He has gone on romantic and paranormal adventures on the soap opera “Passions” and took on the role of Christopher Ewing on TNT’s continuation of “Dallas,” but now Jesse Metcalfe finds himself defending the use of God in public discourse in “God’s Not Dead 2.” In it he plays defense attorney Tom Endler who is assigned to represent Grace Wesley (Melissa Joan Hart) as she is being put on trial for mentioning God in her high school classroom. Tom himself is not Christian like Grace and considers himself a non-believer, but he soon finds himself seeing religion in a new light to where he sees the importance of winning this case.
I got to speak with Jesse while he was in Los Angeles recently for the “God’s Not Dead 2” press day and he couldn’t have been nicer. He talked about the challenges he faced in a playing a non-believer in a faith based movie, of how he prepared to deliver a 6 ½ minute monologue, and how doing this movie affected his own faith overall.
Ben Kenber: You have a very interesting role in this movie because your character of Tom Endler is not a Christian and a non-believer, but he still does his job as a lawyer in defending his client in court.
Jesse Metcalfe: Absolutely.
BK: What were the biggest challenges for you in playing that kind of a role?
JM: I think probably the biggest challenge was figuring out what the real emotional arc of the character was to be. I took experience from my personal life in sort of layering in the emotion of that character which was basically my own journey into reconciling a relationship with God and giving the willing care of my life over to him through the process of getting sober and through the 12 step program of Alcoholics Anonymous. I thought was interesting in the movie was that the character ends up exploring his own faith towards the end of the movie and being very empathetic to not only the plight of his client but to the plight of Christians has depicted in this movie. It was a complicated role because he is a non-believer, but at the same time my character’s really pushing the message of the movie. But it was intriguing to me because I never played a defense attorney before, and I really thought that a lot of my material was really well-written. I never really had the opportunity to tackle a 6 ½ page monologue with my closing argument in the movie, so I was intrigued by the challenge.
BK: 6 ½ pages? How did you go about preparing that long of a monologue?
JM: Well I just a lot of prep. The night before I almost stayed up till dawn. I stayed up till like 5 o’clock in the morning and had like an 8 a.m. call time, so I think that fatigue really sort of played in my performance and played into the emotional aspect of the character. I feel like Tom was really at the end of his rope with the case and really felt like it was almost a lost cause and that this was his last ditch effort to try to save Grace, his life and career, so my fatigue really worked for the scene (laughs).
BK: “God’s Not Dead 2” has the same director and screenwriters of the original, but it also has a mostly new cast and a different story. Did that concern you at all when you came on board this sequel?
JM: It didn’t concern me because I thought that the script that was written for “God’s Not Dead 2” was superior to the one that was written for the original movie. I really felt like it was more relatable, and the characters were not so stereotypical. There is a lot more gray area within the characters that made them, to me, more real. We need to discuss this issue in a way that is not black and white because it isn’t black and white. There is good and bad people in every walk of life that live under and belief in every different belief system, so we can’t hate groups of people with such broad strokes. There is really a lot of nuance to every different individual, and I thought that story was told in “God’s Not Dead 2” more effectively.
BK: You had said that life without faith was not necessarily a fulfilled one. How would you say faith has helped you in your life?
JM: It’s helped me overcome adversity. There’s been struggles in my life that I don’t think I would’ve had the strength or the perspective to overcome if I didn’t have belief in something that I couldn’t see or touch in a higher power. And I think that aspect of having a spiritual connection within someone’s life is essential.
BK: You shot this movie in Little Rock, Arkansas. What do you think that location added to the movie?
JM: Well it added some great locations. We had access in the town of Little Rock that I think was really, really special. You don’t always get that type of access when you are shooting a television show or a film. We were in the state capitol courthouse so that was pretty special, and I thought it added a lot of production value and a lot of grandeur. When you shoot a movie like this in the South it seems apropos, and I enjoyed the experience. It was cool. It was definitely a tightknit group and we spent a lot of time together in Little Rock. There’s not a ton to do there, but it is a really cool and beautiful city. I think from a production side it added a lot, and also for maybe a social and political perspective it added a lot as well.
