For Aussie actor George Xanthis, playing St John the Beloved in The Chosen is the kind of creative opportunity “every actor dreams of.”
But it’s also drawn him “100 per cent” into scripture and to Jesus as a real and relatable person.
A comedian at heart, George, 31, both wrote and performed for the 2015 sketch show Open Slather, and had roles in the TV dramas Syd2030 and Deep Water.
No one was more surprised than him when his career then took him to first century Palestine to learn at the feet of Jesus.
George spoke to The Catholic Weekly via Zoom from the Utah film set of the fourth season of The Chosen, about what it’s like to enter into the life and times of Jesus’s beloved disciple.
Born and raised in a Greek Orthodox family, George attended St Spyridon parish and primary school in Kingswood in Sydney’s south-east.
But without the show he says he would never have sought out the advice of his family’s priests, or found the Gospels resonating with him for the first time in his life to the point where, in one touching scene between himself and Jesus (played by Catholic Jonathan Roumie), he was brought unexpectedly to tears.
“I’m not taking any of it for granted,” George said.
“I was baptised by Fr Stephen Scoutas and my parents were married [at St Spyridon’s], and Fr Stephen married me and my wife in the same church in February,” he explained.
“It holds a special place in my heart, as a family we do Greek Easter together with all of my grandparents and aunts and uncles.
“So I definitely grew up Greek Orthodox but I’m probably guilty of having been a cultural Christian sometimes.
“I would go to church with my family at Easter but I wouldn’t say I was the most religious person. Before landing this job I didn’t even know who John was! I was like, is that the Baptist?”
George reached out to his family’s priest early on for advice about what John would have been like as a young disciple and why Jesus might have chosen him.
“Fr Stephen took me through how impetuous he and his brother were, since Jesus called them ‘sons of thunder,’ and how much Jesus ends up trusting John in asking him to look after his mother,” he said.
“The main thing I’ve learnt about John is that he wasn’t always the calm, loving, authoritative leader that I assumed when all I knew was that he was the disciple closest to Jesus and who Jesus loved.
“In the end he’s the disciple of love, but there was definitely an internal journey for John which we are shown in the Bible, and through working on the TV show I’m learning it even more.
“James and John together would miss the mark a little bit, maybe be a bit impatient or easily ticked off, and I think a lot of people can learn from that.
“We can probably oftentimes be a little bit zealous and a bit impetuous, but we have to learn to become more humble and loving.
“I feel so proud and honoured to be in this role and I hope I’m doing it justice.”
George is now doing his own study of the Gospels, searching for how they differ and what they reveal about Jesus and his own character John.
“For example, the choice of the early Greek word ‘Logos’ for the start of John’s Gospel gave me an interesting insight into John,” he said.
“Logos means ‘word’ but has about 20 different other meanings—logarithm in mathematics, logistics in business, it could also mean life, or the way.
“So I feel like John’s book is little bit more poetic [than the other Gospels]. Maybe he didn’t write everything down, maybe he remembered it all as a feeling.
“John was present lots of times at important moments that his book says nothing about, like the Transfiguration for example.”
Now halfway through the multi-season show, season three has just been released on DVD for Australia and New Zealand.
George hopes that viewers will gain some of the same experience he feels fortunate to have enjoyed immersed in the words and actions of Jesus Christ.
“It doesn’t matter what your background is or what your religious beliefs are, we’ve got a very diverse cast and crew.
“But as actors on the show we have this unique relationship and experience of Jesus, where we’re not just listening to what he’s saying once but it’s take after take as Jonathan [Roumie] delivers it in different ways.
“We’re getting such a unique experience of Jesus’s words, very familiar, very personal, over four and a half years and I’ve got another three and a bit years in front of me.
“That’s a very unique experience and I really hope that if any audience member binges the show a number of times they may get the same experience and I hope they do.”
As to how the show, directed by Dallas Jenkins with US actor Jonathan Roumie, a Catholic, in the leading role, is making Jesus and the Christian story more accessible to a new generation, George says that for him one scene stands out.
“I keep going back to the miracle of the catch of fish,” he said.
“Dallas thought it was going to be controversial because when Jesus says ‘follow me’ he was supposed to be standing up tall when Simon had gone to his knees and was looking up at him.
“But instead of portraying it that way, Jonathan actually comes down on one knee and then he tells Simon to ‘follow me’.
“Dallas goes ‘I don’t know how people are going to think about having God come down to our eye level’, but it’s just what’s made the show so successful.
“Jesus is relatable and he’s there, within touching distance.”