2016-06-30
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.

Of course, this is my lens as a minister, but I felt he was a kind of a glue which made the rest of it make sense in some ways. These two siblings kind of screwed each other continuously, while insisting that, no matter what you do, I'll still be here for you. My take on this thoroughly postmodern minister you portrayed was that to him, the ultimate thing is that God is going be there for you regardless of what you do. That's purely the religious take on it. But he was a very forceful character, I felt.
Yeah, thanks. I thought so, too. But I also completely agree with Terry when he says he doesn't want to believe something because it might make him feel better. He wants to believe it if he thinks it's true.

Yeah, that was an interesting line.
He has thought about it. They both have thought about it. People, whatever they believe, are faced with the same sets of problems. Your parents are smashed to death in a car crash when you are eight. It is very hard to think anything except life stinks, you know, because it does stink. All you have to do is read the newspaper, and just slaughter and mayhem everywhere, the whole history of the world, and no reason to think it's going to ever stop. It's very hard for people to make sense of it. And whether they believe in God or not, it's not so easy. I think that's a big part of what the movie is about.

And ultimately, it's what the brother and sister have in common. That's sort of why they only have each other. They've both been through this nightmare. The minister, because he is thoughtful and not partisan, tries to put it in a way that bridges the two points of view. I think that is why that scene seems pivotal.

Those of us on the secular left hear so much terrible, intolerant, stupid versions of pseudo-religious talk from people. We tend to have a condemning reaction which we wouldn't really appreciate if it was applied to us. A lot of people said to me, God, you didn't portray the minister as being a boob or a laughable character. It was like, well, what would be the point of that?
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