As season four premieres around world, 'The Chosen' actors talk faith, life struggles

Jonathan Roumie and Elizabeth Tabish, who play Jesus and Mary Magdalene in "The Chosen" series, are seen during its season four premiere in Warsaw, Poland, Jan. 26, 2024. The event attracted 1,600 fans of the show, which has been seen by 200 million viewers worldwide. "The Chosen" launched in 2017 as crowdfunding project and is the first multiseason series about Jesus' life and ministry. (OSV News photo/Chosen Poland)

WARSAW, Poland (OSV News) -- When the creators of "The Chosen" started with a crowdfunding project in 2017, they would not have thought in their wildest dreams they would be walking the red carpets from Los Angeles to New York and from London to Warsaw, with screaming fans begging for selfies.

Five years since the premiere of the first season, the series about the life of Jesus of Nazareth is now garnering over 770 million views of its episodes and has more than 12 million social media followers. Season four will debut in theaters across the U.S. and Canada Feb. 1, followed shortly by debuts in several other locations worldwide.

"I wasn't expecting any of this. I think it was one of the most enthusiastic receptions we've had for our premieres," Elizabeth Tabish, who portrays Mary Magdalene in the series, told OSV News in Warsaw Jan. 27, the day after two episodes from season four were shown on big screen in the Polish capital, with 1,600 fans filling four rooms of one of the city's biggest theaters.

"It was very exciting, you could just sense the warmth and love from the Polish people, and it just was very encouraging," Jonathan Roumie, who plays Jesus, told OSV News, days after the crew got a spectacular reception at the London premiere Jan. 22.

"The Chosen" is a groundbreaking historical drama based on the life of Jesus Christ, seen through the eyes of those who knew him. Set against the backdrop of Roman oppression in first-century Israel, the show shares an authentic and intimate look at Jesus' extraordinary life and teachings. It is set to run seven seasons.

"The Chosen" is now one of the most-watched shows in the world, consistently a top performer across streaming platforms Prime Video, Peacock and Netflix.

Tabish said the series "changed every aspect" of her life, but she did not see that coming. She almost didn't make it to the audition for the role.

"Before I booked it, I was trying to quit acting. I wasn't getting the sort of roles that I really wanted to be doing, and I told my agent to just stop submitting me. I need to switch gears, do something more practical," she said of a time of her life where she was struggling to even pay rent.

But the agent insisted she audition for the series, "and I read the script for the first episode, and I was so connected to her character, it was so beautifully written -- just so much backstory and emotional depth and complexities. And I thought, this is what I would love to be doing," she said.

Now, she told OSV News, "we get to make something that is affecting people in wonderful ways, bringing hope to viewers and creating something that has purpose."

Tabish now feels deeply connected to St. Mary Magdalene, one of the best-known personalities surrounding Jesus but also the most mysterious.

"The fact that she was there, the first to see him resurrected, was like, this woman is so special to this story -- and of course, she's sort of captured the imagination of people for thousands of years," Tabish told OSV News.

For Roumie, a practicing Catholic, the role of Jesus also came as a surprise. Years before "The Chosen" project started, he was supposed to play a good thief in a production filmed for a Good Friday church service. But at the last minute the director changed his role to Jesus.

"And I said, oh, man, Jesus has like five lines in this film. But, you know, I love Jesus. I'm a huge fan of Jesus. And I thought, well, look, this is an opportunity to play Jesus," he recalled.

When the same director, Dallas Jenkins, invited Roumie to play Jesus in "The Chosen" series, he wanted to take the role, even though Jenkins told him the series "probably won't go anywhere, but at least it'll be a little bit of work."

Roumie, like Tabish, had his own struggles before he started filming.

"I struggled in Los Angeles for eight years before 'The Chosen' came along, and three months before 'The Chosen,' I committed to to giving everything over to God, to letting go of the reins of control over my career, over my concept of how I thought my life should go, how I thought my career should go," he said.

"And when I did that, everything changed in the span of 24 hours," he continued. "And then three months after that one specific day where I let it all go, Dallas (Jenkins, the director) called me up and said, 'We're going to do this show.' And since then, it's just been a journey towards growing deeper and deeper into my faith."

From the beginning, the challenge of playing Jesus was not easy for him. When a scene in the first season required Roumie to preach directly from Scripture, he felt it was a heavy burden to carry, he recalled.

