Jonathan Roumie, not only star of “The Chosen,” the first-ever multi-season show about the life of Jesus Christ, but a strong practicing Catholic, says meeting and speaking with Pope Francis “was a childhood dream come true” and “words fail” to express how much it meant to him.
In a wide-ranging interview Roumie granted to Exaudi, CNS, CNA and Crux in a Rome hotel, following his encounter with Pope Francis at a Wednesday General Audience, the Catholic actor shared this reflecting on the critically-lauded series which has broken records to become the highest crowdfunded media project of all-time.
Translated into 50 languages and counting, “The Chosen” was funded with $10 million from over 19,000 people and is generating income for future seasons when viewers choose to “pay it forward” after viewing. Consistently ranked in the top 50 entertainment apps on iOS and Android, the series is completely free to watch on its app that connects directly to streaming devices with no fee or subscription necessary.
Receiving much positive recognition in the US and abroad, Word on Fire praised Jonathan’s acting as ‘superb’ and the series has received ratings of 9.7 on IMDB.com.
In addition to speaking to Roumie, Exaudi’s Editorial Director and the other Vatican correspondents also sat down with Dallas Jenkins, the creator, director and co-writer of “The Chosen”, and Neal Harmon, CEO of Angel Studios, the series’ distributor.
Focus on God, & Rest Takes Care of Itself
Dallas Jenkins who has directed and produced this largest crowd-funded media project of all-time, had first produced the independent feature “Hometown Legend” at the age of 25 and shepherded it to distribution by Warner Brothers. In the nearly 20 years since then, he has directed and produced over a dozen feature and short films for companies such as Universal, Lionsgate, Pureflix, Hallmark Channel, and Amazon.
“When I make the show, I try not to think too much about who it’s for or what my goals are, as it would freeze me,” he admitted, noting: “I don’t want to be thinking about anything other than pleasing God with the show and making the best show that I can.”
“However,” Jenkins continued, “what I do want for people is that when they are done watching the show, to feel like they know and love Jesus more.”
The Christian director expressed joy and satisfaction when, at the Vatican, they were approached by Indonesians, other Asians and Germans, who told them: “thank you for the show. Our relationship with Jesus is stronger.” Remembering this feedback “as so beautiful,” he reflected: “When you focus on Jesus, those cultural and ethnic barriers go down and disappear.”
“When just focusing on Jesus, the rest takes care of itself,” he said with a smile.
After Hitting Rock Bottom, God Provides
“The Chosen,” Jenkins candidly went on to say, “didn’t come until I was really broken. God broke me down. The last movie I made before “The Chosen” failed at the box office.”
He shared with the journalists before him how he had finally achieved this opportunity to do a movie with big Hollywood producers and it was released in theaters.
“I totally failed and it failed and I was left with no future. I genuinely wondered if I would ever make another movie again. In that moment, my wife and I were crying and praying. I was praying and confused and God really met me and spoke to me through a friend and through my wife, through the story of the feeding of 5000 in the Gospels.” The point learned through the Gospel Passage, Jenkins expressed, was “it’s not your job to feed the 5000, it’s only your job to provide the loaves and fish.”
“So, in that moment,” he said, “I stopped caring about success or failure. I stopped caring about my own pride and control, and I truly got to a place where I was ok if I never made another movie, and didn’t care if I were successful or not.”
Then, God provided, he suggested smiling, with bringing about “The Chosen.”
Takes You by Surprise, Not Just Another Show About Jesus
Neal Harmon is CEO of Angel Studios, the leading alternative to Hollywood telling stories that amplify light. Distributing crowdfunded hits like “The Chosen,” “Wingfeather Saga,” “the Tuttle Twins,” and “Dry Bar Comedy,” angel is empowering creators to fund and distribute their own content using the Community Video on Demand, or CVOD model. CVOD creates engaged communities around each entertainment project that keeps fans engaged for the long haul. Prior to Angel, Neal served as co-founder of VidAngel, a streaming platform allowing parents to remove objectionable content from movies and TV shows.
“The show takes you by surprise,” he said, noting: “most people don’t watch it the 1st time they hear about it, but once they do, then they are really moved.”
“What I keep hearing,” he admitted, “is that the show is going global.” In addition to being available in over 50 languages with subtitles, it’s available dubbed in 9 languages, and hopefully will be soon in 12.
