‘Religulous’ Shows No Shame in Questioning Religion and Blind Faith

Religulous movie poster

I came into this documentary with much excitement as religion is such a fun and easy target to lampoon regardless of what your thoughts are on it. “Religulous” was directed by Larry Charles who directed one of the funniest mockumentaries ever with “Borat,” and it has Bill Maher interviewing people of different faiths. Apparently, the people interviewed were not aware Maher was going to be interviewing them until Maher showed up. This is made clear by certain moments where publicists come up to the film crew saying rather tensely that they do not want Maher talking to their clients because of what they believe he represents. Would that be logic and reason? The fact these same people still chose to be interviewed by Maher does show a lot of guts on their part as he lets them have their say even as he interrupts them when things don’t make sense to him (and this happens more than you might think).

“Religulous” starts with Maher talking with his sister and mother about why they all stopped going to church. He explains how he was brought up by a mother who was Jewish and a father who was Catholic, and of how he loved playing with his toy gun and holster which he refused to take off even when he went to church. We also get to see clips from when he was starting as a standup comic and talked about what the first circumcision must have looked like to the one it was being suggested to. Maher’s distrust and comments on religion still go on to this very day, and they are not just meant to be funny, but also to make you think about why people allow themselves to believe certain things which defy easy logic.

One thing which kept coming up is how many preachers go out of their way to purchase expensive clothes and live more luxuriously than Jesus ever did. Jesus wore robes and lived in a hut or some other dwelling, and we can all agree he did not care for making money in his father’s temple. Here, Maher interviews them while they are showing off their tailor-made suits, the kind you would never find at your average discount store, and they also wear gold rings because they feel God would want them to dress extravagantly. Maher intersperses these interviews with these same preachers hawking their own DVD’s among other items they have to offer, and it immediately reminded of L. Ron Hubbard’s response to someone who asked him why he was so keen to create his own religion:

“That’s where the money is.”

“Religulous” also opened me up to what Mormons really believe. I always thought they were the nicest people, and I did have a huge crush on one while I was in school, but I never had the slightest idea they held the belief that God is actually from another planet (I can’t remember the name of it). We watch as Maher gets kicked off of the lawn outside the Mormon Tabernacle Church, but he does get to speak with two men who have since left the church and dispute what the Mormons are taught to believe in. Every religion seems to have its own interpretation of God, and I can’t help but wonder if a consensus can ever be reached on this subject.

One of the real pivotal moments comes when Maher interviews a “reformed” homosexual (talk about a contradiction). The fact that pseudoscience facilities which practice conversion therapy exist where people are send to be “cured” of their homosexuality, will always baffle me. Furthermore, this man Maher interviews is married to a woman who claims she was “cured” of being a lesbian. This all struck me as being completely odd and inappropriate as I was always under the belief God loves us all no matter who we are. That people allow themselves to be brainwashed into what others want them to be is frightening, and practices still continue even when people should know better. Seeing Maher hug the “reformed homosexual,” I kept waiting for the “Real Time” host to do something rather provocative, but even he has the good sense not to pinch the guy’s butt.

Clearly, “Religulous” is bound to upset many religious people as Maher shows no shame in picking apart faiths of any and every kind. I personally do not see, nor do I want to see, religion as being evil, but this will not step many from believing both Maher and Charles have made something both biased and hateful. Granted, there are many Bill talks to who will ever be quick to share his problems with religion, and we even see this here from one point to the next. But “Religulous” does indeed have a strong point of view as it never hesitates to call out those religious beliefs which prove to be both misleading and very dangerous. Maher also takes the time to find similarities between Muslims and Christians as each religion has their followers believing they are the chosen people and of how the world is coming to an end and that they will be the only ones left standing.

“Religulous” ends on an ominous note as Maher discusses how religions constantly talk about the end of the world and of how we should be wary of blind faith (amen to that). Religion is supposed to be about love, and yet there is a lot of hate and fear involved in many faiths. Hearing and seeing all of this takes me back to that scene in “A Bronx Tale” where the young kid asks a known gangster:

“Is it better to be loved or feared?”

His reply:

“I would rather be feared, because fear lasts longer than love.”

Maher remains one of the smartest, not to mention one of the most provocative, and “Religulous” is further proof of this as it shows he has balls of steel. He shows no fear as he questions the religion of those who may very well kill him for defying what they hold most holy. In the end, he makes a compelling argument of how religion can be dangerous and easily corrupted, and he also gets a lot of huge laughs out of the subject.

