The National Geographic Channel premiere event Killing Jesus delves into the historical story of a man whose message and preachings led to his persecution and execution by a group of conspirators who saw him as a threat to their power. While more than 2.2 billion people around the world follow the teachings and principles of Jesus of Nazareth, this gives them a human context with which to identify with the man, himself.
During this exclusive phone interview with Collider, actress Emmanuelle Chriqui, who plays the often manipulative and vindictive Herodia, talked about why this script appealed to her, figuring out how to play a woman that she just didn’t like, connecting to the human side of the story, how totally surreal this epic production was, that this cast is still all in touch with each other, and how this story is really something of an ancient soap opera. She also talked about how truly excited she is that the Entourage movie is finally hitting theaters this summer, how seamless it was to return to the character of Sloan and how the film is the best version of the show, as well as what made her want to sign on as a series regular for Season 2 of the TNT drama series, Murder in the First.
Collider: How did you come to be a part of this?
EMMANUELLE CHRIQUI: They sent me the script and I read it. I really love period pieces. I’ve always dreamed of doing a period piece, I just never knew what it would be. I got a little taste of it with The Borgias, but not in a very significant way. I read this and I just loved the script. It’s such a good script. Aside from the fact that we’re talking about Jesus, it’s a script that really just stands on its own, as a tremendous story. And this character, Herodia, is like, “Holy cow!”
It was really daunting, at first. I was not understanding how to get past being judging of her. How do you play a character that you just inherently don’t like? You can’t play that. There was a little bit of problem-solving. I needed to figure out who this woman was, at this time, what her motivations were, and what the most important thing to her was. It was her daughter, and she was a really strong mother. There wasn’t that much to do, back in the day, except maybe be a mother and pray to be in a royal family. That was basically it. Once I cracked that nut for myself, than I was able to calmly go into the not-so-nice stuff because I knew the higher purpose of it, for her. And as soon as you Google Herodia, you’re like, “Oh, my god, people hated her!” When you look at Wikipedia, it says that she’s one of the most hated queens in history and you go, “Okay, that’s a bit scary!”
These adaptation of Bill O’Reilly’s books tackle such iconic figures, but also give a real humanity to the characters that we might not have previously given much thought to, or might have seen just as villains. Was it that human side of the story that appealed to you? Do you think you would have been able to connect, in the same way, to just a straight historical story?
CHRIQUI: No, I think it had a lot to do with the fact that it was exactly what you’re saying. It was such a great screenplay, and the characters were so layered and so rich and so human. Kelsey Grammer playing King Herod, is one of the most notorious kings, ever, but he plays this version of him that is so unexpected. I think that’s really cool. The script allowed us to go to places that weren’t so obvious. As an actor, we’re not politicians. We’re looking at the material, first and foremost, and we’re thinking, “Can I do something with this? Does it make sense for me?” Individually, everybody looked at their characters and went, “Hell, yeah! This is exciting. This is so well-written. There’s so much to do.”
The adaptation of Bill O’Reilly’s book is what set this biblical piece aside from others because it feels so human, especially the storytelling of Jesus as a human, much more than the Divine. He was an enlightened, lovely soul who threatened people from a place of love, and people were in fear, much like today. There’s this quote from Mother Teresa that’s in my house that says, “If you do good, people are going to try to knock you down, but you do good anyway.” That seems to be the way. People freak out. If today, suddenly, there was somebody preaching the word and there started to be a following, you know there would be millions of people like, “You’re full of shit! You’re a fake!” It just seems to be human nature. So, it’s really cool to see this story being told, where you can see the social and political times that Jesus lived in, what he was up against, and what any man, in that position, was up against.
If you’re going to be a part of telling a story that the entire world either knows or is at least familiar with, does it help that you’re playing a character that far less is known about?
CHRIQUI: Oh, my god, totally! That gave me freedom. For Haaz [Sleiman], who played Jesus, I can’t even imagine what that was like. He’s such a naturally spiritual person, and I think he channeled something very special to play this.
This is such an epic and incredible production. What’s it like to be a part of something with such an international cast, more than 90 speaking roles, a huge crew, and tons of extras? Is it just totally surreal to be on a set like that?
