Interview: Dallas Jenkins of “The Resurrection of Gavin Stone”

Posted on April 13, 2017 at 8:00 am

Copyright BH Tilt 2016

Director Dallas Jenkins spoke to me about his charming and touching film, “The Resurrection of Gavin Stone.” Brett Dalton stars as the spoiled former child actor who gets into trouble and is sentenced to community service, where he starts as a janitor and ends up playing the part of Jesus in a church Passion Play directed by the pastor’s daughter, played by Anjelah Johnson-Reyes.

Tell me where the idea came from, how did it start?

A couple of years ago when I was developing a few ideas for movies. I live in Chicago now, I’m working at a church in Chicago and we were working on a few ideas. I had a random breakfast meeting with someone and they mentioned the script and when they told me the storyline of a guy who pretends to be a Christian but he can play the part of Jesus in his passion play, I immediately liked it and because I could immediately see the humor of him trying to navigate through church world, trying to learn the language that Christians use and trying to figure out all the Christian clichés that he could sound like a Christian. I love the humor, but also by playing the part of Jesus he’s going to learn more about Him and going to become part of this church. So from both a humor perspective and an emotional perspective it just felt right to me. It felt like an opportunity to tell a story about church but through the eyes of an outsider so it could appeal to both worlds. It just really felt like the kind of project that would appeal to both church insiders and church outsiders and it came together pretty quickly.

It was good to see Anjelah Johnson-Reyes, known for her comedy, in a role that gave her a chance to be a little more serious.

Months and months before we made the movie my wife and I were talking about the part of the pastor’s daughter. This was a Midwest church and I didn’t want the part to look too Hollywood. My wife said, “You know, there’s an actress in the movie ‘Chipmunks the Squeakquel’ who has the character look you’re talking about.’ So, we popped in the DVD to take a look at it and immediately I said, ‘Oh she’s great. That’s exactly what I’m looking for,” I think standup comedians actually make good actors because they just have a good understanding of emotion and timing.

And I looked her up and I didn’t realize that she was a Christian. And so, when I found out she was married to a Christian hip-hop artist and we actually had some mutual friends. It was all completely random and completely coincidental and so through my mutual friends I contacted her and said I really wanted her to audition for this part. She was skeptical and I just said, “Well just read the script and see what you think.” She read it and loved it right away and then she came in and auditioned and did a great audition and the producers agreed that she would right for the part.

So it all started with her Chipmunks movie and now we’ve become great friends and she does a great job in the film. It is funny because she’s playing the part of someone who doesn’t know how to tell a joke, someone who takes herself too seriously. I think it appealed to her because it was different than what she normally does.

What makes this movie different from most Christian films?

We heard this over and over again: “I don’t normally like Christian films but I love this.” I think the humor has a lot to do with that. I think sometimes we Christians can take ourselves pretty seriously. Our movies are usually message-driven as opposed to story-driven which isn’t always a bad thing. I’m not criticizing that. But I think the humor in this film really stood out. The quality of the acting and the story can appeal to and be related to by church outsiders. I think the humor takes the sting out of it a little bit, makes it feel a little bit less propaganda, and so I think people just have responded to that.

Copyright BH Tilt
Copyright BH Tilt

Gavin Stone has a lot to learn obviously about grace and who Jesus really was. So do the Christians, and so do the churchgoers. And the pastor’s daughter herself learned as much about grace and about who Jesus was as Gavin does because she had taken it for granted and so he is impacted by the church and the church is also impacted by him. Being willing to acknowledge that the church has its own strengths and weaknesses and being willing to poke a little at the fun at it, I think again takes the sting out of it a little bit for people and makes it feel less like a sermon.

Part of that comes from D.B. Sweeney as the pastor, who is a great character.

He’s just a normal guy and the first time you see him on screen he communicates both in his words and his behavior that he is not intimidating and he is not pious. He admits he is still figuring out a lot about this himself and about the Christian faith. He’s not perfect. He doesn’t have it all together and he is willing to acknowledge that but yet at the end of the day he is a father, he’s a pastor who’s been there for decades and has a lot to teach and a lot to impart. But it’s coming from the perspective of somebody who is not pretending to be perfect. The whole conceit of this movie is that Gavin is pretending to be a Christian and I didn’t want the pastor to be stupid and not be able to tell that something may be a little wrong. He knows that something is very off but ultimately realizes Gavin Stone playing the part of Jesus is going to have a much better chance of impacting him than cleaning toilets. He says to his daughter at one point, “Isn’t this why we do what we do?” Having the opportunity to have an impact on someone — that’s the whole theme of the movie, that line.

