Bruce Marchiano spoke to me about playing Jesus in a touching new film called “The Encounter.” A group of stranded travelers come to the “Last Chance Diner” out in the woods. The man behind the counter tells them he is Jesus. It takes some of them longer than others to hear him. He has also played Jesus in “The Visual Bible.”
It’s quite a challenge for an actor, isn’t it?
It is in the sense of the responsibility, but it isn’t in the sense of the simplicity of it. When you’re Jesus, what you do is you just LOVE people! No matter who they are, what their circumstances, their arguments against you, you just pour love into their lives, along with all the truth and the holiness and everything.
That relates to my favorite part of the performance — the way you listened. Not all actors can show that, but for Jesus, I think it is very important.
If anybody listened, it was Jesus. We think of him as talking all the time but there is nothing more fundamental than his ear for people’s hearts. A woman once asked me if I get tired of playing Jesus. No! I’d do it all day long every day.
How did you come to this project?
As a hired actor it all happened very quickly for me. I had played Jesus before. Out of the blue I got an email from the director, who I had never met before, asking me if I’d be interested in playing Jesus in this film. He sent me the script and we met for coffee. I always have to say, “I have a different angle on this thing.” For me, it’s about all the love and heartbreak over people’s pain, that’s the most important thing to get across. David said, “Amen” and the next thing I knew we were working together. So often we get a man who’s detached and a little bit aloof. But as evidenced by the choices He made in his life, there’s nothing aloof about Him.
I laughed when one of the characters said it was like a “Twilight Zone” episode because I was thinking the same thing.
That was David’s concept, to make it almost “Twilight-Zone-ish” — so it worked!
Movies like this are like modern-day parables, a different mechanism for delivering the same message.
You’re exactly right. As Christian movies often go, we’re all working for pennies on the dollar but with a passion for bringing the gospel to people in new and savvy ways. One of the things I appreciated about it was that unusually for Christian movies there was a grittiness and realness to the setting. I don’t like it when they look Hallmark card-ish and not real. And Jesus was a blue collar guy with a scruffy beard.
And Jesus serves in it, too. Does it spill over into your daily life?
I sure hope so! When I did the first one I had remarkable experiences, not weird and supernatural, just understanding His heart in a new and unique way. And the same thing happened with “The Encounter.” At the end of the film when the guy makes the choice to go his own way, I just spontaneously broke down weeping, profusely. It was a little uncomfortable for a lot of the crew! Some of them had a hard time picturing Jesus being affected like that but it helped me to understand the depth of his heart in a fresh and unique way. There were two projects I turned down. Jesus has to be loving people and crying tears over their pain. If people don’t understand that, they’re missing the point. In another one they hired a director who didn’t know the Lord. How can someone direct that story if he doesn’t have access to the spirit of God?
“Discover the Gift” is an extraordinary new documentary, book, blog, and CD that reaches from the broadest universal dreams to the most intimate, personal insights, with appearances from powerful lessons from authors, educators, activists, artists, and icons including His Holiness the Dalai Lama, His Holiness Sri Sri Ravi Shankar, Jack Canfield, Janet Attwood, Terry Tillman, David `Avocado` Wolfe, Michael Bernard Beckwith, Mark Victor Hansen, and Niurka and more.
It is the passion project of a brother and sister, filmmaker Demian Lichtenstein and educator Shajen Joy Aziz. Part of the pleasure of speaking to them was the way they brought all they have learned about recognizing and respecting the gifts in others as well as ourselves to the conversation. And it is impossible not to feel privileged by the way they have opened up their own lives as a part of their quest to bring this message to everyone.
This movie is unusual because you shared your personal story to illuminate and demonstrate the broader themes. What made you decide to do that? How did you decide how to balance the two?
Demian Lichtenstein: The entire project began with a question from my sister: “When is the man I know going to match the work he is doing in the world?” So from the beginning there was a personal, family reality to the project. When we began making the movie our thought was to interview and speak with many of the great teachers, luminaries and masters that had influenced our lives on a global and personal level. But as we progressed something became very evident — when Shajen and the editor and I sat down with the rough cut and realized the movie didn’t work. Suddenly you’re like — wow, everything we were working on isn’t working. It was because there was not enough of our true story in it. At that point we realized we needed to open ourselves up to sharing our personal lives on an even deeper level.
Shajen Joy Aziz: We had multiple reasons for choosing to share that much. One was because authenticity is the key to everything. We needed to be authentic and real and share what was really happening in our lives. And we’re a metaphor for everyone’s life. We’ve all been there in some way or another. People could access their own learning by being engaged in someone else’s process. As an educator and a mental health professional, we think a lot about the best way to share what we have to say to everyone.
In the film, you put your findings into eight steps. Did those steps become a part of your film-making as well as in other parts of your lives?
