Joel Smallbone of King and Country plays Xerxes in “The Book of Esther,” his first film role. He was nice enough to take some time off from his For King and Country tour to talk to me about playing the Biblical king.
How did you get involved with this project?
I’ve always had a real passion for film and music — the arts in general. I’m one of seven children, five boys and two girls, and I’m in the middle. The brother just above me, Ben, we did films growing up together. We just had a Super 8 camera and we’d run around the property making films and submitting them to festivals. And then I got older and the brother just under me, Luke, said, “Hey, what do you think about giving this music thing a shot?” So he and I started leaning into music but the passion for film has always been alive in me. My father, who also manages us, has some connections in the film world and he was in touch with David White of PureFlix. When they were looking at doing “The Book of Esther,” David said, “I might have a role for Joel.” They were so gracious — we were in the middle of a tour and I had just five days off. We flew out from Virginia early Monday morning and was on set in LA Monday evening. I did my whole role in five days and flew out the morning of the show from LA to Phoenix and performed that night.
It was really fulfilling, kind of a dream come true to be involved in film after all those years.
So you had no time to rehearse!
I’d gotten a script a month or so before. What I wasn’t familiar with at that point was that they change the script all the time, up to the last minute. And this film in particular is a period piece. In order to make it feel more like the day and time, everything was spoken in old English. Sometimes when you’re memorizing something it’s easy because you think, “I could say something like that.” But this is all thees and thous and noblemen and stuff like that. I spent about a month prior preparing each day. I had a lot of dialogue. About five or six days before the shoot, as we’re on our first headlining tour, I get the revised script. And it’s not just a few changes. It was dramatically changed. I was pulling aside everyone in the band to help me memorize the lines. I focused on the first few days so I could feel good about that and build my confidence going into it. David White was very gracious and when I had to do a page-long monologue he really helped me pick it up and didn’t blow a gasket when I didn’t know a line.
What about the technical stuff, learning how to hit marks and where the lights are?
In music you have a cue and a spot on stage but not in the same way. If you move your head a little bit you might be out of frame or out of focus. So it was a trial by fire. But fortunately, my character was stoic and pretty immobile. Most of the scenes I was sitting on the throne or sitting at a table. Which creates its own challenges itself because you’ve only got so much to work with, hand movements, facial expressions. I stepped into it not knowing a lot and after that five days I really felt like I had a good handle on what needs to happen in film. Since then I made another film with Billy Ray Cyrus, “Like a Country Song,” and having “The Book of Esther” experience under my belt allowed me to step into this role with confidence.
How did you approach the character of Xerxes?
If you read Esther in the Bible you have to use some imagination. What excited me about the story is that you can read these epic stories from history and never quite dive into the reality of what was going on. Here’s a young man. He’s just lost his father and is one of the most powerful people in the world. The irony is that rather than being a bit of a narcissist and making decisions on his own and doing away with his advisors. Instead he leaned into counsel, people who counseled his father, and he hung onto them for better or worse. And he really, desperately wanted to find love. He looked in the wrong places and made a political decision rather than from the heart with Vashti, which was a mistake. Even when you look through the six months of preparation and the nonsense, in the end, if you really boil it down, the decision he made about Esther were about more than her physical beauty. There was a love. We really wanted to turn the lens on these four characters. What are some of the pressures and strains and motives? What were their fears? That was he heartbeat of the film at the end.