Is Gavin Stone a good actor?

We really specifically made a choice to make Gavin Stone a very good actor and one of the key parts to illustrate that was his audition. The original script had him doing the scene from “Braveheart,” you know, “They’ll never take away our freedom” speech and I thought that would come across as humorous. I wanted that part where he gives his audition to actually be serious, to show that he is actually a really good actor and is going to bring something special to this church.

And so, I moved the “Braveheart” speech to the prayer scene where Gavin is asked to pray for the first time and he doesn’t know how so it’s just “Braveheart.” And then I found a speech from “Hamlet” and I put that as the audition and it turned out that it happened to be the same speech and monologue that Brett had used in real life to audition for the Yale School of Drama. And so that’s one of the things that really connected Brett to that script. The only way this was going to be pulled off that Gavin could quickly and on his feet convincingly portray the part of a churchgoer is that he’s a good actor and we had to portray that going in.

I also liked his interaction with his estranged father, played by Neil Flynn.

Neil is a really good actor and again a normal guy; he is actually from Chicago so he plays the part of the Midwest dad perfectly. We just wanted to have some moments away from the church setting and that allowed us to experience Gavin in some of his natural environment so that we could see who he was for real when he wasn’t pretending to be somebody else.

Gavin was spoiled. Hollywood has actually damaged him a little bit. You see that his father wasn’t a big fan of Gavin’s lifestyle choices and that he wasn’t a big fan of him being a child actor. At one point his father says, “I wanted to protect you, you know I didn’t want you to become selfish.” That’s what being sometimes a child actor can bring out when you are a celebrity too soon you can create a selfishness. And so I just kind of wanted to paint more shades of gray that Gavin’s father maybe he was really harsh at times but wasn’t entirely wrong and Gavin’s choices weren’t always the best but also weren’t entirely wrong and that he had something to say too. So we just wanted to tell a story that wasn’t always black and white.

Do you have a favorite Bible verse?

Psalm 34:5 — “Those who look to him are radiant, their faces will never be ashamed.” I’m guilty of this too: my career, my choices, where I’m going to be in five years? What is my plan? And I’ve learned over the years that where I am at in five years is none of my business and that verse really speaks to me because when you’re looking to God, when you’re looking up then you don’t have to worry about not only the practical things of life but you also don’t have to deal with the shame of your humanity. And so that phrase, “those who look to him are radiant,” I found that to be true over and over.

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The Resurrection of Gavin Stone

Posted on January 19, 2017 at 5:39 pm

Copyright BH Tilt 2016

A spoiled former child star makes some bad choices and ends up sentenced to 200 hours of community service as a janitor in a church, where he is cast in the annual Easter passion play — as Jesus — in the light-hearted Christian romantic comedy “The Resurrection of Gavin Stone.” Handsome “Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D” star Brett Dalton stars in the title role, with stand-up charmer and “MADtv’s” Bon Qui Qui Anjelah Johnson-Reyes as Kelly, the by-the-rules preacher’s kid who directs the play.

We get a glimpse of Stone in his cute sit-com years, catch phrase and all, and then a look at some wild partying with a side of mayhem when he happens to be back in his home town. And so, with the sentence of community service and not being in demand any more as an actor, he has no choice but to move in with his estranged dad (“The Middle” and “Scrubs” star Neil Flynn) while he works it off, with the 200 hours counting down on his phone.

He shows up at the church, looking dissolute and louche, and asks the man fixing the furnace where to find the pastor. Of course that is the pastor (“The Cutting Edge” star D.B. Sweeney). He not unkindly hands Gavin a mop and bucket — the sharper sting is that he doesn’t recognize Gavin or know anything about his fame. The 200 hours seems like forever.

