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‘Journey to Bethlehem’ Stars Give a Behind-the-Scenes Look at the New Movie-Musical

What would the holidays be without festive films? We all have our favorites that we watch every season, and there are always new movies vying for our attention each year. Among the most notable offerings for the 2023 Christmas season is Journey to Bethlehem.

This engaging family film shares a new perspective on the story of Mary and Joseph, spotlighting their initial meeting, feelings on their arranged marriage, how they each deal with the news of Jesus’ impending arrival. And of course… their journey to Bethlehem, where the Savior is born. Heralded as The Greatest Story Ever Told meets The Greatest Showman, the film is punctuated by memorable songs and impressive musical performances.

Who is in the Journey to Bethlehem cast?

Milo Manheim (Disney Channel’s Zombies, Prom Pact) portrays Joseph, and Mary is played by Fiona Palomo (Outer Banks, Control Z). For King & Country’s Joel Smallbone is King Herod’s son, Antipater. Singer/songwriter Moriah Smallbone (The Chosen) is Mary’s sister Deborah and Lecrae portrays Gabriel, the angel who appears to Mary. Antonio Banderas turns in a wickedly entertaining performance as King Herod. Adam Anders directed the film and co-wrote the screenplay with Peter Barsocchini.

Milo Manheim and Fiona Palomo, Journey to Bethlehem, 2023
Milo Manheim and Fiona Palomo, Journey to Bethlehem, 2023Affirm Films/Monarch Media

A fresh telling of the classic story

Moriah Smallbone says one of the things that drew her to the film was the depiction of Mary. “I was so refreshed and relieved to see a version of Mary that I could finally relate to,” Moriah told Woman’s World during a Zoom interview with her husband Joel.

“We grow up seeing church plays, reading scripture and hearing stories about the nativity scene and Mary is pretty frequently portrayed as a reverent, holy woman, but also very demure and submissive,” says Moriah. “The beauty of this narrative and how it portrays Mary is it shows you that if you allow your imagination to breathe life into the margins of scriptures, you can really understand that you can be feisty. You can be ambitious. You can be competitive and you can accomplish beautiful things. There’s no one-dimensional female protagonist in this world. There’s just not.”

Stephanie Gil, Fiona Palomo, Moriah Smallbone, Journey to Bethlehem, 2023
Stephanie Gil, Fiona Palomo, Moriah Smallbone, Journey to Bethlehem, 2023Affirm Films/Monarch Media

Joel Smallbone’s character, Antipater, undergoes a huge transformation in the film and as an actor, it was an arc Joel relished. “Antipater was actually the oldest brother and he was killed by his dad, King Herod, around the time Jesus was born,” Joel said. “The writers took this historical character and said, ‘What if this character did fight against his father, his brutality and his murdering rage? What if he was the first convert?’ The idea that the son of an evil king could be so moved by the sight of the true King to give his life for this baby was a really fascinating story.”

Joel Smallbone, Journey to Bethlehem, 2023
Joel Smallbone, Journey to Bethlehem, 2023Affirm Films/Monarch Media

An impressive soundtrack to back an impressive story

For Milo Manheim, 22-year-old son of veteran actress Camryn Manheim, the music is what drew him to Journey to Bethlehem. “Every song is so different, uniquely amazing and I love musicals,” he told WW. “That’s what made me want to be a part of this and as I learned more about the story, I fell more in love with it and became more excited to figure out who Joseph was, but the music is what first drew me to it.”

Milo Manheim, Journey to Bethlehem, 2023
Milo Manheim, Journey to Bethlehem, 2023Affirm Films/Monarch Media

Manheim admits his work with Disney and competing on Dancing with the Stars (he placed second on season 27) were very helpful in tackling the role. “I’ve been through so many amazing things like Dancing with the Stars that whether you like it or not, you’re going to pick up stuff along the way, just muscle memory. I think had I not had that experience, it just would have been a little bit more of a hump to get over because the goal in learning these songs and dances is to get to a point where you don’t have to think about it so you can just be Mary and Joseph.”

But when it comes to the content of the character, that was so foreign to him. “I really did not know much about these people at all and it was more of just something I was just interested in and curious about and really wanted to do it justice,” Manheim says. “Adam seemed to think that I was his Joseph and I wanted to do him right.”