Like I said, there are moments where Charles puts in clips from religious shows, and there is one with a man talking in a language which makes him feel so good and yet has him sounding like a baby struggling to say their first words. It’s as gut busting hilarious as it is frightening. Whatever you may feel about religion, and everyone is entitled to their own opinion about it, “Religulous” will make you see the dangers of believing certain things and of the immense dangers of blind faith.

We all keep wondering when and if we will be saved from the horrors which keep engulfing this world we all live in. Maher meets a man who plays Jesus at a religious amusement park and asks him:

“Why doesn’t he (Jesus) obliterate the devil and therefore get rid of evil in the world?”

“He will.”

“He will?”

“That’s right.”

“What’s he waiting for?”

Yeah, what is he waiting for? And how do we know he is not actually a she?

Seriously, this documentary could make a great double feature with Lars Von Trier’s “Antichrist.”

* * * ½ out of * * * *

‘The Trump Prohecy’ – Yes, it is Real, and it Looks Awful

The Trump Prophecy poster

I learned of this movie’s existence through an article on the Birth Movies Death website, and its headline declared its trailer to be “one of the worst things we’ve ever seen.” Just when I thought I wouldn’t see a worse movie in 2018 than “Death of a Nation,” this one just might beat it for that unenviable title. But after watching this trailer, I’m not really eager to see it after sitting through Dinesh D’Souza’s latest historical garbage-fest.

The Trump Prophecy” is a Christian drama which tells the story of fireman Mark Taylor who believes, in April 2011, God told him Donald Trump would one day be elected President of the United States. Well, this makes sense, right? Because we know God talks to the sanest people on planet Earth all the time, right? And why wouldn’t God want Trump move into the White House? Could there be another white man who can personify what a true Christian is other than the host of “The Apprentice?”

Yes, I’m being sarcastic, but you can tell. “The Trump Prophecy” looks to defy all reasonable logic to make its audience believe Trump was anointed by God to become President of the United States. The trailer starts off with us being introduced to Mark Taylor (Chris Nelson) who talks about having seen everything as a fireman. But then we see him suffering through a nightmare, and the acting on display is as bad as any in “Death of a Nation.” Remember the beginning where Eva Braun dies a most unintentionally hilarious death? Mark’s bad dream threatens to be even worse.

From there, we people praying endlessly for what one character calls “the Commander-in-Chief prophecy.” Basically, Mark thinks his dreams are God’s way of talking to him. We are then shown headlines which say how Trump has no chance of winning the election, but Mark is intent on leading others in prayer as he looks to make America great again in a way which defies logic. There’s even a bible verse mentioned which I guess is used to justify this movie’s title. The description of this movie is hilarious enough, but watching its trailer has my eyes rolling all the way in the back of my head.

Look, many have a strong bias against faith-based movies like “God’s Not Dead” as they are made with an agenda in mind which results in a product which is an unforgivable insult to our collective intelligence. I try to keep an open mind to them as not all of them are out to do this, but “The Trump Prophecy” clearly is as there still many supporters who are determined to support Trump in spite of all the damage he has done so far. By now, it should be clear to the majority of Americans, let alone people around the world, that Trump is anything but a true Christian. He cheated on his wife with Stormy Daniels, his administration is full of corrupt people, several of who have since been indicted, and he clearly holds his own self-interests above all others.

“The Trump Prophecy,” like many faith-based movies, was made on a very low budget ($2 million to be exact) and in cooperation with the film department at Liberty University, the evangelical Christian school founded by the late Jerry Falwell. It is also directed by the head of that school’s film department head, Stephan Schultze. Only evangelical Christians would dare make a movie like this as they remain convinced beyond a doubt that Trump deserves to be President above all others, including those who are actual politicians.

Yes, I am tempted to see it in the same way I rush out to see Dinesh D’Souza’s movies, so I can analyze everything wrong with them. But this time I think I will pass as there are many others worth my time as Oscar season is heating up. Learning of “The Trump Prophecy” and watching its trailer simply serves as a reminder of how people willfully blind themselves to horrible truths, and of why Christianity and evangelical Christianity need to be seen as two very separate things.

