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Faith, Media & Culture

Here’s today’s dispatch from the crossroads of faith, media and culture.

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Married to another Ray. In the Erwin Brothers’ new family comedy Moms’ Night Out, opening this Friday (5/9), Patricia Heaton brings the comic skills she’s honed on long-running sitcoms to the movies. She plays Sondra, the wife of Pastor Ray who, BTW, is not to be confused with Ray Barone (Ray Romano), the often befuddled sports writer she spent nine seasons pretending to be married to in the classic CBS sitcom Everybody Loves Raymond. Like that show and The Middle (her long-running current ABC sitcom), Moms’ Night Out looks at the foibles of traditional families through comedy. But, while Raymond and The Middle focus in a comedic, yet fairly respectful way, on church-going families, neither program would actually be considered “faith-based.”

What’s particularly interesting about Moms’ Night Out — besides its lighthearted approach to spiritual themesis its degree of collaboration between mainstream Hollywood talents and those associated with the burgeoning faith-based entertainment market.  Joining Heaton and popular mainstream Hollywood stars like Sarah Drew (Grey’s Anatomy), Sean Astin (The Lord of the Rings, Rudy), singer Trace Adkins and Harry Shum Jr. (Glee) are Alex Kendrick (as Pastor Ray), Andrea Logan White, Robert Amaya and Kevin Downes. All of that latter group have made their marks in the faith-based film world (i.e. movies like Fireproof, Courageous and October Baby). And Moms’ Night Out is, of course, is directed by Andy and Jon Erwin who got Hollywood to take note of their talent with October Baby. The Erwins and Downes also produced, along with Heaton and her husband David Hunt (who also plays a cabbie in the movie).

I recently had the opportunity to speak with Patricia Heaton about her role in the film.

JWK: What attracted you to Moms’ Night Out?

PATRICIA HEATON: I liked the idea that it was a comedy, first of all. I mean I think so many movies come out that have been faith-based or faith-friendly are kind heavy subject matter. You know, obviously, I love comedy.  That’s what I do. I just think that it’s a great way to be inclusive of all kinds of audiences when you do a comedy. I think it’s fun for Christians to sort of laugh at themselves and I think it’s important that they be portrayed as just as human and fallible as any other person. So, I really liked that we were going to explore that through a comedy.

JWK: You play Sondra, the pastor’s wife in the movie. Can you tell me about the character and challenges the character faces?

PH: Well, one of my findings in doing research on being a pastor’s wife is…that the word that kept coming up that they use to describe themselves was “lonely.” I was interested in that. It was interesting that these pastors’ wives describe themselves as being lonely and, of course, when you think about it makes a lot of sense because they have to maintain a certain appearance and a certain behavior that is associated with being a pastor’s wife.

Often, these gals have not actually signed up for that job and they don’t get a lot of the credit. Their husbands get all the credit. They often feel they can’t really be themselves and it’s hard for them to find someone to confide in. They often have to find somebody outside of their church to be their friend because they can’t tell church members the personal difficulties they may be having in their lives or their marriage or whatever. So, I found that very interesting — having to kind of keep up personal appearances — for somebody else’s expectation.

I think it’s interesting just for myself — being a person who actually identifies as a Christian in my industry. There are a lot of Christians in Hollywood but not a lot of people will say it. So, I think sometimes there’s an expectation of me. Either non-Christians have a picture in their minds as to what it is to be a Christian or there are expectations from Christians who have a set of rules that are their rules that you have to abide by to say you’re a Christian. So, I often find myself between a rock and hard place. So, I understand Sondra’s character.

JWK: You’re acting in an Erwin Brothers movie and they, of course, just came off making the successful but clearly pro-life movie October Baby. You’re also playing opposite Alex Kendrick, the guy behind such successful but out-of-the-Hollywood-mainstream faith-based movies like Fireproof and Courageous. As a successful Hollywood actress, did you have any qualms about associating yourself with them and their work?

PH: Yeah, I did — and I let them know it when they called. We were very honest with each other. I just needed certain guarantees, personally. My husband, David Hunt, and I became producers on the movie and that was one of the things that we needed. We needed to have a voice in how this movie was going to be done and a voice in the script in order to do it — because we’ve been doing (this) for a long time. My husband’s a graduate of the Julliard School of Drama. I’ve been on a sit-comedy on television. We know what we’re doing. In order to participate, we needed to have our voices heard. It was a very collaborative production. (My husband) plays the cab driver in the movie…

…So, we needed to make sure that our voices were gonna be heard and they definitely were. It was absolutely collaborative. You know, I would say we probably got 90% of what we were trying to do accomplished. I think you’re never 100% satisfied with anything. I mean I look at episodes of The Middle and I think, oh, maybe I shoulda done it this way or that way or whatever. So, I don’t think you’re ever 100% completely satisfied as an actor or even as a producer. But I think we achieved a good amount of what we set out to do.

JWK: So, it was a good experience overall?

PH: Oh, yes, very positive!

JWK: More and more mainstream performers do seem to be dipping their toes in faith-themed material. For instance, there’s you, Sarah Drew and Sean Astin in this movie. Greg Kinnear, of course, plays the father in Heaven is for Real. Do you feel like the stigma is being lifted on mainstream stars appearing in faith-themed films?

