For Kenneth Lonergan, "You Can Count on Me" represents a bit of a departure. Until "You Can Count on Me" won at Sundance last year, he was known as the author of "Rocky and Bullwinkle" and "Analyze This"--hardly the preparation for this story of siblings bonded together by a family tragedy. In "You Can Count on Me," Lonergan pulls off another small reversal: In perhaps the most thoughtful portrayal of a clergyman in recent memory, he plays his polar opposite, a believer. Beliefnet's Paul B. Raushenbush, an American Baptist minister, interviewed him about his movie and his role.

I'm going to concentrate on your role as the priest.
Sure. But I played a minister.

Well now, OK, let's start there. I assumed you were an Episcopalian priest because the woman at the beginning was wearing a collar.
Right. It's actually a Methodist minister.

Oh, that's right. Methodists wear collars, too... When you were first workshopping this script as a play, was he part of it?
Actually, it began as a little scene that I wrote for my theater group and workshopped a couple of times. It was literally about 13 pages long, just two characters having lunch together. But yes, that element was always in it. I thought the religious element was very interesting. One of the scenes grew out of an assignment to write something about faith. The obvious place to start was people who are religious. There is a worldview that is very sustaining and comforting, and life automatically has some meaning to it. But religion also makes it harder to reconcile the terrible things that happen with the idea of a loving God.

Whereas if you're an atheist, you have the opposite two problems. It's easy to feel life is--not meaningless, because it is obviously full of meaning. But you don't really know what it is necessarily. You can feel overwhelmed by all of the bad things that happen in the world. But the religious point of view can seem restrictive. You feel in your atheist parochialism that it's less sophisticated.

Interesting you mention that, because in the theater I saw the film in, when the sister suggests the church, the audience laughed.
Yes, of course they do because, you know, it has an old-fashioned feel in the 21st century. I think that's one thing religious people really resent, because it means a lot to them. Here they have a universal, all-encompassing point of view, and it must feel very funny to have your entire worldview kind of looked on as slightly, you know, not with it.

One thing I like about the sister in the movie, and about thoughtful people all over the place, is that no matter what their beliefs are, they really think about what they believe. People who aren't religious tend to pigeonhole religious people as unthinking. I think the opposite is true. And religious people tend to pigeonhole irreligious people or atheists as not having any belief system, or any values or morals. That is completely untrue as well.

The minister understands both those views.
Yeah. It must be very, very difficult to be a believer in a world which is so unbelieving and where the nonreligious point of view has gained such prominence--in the culture, anyway. It's funny going into a church in New York. I like churches a lot, I like their atmosphere. It's funny to step out of Manhattan, modern Manhattan, swarming with people, and go to these churches that have been there for 50 or 100 years, and they have all these quiet little enclaves. A priest or a minister is in there doing their sermon for the day. And they always seem to be talking about the modern world, and how their religion fits into it. If you go back 100 years, religion was absolutely part of the public life.

How did you come up with the language for what the minister said to the wayward brother? Was that an improvised scene?
I did a little research because I wanted it to be sort of accurate anyway, so I talked to a friend who is a practicing Catholic. I asked an Episcopal priest--actually, Matthew Broderick's sister. I said, Janet, if I came to you and I said my brother is screwing up left and right, what would you do and what would you say? She gave me a lot of the stuff that's in the movie. When I told Sammy, the sister, that she can't teach her brother how to be good or bad, she can just set an example. Which I thought was interesting. I wouldn't have thought of that myself.

The minister then gives him the option of thinking about his life in a way he might be able to hear, as opposed to within the Christian language or Christian dogma. You talked about connection with something important.
I was trying to put it in terms I can relate to. I have to say, when people start talking about Jesus, I just shut down. Jesus was probably a great philosopher and a wonderful person, but I don't believe he was the Son of God more than anybody else. To me, that borders on being very hard to deal with. I have to translate it into my own terms a little to get out of it what people get out of it. I wanted the minister to try to find the common ground, because that's what I was trying to do with the movie a little bit. Because really, that's the thing that I think that people sometimes are missing.

You do have to kind of make up your own version if you don't have a standard one that you believe in. And that can get very difficult. So I wanted the minister to be thoughtful and open-minded and to express himself in a way that could bridge the gap. I didn't think there was any point to a scene with a not very thoughtful minister coming in and giving the party line.

From an outsider's point of view, that's what is wonderful about religion. People really do think that their life is important. Their life is important in the entire universal scheme. That's something I believe personally, but it's hard to hold on to. The universe is four billion years old. We've been here for a blink of an eye, and it's a little hard to think that anything about you matters, except that all of life is sort of a miracle.

Join the Discussion
comments powered by Disqus