“The interesting thing about the languages is the traditional Hollywood movie has a certain set of languages that it goes to, based on profitability, but “The Chosen,’” he mentioned, “has been kind of the opposite of that, having been translated into many other languages in order to reach people around the world, regardless of their profitability.” Among the languages dubbed, he said, are Arabic, Hindi, and Mandarin.
“It’s been watched in pretty much every country and continent on the globe,” he illustrated, lamenting one of the only nations we haven’t seen any activity, is North Korea.”
“Many say, oh another show about Jesus, another show about Jesus’ history,” he acknowledged. “They don’t think it’s going to be what it ends up being when they watch it so people have to hear about it over and over and over again before they give it a chance.” But once they do, he said, they see something special and are hooked.
Here is the full interview Jonathan Roumie, Jesus on “The Chosen” granted to Exaudi, CNS, CNA and Crux:
How was it to meet and speak with the Pope at the General Audience this morning?
Jonathan Roumie: It was essentially a childhood dream come true [smiling]. From the time I was a kid, I always wanted to meet the Pope, and go to World Youth Day, but I didn’t know how to do that. Also, my parents were immigrants, so they didn’t know how to go about that. They didn’t have that, informationally, at their fingerprints. So, it was something I always just had in the back of my head.
Seeing him [Pope Francis] walk out at first was just sort of like ‘holy mackerel’ [laughing], this may actually happen… But until he actually saw me, and starting walking toward me, I did not assume this is actually going to happen. I didn’t take anything for granted. Then to actually see him actually walking toward me, and then to have that time with him, well, words just fail. It was one of the greatest spiritual honors of my life.
You exchanged words with the Pope?
Jonathan Roumie: Yes, I said to my friend Michael Severance from the Acton Institute, whom I was talking to when we had an event the other night, that I wanted to say a couple things to him [Pope Francis] in Spanish. So, Michael said, yes of course, I can write a few things down for you. But then I didn’t see Michael for a few days, and I am shooting a documentary while I am here, so there was no time to translate anything. So, I thought to myself, I’ll just Google Translate a couple phrases. So, then this morning though, Michael was there and said, hey, I have some stuff for you. And he had like a paragraph and a half, as well as the English translation. And I was like, Praise God. Michael basically gave me the roadmap. From there, I was kind of writing and rewriting as I was trying to think of other things that I wanted to say. Then, in the end, I basically told him [the Pope] in Spanish that it was an honor to meet him … And what else did I tell him? It all went by so fast [smiling.] I told him I pray for him all the time. I believe I also said that I pray for God to bless his pontificate. I also asked him to pray for me because I play Jesus in a TV series, and he was sort of like, ‘Woo…’ His eyes sort of lit up when I said that. Apparently, I got a translation of what he actually said. [The director of “The Chosen”] Dallas [Jenkins] was there, and God bless him, he videotaped the whole thing, which I subsequently have posted. Pope Francis said he hoped that I may invite Him, Jesus, and that I may find Him, and that it may make me very happy. Then Dallas introduced himself.
Jonathan Roumie: Then the Pope smiling turned to me and said, ‘you play Jesus?’ And I said, yes. And then [jokingly] turned to Dallas and said, and ‘you are Judas?’ [all laughing.] I thought that was really funny [smiling]. He was just so gracious.
How has this experience with “The Chosen” been for you personally, especially as a Catholic?
Jonathan Roumie: “The Chosen,” I mean, it is a project that has deepened my walk with Christ. It’s something that I felt, having played Christ in several projects previously, that they were all like practice runs leading up to the series, that enabled me when beginning this series, to feel pretty well settled into the character when we started filming. So, it wasn’t my first rodeo, if you will. Then I had three other projects with Dallas, short films for his church, getting to know and explore the character of Jesus on film, which began with one other project before that, for a Catholic production company, about Santa Faustina and Divine Mercy. So that was the first thing I ever did which was a filmed component of a live show. Then six months later, I was casted by Dallas. Then a year later, he cast me again in another short film. Then I started performing the Passion, live, for my church. I did that for a few years. Then I played Christ again, in a short film, for Dallas, again, in 2017. Then in 2018, he called me about the series.
How do you keep yourself grounded? Being at the General Audience today, people were screaming at you, literally ‘Jesus.’ How do you remind yourself you are a man, not Jesus…?