PH: I’m sensing a trend. I think everybody in Hollywood knows there’s a huge audience out there that Hollywood has not figured out how to tap into. I think, obviously, money is important. Anyway, in our industry, to find a new source of money is great. But I also think if a story is well told and the characters are real, you’re going to attract good actors. It’s just gotta be well done and you’ve got to be able to trust the creatives that are in charge.

So, I also think that it helps for the people who are coming out with faith-based movies to work with people like me or Greg Kinnear or…Helen Hunt who did Soul Surfer. I think we also bring something that challenges those filmmakers — to challenge them to keep pursuing a higher standard of writing, directing and creating characters. I think people like me coming into that world is also beneficial because I think there are ways to do movies for a mature audience — and I’m talking about (audiences) that are intellectually mature — without having to sort of be graphic or vulgar or whatever. But you should be able to deal with mature themes and still be able to appeal to a more faith-based audience.  So, hopefully, we keep finding the way to do that and we all, you know, get on board.

JWK: You mentioned The Middle earlier. A lot of Christians feel like most — or, at least, many — current sitcoms actively mock their values.

PH: Yep.

JWK: But The Middle is different in that it shows an intact church-going family that may be a little quirky but is basically depicted with genuine warmth and respect — while, of course, still managing to be funny. How do you strike that balance and why do you think your show seems to be the exception to the rule?

PH: Well, we just happen to have extraordinary creators of our show, Eileen Heisler and DeAnn Heline. They have been best friends since college and writing partners forever. They’re both moms. They live just a few doors down from each other. They were at the birth of each other’s children. They’re both from the Midwest. They’re super smart. And they work very, very hard. I mean I am amazed at how they have struck the balance between being edgy and funny and warm and loving and positive. They really are able to do all of that so that you can watch it with your kids. I mean occasionally Frankie will say “damn it”…Some people object to (that). But, other than that, basically, it’s a really family-oriented show. The Hecks go the church. It’s not a big deal. It’s a part of their life and they treat it in a very funny way.

You know, last season the church loaned us the church van because our car broke down. There was a really lovely moment (when) we had kept it so long that they kind of had to wrestle it back from us. They kind of suggested that we might want to go to church somewhere else for a while. So, it was really funny. You know, I just love that they can kind of have fun with the whole thing. I think that’s the way to do it. I mean who hasn’t come home from church once in a while — or from mass — and just say “That was the worst sermon I ever heard!” or “I wish that guy next to me would not –” You know, fill in the blank, whatever. So, I just think it’s great that they have a sense of humor about that but it’s still a part of the show.

It’s incredible. (After doing) Everybody Loves Raymond I thought there’s never going to be a show as tightly-written as that — (at least not) one that I’m gonna be in. And then I get The Middle which is just as wonderful.

JWK: The Barones in Everybody Loves Raymond also went to church. They were Catholics and I remember the priest character portrayed by Charles Durning was actually portrayed in a very positive light.

PH: Yeah, Father Hubley. He was terrific.

JWK: And on The Middle you have a recurring character named Reverend TimTom.

PH: Reverend Tim Tom is my favorite! The actor is Paul Hipp who is really wonderful (and) is just brought in once in a while.

I remember the first time I read a script that had Reverend TimTom in it. He was the youth pastor and I thought “Oh, no, no, no, no. This is gonna end badly. He’s going to turn out to be some kind of freak, some kind of pedophile or some weird thing.” And I got to the end of the script and I thought “He’s a really nice guy! He’s the only guy sticking up for Sue Heck!” I went to Eileen and DeAnn and I said “You don’t know what this means to me and millions of other Christians to have a character like Reverend TimTom who’s a really good guy.” I mean, he’s still funny. He pulls out his guitar all the time. It’s hilarious. He always has these cheesy folk songs and he sings but I was so thrilled that a character like that existed — that he was just a really nice person who always had a good word to say to Sue Heck and always cheered her up and had her back. It’s terrific.

JWK: So, you’ve had at least three onscreen husbands that I know of. Between, Ray Barone of Everybody Loves Raymond, Mike Heck of The Middle and Pastor Ray of Moms’ Night Out, who would actually make the best husband?

PH: I always answer that question with Brad Pitt.

JWK: Is it difficult balancing the demands of a TV series with making movies? Do you have any plans to do more movies?

PH: You know, Moms’ Night Out we shot after I had wrapped last season’s (run of) The Middle. We shot for…maybe a total of four weeks for me, maybe three and a half weeks, something like that. It didn’t take too long which was good because I don’t really like being away from my family. You know, my kids were still in school — and my husband was in the movie so he came like a week after I did. So, it was tricky. We had to find somebody to watch the kids — although they’re in high school so it’s not that big of a deal but you do have to do a lot of juggling. But it was nice to meet all these new friends that I’ve made on the movie.

I’ve never been to Birmingham before which is where we shot. That was terrific. It’s a challenge. It’s a good stretch. I don’t do a lot of features. What’s tricky about a feature is you get one shot at it and that’s it. With a TV show, week after week you get to keep coming back and honing your craft and honing the character. With a movie, you get one shot. If you’re on a low-budget movie, you’re shooting fast. So, you gotta be pretty quick on your feet. It’s a little tricky. It’s definitely challenging.

JWK: Getting back to your TV show, how many more seasons to you foresee for The Middle?

PH: I don’t know. We’re contracted for one more season after this — although we haven’t been (officially) picked up for that yet. So, I don’t know if they’ll pick us up for more after next year. That’s out of my hands…So, I don’t know.

Encourage one another and build each other up – 1 Thessalonians 5:11

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