Right now, I keep thinking of John Carpenter’s “Pro-Life,” the “Halloween” director’s second episode for the Showtime series “Masters of Horror.” That episode featured a religious fanatic played by Ron Perlman who was determined to rescue his daughter from an abortion clinic, especially after he hears a voice telling him to save her baby. But in the end, the voice he hears is revealed to be a demon who looks to unleash literal hell on earth. Perhaps it is unfair to compare Mark Taylor to Ron Perlman’s character as I am sure he is a decent man looking to lead a peaceful life, but hey, both said God talked to them.

Fathom Events will be screening “The Trump Prophecy” two days only, October 2 and 4, 2018, in theaters throughout the United States. While watching the trailer, which is included below, you may hear a voice talking to you. If this voice is telling you “save your money,” you are not insane.

 

William Zabka on Portraying a Non-Bully Character in ‘Where Hope Grows’

Where Hope Grows William Zabka

Ever since he played Johnny Lawrence in 1984’s “The Karate Kid,” actor William Zabka has forever burned himself into our collective memories as the quintessential school bully. From there he went on to play characters who were equally antagonistic in movies like “Back to School,” “Just One of the Guys” and “National Lampoon’s European Vacation” in which he does the unthinkable when he dumps Audrey Griswold as his girlfriend. All these movies serve to make you completely forget that Zabka started off his career acting in commercials which portrayed him as the all-American nice guy.

But the truth is there is more to Zabka than just playing the bully we all love to hate. Ever since “The Karate Kid,” he has gone on, unlike many of his co-stars, to earn a black belt in Tang Soo Do. On top of that, he speaks Czech fluently and is also an accomplished musician. Furthermore, he has gone on to become a noted filmmaker, and his short film “Most” earned numerous awards as well as an Academy Award nomination for Best Live Action Short Film.

All these years later, we catch up with Zabka in “Where Hope Grows,” a film written and directed by Chris Dowling, which has him playing Milton Malcolm. Milton looks like a successful businessman, but we come to see his life is falling apart very quickly. He descends into alcoholism with his best friend Calvin Campbell (Kristoffer Polaha), a former major league baseball player whose career was undone by panic attacks. But when Calvin finds a way to sobriety thanks to his newfound friendship with a simple-minded supermarket employee with Down syndrome who is known by his nickname of Produce (David DeSanctis), Milton ends up feeling more isolated than ever, and this sends his life into an even deeper downward spiral.

Looking at this, it becomes clear Zabka has a more complex role than any other actor in “Where Hope Grows,” and I told so during a roundtable interview held at the Four Seasons Hotel in Los Angeles, California. Unlike his most famous characters, Milton cannot be easily labeled as a good or bad guy in this movie. I asked him what the challenges were for him in playing such a complex character, and he liked that I found this to be the case with Milton.

Where Hope Grows movie poster

William Zabka: This character is very complex. He has it all or appears to have it all. He’s got a beautiful wife and kids but he’s in trouble at work, he’s in the bottle, neglecting his wife, there are all kinds of stuff going on. To live in the moment of that and to feel the pain of that… The one scene where I almost come off really brazen in the scene at the golf course, I was saying to Chris, “Give me another line.” We were banned from saying the “R” word on the set. It was like no “R” words and here I am delivering it. I said, “Can’t we just find something softer? Can we be ignorant but not so brazen?” Chris really wanted that contrast for the ending and payoff. That’s a vulnerable place to go as an actor because as an actor you want to be liked or at least relatable. I’m glad you said that you could see the complexities because he wasn’t a good guy and he wasn’t a bad guy. He was misinformed. Produce’s story is kind of a second story to him. He is struggling with his own stuff, and it’s later when they come face to face and this kid gives him a gift. So, hanging onto that was the key to allow me to go down to some of those darker places.

It was a real honor to be in the presence of Zabka whose performance in “The Karate Kid” remains forever burned into my memory. But while many remember him best for playing such a hateful bully, there’s certainly much more to him than we realize.

Where Hope Grows” is now available to own and rent on DVD, Blu-ray and Digital. And of course, you can see him on the YouTube Red series “Cobra Kai” as Johnny Lawrence.

 

Risen

risen-movie-poster

The story of Jesus Christ’s crucifixion and resurrection has been told countless times, but “Risen” looks to tell it from a different perspective. This movie follows powerful the Roman Centurion Clavius (Joseph Fiennes) as he is ordered by Pontius Pilate (Peter Firth) to investigate the disappearance of Yeshua’s (a.k.a. Jesus of Nazareth) body which has vanished from its resting place. What results is a motion picture which proves to be anti-climactic more than anything else, and this is regardless of the fact it is better produced than other faith-based films out there today.