Jonathan Roumie: I feel I have been allowed to have this success with this project at a time in my life at the age that I am now, because I have been pretty well grounded, because I started from literally the bottom up in my industry. I worked as a production assistant at a film school. I was literally cleaning toilets. So, I literally have went through every iteration of ascending a company ladder in the film industry, that one can do. Then when I decided to become an actor full time, I moved to LA and struggled for eight years, to the point that I had to surrender to a much deeper conversion, when I literally was at the lowest point in my life, and that was only three years ago. Then, three months after that, with complete and utter surrender, God brought this TV series into my life, but all along the way, He was giving me these little glimpses of where He was leading me. And He has kept me humble every step of the way, including this morning. So, getting to meet the Pope was not without God saying ‘know your place.’
I bought a suit yesterday. I put the suit on this morning, and they didn’t take the security tag off. It didn’t go off when I left the store, but there it was. And I was like, ‘Oh no,’ and it is seven in the morning, in Italy. And I was like, oh you’ve got to be kidding me. But I was like, ok, well, you are keeping me grounded. You are keeping me humble [smiling, looking up]. So, then some on the crew were saying do we have any black tape, and they did. One could kid, I stole a suit, to meet the Pope today. That would be a much better story [joking, laughing]. But my feeling after the whole event, is that it is sort of like the story of our grace. It can be so messy at times. I also gave the Pope a piece of art I had made. I had done a marker rendering of a fiery crucifix with almost a Sacred Heart right in the middle. It was just a small little thing, but my plan was originally to get it framed, and it just didn’t happen. So, it is just this sort of wanky handcut item…… It was just imperfect. And I thought, this is not how I wanted this to happen. But it was sort of a reminder to me, that it doesn’t matter what you think it is supposed to look like, what matters is the act of the giving itself, the act of being present, being open, understanding that I don’t have control over my life, that I have to see the control of God. And today, was another example of where — in my mind– I wanted it to be perfect, and it was not perfect. But in its imperfection, it was beyond perfect. It was laden with grace. So, I am so grateful, I thank God for the imperfection of how the experience played out. Whereas when I first discovered that thing [the security tag], first thing in the morning, I was like, ‘Why me?’ But only for a moment. Now I feel like I have gotten better at catching these things. Catching the grace through the messiness that is unfolding. I made a commitment three years ago to surrender, and that meant in every possible way. I struggle with that every day. This is just another one of those days where it didn’t matter. Nothing happened. Nobody cared. I didn’t care. I forgot all about it. I just got to meet the Pope who spoke to me about joy and said powerful things. I was praying for him and he was praying for me. Such moving moments with the Successor of Peter.
And I know you made a pilgrimage to San Giovanni Rotondo to see the tomb of Padre Pio. There are so many places in Rome and throughout Italy, why did you choose to make a pilgrimage to that spot?
Jonathan Roumie: I have had a personal connection with St. Padre Pio for many years now. My family has. It started with my mother, and she had an experience [knew of someone miraculously cured of cancer.] Then last year, I had started praying online, Live, the divine mercy chaplet, at the start of the pandemic, not because it was a great career move, but because I couldn’t ignore the calling to do it. I just had that feeling: I should do this. But thinking [smiling], then people will really think and know I am Catholic. And I was like, yea [smiling] … So that went on for 40 days, and during that time, someone sent me a book of prayers close to his heart, including the Stay with Me prayer, that is just extraordinary, and if one hasn’t read or prayed it, it is extraordinary. And I remember praying it online for the first time and I just couldn’t get through it, because I was so moved by it. It was so intense. Later that summer, he appeared in a dream for me, and I just thought: Well, ok, when they say he starts going after you, he lets you know. So, yes, since that point, the devotion kind of increased. So, of course, coming here, I knew it was something I wanted to do, despite how distant it was. We also made a point to go to St. Michael’s Cave…It was quite beautiful.
In playing Jesus, even if you have had various experiences doing so already prior to “The Chosen,” what is the most challenging aspect of doing so? Or what has been the most meaningful moment?
Jonathan Roumie: I think the most challenging part is not getting into my own head about what I am doing, and honoring the fact that God brought me to this place and I shouldn’t question it. I shouldn’t allow the enemy to discourage me or convince me that I am a fraud, which has happened on several occasions. And I often admit that I am simply a broken human vessel, just a person, but for whatever reason, God gave me these gifts, and he gave me this charge, to use these gifts and to serve Him somehow. And it just happens to be by playing His Son, in a show that is really reaching people on a deeply, personal level, myself included. So, I just have to stay humble, be moderate too, and do the best that I can.
