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The May Messenger

May 14, 2000|SUSAN KING | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Lorenzo Minoli, executive producer of CBS' ambitious religious drama, "Jesus," was watching the shoot the day last summer in Morocco when Christ was crucified.

"It was difficult," said Minoli, who also has produced such religious TV miniseries as "Abraham" and "Joseph."

No matter one's denomination, viewers will find it hard not to be touched by the performance of Jeremy Sisto, the 25-year-old actor playing the man the Christian world believes to be the son of God and the Messiah. In his performance, Sisto ("The '60s," "Clueless") manages to communicate the pain and anguish of those moments 2,000 years ago in Jerusalem.

"He gives quite a powerful and very strong characterization of the death of Jesus," says Minoli.

For the actors, participating in the scene was emotionally draining. "It was horrific," stresses Debra Messing ("Will & Grace") who plays Mary Magdalene, the prostitute who became a follower of Jesus.

"You forget you're acting at that point," says Messing, who is Jewish. "It took us three days to shoot it and at one point it was 145 degrees out there. We were at a high altitude and so the heat was something that had a life of its own. To see Jeremy up there, it doesn't matter what religion you are, it was absolutely devastating. We cried for three days."

Sisto was given a bicycle seat to rest on while hanging from the cross. "It was sort of tragic to wake up in the morning and be reminded of this darkest possibilities of human evil and cruelty," Sisto says. "But, in the light of what we were presenting, it was hard to complain."

The life of Jesus Christ may be the greatest story ever told, but it's been told and retold over the decades in film and television. And "Jesus" is just the latest among the recent examinations of the life and mission of Christ. NBC aired its religious drama, "Mary, Mother of Jesus" in November, and ABC followed on Easter Sunday with its clay-animated family film, "The Miracle Maker."

Directed by Roger Young ("Joseph"), "Jesus" also stars Jacqueline Bisset ("Day for Night") as the Virgin Mary; Jeroen Krabbe as a slick Armani-clad Satan; and Gary Oldman as the Roman ruler, Pontius Pilate.

(CBS is making available a Spanish-language version of "Jesus" to its own stations and affiliates, including KCBS, to be simulcast via SAP.).

Minoli wanted this "Jesus" to emphasize the humanity of the Messiah and to shed light as to why he was sent to his death.

"Plus, we wanted to walk away from either too much divinity or too much human description of this character," says Minoli, who enlisted a group of religious scholars as advisors. "We wanted to show he was young. That he had fun. That he had anger and was attracted to other people and to women.

"At the same time, he was also God, and when he went on the cross very likely he suffered for real because crucifixion was designed to be the most painful death imposed by the Romans."

"Jesus" also puts the blame for his death firmly on the shoulders of Pontius Pilate, whom Minoli describes as a "cold-blooded murderer" and absolves the Jews from any wrongdoing. "We show that Pilate is the judge--that the defendant is innocent and that he condemns him to death."

The brown-haired, boyish Sisto is a far cry from previous actors who played Jesus, especially H.B. Warner who, at 52, was a bit long in the tooth to play the 33-year-old Messiah in Cecil B. DeMille's silent spectacle, "King of Kings."

Minoli was drawn to Sisto's great vitality as well as his "strong" expression. "Sometimes he is almost like like a kid," he says.

Sisto maintains it wasn't burdensome playing Jesus because Suzette Couture's script stressed the human element of his story. "I didn't have to be playing the iconic inhuman sort of deity," says Sisto. "I was able to approach the story as I would any other character."

Bisset also saw the Virgin Mary as a simple, practical woman. "I just tried to make her as full-hearted as possible," Bisset says. That was no small task for the actress. "She has been interpreted by so many people," Bisset continued. "I just took it second by second as a woman and tried be as real and simple as possible."

Sisto felt a real kinship with Jesus' inner struggle when he started on his path at age 30 to follow God's will. "He is resistant toward it because it is not completely clear what he is supposed to do or when he is supposed to act," Sisto explains. "I feel that in a lot of interpretations of Jesus we see him floating through life as a ghost. [In this movie] we have him living a very human existence."

*

"Jesus" airs Sunday and Wednesday at 9 p.m. on CBS. The network has rated it TV-PG-V (may be unsuitable for young children with special advisories for violence)

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