2017-07-27
Blair Underwood Photo"The Bible Experience" features such megastars as Denzel Washington, Samuel L. Jackson, and Angela Bassett, but it is Blair Underwood who nabbed the central role of Jesus in this audio CD of the New Testament. Underwood is perhaps best known for TV roles on "L.A. Law," "Sex and the City," and "The New Adventures of Old Christine." "The Bible Experience" is the second time he's played Jesus, following his 1992 role in the short film "The Second Coming." Since its release in October 2006, "The Bible Experience" has sold more than 250,000 copies. The Old Testament is scheduled to be released this fall.

Underwood spoke with Beliefnet about how he prepared to play the role of Jesus and about the place of faith, family, and prayer in his own life.

Listen to Scenes from "The Bible Experience":
The Birth of Jesus
John Baptizes Jesus
Jesus Tempted in the Wilderness

Listen to Blair Underwood :
Portraying Jesus in 'The Bible Experience'
His Personal Faith Journey
On Being a Child of God
Sharing His Prayer Life

Can you tell us a more about both your experiences playing the role of Jesus, in the short film and now the audio Bible?

The movie 13 years ago was a movie called "The Second Coming." It was a short film, and what's sad about short films is they don't have much of a life outside of film festivals. But that's okay.

"The Bible Experience" is an audio Bible which has about 300 different voices of entertainers, singers, actors, actresses, clergymen and women, personalities. I haven't checked lately, but I think it's outsold, I believe, any audio Bible in terms of the rapidity of sales.

In the first five minutes of recording it, it just hit me like a ton of bricks that the reason I did the film 13 years ago--which I produced with my brother Frank Underwood, and I directed, as well, so it came from my spirit, or my soul, and my passion in wanting to make a statement--but I realized the reason for that [movie] was not for the life of that project, that 30-minute short film. It was solely in preparation for "The Bible Experience," which I didn't know until "The Bible Experience" made itself known to me.

How does it feel to play Jesus?

Portraying Jesus in 'The Bible Experience'
It is overwhelming, of course. It is humbling. It is exciting. It is exhilarating. It is daunting. But, more than anything, it's humbling, I think, more than any of those. 

I think what I learned 13 years ago was to just release and let go, and not think too much about it. In other words, open up your heart, open up your soul, open up my spirit, and let God use you, as opposed to trying to control it with my head and with my heart. And once I released that angst, I've gotten to the point where it's more humbling than anything to allow God to use you, to [use] whatever gifts he has blessed me with, in this respect, spiritually, vocally, your physical tool that he gives you. Those are all his gifts from him, so to be able to use that and give it back to him is most profound to me.

How do you prepare for a role like that? It seems quite daunting.

It is. A lot of reading, a lot of studying, and a lot of praying, more than anything. The reality is, you can't read all the books written on Jesus. You can't. You can only study but so much. You really have to [look] inward and speak to your soul, and open up your soul and try to connect to that higher being, which I do my whole life anyway. But in terms of preparing for the role, it's really digging deeper inwardly than doing research outwardly.

I'm assuming you don't approach this like just another role. Is it more of an act of faith than a professional endeavor?

It is solely an act of faith. I would not have the audacity to diminish this exercise, if you will, as just another role, as just another gig. It's too personal to me, first of all, and it's too personal to millions of people all over the world.

We live in a day and age with technology. What you do today, what you put on film or on tape, is in cyberspace immediately. And this project, especially, is designed to do just that. It will be on iPods and iTunes, and on the internet. It's designed for that kind of technology. So these performances of all the people on this "Bible Experience"--like anything with technology today, but this, more than anything--will last, and it'll last long, long after I'm long gone.

What does the Bible mean to your life?

The Bible to me is a blueprint of how to live your life and a blueprint of how to treat others and seek that connection to that higher being. But, in simple form, it's a blueprint.

And what is the role that faith plays in your life?

