ROME – At the end of his weekly public audience – and after unexpectedly taking a phone call in front of the cameras and the thousands of pilgrims who’d gathered in the Paul VI Hall to listen to him – Francis had his usual meet and greet with those who had listened to him preach.
Among those waiting were actor Jonathan Roumie and producer Dallas Jenkins, the face and the mind behind The Chosen, the largest crowd-funded media project of all-time, a multi-season series about the life of Christ that went live on Easter 2019 and has captured over 300 million viewers world-wide.
The show’s two seasons are freely available worldwide through a dedicated app, YouTube and the streaming service Peacock. The first eight episodes were funded through the donations of 19,000 people who helped raise the $10 million needed. The “sells” of that first season funded the second, and money is now being raised for a third.
“Sales come from licenses, the pay it forward campaign, through which people can help others around the world to watch the show, DVDs, and merchandise related to The Chosen,” said Neal Harmon, the CEO of Angel Studios.
“We’ve had people from every corner of the world expressing gratitude, because they somehow know about the show. It takes you by surprise: Most people don’t watch it the first time they hear about it, but once they do, they can’t stop talking about it!” he told a small group of Rome-based news outlets, including Crux, on Wednesday.
Harmon was one of the crew members who attended the papal audience on Aug. 11, but only Roumie, a Catholic, and Jenkins, an Evangelical, got to talk with the pope. Visibly in a good mood, upon hearing that Roumie plays Jesus in the show and that Jenkins is producing it, Francis turned to the latter and asked, “Are you Judas?”
This led to the actor laughing, the producer squinting his eyes.
Jokes aside, Roumie called the encounter with the pope as a “childhood dream realized. Seeing him walk out, it was like ‘holy macarons, this might actually happen’.”
“But I didn’t take anything for granted, until I saw him walking towards me and take the time to talk … it was one of the greatest spiritual honors of my life,” he said.
Crux was at the audience, witnessing how hundreds of people stopped him shouting “Jesus” and asking to have their picture taken with Roumie.
Playing the Son of God – which he’s done in cooperation with Jenkins on various occasions before The Chosen – has “deepened my walk with Christ,” the actor said.
“I feel that I’ve been allowed to have this success with this project at a time in my life, at the age that I’m now, because I’ve been pretty well grounded,” he said, pointing out that his career in the movie business began “literally cleaning toilets as a production assistance.”
“I had gone through every iteration of ascending the company ladder in the film industry that one can do. And when I decided to become an actor full time, I moved to Los Angeles and struggled for eight years to the point where I had to surrender to a much deeper conversion, at the lowest point in my life, three years ago. And three months after that utter and complete surrender, God gave me this project.”
And God, Roumie said, “kept me humble every step of the way. Even getting to meet the pope was not without God saying ‘just know your place’.”
The day before meeting the pope, he’d bought a suit, only to realize, at 7 a.m. on the day of the audience, that they hadn’t removed the security tag, so he ended up meeting Francis with some black tape masking the protruding piece of plastic.
“It was a reminder that I have to cede control to God,” he said. “In its imperfection, it was perfect.”
The actor believes that the most challenging thing about the present moment is “not getting in my own head about what I’m doing and honoring the fact that God brought me to this place and that I shouldn’t allow the enemy to discourage me or convince me that I’m a fraud, which has happened on several occasions.”
“I’m a broken human vessel and that for whatever reason God gave me these gifts and this charge to honor him somehow, and it just happens to be playing his son in a show that is touching many people in a very deep way, myself included,” Roumie said. “I just have to stay grounded in this knowledge, but honor it as well, just do the best I can.”
When it comes to meeting the pope, Jenkins was a bit less overawed, defining it as a “less of a personal thing and more of an interesting thing, a great honor.”
“As an Evangelical, and for many other Evangelicals, we find it interesting that he seems to be less formal that other popes,” he said. Yet he was deeply touched by the hundreds who greeted him too, before, during and after the papal audience.
“It’s truly been one of the great joys of the experience of The Chosen is meeting so many Catholic brothers and sisters that I didn’t know that I had,” he said.
To try to not alienate anyone, Jenkins has a “biblical consulting team,” that includes an Evangelical, a Catholic priest and a rabbi: “They don’t have veto power, but I get their feedback, because I wanted to know if there was something that would be unintentionally offensive.”
Appealing to all Christians, he said, was not something that was particularly in his mind when first deciding to make the show, yet one of the things that distinguish the series from other attempts at telling the life of Christ is that it cannot be labeled as either Evangelical nor Catholic.
“I’ve been in Christian media for decades and I can’t think of a project that had more Catholics and Evangelicals both having the same response to it,” he said. “It’s always been Catholic art or Evangelical art, with perhaps the exception of The Passion of Christ.”
Though he didn’t set his mind to make the show the success it’s proven to be, Jenkins does have high hopes for it: That throughout its planned seven seasons, “those who see it, will know and love Jesus more, or that at least, they will want to.”
When The Chosen first germinated, both the producer and the actor were at a low point in their lives.
“The Chosen didn’t come until I was really broken,” Jenkins said. His previous movie had tanked at the box office, and he was serious questioning if he’d ever make another movie again. After much praying – and crying – he stopped caring about failure and success.
“That’s when God decided I was ready for The Chosen,” he said. “When he really broke me down, took away my narcissism, my control, my desire to succeed, it was only then that I was ready to do a project like The Chosen.”
Filming for the third season is scheduled to start early in 2022, and in the meantime the production team is focusing on making the show an even bigger global success through distribution contracts in several new countries, including Germany, Australia and the Netherlands.
Speaking about how The Chosen has been able to succeed without Hollywood money, Harmon, the head of Angel Studios, said the audience knows better than a handful of executives.
“And he who has the gold makes the rules, and if the audience makes the rules, then the creators can provide the audience with what they are looking for.”
Follow Inés San Martín on Twitter: @inesanma