Putting on their dancing shoes

Smallbone admits the dance numbers were a lot of work, but also a lot of fun. “My opening number for the film was with 36 other dancers. It was very physical, a lot of sprinting, a lot of running, a lot of dancing,” said Moriah, who returns to The Chosen in season four. “They had us in leather sandals that were very appropriate for the era, but terribly uncomfortable. We all had bloody feet by the end of filming the opening number, but I didn’t even feel it because we were just having such a good time.”

Bringing Mary to life in Journey to Bethlehem

Paloma was excited about the musical aspect of Journey to Bethlehem, but was even more intrigued about playing one of history’s most important women.

“It was definitely scary in the best way possible,” Paloma said via Zoom. “I thought it would be a really wonderful challenge as an actress, but also as a person because something that I really love about acting is I think that everything you learn really translates to just knowing more as a human being. I really, really love that and thought it was going to be a beautiful opportunity. I did all the homework possible to make sure Mary felt like a very real human being with her own concerns, worries, hopes and dreams and heart and everything, so it was an absolute dream for me. I am very, very happy.”

Fiona Palomo, 2023
Fiona Palomo, Journey to Bethlehem, 2023Affirm Films/Monarch Media

A couple that lift each other up

Journey to Bethlehem was filmed in Spain and the Smallbones enjoyed having a chance to work together in such an exotic locale. “Moriah had already gone to Spain,” Joel recalled. “She called me and said, ‘Hey, they just cast Antonio Banderas as King Herod and they would love for you to play his son. So instead of going over to visit for four days, I was there for four weeks with her. I loved the opportunity. There have been a lot of times where I’ve had the chance to usher her through the door and there’s been a lot of times where she’s had the chance to usher me through the door and this was really her ushering me through the door. They loved her! What Moriah brings to every room is such a joy and such a peace and such poise.”

The couple have been married for 10 years. “We built our relationship on the foundation of creative collaboration. We met in Franklin, TN at his brother’s wedding, but the way that we really got to know one another was by writing a song together for a week. Here in Nashville, a songwriting session is usually a day, sometimes even a few hours. We managed to stretch this songwriting session out for a week and really got to know each other,” Moriah smiles.

“That set the tone of what our partnership would be from that day to this. From the time I was a kid I was like, ‘I want a man to stand beside me, not in front or behind me.’ It takes a lot of humility and strength to like he said, ‘Hold the door open for someone,’ not just physically but in life, career and opportunity,” Moriah continues. “I’m glad that we get to do that for each other. It takes work. It takes always keeping egos in check, but I think it makes us better partners and better people.”

Working alongside veteran actor Antonio Banderas

In addition to working with each other, Joel and Moriah also enjoyed working with the rest of the talented cast. Joel admits starring with Banderas seemed intimidating at first, but the veteran actor put him at ease.

“He was very kind and very present,” Joel says. “I really enjoyed the way he approached the character was so sort of avant-garde and so big that I actually really enjoyed being the yin to his yang. The part of the soldier is very poised, so it was a real highlight to be able to be opposite him. And he’s a really kind human. He’s got his heart intact.”

Antonio Banderas,  2023
Antonio Banderas, Journey to Bethlehem, 2023Affirm Films/Monarch Media

A story for all

Manheim thinks Journey to Bethlehem will appeal to viewers whether they are believers or not. “The thing that I want to scream from the mountain tops is this movie is not what you expect,” he said. “It’s also something that I wouldn’t have expected myself to do, but I did it because there’s so much love to be taken from it, so many amazing values to be learned.”

Manheim continues, “Whether or not you believe the story to be true, there are so many amazing things to take away from it and it’s just magic and fun. There’s going to be something that you’re going to find that you’re going to enjoy because it is just so love filled and joyous. You will leave the theater with a smile on your face no matter who you are.”

Rizwan Manji, Omid Djalili, Geno Segers, 2023
Rizwan Manji, Omid Djalili, Geno Segers, Journey to Bethlehem, 2023Affirm Films/Monarch Media

Paloma agrees. “It makes you feel good. It makes you laugh. I think it makes you emotional. It covers a little bit of everything that makes us feel and I think it’s really important. It’s going to make people very happy and that is very exciting for me.”

How to watch Journey to Bethlehem

You can currently rent/buy Journey to Bethlehem on major steaming networks such as Apple TV, Prime Video and Google Play, or buy the Blue-ray on January 16th.

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