Step #1: Receptivity
Step #2: Intention
Step #3: Activation
Step #4: Infinite Feedback
Step #5: Vibration
Step #6: Adversity and Transformation
Step #7: Creating a Conscious & Compassionate World
Step #8: Love
DL: Every day! For me, it’s like, “Oh, no, that’s step 4!” or “I’d better go back to step 1!” [Laughs]
SJA: Yes — it all informed the book, the film-making, and our lives. Demian and I and all our crew sat down to ask ourselves, and we really looked at what really happens to us in our life, what needs to happen, what needs to change. We really hashed it out. What needs to get clear? That’s receptivity! You have to be open before anything else can happen. It came about through the real conversation about what had to happen before we could become the best selves we could become at this point in our lives because we’re always a work in progress.
Why are these concepts so scary for people?
DL: I have an answer and then my sister will probably give you a better one. We become so stuck on a particular paradigm. The fear of the unknown is so much greater than what we’ve got. So we remain so closed off to what’s possible because there’s an identity that’s running the show. That is not our higher self. If you’ve ever been driving home and gotten off the freeway and looked up and found yourself in your garage and can’t remember even getting off the freeway? So who’s driving? There’s an identity that is not that interested in a higher state of consciousness. It likes the status quo and being open to what’s possible is not what it wants.
SJA: Language really creates much of our world. The old paradigm tells us to face our fears. The shift that has worked for us is rather than facing them, we think we should step through them. Instead of “I’m afraid and I’m facing them, good for me, ” you’re still there, facing them. That’s where people get stuck, on taking that step, shifting that gear. What people really lack and need is permission — it seems so silly and simple. The thousands of people people I’ve talked to tell me over and over again that they want to know it’s okay to change, to go deeper.
Where do those messages come from?
SJA: From our parents, society, school, conditioning. We focus so much on what we do wrong, and so we become a fear-based, crisis-driven society.
Did you find that the experts you spoke to used different language to express the same kinds of insights?
DL: They all had different vocabularies based on their background and culture, religion, race, creed. But we found as we literally traveled the world that underneath it all human being share the same underlying principles and desires. We all have unique and individual gifts seeking to express themselves, but it often boils down to a past-based paradigm that does not give permission for someone to discover what it is they have to share with the world. Many cultures demand a certain way of being that does not support who we are at our highest levels.
SJA: Agreed. And for me as an educator and school-based mental health professional, we focus on what’s wrong with our kids, how many answers they got wrong instead of what they got right. We want to show people what is right about them, those pieces that want to emerge. The possibilities seem endless if you focus on what’s right about you.
What led you to present this in such a multi-formated way, with a book, movie, workshops, soundtrack?
SJA: There are so many different learning styles: visual, tactile, auditory, kinesthetic, through emotions, spirituality, nature, Howard Gardner’s multiple intelligence theory. We wanted to make access possible for anyone who wanted it.
DL: A great way to say it, Shajen. Everyone we spoke to had an opinion about where they felt they were best able to learn. On a global level, the motion picture is the greatest collaborative art form on the planet today. Though we are the leaders of a team of unbelieveably passionate and creative people from all over the planet in the support of the creation of a multi-media project. We’re also going to do “Discover the Gifts of Kids” for and about the children of the earth. People learn in a multitude of ways and there are many ways to reach people.
So you are saying that it is incumbent on each of us to be receptive but it is also incumbent on us to respect and try to respond to the way that those around us are most receptive.
DL: Watch the video we did at Agape. In the Agape space there are drummers and dancers and color and light and sound — a shared communal experience connecting people on a spiritual and inspirational level. And then we have the movie and we’re open to the tears and laughter and hugs. And then we have a panel and then the experience of photography and interviews. People had so many ways to experience “Discover the Gift” and our intention is not just to deliver you a book, and a movie, and a web portal, but to engage people in every way possible to help people discover the gifts in themselves. As much as we share of ourselves, the focus is on you.
Po, the kung-fu master panda (Jack Black), has everything he hoped for in the first movie. He has the martial arts skills to protect and impress the community and he is accepted as a teammate by the greatest champions in China. But he has not yet found inner peace, and that will require an even greater struggle.
Po has not wanted to think about the fact that his father is not a panda, until a glimpse of an all-but-forgotten insignia on an enemy unlocks some memories so painful Po does not want to think about. But a new villain (Gary Oldman as the peacock Lord Shen) is the most vicious Po has faced, and he cannot be defeated unless Po understands the tragedy that links them together. He cannot fight his memories and his adversaries at the same time. Po must make peace with his past to move on to the future.
As with the first one, this film combines exquisite, Asian-influenced design and a story that includes the classic heroic themes and gentle humor. The action sequences are exciting, especially a sensational scene with our heroes hiding out in a dragon costume. Before the peril gets too tense, there is always a laugh to remind us that we are safe with Po. “Ah,” he says, walking into battle, “my old enemy — stairs!”
It has some nice parallels — Po and Lord Shen were both given up by their parents, for different reasons. And both make use of fight techniques that can be used for good or evil. The same gunpowder that creates inspiring firework displays can be weaponized into something that could mean the end of kung fu. Po fights for freedom and for the discipline and skill of martial arts itself.
It opens with some background, beautifully told with traditional shadow puppets. Po’s existential crisis is handled deftly, with the reassuring message that even when the beginning of our story is not happy, that does not have to control who we are.