What has been your favorite church in Rome so far that you visited?
Jonathan Roumie: It’s hard…I mean…
Or a couple?
Jonathan Roumie: Well, obviously St. Peter’s. I love St. Peter’s but it’s hard to comprehend all going on inside. One of the most meaningful experiences I’d say was within the chapel of the Scala Santa which I did the other day. That was the most moving, powerful, personal experience that I have had. I mean personal experience. Meeting the Pope is an entirely different sort of experience… This, at the Scala Santa, was the most personally interactive experience, interactive and powerful experience that I had. Going up the stairs on my knees and just touching the marble under the wooden casing, and then going to the chapel of the relics, really moves you. I was just overwhelmed. It was overwhelming.
In this series, you and the other characters are being asked to delve very deeply into these unique subtleties of the characters you are playing. I am wondering what are your influences? What are your inspirations to tap into that, because there are looks that you are giving people, facial expressions, gestures, that you need to make …? How do you find the inspiration for your portrayal of Jesus, and to develop your rapport with people?
Jonathan Roumie: For me, it is about trying to heighten the emotional experience that we have as humans, or imagining what it may have been like on a concentrated level, like, how might Christ have experienced joy, happiness and sadness, and anger and solitude. Fortunately, we are still at the stages of storytelling where things are pretty light. Things are momentous and a big responsibility, but emotionally, it’s still happy, joy, and miracles. There is a little bit of chiding and some reprimanding going on, but it hasn’t been [primary]. There are some glimpses into the righteous anger of God, but I have not had to go to that place where we are flipping tables. So, I think that is going to be really something. I look forward to flipping a table [joking, smiling]. But I look forward to exploring that, namely asking how, as Jesus, what does it mean to be so wholly offended by the Pharisees and Sadducees, who ultimately, I think, on some levels, disparaging the heart of God’s Law… what is that going to be like? What would that be like? And [what would it be like] to be justifiably angry as God? No one knows. No one could ever know. So, in the interim, it’s how can I experience the most ostensible traits of God – love, mercy and compassion: how can I extend that to the people in the scene and to people in my own life, so that what happens in the scene, is organic, real and based on the truth. It is not fake. So, I try to have that for my fellow scene partner. I try to experience those things for the person playing the role in front of me, as we are doing the scene. I think that is the biggest thing I would say, that love, mercy and compassion, and experience that for the people I am surrounded by and those with whom I am interacting, if that makes sense.
You are going to be playing Jesus for the foreseeable future, since it is a seven season show. Are you doing anything in between? Do you have different projects, where you would be portraying characters or figures who are not Jesus?
Jonathan Roumie: Yes, there are few things happening right now. I should be giving some announcements in the near future. One of the things I can talk about is that I am partnered with Hallow, the Catholic and Christian meditation and prayer app — which is phenomenal. They are extraordinary people, who have a heart for using tech to reach souls and to serve God. Also, I am a strategic consultant for them. I also do a lot of recording and will be doing a lot of recording for them, this fall. I think we are still in their 30-day Gospel challenge, so I recorded all four Gospels for them. I narrated them all. Every day, you can listen to a few Chapters, and there are people commenting on those Gospels, which is an adjunct to them, which is available. Also, I narrated other parts of Scripture, the rosary, the Divine Mercy Chaplet, recited the Our Father in Latin and Aramaic… I worked with a consultant for the Passion of the Christ for the recitation of the Aramaic. Those are a few things.
As we get into fall, I anticipate my manager will submit me as well for all the secular projects I am submitted for or will continue to be submitted for. I can always find a way through the character; the challenge is to find the way that God fits into the life of the character, no matter who it is. I recently played on an episode of Chicago Med a British heroin character who almost overdoses. To me, it’s like how do I refuse God into this guy’s narrative, even if it is not on the page. So, an evil character never sees themselves as evil, it is just that their perspective of the world is quite skewed. So, they think they are doing right. So, I can play a different type of character, a mean character, a bad character, a broken character, an interesting character, and be ok with that. I hope to. As an actor, that’s what I look to do, is to tell stories. And the documentary I have been working on should be sometime next year. We’ll be shooting it this fall. But whatever God wants at the end of the day. He is in charge… [smiling].
Thanks so much, Jonathan…
For info and to watch: https://watch.angelstudios.com/thechosen
Stream the show for FREE via the app: www.thechosen.tv/app or find it on Peacock TV.