out to world as a chaplet-praying Catholic, especially in your industry as an Los Angeles-based actor?
This was something that was put on my heart to do, and I was kind of like, “Really God? You want me to pray the Divine Mercy chaplet online? I’ll be really outing myself as a Catholic!” And he’s like, “Yeah”.
It was scary at first but then it became easier and I did that for about 40 days up until Divine Mercy Sunday. I hadn’t premeditated the timing, that’s just how it turned out.
Every day the minimum prayer was the chaplet and maybe a couple of litanies. Everything else that came was inspired, because whenever I tried to plan something it didn’t work out so I left it to the Holy Spirit to let things unfold.
Recently you had up to 10,000 views on Facebook of you praying the rosary in your home late at night, explaining the Eucharistic presence and sharing a ‘fun fact’ about St Padre Pio. How do you feel about the response you’ve had?
It’s been wonderful. I’m just in a very matter of fact way, while incorporating elements of theology and sharing prayers that mean something to me, just breaking down the stereotypes of what it means to be Catholic and what we believe and don’t believe. Like the fact that we don’t worship Mary and those sorts of things.
So many people have reached out to me and said things like, “I’ve been a Southern Baptist all my life but I just got my first set of rosary beads and I love praying the chaplet with you and it’s brought me peace.
One guy said he used to have severe anxiety attacks and once he prayed the chaplet with me they went away. I’ve had messages about conversions and joining RCIA and finding faith and really having an appreciation for Catholicism in a way they haven’t been exposed to it before.
Then I took to Instagram after 40 days, and that to me was more scary as it doesn’t feel as welcoming a place for live prayer. I recently did a nine-day novena to St Joseph and now I think I’m going to take a break for a while and discern what the next step of this media apostolate is.
Why is sharing your faith and developing this prayer community online so important to you?
I had a deeper conversion about three months before I booked The Chosen that led me to approach my life through the lens of my faith.
Then with The Chosen because of the amount of time I had to spend with Christ and the stories about Christ and researching him and his time and all the conversions I’ve had, I believe that has brought out more of what God has put within me.
It also clarified or expounded upon the mission that I think I’ve been given, which is to help lead people to Christ through my art.
Now because of this exposure though The Chosen I’ve been receiving requests to speak in conferences and tell my story about how God has manifested in my life. So I think this apostolate is still evolving.
What is it like to work with Christians of different denominations on a show about Jesus?
We all pray to the same God and people seem to forget that. Working on this show is living proof that creatives, leaders, humans of all denominations can truly work together despite their theological and denominational differences.
Many of us agree that we’re living in decidedly divided times and but there is so much more reason to unite in Christ.
I think The Chosen has been achieving that in terms of how it is representing the story of Christ, not with an agenda or plan for a specific denomination of Christianity but telling the story of the man who was God and changed the world.
Why do you think people have warmed to your portrayal of Jesus?
I think because Jesus has felt relatable and human for the first time in any iteration that we can remember.
We’ve never got to explore Christ’s humanity [in film] except for The Passion of the Christ was one of the few times when you actually saw a moment and it was also an extra-biblical moment…when Jesus washes his hands and then splashes Mary.
People were like “What just happened, did he really do that?” Of course he did, he was a person.
What is your favourite moment from Season 1?
The three most special moments in my heart are Jesus’s entrance and the healing of Mary Magdalen, the conversion of the Samaritan woman and the scene of John 3:16, the conversation with Nicodemus on the rooftop.
And episode three with the kids was just a joy to do and I had a lot of fun with that.
Has the Pope seen the show?
I hope he has. I’ve met the Apostolic Nuncio earlier this year and I got him to download the app. So I must follow up and ask him to show it to the Pope if he hasn’t already. I think he would like it. I want to meet him at one point.
Do you have any hints for us about Season 2?
Scripts for the first four episodes are written but and there’s not much I know or can say officially.
But I’m excited to see what will come of it and how I’ll be affected by the material in terms of going deeper in my personal spiritual journey.
Where do you go for your own formation?
Dr Scott Hahn has been generous enough to send me some of his books so I’ve been taking in a bit of apologetics I guess you could say, but mainly I’m just focussed on prayer at this point.
Facts about The Chosen
The first four episodes were released in April and the last four in November 2019. Viewers can watch the show for free or chose to ‘pay it forward’ after viewing to help pay for the production of future seasons.
Faith-based filtering streaming service VidAngel along with The Chosen creators turned to crowdfunding to raise money to produce the first season, under a US law which allows companies to use equity crowdfunding to offer a share of ownership and profits from the company to online investors.
At the end of the first fundraising round in January 2019, the project had raised over $10 million from over 16,000 investors. This month Season 2 fundraising has passed $6 million from over 300,000 investors.
The goal is to reach more than one billion people in every country in the world.
In March and April 2020, in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, the first season of The Chosen was made available for free through its app, and its popularity surged again.
For details see www.thechosen.tv