Here’s today’s dispatch from the crossroads of faith, media and culture.
An angel named Della. When GMC TV Vice Chairman Brad Siegel began his search for a new Christmas movie to follow-up on the network’s ratings success last year with the Emmy-nominated film The Heart of Christmas, he had an idea. That was to find a quality project for Della Reese — particularly since his network had recently acquired her classic TV show Touched by an Angel series.
The result of his inspiration is Christmas Angel which makes its world premiere this Saturday night (11/24) at 7:00 PM (ET) with encore showings at 9:00 PM (ET) and 11:00 PM (ET). The film will also run the following night at the same times. Sunday’s showing, in fact, will follow a marathon of Christmas-themed Touched by an Angel Christmas episodes that starts at 11:00 AM (ET).
Mini-Review: I have previewed the film which follows the story of Olivia Mead (Izabela Vidovic), a wise-beyond-her-years fifth grader with a gentle heart and a kind spirit. Olivia wants to find a husband for her single mom Melinda (Teri Polo) who works at a local bakery run by her good friend Daphne (Tamera Mowry-Housley). When the Meads’ neighbor, Dr. Nathan Davis (Kevin Sorbo), leaves his home rotting and abandoned, Olivia’s friend Lucas (Tyler Humphrey) tells her that it’s “wishing house” that will grant wishes to anyone who throws a rock and breaks a window. From such things, as anyone who was ever a kid knows, a neighborhood legend can be born. And, in this case, is, particularly when their wishes begin coming true. What the kids don’t realize, and Olivia discovers, is that the supposedly unoccupied house is, in fact, occupied by an old woman named Elsie (Della Reese) who, it turns out, is behind the wish granting. Olivia and Elsie become fast friends as Olivia begins assisting Elsie in the secret gift giving.
What transpires is a heartwarming story of the positive impact of human kindness that deftly avoids any trace of artificial sweeteners. Which is not to say this charmer of a film isn’t sweet. But its natural sweetness flows from characters and performances that ring true. Though the story is a bit fanciful, the script by Andrea Gyertson Nasfell never has the characters speak or behave in a way that isn’t believable. And those characters are brought to life via insightful performances by a skilled cast. It’s, of course, no surprise that Della Reese is a powerful screen presence who knows how to transform words on a page into indelible images on the screen. Likewise, Sorbo and Polo infuse their roles with truthful humor and vulnerability. The big surprise, however, Izabela Vidovic who may just be this generation’s (and the next’s) Jodie Foster. I mean, man, the kid can act! Add in expert, naturalistic direction from Brian Herzlinger and you have a Christmas story that not only deserves to be another ratings winner of GMC TV but also will stand the test of time.
I recently spoke with Della Reese about her role in Christmas Angel, as well as the enduring appeal of Touched by an Angel.
JWK: How did this film come to your attention and why’d you decide to do it?
DELLA REESE: It came very simply. My agent called me and sent me the script. I fell in love with it and decided to do it.
JWK: What was it about the script that appealed to you?
DR: Well, it’s my life. I didn’t have to research anything. It’s the life that I’ve lived. I understand this lady, I understand what she’s been through, I understand how she feels, where she is now, coming down from where she was. So, it was something I was consciously aware of and I didn’t have to wonder how do I do this or how do I do that? I knew the naturalness of it.
JWK: What would you say is the message of the film?
DR: That’s another thing. There are a lot of messages. There’s a message that this marvelous child is interested in her friends and the school that she’s in, and her mother and the fact that she doesn’t have a father. She’s a very, almost, adult child for the age that she is. Then there’s this woman (Elsie) who has lost a couple of husbands and she’s realizing that it wasn’t the fates of things, it wasn’t (their) fault. It was that that she was not ready for what she had. And so it’s going to affect a lot of people differently depending on the lives that they’ve lived.
JWK: You have a very good rapport with Izabela Vidovic, the young actress who plays the girl who discovers that you’re living in the house.
DR: She is sensational! We’re going to hear a lot about her for the rest of our lives. It was just so interesting. When the camera was off and they were resetting, she was just this eleven-year-old girl but when the camera went on you could see the character in her face come from the inside of her. You could see her understand what she was doing. You could see her do it to perfection. She’s going a long way if she wants this for her career.
JWK: This is the kind of film that a decade or so ago you would have seen on Sunday night on CBS airing right after Touched by an Angel. But you don’t see this kind of stuff too much on the broadcast networks anymore.
DR: I’m working on it as hard as I can…When we started Touched by an Angel there was nothing of that nature on television. And we were there for nine years. And, in those nine years, a lot of people have come to me and told me that it changed their lives, it changed their thinking, it gave them more faith in God, it gave them more desire to be the wonderful creatures God made us and I’m hoping that these (GMC) movies will help (do) that too. And this one, especially, I think will touch a lot of people’s hearts and I hope that there are more to come.
JWK: Touched by an Angel was a huge hit. It’s always struck me as odd that there weren’t more imitators.
DR: I don’t know about imitation. For example, (when) I’m in an airport and I’m trying to catch a plane, and usually I’m late and I want to move on, people will stop me and say things to me like “(Touched by an Angel) saved my life,” “This changed my thinking” (or) “I had a cousin that was on drugs and she saw the show and she stopped.” Things that are very important to life. We need to have more places (in which) you can give vent and get understanding. And I think with the world being like it is — war everywhere, money short, people hungry — that we’re going to turn back to the real things in life — the love of God, the love of our families, the joy of being able to create, the joy of being able to enjoy life, period. I’m praying for that.
JWK: Me too. Now, you’re an ordained minister, is that correct?
DR: I am. It’s been 27 years.
JWK: Do you actively seek out projects and roles that support the values of your ministry?
DR: Well, a long time ago, when I was a child, my mother was a personal friend of God’s. And the things that she taught me were to trust in God (and) stand on my faith and He would know what I needed and He would supply it for me. And she was correct. All my life He’s done that. And so I’m very comfortable that when I’m finished this — whatever ‘this’ might be — he has something else for me that I can go into and start to work on. So, I’m not in a searching, longing, needing mood. I’m in an ‘in God’s time’ mood.
JWK: Do you keep in touch with Roma Downey, your Touched by an Angel co-star?
DR: She’s my daughter! You better believe I keep in touch! In fact, she’s just done a magnificent thing. She and her husband Mark (Burnett), they’ve just made…(a 10-hour miniseries based on) The Bible and it’s going to come out next year. And it’s fantastic! They went to Morocco and they did the work there. It’s so accurate and it’s so visual because of where they did it and the people they used to do it. That’s going to make a big, big impression.
JWK: Speaking of Touched by an Angel, it was sad for all the show’s fans when John Dye passed away last year.
DR: John didn’t live long but he lived every moment that he was on planet Earth. He enjoyed life. He experienced life. He was happy to be in life and I’m sure that he’s having a ball wherever he is right now.
Note: Tomorrow, in this space, I interview Kevin Sorbo about his role in the film.
Reminder: Christmas Angel debuts Saturday (11/24) at 7:00 PM (ET) with encore showings at 9:00 PM (ET) and 11:00 PM (ET) and shows again the following night (11/25) at the same times.
I leave you now with one of series TV’s most-memorable opening sequences ever:
Encourage one another and build each other up – 1 Thessalonians 5:11