His Personal Faith Journey
Jeez, where do I start? I would not be able to exist without an understanding of faith in my life. I'm married 13 years and we have three young kids, and we teach them all the time about the importance of faith in a higher power. It's not unlike what I was referring to before in preparation to play the role of Jesus. It's all about letting go. It's all about having an understanding, and that's where the blueprint comes in, to understand the structure and the ways and means of how to find that connection. But it is ultimately about that connection and that faith in that connection [to] that higher power, that higher source, that God, that God source.

It releases the weight of trying to do it all for yourself, feeling like you have to understand it all yourself. You can't understand it. And when I say "it," I mean life. You can't understand life, the meaning of life, why we are here, why we're here day to day, what is our purpose, our individual and our collective purpose on earth. Those questions, those huge questions of life, they're too huge to try to understand in its wholeness and also just incrementally, day by day. So, what faith does is, it gives me a connection to say, "You know what? I'll understand what I can understand, and then God will give me the direction to go where I need to go from there."

And how would you describe your relationship with God?

On Being a Child of God
I see it very much as a very healthy, childlike connection to a father who is loving, who is giving, who is consistent, who is omnipotent, omnipresent, omniscient, all of those things.

I feel very blessed in my life to have a very healthy relationship with a very loving, earthly father. That's why fatherhood--parenthood, but fatherhood especially--is so important that it's done correctly. Because if a father's not in a child's life in a positive way, and in a healthy way, then that child has no point of reference, no barometer to what a father should be. So if you don't have that understanding, then you have no understanding of what a heavenly father should be.

I say that to say that I feel blessed to have had that in my personal, physical life on earth. So that's how I see my relationship with my heavenly father, with God in heaven--as someone to look to if I want to look for guidance, to feel comfortable with my thoughts, my actions, someone to be accountable to.
It's funny that you mention your earthly father. The next thing I was going to ask you is how being a father has changed your life.

It's that quickening in your own spirit, and quickening in yourself, to realize that there is so much more to life than just you and your aspirations. You hear that all the time, that's not a novelty. What I’m saying now is not a novel concept or sentiment, but when you feel that quickening within yourself, it is astounding and it is profound. And that's what happened to me when we had our first child, who's now nine years old, our son. And now there's three. We have three total, there's two more kids after that. It made me more selfless.

But it also made me even hungrier to make sure that I held up my end of the bargain, and the bargain is to provide for them. The bargain is to guide them. The bargain is to make sure they have a healthy relationship with their heavenly father. And by doing so, I need to make sure I have a healthy relationship with them, as their earthly father.

So what it does is, it makes you more--it made me, anyway--much more responsible as a human being, as a father, and even as a husband. My charge is this family unit, and, again, that is a huge responsibility, because I am responsible for the direction of these children, these other lives, my wife and I together. So if I get too deep into the weight of that, I can't handle it alone. That's where the faith comes in, in my heavenly father.

How do you keep your kids grounded, and how do you instill values in them in our culture today?

They have a good life, and they have access to a lot of wonderful things and stuff in life, and people in life, that a lot of kids their age may not. So, to me, it's about exposure and balance. It's checks and balance, to make sure they understand that they are privileged, that they do have access that many people don't have to certain things.

I feel blessed because of the parenting of my parents. What was instilled in us was the importance of family, the importance of other human beings, the importance to give back to other people, however that manifests itself--whether it's giving back to your church, giving back to your friend, or giving back to a person in need, giving back to someone who's hurting. But it's giving back. It's taking the focus off of self.

It goes back to the words of Christ, and so many throughout the years--throughout the centuries--have reiterated that, but to be truly great, the greatest among you would be your servant, the one who serves others will be the greatest.

Do you have a favorite Bible verse or a favorite Bible section or story?