But then Gavin sees the auditions for the play and suddenly he is at home. He explains that he knows about acting and wants to try out for the lead role. It’s a lot easier than mopping, and, at heart, he really is an actor, as we see when he chooses a surprising speech for his audition — a monologue from “Hamlet” — and performs it surprisingly well. He lies and says he is a believing Christian. Kelly is pretty sure that is not true but casts him in the role of Jesus because he is a good actor and because her father reminds her that they believe in second chances.

Gavin is humorously ignorant about the details of the story and at first impetuously offers to improve the script. But as he plays the role and is inspired by the faith and kindness of the people around him, he reconciles with his father, makes new friends, begins to fall for Kelly, and looks forward to the performance — until his dream job offer comes in and in order to take it he has to leave right away.

The sweet story has no surprises, but the humor and the very capable and appealing cast — including Shawn Michaels from the WWE, which co-produced the film — make it fun to watch, and make it touching as well.

Parents should know that this film includes some bad behavior and mayhem and a passion play with a bloody crucifixion image.

Family discussion: Why did Gavin make so many bad choices? What surprised him about the people in the church?

If you like this, try: “Brother White” and the church/study guide resources made available for the film.

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Interview: Brett Dalton on “The Resurrection of Gavin Stone”

Posted on January 18, 2017 at 3:56 pm

Brett Dalton (“Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D”) plays the title role in “The Resurrection of Gavin Stone,” about a spoiled former child star who is sentenced to 200 hours of community service in the town he grew up in after some bad behavior. He is forced to live with his estranged father (“The Middle” star Neil Flynn) and work as a janitor in a local church, where he is cast in the role of Jesus in their Easter passion play. The movie opens January 20, 2017 at theaters across the US.

Copyright BH Tilt

I spoke to Dalton about getting the chance to perform “Hamlet” (well, one speech, when Gavin auditions) on screen, a first for him. “But I always hoped, I always hoped. I had not done Shakespeare prior to grad school, but you audition with a few Shakespeare monologues so they can see how you handle text. I never thought that I would even be any good at it but I really got turned on to it as soon as I started studying it and the second play that I did in grad school was actually “Macbeth.” I played the title role, so either they made a casting mistake or I must have been decent enough at it that they thought I could handle the whole thing. There something very universal about the stories and something just magnificent about saying those words and having them roll around in your mouth, it’s pretty miraculous. So, I did not expect that I would ever get a chance to do that on film where millions of people could see it. I hope I did a good job.” It’s an important part of the story because “let’s say he is better at his job than we expected because up until then we just heard about all of his mistake and stuff. For him to have at least chosen that means that he must be able to connect to another human being, do the work and have that kind of empathy, and that he is smart about his choices, at least as an actor.”

It is a challenge for a good actor like Dalton to play a bad actor. “I don’t think a bad actor knows that they are a bad actor so I think that he is doing his best, as we all are. Acting in theater is an art form that requires an audience and it’s a completely subjective thing. You do your work and then you put it out there and it’s not yours anymore. It’s something that you have shared, and so I think as with anything else you just do your best and do your homework and then you have to let it go at the end. When I read the script, he felt like a real person. His sense of humor is what makes him appealing; this was somebody who was so damaged and so far gone I think without that maybe it would’ve been a little bit difficult to go with him on that journey.” In order to research the character, he read some biographies and autobiographies of former child stars. “I can imagine that would be really, really hard because when you’re there on top you feel like it’s going to last forever and you feel like you can do everything and then reality hits you realize that all of that stuff wasn’t real to begin with. Gavin has a bit of that knowledge at the beginning of the film and then gets to that point where it’s hammered home at the end of the film as well when he gets the thing that he thinks that he wants more than anything else and it’s not what he thought it was going to be.”

He enjoyed working with Neil Flynn of “Scrubs” and “The Middle,” who plays his father in the film. “I loved him. He was great. I was always a fan of his on ‘Scrubs’ and I obviously knew that he was very funny in a very dry way. There was a bit of a connection there that both of us had been part of TV shows that were up and running and there was just a connection there already. Often with TV schedules you just have to kind of plug-in, you have to make quick choices, everything is on a schedule, and you have a day to make it work. We were just used that and could take direction quickly and connect quickly. It was a lot of fun and we connected instantly. I had a lot of respect for him from the get go.”