"At that moment, I started to become overwhelmed, like, 'What am I even doing here? How am I even saying these words? I'm not worthy to be preaching these words that Jesus preached and now to be portraying him for the entire world that's going to see this.' It was completely overwhelming," he told OSV News.

"I had a conversation with our director, and he just reminded me that we're meant to be here, we're here to do this story for a reason. And that kind of gave me a lot of comfort," Roumie continued. "And I've continued to just pray and discern and really stay rooted in the fact that God has me on this path for a specific reason."

During Roumie's stay in Poland he visited and prayed in the Sanctuary of Divine Mercy and the neighboring Sanctuary of St. John Paul II in Kraków. "It was really beautiful," he said.

Asked about the recipe for the series' success, Tabish said that "it starts with the writers and it starts with the script -- our writers know the Bible so well."

Writing the scriptural characters as personable, funny and smart, she added, "infuse this sort of modern sensibility into the whole thing, where modern audiences can relate to these characters. Because if you take it off the page and into real life, they are relatable. They are actually going through the same sort of struggles that we go through."

Oftentimes biblical characters have been treated as people "floating above the ground everywhere you go," and "people can't relate to that," Roumie added.

In the series, however, they see Jesus who "suffered, he had troubles the way I have troubles and struggles and trials," Roumie said. "And so I think because of that, people see themselves in each one of the characters and then it draws them closer to their faith, knowing that all of these people, even Jesus, experienced the fullness of humanity. Jesus (was) obviously without sin, but still he experienced the entire spectrum of emotions."

For Tabish, "Mary (Magdalene) is such a representation of all of us -- flawed people who need help, who need Jesus, who need to be rescued."

"Rescue" is not an exaggeration for people affected in real time by "The Chosen" series. He gets hundreds of testimonies of people changed by the series, including coming back to the church. He knows of people who "were going to take their own life and decided not to because there was a moment where a friend interceded and showed them this show. And after watching the first episode of the show, they were overcome with this sense that, you know, God has a purpose for them. So they decided not to go ahead and take their own life."

Roumie met a couple who told him the show helped them restore their marriage and begin going to Bible studies. Another fan of the show is discerning priesthood, "and he said this (show) has had a direct impact. So glory to God! It's just that. It's incredible how much of an impact a television show can have on a person. So you, you really begin to realize that there is a sort of a hidden responsibility that we have as actors on this particular show," he said.

Asked whether it's challenging to be an actor whose face millions of people associate with the face of their Savior, Roumie said he tries to take it with humility.

"I've come to accept the fact that this is where God has put me. And I'm just trying to be a good steward of the gifts and the responsibility of playing this role and ultimately, surreally becoming what people kind of imagine as the face of Jesus for their modern era. So I try not to think about that too much. … It's humbling and it's an honor," he said, adding he's just "a flawed human being."

"I'm just a person that, you know, has a really, really interesting job and playing this character. So I'm grateful for that," he said.

The financial commitment of people in the first stages of "The Chosen" production indicates the series' great meaning for the audience, the actors told OSV News.

"We've been provided for because, I think, the people who want to see it are desperately wanting to see it," Tabish said.

People wanted to crowdfund the show because it has "this ring of authenticity to it and this honesty and this desire to bring something that we know to be true to the world," Roumie added.

When the producers decided to unlock the series and stream it for free, "it exploded the minute they did that," Roumie said. "We got like four times as many people contributing to help us fund the next phase, the next season, after we made it free."

In season four, with stirring scenes including ones featuring John the Baptist and Lazarus, Tabish said, "We kind of come to this point of no return. Everything is a little bit more dangerous, the stakes are all higher. … There's no turning back. It's a painful season in a lot of ways."

Asked whether he feels the anxiety of knowing of Jesus' coming crucifixion as an actor portraying him, Roumie said, "I am looking forward to telling the story, but performing that is -- I know -- it's going to be challenging for me personally as an actor and as a Christian. It's a painful part of this story, but it's not the end of the story. The end of the story ends in life and light and truth and salvation and eternity. That's the end of the story."

For Roumie, season four was "for a while, completely challenging to film on a technical level, and on a narrative level was painful and sorrowful and difficult at times," but "what ultimately comes out of it and the message behind season four -- and the faith and the encouragement and the hope and the message to trust and put faith in God and that he has your back -- ultimately is the beauty that I think people will walk away with when they leave the theaters."



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