Get to Know Jencarlos Canela, the Pop Superstar Playing Jesus on Fox's Live Musical The Passion
This Sunday night on Fox, Jencarlos Canela takes on the biggest role of his career: Jesus Christ. No pressure! The singer/actor—who goes by one name, Jencarlos (and Jen for short)—stars in The Passion, a two-hour musical event that will air live from New Orleans, is narrated by Tyler Perry, and stars Trisha Yearwood as Mary, Seal as Pontius Pilate, Chris Daughtry as Judas, and Prince Royce as Peter.
Although Jencarlos is new to audiences in the U.S. (though he made waves earlier this year as Xavier Castillo on NBC’s Telenovela opposite Eva Longoria), he has a massive following in Latin America, where he’s collaborated with the likes of Pitbull and Emilio Estefan. His 2009 debut album, Buscame, entered the Latin album charts at No. 1 and was certified gold within weeks of its release. Several albums later, the 27-year-old is currently in the studio working on his English album debut for Republic Records (Side note: He let us listen to it, and it’s pretty incredible).
Growing up in a small town near Miami, Jencarlos always knew he could sing, but an actual career doing it almost didn’t happen. He studied psychology for two years back home and, as he tells it, the single father of one “was going to continue, but I was 18 and got signed [to a label]. I was told, ‘If you want to make a difference, go out and do what you love.’ If you’re sending that message out into the world of what you truly want and you don’t settle for less, it will come. It will come.” Spoken like a man who believes in a higher power.
Listen in as Jencarlos previews Sunday’s show, how he almost ended up playing Danny Zuko in Grease: Live!, and his most shocking fan encounter yet.
Glamour: You’re the second actor I’ve interviewed who has played Jesus.
Jencarlos Canela: Well, you’re going to heaven girl! [Laughs]
Glamour: I mean, what are the odds? There are not a ton of actors that have played Jesus. I think there are more James Bonds out there
Jencarlos: Than Jesus’.
Glamour: You’re my second Jesus.
Jencarlos: You know what they say about the second Jesus, right?
Glamour: I have no idea. Enlighten me. I mean, I’m Jewish, though Jesus was too.
Jencarlos: Oh, you’re Jewish! And Jesus was.
Glamour: So what do they say about the second Jesus?
Jencarlos: I have no idea. I was hoping that you would say something, but I have no idea. [Laughs]
Glamour: When you found out you were up for the role of Jesus, did they tell you, “Hey, we’d like to see you for the role of Jesus?”
Jencarlos: It’s kind of crazy. I get the link from my manager, and he says, “We gotta do this.” My understanding was that they wanted me for Grease. For Danny. But I was doing Telenovela. I grew up singing and dancing and watching Grease. I love that movie. But they said, “Hey, that didn’t work out, but how about Jesus?” [Laughs] Danny Zuko to Jesus! I’m first and foremost a musician, and when I head the music, I knew I had to be a part of [The Passion]. The music is on another level.
Glamour: Would you consider yourself particularly religious?
Jencarlos: I’m more spiritual that I am religious—but don’t get me wrong, God is at the center of my life and everything I do. I believe people make the mistake of joining the word God with the word religion. They are two totally different things. So I tell my Jewish friends, my Buddhist friends, etc. that you don’t have to be religious to like this story. And the way it’s going to be told is not with the beard…
Glamour: It’s a very modern take.
Jencarlos: We’re going to be dressed like how I am now. It’s never been put into this perspective. My generation will be able to see this story and say, “How refreshing. This is a story about love, about compassion, about forgiveness, acceptance.” We all need that, we all identify with that.
Glamour: How nervous are you with the live element, even though most of your career has been about performing live?
Jencarlos: All of us are used to it, so it’s not scary. It’s exciting. There’s nothing like performing with that adrenaline. You gotta give in to it and let go.
Glamour: I heard this is your first time in New Orleans. What did you think of it?
Jencarlos: I heard from a lot of my musician friends that I was going to love it, and it’s insane how much good music is there. The people are amazing. I just think it’s the perfect city for this story. It’s a city that has been hit so many times, and they resurrect each time stronger than the last. That’s what this story is about.
Glamour: The fact that they have this huge cross that will be traveling throughout the city during the live production is just amazing.
Jencarlos: Yeah, the way it’s being done and how they are executing it—I don’t think people will have ever seen something like it. It’s so special. Those of us that are a part of it know we are a part of something bigger than us. The story, the message, everything.
