What sort of rules should govern Christians as they seek to play roles in theatre and film? Is it acceptable to portray any character at all, or are some parts simply too evil? And if so, what about the person who might be considered the most evil of all, the man who betrayed Jesus Christ?

ABC’s upcoming television film, "Judas," explores just that concept. And for actor Johnathon Schaech, 35, his decision to play the lead of Judas Iscariot has provoked a lot of discussion.

"Judas is a great role and nobody’s ever told this story," Schaech said. "But I was surprised to discover how much tension even his name brings up for a lot of Christians."

After hearing that Schaech had accepted the part, several people expressed shock.

"‘You’re going to play the betrayer?’ said a friend. I told him, ‘Yeah, I think it’s important to tell his side of the story.’ And he said, ‘He doesn’t have a side of the story," Schaech said.

“I couldn’t believe it,” he continued. “This man was so blocked off to that side of the story. But Judas needed forgiveness. I get that. I love playing the bad guy and giving him a heart and a reason for what he did. I’ve made mistakes for some of the things that I’ve done and the people I’ve hurt."

It is that need for forgiveness, Schaech added, that convinced him to play the part. "Somebody out there needs to hear that," he said.

Although he has yet to hit the upper echelons of the Hollywood hierarchy, Schaech is no stranger to film. He’s appeared in more than 30 movies and a handful of television shows. He played Winona Ryder’s love interest in "How to Make an American Quilt," with an exit from a swimming pool that had female fans swooning over his Italian-American looks. He also played opposite Liv Tyler as Jimmy, the lead singer in the 1996 hit, "That Thing You Do!"

Schaech produced, directed and wrote the screenplay for last year’s film, "Heroes," with Oscar-nominee Djimon Hounsou. His script for "Miserable Comforters," about a group of fanatical Christians from Texas, won best original screenplay at the New York Independent Film Festival in 2001.

Married to actress Christina Applegate since October 2002, Schaech was born and raised in Edgewood, Md. He attended the University of Maryland and was a member of the Lamda Chi Alpha fraternity, but dropped out of college during his junior year after taking drama as a general studies course.

"I’ve always been a storyteller," he said, "and I just got a feeling. I went out to L.A. to see what it was all about."

Schaech landed a modeling contract with the prestigious Wilhemina agency but continued to study acting. He worked on his craft every night, ignoring the social scene in favor of acting classes, plays and vocal coaching.

His dedication paid off. Soon, Schaech had an agent and a part in Franco Zefferelli’s Italian-made film, "Storia di una Capinera."

It was the first of several coincidences that led Schaech to his role as Judas. Years before he met Schaech, Zefferelli had directed the six-hour epic "Jesus of Nazareth," which was hailed by critics as one of the greatest films ever made about the life of Christ.

Schaech, however, did not get along with the Oscar-winning director.

"He’s Catholic, he’s gay and he’s hard-core," he said. "We didn’t like each other at all."

The second coincidence about Schaech’s current role is related to the other great movie made about Jesus - the one playing in theatres now - Mel Gibson’s "The Passion of the Christ." Schaech was bumped from the roster of "High Crimes" in favor of a higher profile actor named Jim Caviezel, who just happens to have been selected to play Jesus in Gibson’s film.