Jesus the stoner, the singer, the trans woman and the regular guy – actors on playing the Messiah

When the comic actor Slink Johnson was growing up in Arkansas, he had a specific image of Jesus Christ in his mind. “He was a white man with clean-ass robes,” he says. “Never a hair out of place. You had to be nice to him or his father’s gonna throw you in a lake of fire, you know what I mean?” Speaking over Zoom from his home in Los Angeles, where heavenly sunlight is streaming through the blinds behind him, he adds: “He was always holding his hands like this.” And he turns his palms upwards.

None of which describes the version of the Son of God played by Johnson in the sitcom Black Jesus, which ran for three seasons between 2014 and 2019. Johnson’s Christ is an African American stoner chilling in his robes, sandals and crown of thorns in modern-day Compton. Despite a penchant for weed, he really is the Messiah, not a very naughty boy. He may scoff at requests for next week’s lottery numbers but he will happily use his divine power to help you find your keys (“Living room, couch, right pillow”). Anyone unhappy with their lot in life is reminded of the big man upstairs: “I told y’all, Pop’s got a plan.”

It may be one of the most unorthodox portrayals of Jesus but it is also among the sweetest. Vital to that is Johnson’s loving performance. “I wanna think he represents the best of me, minus some of my more worldly ways,” he says. Any controversy aroused by Black Jesus was mild, and could scarcely survive in the face of the show’s good-natured humour and optimism. “I think people were expecting it to be edgy or overly urban or ghetto,” says Johnson. “But it has this heartfelt warmth.”

Then again, attitudes toward depictions of Christianity have softened since the furore surrounding Monty Python’s Life of Brian in 1979. Or, for that matter, Jesus Christ Superstar. Though that show is now accepted as a pillar of the musical theatre canon, its UK premiere in London in 1972 was greeted by protests, as its star Paul Nicholas remembers. “There were people outside the Palace theatre with placards,” he says. “To call something Jesus Christ Superstar was a bit dangerous. Things were quite touchy. It also had this radical, rocky score. Of course, once people saw the show, they could see it was all treated with great care.”

One night, a man in the audience sneezed and I whispered: ‘Bless you, my son’

The same is true of another interpretation of Jesus that caused even greater uproar: the one created and performed by the playwright Jo Clifford in The Gospel According to Jesus, Queen of Heaven. “I read the gospels and was incredibly moved by the figure of Jesus,” Clifford tells me. “Much to my surprise, I really admired him. I thought of the piece I was writing as an act of devotion. I imagined it wouldn’t attract the slightest bit of attention.” When she turned up in Glasgow in 2009 to perform her play, which takes the form of a sermon, she was faced instead with protesters objecting vociferously to a transgender woman playing the Son of God as a Daughter.

Clifford’s play was informed partly by the hostility she had encountered since starting to live as a woman. “Every time I went out, people were laughing and pointing and shouting abuse. If you read the gospels, you see that Jesus is continually reaching out to people who are oppressed and suffering prejudice. The reason these demonstrators got so angry is that they believed I wanted to attack and defame Christian religion but that’s the opposite of where I was coming from.”

In fact, her personal Jesus has created a fair few believers. “I’ve had people say, ‘If only church services had been like this when I was a child.’ Someone else said, ‘You never bloody told me you were going to make me a Christian!’” Among the converts was Clifford herself. “I wasn’t really a Christian before. My faith has come about through reading the gospels, making a play out of them and then, year after year, performing it.” How did she build Jesus as a character? “I couldn’t really tell you,” she laughs. “My children sometimes say, ‘You’re doing your Jesus voice!’ So I must have a Jesus voice, whatever that is. All I do on stage is say the words as truthfully as I can and with as much presence as possible.”

Whether Jesus is portrayed as a stoner, a singer or a trans woman, there is a unifying Christ-like demeanour. That’s the view of James Burke-Dunsmore, who has played Jesus on hundreds of occasions, most notably as the star of the two-hour Passion play staged annually in Trafalgar Square. “It’s not about appearance,” he says. “I’ve directed other Jesuses, and they’ve been all sorts of shapes and sizes. But there’s a quality that comes from delivering the text without constantly forcing a point. The most successful Jesuses tend to hand over a teaching or a judgment expecting it to come back at them in a kind of to-and-fro. People want to receive the text unhindered by an actor’s ego or selfishness.”

For Greg Barnett, who played the lead in the 2019 History Channel drama-documentary Jesus: His Life, becoming the Messiah entailed thinking of him purely as a man. “If I looked at the enormity of him being Jesus, it would have freaked me out,” he says. “I did get a review which described me as ‘physically unremarkable’, and at first I thought: ‘That hurts.’ But it was kind of what I was aiming for. I wanted to find that normality in him: just being a normal chap, with the human pain he went through.”

Paul Nicholas in Jesus Christ Superstar in 1972.
‘It affected me deeply’ … Paul Nicholas in Jesus Christ Superstar in 1972. Photograph: South Coast Press/Rex/Shutterstock

With the exception of Black Jesus, humour in this context is often conspicuous by its absence, though Paul Nicholas did manage to amuse himself occasionally during his 10-month stint in Jesus Christ Superstar. “Doing it eight times a week, it does start to become a bit routine,” he admits. “And I could be a bit naughty sometimes. One night, I was waiting in the darkness to go on at the start of Act Two when a man in the audience sneezed. I whispered, ‘Bless you, my son.’ Very quietly, though, so that only the front row could hear!” Though the original 1972 production wasn’t filmed, a brief glimpse can be seen in that year’s Christmas special of the BBC sitcom Till Death Us Do Part, when Alf Garnett takes his family to see the show before accosting Nicholas in the bar afterwards to discuss the crucifixion. “Does it ’urt up there?” he asks, to which the actor replies: “Well, I’m glad when I get down.”

Even for a non-believer like Nicholas, the crucifixion scene took its toll emotionally. “I would go below the stage and they would attach me to this very thin frame so that when I was raised up it looked like I was hanging in the air. The audience was very moved by that. All you could hear was the odd person sobbing. I was so overcome some nights that the tears started to flow. I felt so vulnerable up there, so exposed. It was a religious experience, in a sense, without me being religious. It affected me quite deeply.”

Barnett felt the same while shooting his crucifixion scene in Morocco. “It was the most intense, insane experience to be hanging on the cross looking out at the Atlas Mountains, which were covered in snow,” he recalls. “It’s something I will never forget. I was on the cross for three days in total. On the last day, the sun was going down behind the mountains as they were lowering me, and I started sobbing uncontrollably. Everything was very peaceful; there was a real serenity on set. Afterwards it took me a good 45 minutes or so to decompress. It wasn’t negative in any way – it was weirdly cathartic.”

For Nicholas, the role was ultimately still a job. “It’s always about acting and pretending,” he says. “I would leave Jesus at the stage door as I left each night.” But for Barnett, the part spilled over into his life. “I definitely had more time and love to give to other people. You’re living and breathing your character, so when it’s Jesus you can’t help but find yourself behaving like that.” Of course, it also looks good on the CV. “Absolutely. My mum loved it when I told her I’d got the part. We’d be out and she would say, ‘Ooh, can I introduce you to my son, Jesus?’ I’d be like, ‘All right, mother!’”

As Johnson sees it, the lessons an actor takes away from the role are timeless. “It’s about everything we learned in kindergarten,” he says. “All the things we disregarded along the way: treat others how you wanna be treated, keep your hands to yourself, and be nice.”