Glamour: The Passion is airing on Palm Sunday. You said you’re not very religious, but what are you normally doing on Palm Sunday or on Easter?
Jencarlos: I grew up religious, my family is religious, so I grew up very much a part of the traditions. The first time I heard the story I felt like I identified with it. I started revisiting what Palm Sunday was about.
Glamour: It’s a big feast, traditionally, so did you always have a big meal with your family?
Jencarlos: Well, I’m Cuban, so we have big feasts every day. Every day is Palm Sunday! We’re Cuban, that’s what we do. [Laughs]
Glamour: Same with us, Jews. We just like to eat. We don’t need an occasion.
Jencarlos: I had a Jewish girlfriend, and they invited me to Passover. When I got there, my girlfriend said, “I hope you don’t mind, but my grandmother made you a kippah. Can you wear it for the dinner?” I said, “Sure!” So I put my kippah on and felt like part of the family. It was a crazy experience! [Laughs] I loved it!
Glamour: Non-Jews usually love the Passover seder because you’re supposed to drink like four cups of wine and eat this big meal, and by the end of it, if you really follow along with the Haggadah, you’re most likely to be drunk. [Laughs]
Jencarlos: Right! [Laughs] I love different cultures. I don’t believe that it has to be one way or the other. I truly believe that we’re all different for a reason and we can learn from each other, grow with each other. What I don’t agree with is the division and the segregation between [religions]. I don’t think that God—wherever he is—is saying, “Yeah, you’re right and you’re wrong.” It’s also understanding that at the end of the day, we believe in the same thing. It’s different traditions, but we can embrace them all. Not one has to be correct and the other not. When you hear the story of The Passion and you see it, you’ll see, whether you’re Jewish, Christian, Catholic, whatever. You’re going to sit there and say, “What an amazing story.”
Glamour: Did you have to do a lot of research for the story?
Jencarlos: Thankfully, I was very familiar with the story and the scriptures. I did do more research. Without a doubt, this is the most important story ever told. Whether you’re from whatever religion, Jesus is at the center of so many religions. So, we can have small differences and disagreements in our religious beliefs, but that word, Jesus, and that word, God, is at the center of many, many religions.
Glamour: What is your routine going to be like this Sunday? Any rituals before you take the stage?
Jencarlos: I’ll wake up in the morning and not say a word. I believe in a lot of energy, so I stay in a great mood. I definitely do my gargles with salt water, and I start vocalizing—I keep it on the lower ranges just to keep the voice warmed up. I have a good breakfast, and I just envision the day with the most positive outcome possible. I always see my shows before I do them. I see the love, and I even picture myself at the end of the show hugging everyone. I envision all of it, and then go out and hope for the best. The mind is very powerful. I don’t attract any sort of negative energy in my life ever. It has worked out pretty well.
Glamour: You made your acting debut in 2007, so almost 10 years ago. Did you envision this as a little kid?
Jencarlos: I don’t think anybody ever asked me because I had been singing since I was 6, 7 years old. So, everyone knew. I knew. I had the blessing from a very young age of knowing what I wanted to do for the rest of my life. I started singing—I literally come from such a humble place—it’s called Hialeah in Miami. I have all my friends from there, my parents still have their house there. I go back every time I’m in Miami, and it has grown a lot, but it’s the hood. I started singing in the backyard of my house, and my dad said, “You love this.” So when a neighbor was throwing a party, he would ask the neighbor if I could sing at the party. And I would go and sing three or four songs. I just never stopped singing, and one of those days in someone’s backyard, the right person was there. He had a stage on a festival, so I got my first shot singing at a festival, and there were some producers there who saw me sing and asked if I’d like to act. It wasn’t an easy road, but my dad is still my manager to this very day. We didn’t have money to launch a career or anything, it literally started in the backyard of a house.
Glamour: Do you have any tattoos?
Jencarlos: Yes, two. [They’re] on my finger, and it’s something me and my brother did together. It’s on the inner side. You can’t really tell, but I love tattoos. I might want to get more.
Glamour: You have a scar on your forehead. What’s the story behind it?
Jencarlos: I’m addicted to adrenaline. I’m a big biker, motorcycle, nature guy. I was doing a backflip off some rocks into a pool, and there was one rock that sticking out more than the other. It’s all good, but my mom flipped out. My face was covered in blood. I told her not to freak out and I was OK, but of course the first thing she did was scream.
