Here’s today’s dispatch from the crossroads of faith and media.
The Shack blows roof off box-office expectations. As the screen adaptation of Wm. Paul Young’s bestselling book heads into its second weekend in theaters, it’s already clear that the movie is one of the biggest faith-themed movies to come along in a long time. Last weekend, The Shack brought in a whopping $16.1 million, a per screen average higher than either last year’s Miracles from Heaven or 2014’s God’s Not Dead and, boding well for the film’s legs, an impressive A grade from film-goers polled by CinemaScore.
Before the film opened I had an opportunity to chat with actor Sam Worthington (Avatar, Hacksaw Ridge) who plays Mack Phillips, a father grieving the murder of his young child when he has an unanticipated encounter with multiple manifestations of God (portrayed Hidden Figures Oscar nominee Octavia Spencer, Avraham Aviv Alush, Sumire Matsubara and Graham Greene).
1.) JWK: You’re resume includes such films as Avatar, Clash of the Titans, Everest, Hacksaw Ridge and, now, The Shack. What goes into your decision-making process when choosing a project?
SAM WORTHINGTON: You’re always just inspired by the story and whether that story is going to touch other people. With something like this (The Shack), I identified a lot with the character’s journey of being quite angry, petulant and frustrated — and longing for answers and not getting them. I’ve kinda have had that experience within my life. Then, when you kinda dive in, you go “Am I willing to go on this journey for the next couple of months and explore that?”
2.) JWK: Is it painful to revisit those kinds of feelings?
SW: Cathartic — to be honest. In Mack’s case, he’s going through such a painful journey. It’s a journey of forgiveness — where he has to forgive a person that took his child away. Then he has to forgive God and come to an understanding of what that relationship with his faith is — and then, eventually, learn how to forgive himself. When you’re playing that in a scene, it can be quite painful — if you’re playing it truthfully. But, at the end of the day, you’re hoping that what is coming across and what you’re saying to an audience really touches them and affects them in a positive way.
3.) JWK: What do you hope the audience takes from the film?
SW: A sense of hope that no matter how bleak, or how dark and how lonely this journey and our lives can sometimes be that we have a connection to God who can give us unconditional love and comfort to make everything seem okay. (This hope that) may not give us the answers but can release the burden and help us through — just like if my son us upset and frustrated and angry, I can give him comfort. I may not be able to give him all the answers but I can release some of that tension and help him on his way.
4.) JWK: I understand that you grew up in working-class family in Australia, that your mother was a housewife and your father worked at a power plant. That’s a long journey to Hollywood. Can you tell me about that?
SW: Where I grew up there were no cinemas. VHS had just started coming in and the idea that you would be in a movie was elusive.
5.) JWK: With all that seeming impossibility, how did the dream of becoming an actor come to you?
SW: I was 19 years old when I met a girl who wanted to be an actress. I went along with her to an audition to drama school. I got in and she didn’t. I went along on this journey and I’ve scamming it ever since. I mean I’ve been doing this job for 20 years. That’s a long time. That’s half my life.
6.) JWK: But you must have discovered early on that you enjoy it.
SW: I enjoye diving into other people’s worlds and lives. I do enjoy that. I find this job extremely frustrating sometimes but I’ve done more hard (and) frustrating jobs. You know, I get to play — and play dress-up — for a living.
7.) JWK: So, what’s most frustrating and what’s most rewarding?
SW: What’s most rewarding is how an audience connects with your movie. What’s most frustrating is the pressure I put on myself.
8.) JWK: What has been your most difficult role to play so far?
SW: Every role has its challenges. It depends on the conceit of the film. Sometimes there’s technical challenge, sometimes there’s the length of the shoot. With something like this, I know that book had such a far-reaching touch and you’re dealing with God and what God is and what that means to people. You kinda want to come at it in a way that is completely 100% truthful from your standpoint.
I came to religion very late. I was in my twenties. It was never something forced on me as a kid. It’s something that I’ve been discovering as I’ve been becoming an adult and starting my own family — what faith can do to make you a better person and how it connects us. This (role) was just part of that journey. So, it was important and I kinda went in truthfully.
9.) JWK: How would you describe your relationship with God?
SW: Now that I’m a father, I have a lot more worries. Whenever I’ve hit challenges in my life, I’ve been trying to solve them. Since I’ve opened myself up to God and prayed, what it’s done is that there is someone there that can listen. It’s as simple as that. I’m not maybe getting anything back that I thought I would always get, a conceit that I thought I’d get. But what I’m getting is a comfort. I’m getting time to just be with my thoughts and I feel His Love coming back. That helps me. It’s very hard to explain because, if I try to rationally explain it, I get tangled up — but I know how it makes me feel. As I said, it’s the same feeling I get if I hug my son. That’s how I feel. I feel a bit hugged and it’s gonna be okay. I can go through this world and this life with an open heart. That’s what I’ve been searching for, I think.
10.) JWK: Has The Shack affected or confirmed your view of God in any way?
SW: God, to me when I was growing up, it was such a massive word. Now, it’s not so massive. If anything, God’s a friend. I’m doing a movie where you get to confront God and maybe receive something back. That’s what we often struggle with — these massive kind of conceits of “What am I doing? Why did you let that happen?” Because in the movie, I looked at Octavia (Academy Award-winner Octavia Spencer, who plays God/Papa) as a friend who might be able to help me…and the same with Jesus (Avraham Aviv Alush), Sarayu/the Holy Ghost (played by Sumire Matsubara). I kinda looked at them as if I’m asking a friend from the deep bottom of my heart, well, now in my real life that’s how I ask God — as a friend. And I’m not scared and it’s not overwhelming. (God) is there to help me and love me.
11.) JWK: Do you find that using your talent as an actor is your way of giving back to God?
SW: Trying to be a better person when I’m not acting, that’s my way of saying “Thank You.”
12.) JWK: Does your faith play a role in the roles you choose to play as an actor?
SW: Now the choices that I make are because of my sons. I’m trying to be a better person and not be so angry and frustrated and selfish. I try to do stories that have themes that might actually help them to grow as men.
Encourage one another and build each other up – 1 Thessalonians 5:11