TV

NBC’s 12-part mini-series ‘A.D.’ continues ‘The Bible’ story

• History’s “The Bible” drew huge viewing numbers

• Politics of‘A.D.’ still relevant today

• Actor playing Jesus says this is “a role of a lifetime”

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A Harris Poll shows that three out of four Americans believe in God. Despite that huge number, producers Mark Burnett and Roma Downey got a skeptical response when they pitched the idea of doing a mini-series based on The Bible.

“I felt some people five years ago wondering, ‘Is anyone really going to want to watch Biblical stuff on prime-time TV?’ And clearly we were right that we thought they would,” Burnett says. “We have never heard more from people anticipating anything than this.”

More than 13 million people watched “The Bible” when it aired in 2013 on the History Channel. The cable series was re-edited and released as a feature film that took in more than $61 million.

Now, the producers are banking that people’s interest won’t wane as they present “A.D. The Bible Continues” on NBC.

The story — to be told in a 12-part mini-series starting Easter Sunday — looks at events following the Crucifixion of Christ. Greta Scacchi, Juan Pablo Di Pace, Richard Coyle, Vincent Regan, Adam Levy, Emmett J. Scanlan, Babou Ceesay, Chipo Chung, James Callis, Joanne Whalley and Jodhi May star.

Downey, best known for her starring role on the CBS series “Touched By an Angel,” has been told by her fans that they are hungry for stories of faith. She’s confident this latest product will feed that hunger.

“A.D.” is being broadcast 18 months after “The Bible” was shown on History. The producers went back to the cable channel to give them the opportunity to be part of this second mini-series but the production had grown to a size where it wasn’t feasible for History to be involved.

Plus, Burnett wanted “A.D.” on one of the networks to make it available to more people. The audience for “The Bible” was limited to cable and satellite subscribers.

Not only is this production bigger in scale, it is a faster paced story of religion, politics and relationships. The stories unfold centuries ago but reflect what’s happening in the world now.

“It’s like taking ‘House of Cards’ and dropping it into the first century in Jerusalem,” Burnett says. “Two thousand years later, clothing has changed, transport has changed, electronics, finance people haven’t changed.

“The governments are still doing the same thing they were doing then under Roman rule, trying to maintain your power at all costs, and it was a very explosive time. It was a time that changed the history of the world. There’s no question. Not just the date, the start of year one, but it changed the world.”

About 50% of “A.D.” is based on the Acts of the Apostles and Epistles. There are key events that anyone who knows the Bible will recognize in each episode. But, those stories have been filled in with what was going on, or at least what the producers thought was going on at that time.

Both Burnett and Downey believe in signs and prayer. They call the casting of Juan Pablo Di Pace to play Jesus as an answer to all of their heavenly requests.

The actor sees playing Jesus as a daunting task, but one he felt well prepared to do.

“I come from a Christian background. My mother is a religious painter. She has a painting in the Vatican. So I grew up with all of that. My name, actually, Juan Pablo, comes from John Paul II. So, you know, it was going to happen at some point,” Di Pace says. “I’m absolutely humbled to be playing him. It certainly is a role of a lifetime.”

His mother took him to see Michelangelo’s sculpture “The Pieta” when he was a young boy. It depicts the Virgin Mary cradling the dead body of Jesus.

“I remember thinking, ‘Wow, this is the most beautiful piece of art.’ Fast forward many years later, and there I am full of blood. Greta Scacchi is holding me in her arms, and I’m thinking this is just like a dream, it’s magic, it’s beautiful,” Di Pace says.

Filming the Crucifixion was physically and mentally demanding on the actor. The producers flew his mother in during the filming so that she could give him emotional support.

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