Glamour: What’s the surprising musical taste that you have?
Jencarlos: I absolutely love country music. Not just pop country, but country country, like “I’m on my tractor ” Those stories are so awesome! [Laughs] Trisha Yearwood, Garth Brooks, Keith Urban, they are all amazing. And Blake Shelton. I met him when I went on The Voice. He’s so awesome! I also love ‘80s music. Michael Jackson, Sting, Prince, Lionel Richie, they are huge influences for me. When you hear my English album, you’ll hear influences.
Glamour: Since you’re a major telenovela star back home and you’re now starring on a show called Telenovela, what’s the most soap opera-esque thing that’s happened to you in real life?
Jencarlos: I once had a fan know that I was performing in a particular country and staying at a certain hotel. She applied for a job at the hotel and then asked for the [floor] on which I was going to be staying at. I went into the room, and she’s cleaning. I go to the bathroom to set some stuff up, and when I come out, she’s completely in the nude. It was crazy. I was like, “What was going on?” She was really young, and when she saw my reaction, she started crying. I didn’t know what to think. I was so shocked by the whole thing. She got dressed again and said she was a huge fan, so I said we could take a picture. I didn’t say anything to the people working there because I didn’t want her to get fired, but I took the picture and then she walked out. Pretty crazy. [Laughs] The way I see it, when fans are coming up to you with that passion, it’s basically out of love.
Glamour: Yeah, but that’s scary.
Glamour: If you could eat any food and wouldn’t gain any weight from it, what would you want to eat on a daily basis?
Jencarlos: Everything. I would eat everything. I will grab the 75 pies out there in the front of the restaurant.
Glamour: Are you a pie person?
Jencarlos: No, but I’d eat them anyway. [Laughs] I love food. I love food! Maybe ice cream, like butter pecan or cookie dough ice cream with all the toppings.
Glamour: What do your friends tease you about?
Jencarlos: Oh, for being the singer, the artist. I’m big into sports—basketball, football, baseball, soccer, everything—so I was actually a starting point guard for my team, but sometimes I would get there at half-time ’cause I was performing or doing a piano lesson or something like that. They’d be like, “Oh, the piano man is here! Oh, the little singer is here! Welcome, are you ready to play ball like a man?!” They were always messing with me.
Glamour: What is the key to your confidence?
Jencarlos: I truly believe it’s not something you can think about. You just have to let your mind go. It’s building a world for yourself that leaves no room for doubt. Don’t get me wrong, I have many doubts and many fears, but I find I get better results when I put myself in a bubble and forget about those fears and doubts. When I finish a performance, sometimes they come right back, but that’s why I love the stage. Those two hours are mine when I’m on stage and free from insecurities, doubts, all of that. Then I go back to reality and have my insecurities and all. But I love what I do, and I love that. It’s pretty simple—either you want to succeed or you don’t.
Glamour: I watched your music video for “Baby” this morning. That certainly wakes you up!
Jencarlos: That was fun. [Laughs]
Glamour: When you’re doing your music videos, is there any message you try to get across in them, or is it more of, “Let’s just be sexy and have fun?”
Jencarlos: No, though we were telling a story in that video of a relationship that just sweeps you off your feet and you don’t know what hits you.
Glamour: Oh, it certainly accomplishes that.
Jencarlos: It’s a relationship that surprises you with the things you do, the crazy [moments]. We wanted something that would show something how crazy these lovers are. I never like to do stuff if it doesn’t go with the message. But now at concerts, fans are showing up with mirrors and it’s the funnies thing! [To see what he’s talking about, click here].
Glamour: Are you single right now?
Glamour: How hard is it to date, given your popularity around the world?
Jencarlos: The way I was raised, my grandfather told me, “Son, the day you think a number one song or show is success, you have failed in life, and you are not successful at all. You have to look in the mirror and see around you, and if you have people that surround you and love you, it’s the legacy that you leave behind as a human being that’s just as important as the one you leave behind as an artist.” I’m an artist, yes, but I’m a human being. I barbecue in my background, and I’m normal guy.
Glamour: Are you good with the grill?
Jencarlos: Girl, I am the best! The best barbecue in Studio City!
The Passion airs live on Fox from New Orleans this Sunday night.
Photos: Michael Becker/FOX; Jencarlos/Instagram