On Sunday, March 20 at 8 p.m. ET Fox will air The Passion, a two-hour live musical depicting the last earthly days of Jesus Christ. Flanked by music stars including Seal, Chris Daughtry and Trisha Yearwood, Latin actor/singer Jencarlos Canela will take the lead role, playing Jesus Christ in a production filmed live in the streets of New Orleans and filled with contemporary pop hits. The Passion is already a big hit in Holland, where it’s been seeing growing ratings for five years straight, and industry prognosticators expect it to pull in big numbers stateside. (Disclosure: Billboard is an affiliate company of one of The Passion‘s co-producers, Dick Clark Productions.) As for Canela, you may not recognize his name, but he isn’t new to the spotlight: In addition to recently touring behind his 2014 album on Universal Music Latin, Jen, the Miami native now appears alongside Eva Longoria on NBC’s Telenovela, a send-up of the same Spanish-language soap operas where Canela, 27, cut his teeth. Billboard caught up with the star to talk about preparing for the role of a lifetime.
You’re playing Jesus Christ in a live musical on Palm Sunday — no pressure! How did you end up with the role?
My co-manager sent me a link to the trailer from [the original Dutch production] and said, “We have to do this.” I was moved. I remember, I was lying down watching TV, flipping through channels and it was all about bombings and the stuff the news usually talks about. When I got that link, I saw it as a sign. We need to hear this type of story now more than ever. When I called my co-manager, he said, “They want you to play Jesus.” It was beautiful.
Did you have any reservations taking on such a high-stakes role?
No, but I think for my generation, religion has such a bad name because of human error. We made the mistake of attaching the word “God” to the word “religion” — the word “God” is way bigger. Whether you’re a believer or not, this story is way more than that. It’s about love, unity, acceptance, forgiveness, facing your fears, and being able to do anything to conquer them so you can be the best person you can. I needed to hear that message. I’m no one to preach, but when I saw the trailer, I understood and identified more than ever with this amazing story that is part of the fabric of our lives. My generation hasn’t been exposed to the story in this way.
The show is happening live in the streets of New Orleans, with a cast of hundreds. How’s it feel knowing anything — good or bad — can happen?
Oh man, I can’t wait. I’m excited about it. I think all of us on the cast, we’re primarily singers and musicians, so we’re used to that live element. I’ve been touring since January of 2015 — it’s been a long year! We did Toronto, the U.S., Central America. And then the Telenovela show came and I had to postpone, and now we’re rebooking dates. I’m ready, and I’m excited that Fox is betting on these types of shows. There’s nothing like that adrenaline. Usually on TV, you’re like, “I can mess up, I have takes two, three, and four.” There’s no take two here. You get one chance to do it — I feel like it makes the performance so much better.
Why do you think they chose you for this role?
Um, because all the good options said “no.” [Laughs] I was on tour and I had a Skype session with [executive producer] Adam Anders. Man, it was complicated. The Wi-Fi was spotty and we were sweating it. Finally, we FaceTimed. He’s telling me what a responsibility it will be. I didn’t notice this, but he told me later that the whole time I was smiling, just happy to be in that conversation. He also said it was something with our eye contact. I think the eyes are the most important things there are. I’m the furthest thing from perfect you’re ever going to meet — I have a lot of flaws — but my main goal every day is to work on that. I believe the people around us are the key to our evolution; interacting with others, learning from and accepting others, that’s the key to progress as a human. I identify with that in the story and I let Adam know how important that was to me. Oh, and he made me sing for him. I confessed that it was my parents’ anniversary the night before and that we went hard. They’ve been together more than 27 years, so we celebrated their love. He made me sing “Amazing Grace.” I don’t know how that went, but…
These are big sandals to fill. How are you preparing for the role?
We forget that Jesus was human. He was a special kind of human, but he was human. He was a carpenter. A revolutionary. He spread a word that wasn’t favoring the law of his time. He truly believed in what he was fighting for. When he sees the temple being desecrated, he flips and throws tables. He gets truly upset. Keeping those elements in mind, I feel like maybe we can identify with him even more. When it comes to delivering my lines, I just allowed him to emotionally go to places that the cliché version of Jesus would not. I know the story well and ultimately I see a smile on his face — a symbol of hope and love.
How’s the energy compared to other sets you’ve been on?
It’s like nothing else I’ve ever experienced, no kidding. I remember rehearsing the scene where Judas betrays me and the police come to take me away. I was in the [police] van and just in another world. I had my eyes closed as they were fixing a light. It was gonna take five minutes, so I sat there, going through this moment. The audio guy comes up behind me to adjust something, and he grabs me by the arm, comes right up to my ear and says, “Have I told you today that I love you?” And then he just goes away. We’ve known each other for two, three days, but the way he said it, I knew he meant it. That was just a beautiful thing. We became so close to each other, this cast and crew of people from all over.
The music is so important to The Passion, and it’s interesting that it’s all secular, contemporary pop songs. What are you most excited to sing?
Music is everything in this story. That’s one of the coolest things. It broadens the appeal, because we’re using timeless songs. It’ll be like hearing these hits you know so well for the first time. There’s a Celine Dion song, “Love Can Move Mountains” — I’ve never seen an intro like this to a show. It’s empowering — it’s insane. When the music starts, you can feel it inch through your veins. And the duet with Pontius Pilate [played by Seal] is one of my favorite songs, Tina Turner’s “We Don’t Need Another Hero.” I don’t know what I’m more excited about: playing Jesus or singing a duet with Seal.
Fox’s The Passion airs Sunday, March 20 at 8 p.m. ET.