Things start out with Clavius leading his troops out into battle in a fight scene which looks like something out of “300.” Then we see him as he helps to close off Yeshua’s final resting place which is sealed off with an enormous stone wall. Somehow this wall is breached and Clavius is left with his aide Lucius (Tom Felton) to figure out who absconded with Yeshua’s body, and the answer will forever change what he has been led to believe.

“Risen” was directed by Kevin Reynolds who may be best known for directing “Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves” and the infamous “Waterworld” with his friend and, at times, worst enemy Kevin Costner. He approaches this movie as a detective story as we watch Clavius interrogate many people about who might have made off with Yeshua’s body when the guards were not looking. This is where things are at their most interesting as it seems like Reynolds is testing us in regards to what we have been taught to believe about Jesus Christ among other things. Witnesses say one thing, but we are skeptical as to what we should accept as truth.

But then Clavius discovers Yeshua has somehow come back to the land of the living, and this is where the movie fell apart. Perhaps I should mention “Risen” starts with Clavius roaming the barren landscape, having been deeply affected by an experience we have yet to see him discover for himself. As a result, any tension or suspense this movie hoped to offer its audience is thrown out the window because we already have a pretty good idea of what’s going to happen.

Dramas of any kind suffer tremendously when conflict is absent, and “Risen” quickly renders any potential conflict as null even when the movie could have benefited from more of it. Clavius’ association with the Roman Army quickly becomes non-existent when he sees with his own eyes how Yeshua has somehow come back from the dead. His loyal aide Lucius (Tom “Draco Malfoy” Felton) sees him as a betrayer of the Romans, but any confrontation that could come between the two of them is rendered moot in no time at all. By the time the movie reaches its conclusion, I couldn’t help but wonder what Reynolds was trying to get across. Was it belief helps you overcome being a Roman Centurion who helped pin Christ to the crucifix and then leave all those years of training behind upon discovering Christ has been resurrected? Look, I’m a big believer of anything being possible, but Clavius’ sudden conversion feels very far-fetched.

Fiennes is a fine actor (no pun intended) and he does give Clavius a stoicism which would make the common criminal buckle under an especially intense interrogation. At the same time, he makes Clavius a little too stoic to where his face seems far more frozen than it has any right to be. Clavius is supposed to be a very serious dude, but some moments of levity could have helped to at least remind audiences that Fiennes’ range as an actor is much broader than is presented here.

I do, however, have to give credit to Cliff Curtis for giving us a powerfully mesmerizing interpretation of Yeshua/Jesus of Nazareth. Whenever he appears on screen, the actor exudes a sereneness and calm which is not as easy to pull off as he makes it look. This is the same actor who played FBI Deputy Director Miguel Bowman in “Live Free or Die Hard,” and here he digs into this role internally to where you are desperate to follow him no matter where he goes. His performance makes this movie more watchable than it would have been otherwise.

Aside from that, “Risen” is beautiful to look at thanks to director of photography Lorenzo Senatore, but there’s not much about the movie to recommend. The story of the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ has been told in more compelling ways than what is presented here. But being this is a Kevin Reynolds movie, it won’t matter what audiences think of it because Kevin Costner will watch it and say he could have made it better.

* * out of * * * *

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Exclusive Interview with Jesse Metcalfe on ‘God’s Not Dead 2’

Gods Not Dead 2 Jesse Metcalfe photo

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.

Gods Not Dead 2 movie poster

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.

Exclusive Interview with Robin Givens on ‘God’s Not Dead 2’

Gods Not Dead 2 Robin Givens

Robin Givens has graced us with her presence for years whether it be on television, onstage or on the silver screen. She caught Theodore Huxtable’s gaze on “The Cosby Show,” played the infinitely spoiled Diane Merriman on “Head of the Class” and gave Eddie Murphy a taste of his own medicine in “Boomerang.” Now she adds a faith based movie to her resume with “God’s Not Dead 2,” a sequel to surprise box office hit from 2014. In it she plays Principal Kinney, the chief administrator at Dr. Martin Luther King High School where a teacher, Grace Wesley (Melissa Joan Hart), becomes the center of controversy when she mentions God in a response to a student’s question. From there Principal Kinney is forced to decide whether to stand up for Grace or to stand by the school district officials who demand Grace to apologize for violating the “separation of church and state.”

