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The Contenders: Diogo Morgado's human touch in 'Bible's' Jesus

Executive producers Mark Burnett and Roma Downey had lofty aspirations for their miniseries "The Bible," but the Twitter fans who dubbed Diogo Morgado "Hot Jesus" found more earthly pleasures in the History program as well. Morgado wasn't well known outside his native Portugal before the first of his five episodes aired on the History Channel, but given that the series' ratings topped 13 million U.S. viewers some weeks, it's safe to say he's a recognizable face nowadays. ("I know you from somewhere ... church?") Film roles as a race car driver ("Born to Race: Fast Track") and a small-time criminal's devoted friend ("Red Butterfly") are upcoming, but until then, he'll have to settle for being best known as the son of God.

How do you prepare to play Jesus? The usual tools of an actor don't seem like they'd be much help.

I realized this is not a character. If there was a character, it would be much easier because I would have the freedom to do whatever I wanted. The tricky part was to realize how strong it is, how alive it is for millions around the world. The Bible and Christianity shaped the world as we know it, especially the Occidental world. It's not just a story; it's a philosophy. So I tried to give up on my natural process as an actor and just try to embrace the message of what has made the story prevail for so long. It's a universal message of love, compassion and faith, and it almost doesn't matter faith in what. Even atheists can be touched.

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It's interesting you say that, because what distinguishes your Jesus is how human he seems. Part of the reason for the "Hot Jesus" meme is that people were connecting with you as a person, not just an incarnation of divinity.

Every time I've seen a project with the figure of Jesus, I always felt that he was portrayed as a little bit higher and above the common mortal. That version is OK, but we've already seen it. I thought the only way to bring something new to it was to make him as human as possible and at the same time as much the son of God as possible. Jesus was 100% man and 100% the son of God. I tried to make it in a way that you would know exactly where he was coming from. Sometimes even he is surprised by his own miracles. With Lazarus, even though he would know he could do that, it's still something amazing to see — just unbelievable. If Jesus is as human as we think he might have been, why not give him an emotional reaction to that?

Your Jesus almost comes off as cocky at times. The Pharisees are constantly trying to trick him into calling himself the king of the Jews or opposing Roman taxation, but he outsmarts them, and he's pleased with it.

I tried to play things that were logical at that time. They were living in a time when crucifixions were, if not daily, weekly for sure, almost like a freak show; it was a really oppressed time. Imagine this stranger, this foreigner, coming in, just smiling — it was already something magnetic. Now, if we see a picture of Jesus smiling, we think, "Oh, this is a nice Jesus." But then, it meant much more than that. He was a revolutionary man for that time. What I think is beautiful is that he had a way of making himself understood, but in a gentle and not a hostile way.

How did this whole experience, not just playing the part but the tremendous success "The Bible" had around the world, affect the way you think of Jesus?

I grew up Christian. I grew up with Jesus. So it was part of who I am. What was special to me was that I never quite believed that one man could make a difference. I had this way of thinking that you needed more of a group to change things. I realized the only reason we're on this world is that we have to be grateful for what we have, and the only way to do that is to appreciate others rather than yourself. That was something about this show that definitely changed me, this sense of gratitude for what I did have and appreciation for the people who are around me and the way I show them. I realize that is actually the natural and simple way of changing the world.

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