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Photo Credit: 130 Agency

Jonathan Roumie: I First Portrayed Jesus in My Long Island Backyard

The actor went from playing Christ in childhood theater to getting cast as him on a major television show.

When Jonathan Roumie was eleven years old, he built a life-size crucifix out of two six-foot-long boards, painted the blood, and reenacted the crucifixion in his family’s backyard in Long Island, New York. “I fashioned some reeds to make my own crown of thorns and proceeded along the way of the Cross to the side of the garage—which would be my Golgotha,” Roumie explained over a video call.

The first time Roumie saw Robert Powell’s portrayal of Jesus in the 1977 film Jesus of Nazareth, he felt compelled to reenact the crucifixion. It was Easter season, and his family watched the film every year.

“I would plant the crucifix in the ground and fasten it with a cinder block and step on the cinder block and just kind of put my hands up and slide them in behind the nails. I don’t know too many 10-year-olds that would go around doing that. That set me up in a major way, decades before I would ever realize it, to prepare me for what I’m doing today,” he said.

His father and his mother married in the Greek Orthodox Church and did not see their son acting out the crucifixion in the backyard that day.

Years later, when Roumie took up playing the role of Jesus in the Gospels, he was confronted with specific moments of what he sensed was spiritual warfare. The scene was set to film, episode 6 of The Chosen, where Jesus heals the paralytic at Zebedee’s house, and 150 extras were dressed to the part and staring at him intently. This was his first time preaching directly from Scripture on set.

“I got this quick flash of panic in my heart and thought to myself, ‘What am I doing here? I shouldn’t be doing this. This is sacrilegious,’ and I started to panic,” Roumie said.

It took about five days to shoot the scene. He felt unworthy to say the words that Jesus spoke. Director Dallas Jenkins told him, “None of us are worthy to be doing this, but we’re telling this story so people can know who Jesus is and why he came,” which helped define the mission for Roumie.

When Roumie encounters spiritual warfare and other challenges, he prays the Chaplet of Divine Mercy—or the Rosary. “The Rosary is not just about the Passion. It’s about all the phases of Christ’s life,” Roumie said. “It covers his birth, the Annunciation, the visitation, the presentation at the temple, the finding of the child Jesus, and the wedding at Cana.”

Photo Credit: 130 Agency

Photo Credit: 130 Agency

Before landing the role of Jesus on The Chosen, Roumie had surrendered everything but his acting career to God. He had been living in Los Angeles for eight years, and he was nearly broke.

“There was this one day during May of 2018. I woke up. It was a Saturday morning, and I was 100 dollars in overdraft. I had 20 dollars in my pocket. I had enough food to last a day. I had no checks in sight. I had no work in sight. I had maxed out my credit cards. I literally didn’t know how I was going to exist,” Roumie said.

He kneeled in front of his crucifix and poured out his heart to God, asking him, “What happened?” He had been under the impression that God helps those who help themselves—he later realized that the Lord helps those who rely on him.

“For years, my prayer was, ‘If there’s something else I should be doing, please show me what it is, because this is really hard,’” Roumie explained. “I literally said the words ‘I surrender. I surrender.’ I realized in that moment that in many other areas in my life, I had allowed God in. But when it came to my career, I thought, ‘I know better. I got this God, I’m the actor here. Don’t worry—it’s Hollywood; I know Hollywood, God.’”

Roumie left his apartment and went for a walk to collect himself, buying a breakfast sandwich with the money he had left. Later that day, he found four checks in the mail.

“Three months later, Dallas Jenkins called me. He’s like, ‘I might be doing this series. It’s probably like four episodes. We’re crowdfunding it,” Roumie explained.

It was a no-brainer for him to try his hand at playing Jesus in The Chosen. “It was a significant opportunity for me. I had never done more than one or two episodes of a legitimate TV show.”

It took a while for Roumie to find his artistic path. Early on, he discovered voice-over work a couple years after graduating from the School of Visual Arts in New York City.

“Being a mimic from an early age was always something that I wanted to do. That kind of started my road to acting,” Roumie said.

He is proud to have inherited his father’s Egyptian heritage and illustration skills. He designed airbrushed jean jackets in high school, in the early ’90s, to earn extra money on the side. He developed his drawing skills and thought he might become a comic book artist.

“I was banging on pots and pans from the time I was 18 months old. I eventually became a drummer.”

After graduating from college, he played drums in his friend’s contemporary rock band. “It was Dave Matthews meets Cat Stevens meets REM,” he explained.

They recorded an album and were about to go on tour—then the recording company that was sponsoring the tour went bankrupt, according to Roumie. “It fizzled. [The other guy] went and found a day job. He had a family … but I stuck it out in the film industry,” he said.

He moved to Los Angeles in 2009 to pursue a career in film and television. In one short year, he had burned through his savings. Eight years later, he ran out of money and options with only a few credits to his name, one being his guest-star placement on Mindy Kaling’s sitcom series The Mindy Project in 2017, playing Dr. Montpellier, a French doctor and spokesman for Médecins Sur Le Front, a fictitious nonprofit.

“Comedy has an inherent math to it. If you don’t follow the math of comedy, it won’t work. If you follow it, it works almost every time—in terms of beats, in terms of timing, in terms of pauses,” Roumie said.