I got to speak with Givens while she was in Los Angeles to do press for “God’s Not Dead,” and she could not have been nicer. Her family were huge fans of the original, and she jumped at the chance to appear in this sequel. She discussed what was most challenging about her role, how doing the movie affected her own faith and she shared her opinion about the fact that the movie not only opening on April Fool’s Day, but also National Atheist’s Day.

Gods Not Dead 2 movie poster

Ben Kenber: You play a high school principal in this movie. Did you do any research on principals at all?

Robin Givens:  No, I didn’t too much and I kept thinking of my own. I didn’t have a principal. I had a headmaster, Dr. Paul Firestone. I kept thinking of my children so I approached one from the students’ point of view and then one from a parents’ point of view. It’s interesting when you begin to approach the character and you are actually in the school. We were in a very, very large high school, and however big the kids were makes you assume a certain posture. You really do assume a posture even physically, so that was pretty interesting for me.

BK: This is a sequel which has the director and screenwriters returning to it, but most of the cast from the original did not return. Did that concern you at all?

RG: No, no, not at all. My family and I are very big fans of the first one. I guess I was not surprised they were doing a second one based on its success which I’m sure even surprised them. You kind of get the feeling that they were going to camp it up a little bit. When I met Harold Cronk, the director, I just loved him so much so I was not concerned about it at all.

BK: What would you say was the most challenging aspect for you in playing this character?

RG: Just for me, what I believe versus what she believes. You can play different characters that have nothing to do with you; that’s the most wonderful thing about acting. But with this one, I kind of wanted to insert myself for the first time. I wanted to be on Grace’s side in helping her along, not just sort of walking the line or concerned about following the rules. So that was the big part for me that was difficult.

BK: It can be tricky because you don’t want to judge your character.

RG: Exactly.

BK: “God’s Not Dead 2” is being released on April 1 which is not just April Fool’s Day, but also National Atheist’s Day. Do you have any thoughts on that?

RG: (Laughs) Somebody mentioned that to me and I didn’t know there was a National Atheist’s Day. I think it’s interesting that it’s also April Fool’s Day and that April Fools’ Day is different from National Atheist’s Day, but they also mentioned the irony that they didn’t know that was the day when they decided to release it, so maybe that was God intervening.

BK: Perhaps. You said your character was torn between her job and her heart, and that makes her complex as a result. What would you say were the challenges of playing those complexities?

RG: I think it was really difficult for me to get out of the way, that’s what I would say. I wanted to not judge her, but I wanted to not play the subtext of this really isn’t me and this is not what I believe. Just letting myself get out of the way of it was really hard for me. If I could go to Harold now, and now that I know him better, I would go, “Could you write a scene that actually explains the difficulties she is having?” It’s like one scene for me is missing, you know?

BK: Was there anything you brought to this movie that wasn’t in the screenplay?

RG: I try to portray the difficulty she was having, that’s the choice that I made. So I tried to bring the fact that she did believe, but she was still wanting to do her day job well. I tried to bring the conflict she was having, and I don’t know if that was originally planned but I wanted her to be conflicted.

BK: Has doing this movie strengthened your faith in your own life a lot?

RG: I feel like, for me, it was one big God wink. A friend of mine gave me a book called “God Wink” which talked about how there are no coincidences. It was such an important movie in our lives, my family personally, that to be asked to do the movie a year later was almost like a big God wink or validation of like “I’m with you.” So in some respects, not that it changed my mind about anything, it just sort of brought validation.

BK: When Melissa Joan Hart’s character of Grace Wesley talks about God in the classroom, she is really talking about him as a historical being instead of a divine one.

RG: I love that! I don’t know how you feel about that, but for me I think that was so smart. I loved how they put Christ in a historical context with Martin Luther King and Gandhi. I just love that.

BK: There seems to be a lot of confusion about when or if you should bring up God in the classroom, and the way Grace does it is not really offensive at all. But if she was forcing people and saying believe in God or you will get an F, that would be a different story.

RG: Absolutely, and also when she’s talking about it she’s just talking about it in very simple terms: tolerance, being a better person and being kind. I think because she’s talking about it in such simple terms then how can anybody complain about this, but that it still creates an uproar is interesting and shows where we are at.

BK: Christianity is still the dominant religion in America, but in “God’s Not Dead 2” it is presented more as a minority because of the way certain Christians are treated. How do you feel about that?