CHRIQUI: It’s totally surreal, and it’s one of those things that continues to be totally surreal. We shot in Morocco. Getting to where we shot in Morocco, certain flights would only fly on certain days. It was so epic that you’d get to this place and it literally felt like you stepped back in time. It was like, “Holy shit, I just went back in time.” And the costumes were so beautiful. You can do all the homework in the world, and then something magical happens when you’re dressed in these robes and heavy crowns, and you’re working through the desert when it’s a billion degrees. You’re like, “Oh, my god, what are we doing?!” It was an incredible experience. I feel so lucky to have worked with every single one of our cast. We are a giant, amazing family. We really all fell in love with each other. It’s crazy! And we’re still all in touch. It’s pretty unique.
Don’t you feel like this relationship that’s at the core of this for you, between Herodia and Antipas (Eoin Macken), is like something out of an ancient soap opera?
CHRIQUI: I couldn’t agree more! You’re so right! It’s like this ancient soap opera. I really think the Bible is a baseline where all stories come from. All of the zillion stories in the Bible provide inspiration for everything. It’s almost like the Bible was the original thought, and then it spiraled off into a thousand different ideas. It is one of the greatest stories ever told, and it’s like a soap opera. The story of Herodia, just her story alone, of being married to King Herod, who was a drunk and not a good husband, but she had a baby with him. And then, she married his brother and demanded the head of John the Baptist. And she plotted with her daughter to seduce her husband. I’m sorry, but what telenovela is that?! It’s so hilarious. It’s wild! It’s the oldest story in the world, that we know of, anyway.
You also have the Entourage movie coming out. When you think back to when that finished, as a TV series, and then all of the talk started about possibly doing a movie, did you always believe that it would happen eventually, or are you surprised that you’re here now, with a movie that’s done and hitting theaters on June 5th?
CHRIQUI: That’s surreal, too. There was a moment where we all gave up. We were like, “Whatever. It may happen, it may not happen.” We all moved on, in our careers. We were like, “Maybe it will happen. It would be nice. Who knows?” And then, suddenly, it got real and we shot it. Now, I went and did ADR for it a week ago, and I’m so truly excited about it that I can’t even explain. It’s so exciting, on so many levels, that we have this film that somehow buttons the whole journey. It’s really cool.
Because it was a little bit longer than everyone expected it to be, before everyone got the chance to go back to it, once you got to the set, did you slip back into the character and your relationship with the boys pretty effortlessly?
CHRIQUI: Seamlessly. We all were like, “Did this show really end three and a half years ago?” It was crazy how all our same jokes and all of our same way of being came right back. E and Sloan’s way together just picked right up where we left off. It was really wild. It was like muscle memory. It was all right there. It was amazing. To me, this film is the best version of the show. It’s very exciting.
What made you want to sign on as a series regular for the TNT drama series, Murder in the First?
CHRIQUI: For some reason, I’ve been given the really good fortunate to be able to explore these characters. This one, to me, almost takes the cake. I get to play a plain clothes sergeant in the gang unit, who served in the Israeli army, is a total bad-ass, and a little bit ‘hood. It’s amazing. They’re really writing incredible stuff, and I get to work with Taye Diggs, Kathleen Robertson and Raphael Sbarge. It’s such a sick cast, and I’m really so excited about it. It’s a good one to sign onto.
It seems like you’re always doing a wide variety of projects in various mediums. Do you really work as non-stop as it seems? Do you consider yourself a workaholic, or do you actually get to take some breaks?
CHRIQUI: I swear to God, it’s just an illusion. Last summer, people were like, “What are you up to?” And I was like, “I’m actively summering.” They were like, “What is that?” And I said, “I’m barbecuing, I’m traveling, I’m going to the beach, I’m waking up late, and I’m taking a break.” And then, in October, I was in Morocco shooting Killing Jesus, I came back and shot a film before the holidays, and during the Christmas holidays, I auditioned for Murder and the First and got it. I went on holiday, got back in January, and then I started shooting. Now, I’m shooting and I’m promoting everything else. It’s crazy! This is a particular year, I’ve gotta say, but it’s a really good one. I’m very excited about all of it.
Killing Jesus airs on National Geographic on Sunday, March 29th.