Photo Credit: Jason Davis/Getty Images for K-LOVE Fan Awards

Photo Credit: Jason Davis/Getty Images for K-LOVE Fan Awards

At the end of his rope, Roumie got the call from Jenkins, the creator of The Chosen. Jenkins originally cast Roumie in Once We Were Slaves, a short film released in 2014 that was later retitled The Two Thieves, telling the story of the men who were crucified alongside Christ. “It was an origin story about how these thieves came to be crucified—what could’ve plausibly happened, to give the penitent thief his conversion on the cross,” Roumie said. He also played Christ in two other short films for Jenkins over the next three years.

He first played Jesus in Faustina: Messenger of Divine Mercy, a one-woman show about the life of St. Faustina Kowalksa, a Polish nun who became a saint in the mid-20th century. Since then, the theatrical production was adapted into a film called Heart of Mercy for Saint Luke Productions.

Finally, when The Chosen arrived, Roumie knew that he had four episodes to make an impression as Jenkins asked him “to put the sandals back on.” True to the request, Roumie says, “I put the sandals back on, and that was the start of the rest of my life. … I prayed through it, and tried to offer my performance to God, to use in a way that might affect people positively or bring them closer to Christ,” he said.

The Chosen has given some people a new lease on life. Roumie says he’s been told by strangers, “They were going to end their life, and they decided ‘My life is worth something. I want to know who Jesus is.’”

When playing the role of Jesus, Roumie asks himself, “What would mercy personified look like?” Then he tries to infuse his interactions with a deep sense of this mercy, compassion, and love. For extrabiblical scenes, like rehearsing the Sermon on the Mount, Roumie asks himself, “How would Jesus do that?” and then he interprets those moments. Extrabiblical material is “scary” to him because people are quick to call it heresy. “The biggest point of contention for some people was developing the Sermon on the Mount and rehearsing it.”

He even asked Jenkins if there were stages like the ones depicted in “Beyond Mountains,” the season 2 finale of The Chosen. Jenkins said, “Oh, yeah, look it up.” The Greeks used stages in 3,000 B.C., according to Roumie.

“And again, it’s a TV show. It’s going to be a little bigger than it probably would’ve been. It’s going to be a little more presentational. We’re building the narrative,” he said.

How do you make the apostles fit into a storyline? He explained that everything written into the show is based on the principles of historical, scriptural, and political accuracy and plausibility.

Rabbi Jason Sobel, a Messianic Jew, served as one of the spiritual advisors for The Chosen, along with a variety of other theologians. Sobel helped make connections between the Old Covenant and the New Covenant, according to Roumie. He gave context to what the customs were and how they lined up with the Christian traditions.

Jesus wasn’t the first person in the Bible to say, “Come follow me,” Roumie explained, “It’s what Rabbis do. If they choose you, that’s what they say. If that phrase is bestowed upon you. That is a huge honor. Christ calls all of us to follow him in that way—that’s a very Jewish thing.”

Photo Credit: 130 Agency

Photo Credit: 130 Agency

Roumie was baptized in the Orthodox Church and began attending a Roman Catholic Church when his family moved to Long Island. “I made my first Communion as a Catholic. I made my first confirmation as a Catholic. That was kind of it,” he said.

God’s divine mercy should be vital to every Christian, according to Roumie. “Last year during the pandemic I felt called to pray for whatever reason. I have no explanation other than the Spirit just put it on my heart to pray that publicly.”

He led thousands of people in praying the Chaplet of Divine Mercy and the Rosary on Instagram Live in 2020. He said, “Everything was just on fire, literally as well as metaphorically,” Roumie said.

“I would get people yelling at me, telling me I was in a cult and all of this other stuff that I would just put up with. I would just try to love on people,” he added.

He demystified the significance of sacramentals, by praying with a Rosary. “These beads, all they do is focus you on that—these prayers that are meant to just center you,” Roumie said.

One man who tuned in for the prayers commented, “I’m a Southern Baptist, I just got my first set of Rosary beads. I used to get these anxiety attacks and since I started praying the Divine Mercy Chaplet, they stopped. So, thank you.”

Because of his role of Jesus in The Chosen, Roumie has met prominent Christian leaders including Pope Francis and evangelicals like Francis Chan, Greg Laurie, and Nicky Gumbel.

“I have a real heart for unifying people behind this one man that we see as the Son of God. I think, in the divisive times we’re living in, we need to be aligned in Christ,” Roumie said.

“Denominationally, we’re so used to wanting to put limits on God and what he can do and what he can’t do—‘If it didn’t happen in this church, then it’s not true and it’s not real.’ That’s not Jesus.”

Reflecting on the road that has led him here, Roumie remembers his time working as a rideshare driver, a catering waiter, a voice-over coach, and with kids with special needs before he was cast to play Jesus in The Chosen.

“I feel like I was made for such a time as this. This is what God put me on this planet to do for right now. Until he calls me to do something else, I’m just going to try to embrace it as best I can,” he said. “God forbid, this could all stop today, and I will have been quite content with the opportunity I had for a very small period in history.”

Kelsey is a UX Strategist at Christianity Today. Follow her on Twitter and find her poems in The Slumbering Host at Little Gidding Press.

Ekstasis is a publication and community that seeks to revive the Christian imagination by publishing work that slants toward the triumphant and glorious aspects of life in Christ, framed through the arts and literature.

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