I’m not one of those people who can spout out Bible chapter and verse. There's one verse in Matthew, I don't know if offhand, but he says, "Many have assumed that I have come as peace, a sign of peace, but actually I come as a sword." What he means by that is, I come as a sword that will divide mother from daughter, father from son. And I'm paraphrasing, but, basically, if you chose to take my way of teaching, if you chose to pick up your symbolic cross and follow me, you will be persecuted like me, and you will have to stand for me. And there will be those who will be against you, they will persecute you. If they persecuted me, they will persecute you.

But when he says, "I came as a sword," there are so many colors and shadings in Jesus, even in the Gospel, that are often not taught, or he's portrayed in a certain way as completely the lamb of God, the Prince of Peace. Of course, he was all those things, but this is one of my favorite verses because it says, "I'm also here to understand what it will entail to follow me." I come as a sword to divide the men from the boys, the women from the little girls, the ones who are serious about their calling, the ones who are serious about my teachings.

Do you have a favorite prayer?

Sharing His Prayer Life
I don't think I have a favorite prayer. It's funny, because I teach my kids [to pray, and] they have their prayers for food, like, "God is great, God is good, and we thank him for our food." But we're teaching them now, don't just pray by rote. Don't just pray because it's a habit. Talk. Have a conversation. It all goes back to having the relationship, and not just the religiosity of it all, not just for the sake of ritual or habit. So I have all the typical ones that we know of, but when I pray it's all about having a conversation. So there's nothing that's memorized, which is ironic, because I memorize lines for a living.

It can be so hard to have that sort of conversation, though.

It can be, but isn't that part of the journey? That, to me, is where it lives. That's one of the purposes of life, is to find that way back to that spiritual place of awakening and being awake all the time. And to have a true conversation, as opposed to memorized words that you've said since childhood, is much more impactful and effective to find that way back home. Because, really, it's coming back home, that's really [important] at the end of the day.

In response to movies or other works of art about Jesus, there are frequent debates about Jesus' race or ethnicity. What do you think of those debates?

I think those conversations can be distracting to what is most important, and what is most important is what he taught. The value of love, the greatest commandment, as he says, was to love your neighbor, to love your neighbor as I have loved you. That's at the core of what he was about and what he taught. Those conversations [about Jesus' race] are relevant only insomuch as when you're dealing with a carnal, earthly perspective on the presentation and the portrayal of Christ, as those images were changed and altered throughout history. Because you're dealing with a man, a Middle Eastern man. You have to remember that. You're dealing with a Hebrew man, 2,000 years ago, who lived in the Middle East. So, I think, those conversations have their place, but I think ultimately they can be distracting to the teachings.

You've played Jesus twice, but you've also spoken in interviews about your interest in playing bad guys. Why? What's the attraction?

Because I'm an actor and have always been fascinated by the human spirit and the human dynamic, the psychology of human beings. And we run the gamut. As an actor, I'm curious to explore all depths and levels of human nature. So it can be frustrating, creatively, when you are confined to one type, one shade of expression, of human expression, of human behavior. I've always, and will continue to always, resist that. Going back to Jesus, he didn't preach to the converted. He said, "I did not come to heal those who are not sick. I came to be engaged with and to have conversation with those who need to be healed." So I'm much more interested, as an actor, in not just playing good-guy roles, speaking to, preaching to the choir. I'm much more interested in getting into those dark elements and aspects of life.

The psychology of why people do what they do, the psychology behind the behavior--that is much more fascinating to me than preaching to the choir and [playing] good guys because somebody wants me to be a good guy.

Do you have a dream role or character that you'd love to play?

They are polar opposites. One dream role is Jesus. The other dream role is just the opposite, somebody very dark who is searching for the light within themselves. Because it's always about finding that light. And the light is goodness. I think that's the only caveat.

In all the characters I play, I enjoy going as dark as human nature--that is realistic to human nature. But, for me, either the overall project or the character have to be desperately searching for that light. As long as the overall message and the objective is to be uplifting, then that's what's interesting to me. That's compelling.


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