BK: In preparing for your role did you do any research on defense lawyers?
JM: No, I didn’t really do any research on defense attorneys. I did delve into some of the case studies that the producers of the movie made available to us to sort of give myself a frame of reference on a topic that I really wasn’t that familiar with. So for me it was really an education, especially to have these experts that take the stand in the movie. I thought that was really interesting as well and I learned a lot. What we prove in the movie I believe. I do believe that Jesus actually existed and he was a man that walked this earth, and I think because of that we can never completely eliminate religious discourse from the public square. This is a part of our history and it deserves that respect. Whether or not it needs to be a part of our education system or our political process or our government remains to be seen. That debate is going to continue to rage on.
BK: There were a lot of cases that apparently inspired the story for this movie. Were there any specific cases that spoke the most to you?
JM: It really is an amalgam of multiple cases. At the end of the movie, which is a cool ass bit of this movie, they added 25 case studies that people, if they want to, can call their curiosity and explore further. But at the end of the day it’s a fictional story.
BK: How long did you have to shoot “God’s Not Dead 2?”
JM: It was under a month. It’s obviously very challenging to create a great movie with those kind of time restraints, so it speaks to the cast and the producers and stuff like that. It really was a good group and there was great chemistry among everybody.
BK: Did you find any benefits and having that short of shooting schedule to work in?
JM: It really keeps the energy up. When you have six months to shoot a movie which happens on a lot of these big-budget movies, I think a lot of time is typically wasted because people feel like they have all the money and all the time in the world. I only got a couple of takes on that closing argument, so that’s why I stayed up till 5 o’clock in the morning to make sure I was prepared as possible because I knew time was just not on our side. But at the same time that energy is palpable.
BK: Christianity is still the dominant religion in America, but in “God’s Not Dead 2” it is treated like a minority. How do you feel about that?
JM: Well I think that obviously this film is told from the Christian perspective. There’s no doubt about that, but I do feel like the film is effective in opening up this very important conversation that we need to have which is the role of religion in our increasingly secular society in the modern era and the time that we live in. I understand the push back from the Christian community because they probably feel in the more PC world that we now live in that they are being marginalized to a certain extent, and this is the tact that this particular movie takes. I think it’s effective in its messaging, but my personal belief is that all people have a right to freedom of speech and freedom of religion. I don’t think one side or the other is being persecuted or silenced more. I think everybody deals with a certain level of persecution for their beliefs. There is always going to be a detractor and there’s always going to be a naysayer. We are never going to live in a society where if you say one thing somebody doesn’t say the other. There is always going to be, for a better term, a “devil’s advocate” out there trying to say that your beliefs and your opinions are wrong.
BK: “God’s Not Dead” is being released on April 1 which is now only April Fools’ Day, but also National Atheist’s Day. What’s your opinion on that?
JM: I don’t really have an opinion on that because I’m not an atheist. Obviously they are trying to say something by having their day on April 1.
BK: What would you say that you brought to this movie that wasn’t in the screenplay?
JM: I would say that I brought an emotional foundation to the character that really brought the character to life. But that’s the job of an actor which is to bring the character to life and bring the words on the page to life. I hope I did that adequately, and I know for me it was a fun experience and an enlightening one. I feel like it strengthened my own faith and my own personal connection to God and my higher power.
BK: What effect has doing this movie and on you so far?
JM: It’s had a great effect on me. It was a great opportunity, like I said before, to be a part of a very important discussion that I think needs to happen right now because I think a lot of people, politicians especially, sort of use religion to shape issues. I don’t necessarily think that’s always the most effective thing to do. I think there’s important issues in this country and they are not necessarily linked to religion. This country was founded upon and known for freedom. We need to maintain and protect people’s religious freedoms at all costs because that’s what makes this country great. We are not a monotheistic society right now. We are a pluralistic society and we need to proceed with tolerance and with respect.
I want to thank Jesse Metcalfe for taking the time to talk with me. “God’s Not Dead 2” is now available to own and rent on DVD and Blu-ray. Be sure to visit the movie’s website (www.godsnotdeadthemovie.com) for more information.