He liked the comedy in the film and believes that it helps convey the deeper story. “You do need a spoonful of sugar for the medicine to go down. I think comedy is an incredibly important part of telling a story and that was important in this film. That’s what made me like the script so much in the first place — it was funny. It didn’t seem to take itself quite so seriously. This is a film that I think anyone can watch and get something out of. It doesn’t like hammer anyone over the head with anything. This is I think first and foremost a good film, not just a faith film. This is a story of someone who gets a second chance. Anyone can relate to that.”

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Interview: The Resurrection of Gavin Stone Star Anjelah Johnson-Reyes

Posted on January 17, 2017 at 3:52 pm

The Resurrection of Gavin Stone” is a sweet, gentle Christian romantic comedy about a spoiled, arrogant former child actor who is sentenced to 200 hours of community service following some bad behavior. He begins as a janitor for a local church and ends up being cast as Jesus in their Easter passion play. It opens January 20, 2017 at theaters across the US.

I spoke to star Anjelah Johnson-Reyes (preacher’s daughter and play director Kelly Richardson) about making the film.

Johnson-Reyes, perhaps best known for her “Bon Qui Qui” skit on “MADtv,” was delighted to play her first romantic lead role. The necklace with a key pendant she wears throughout the film is her own, given to her by her husband when he proposed. She is used to doing standup, improv, and comedy, so she really enjoyed the chance to play someone who is a bit straight-laced. In the early scenes, her hair is pulled back into a rather severe style, but as the movie continues both she and her hair get to loosen up a bit. “I was not sure how well that was going to go come off actually, but I feel like people will get the journey that she’s on and where she is starting from. She begins in this place of by the book rules and regulations and then by the end of it she’s learned to extend grace not only to others but to herself. It was my first read romantic role and I was really excited about that, just to be able to do some work on a character where I didn’t just come in for a day and be that guest star but to come in and actually be a part of the project from the beginning to the end and be a real core part of the story was a lot of fun. I wasn’t the funny character in the film, so it wasn’t really a place where I had a lot of opportunity to improvise and try to crack a joke or two. Although of course I have my natural genius comedic timing . I would stick to what was written more times than not to help guide me actually because otherwise I’ll end up trying to be the funny one.”

She got caught up in her role as the director of what appears to be a very ambitious version of the story of Christ’s life. “In the movie we didn’t actually film the entire play, but by the end of it we kind of wanted to see the whole play.”

She created a backstory for the character to give depth to her interactions with D.B. Sweeney, who plays her preacher dad. “I really just tried to think about the conversations that I would have…I was going to say with my dad but I have a different relationship with my dad so it’s definitely not that one but more the kind of conversation I guess I would have with a parental figure, my mom or somebody to where I would come in like confide in them. I really just tried to kind of put that relationship with him. I will tend to lean on the stories that I’ve built in my mind and the memories I have built in my mind for this character and then DB is just like the icing on the cake when he comes and he adds his flavor to it then it’s all fun. It really helps to build my back story of my character and being able to rely on that as opposed to my own wounds and hurt that I have experienced in my own life that I go to therapy to get rid of. I would say that one of the best piece of advice I’ve gotten from a fellow actress was, ‘Listen, you pay all kinds of money in therapy to heal those wounds and be a better person. You don’t need to be digging them up every time you are in an acting scene.'”

She hopes that audiences “would walk away from this film thinking about a person that they need to forgive in their lives and thinking about a person that maybe they need to extend grace to. And maybe it’s themselves.”

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Trailer: The Resurrection of Gavin Stone

Posted on September 16, 2016 at 8:38 am

Brett Dalton (“Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.”), Anjelah Johnson-Reyes (Bon Qui Qui), Neil Flynn (“The Middle” and “Scrubs”), WWE’s Shawn Michaels, and D.B. Sweeney (“The Cutting Edge”) star in “The Resurrection of Gavin Stone,” a faith-based film about a former child star whose court-ordered community service brings him to a church. It opens in theaters nationwide on January 20, 2017, presented by WWE studios and BH TILT in association with Walden Media, Vertical Church Films, and Power in Faith Productions.

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