RG: This is America; we have freedom of religion. You can’t be persecuted for what you believe. People come from other countries to this country maybe not for only that reason, but that’s a big thing. You get to believe the way you believe here, and sometimes we get so caught up defending other people’s rights that even things that have been the fabric of our country have gotten pushed to the side. I do think Christianity is a big thing in America still, and I think that’s why these films are so successful because maybe people shouldn’t talk about, but they love that they get to see themselves or what they believe are the discussion. I think people really do love it.

BK: Was there anything in regards to religion you really wanted this movie to have?

RG: I think that probably lies a lot on Melissa’s shoulders in terms of what she wanted it to have. I was there to sort of help her in many respects to find her way and help her character find her way as opposed to my own beliefs.

BK: This movie has quite the cast with actors like Ray Wise, Ernie Hudson and Fred Dalton Thompson in what turned out to be his last role before he passed away. Did you have the opportunity to work with Fred?

RG: No I didn’t, but I always think of Fred Thompson when he was running for office which is like, it’s so cool. I’m a big fan not only of his acting but also politically. He was so thought-provoking in many respects, so I’m just happy to have been in the film with him.

BK: You mentioned that your mom goes to church every Sunday and that she saw “God’s Not Dead” and it made the family very happy. I imagine they were very happy to hear that you were involved in “God’s Not Dead 2.”

RG: Oh my God. My family doesn’t know where I’ve came from just in terms of the entertainment business. They are never too into it. But they loved it and they couldn’t believe it. It was something we did together as a family, so when she went to see it (“God’s Not Dead”) and then we all went to see it as a family there was a certain irony there. But it made them very happy.

BK: What would you say your mother got out of the first movie?

RG: It was a difficult time in our lives as a family, and I think that what everybody needs is just faith. I think certain things can always trigger what’s going on in our own lives, so just to have faith I think was a big thing.

I want to thank Robin Givens for taking the time to talk with me. “God’s Not Dead 2” is now available to rent or own on DVD and Blu-ray, and you can visit the movie’s website at www.godsnotdead.com.

Copyright Ben Kenber 2016.

Exclusive Interview with Melissa Joan Hart on ‘God’s Not Dead 2’

Gods Not Dead Melissa Joan Hart photo

The 2014 movie “God’s Not Dead” only cost $2 million to make, but it went on to gross over $60 million and began a movement to strengthen the faith of Christians everywhere. That movement continues with “God’s Not Dead 2” which reunites director Harold Cronk with screenwriters Chuck Konzelman and Cary Solomon, but it tells a completely different story. This time the action moves to a public high school where teacher Grace Wesley (Melissa Joan Hart) encourages her students to appreciate history. But after Grace gives a reasoned response to a question about Jesus, she becomes the center of an epic court case which could end her career and expel God from the public square once and for all.

We all know Melissa Joan Hart from her popular television shows “Sabrina The Teenage Witch” and “Melissa & Joey,” and she is a veteran of show business having started at the tender age of four. I got to speak with Melissa while she was in Los Angeles, California for the “God’s Not Dead 2” press junket. She talked about joining a sequel which had none of the main cast members from the original returning to it, how social media has both helped and hindered the Christian movement, how she had to do a lot of reacting in this sequel, and why she feels likes an anomaly in today’s Hollywood.

Gods Not Dead 2 movie poster

Ben Kenber: It’s interesting how your character talks about Jesus as a historical figure and not a divine person, and yet it somehow leads to this legal case which dominates the movie.

Melissa Joan Hart: Well someone did ask us today in one of our interviews, “Is Jesus a bad word, and why has Jesus become a bad word?” You say Jesus you make people uncomfortable, especially Christians. I have become very comfortable with talking about things within my religion and within my faith. I have been a faithful person my whole life, but only in the last 5 years have I started bible study and really, really studying the word. It’s a hard thing to feel comfortable in this day and age. It’s weird that it used to be such an easy topic, and now it has become such a difficult, strained topic. You say things like “God bless you” and they look at you sideways. It is a weird situation going on these days, and so I like to make sure when someone sneezes that my kids go “God bless you” or if they see a man in military fatigues to say “thank you for your service.” People find it a little disconcerting, but when you do it they appreciate it. I was telling someone earlier about the ten commandments and someone pointed out to me and said, “Which of the ten commandments doesn’t hold up today?” The only one that seems to be fading out slightly is though shall not take my name in vain, and so I make sure I don’t, in my work, say “oh my god” or “OMG.” It really bothers me when other people do now, but in my house they don’t. My kids’ friends come over there and they are not allowed to say it and I’ll tell them why. If I feel the need to pray on an airplane because I’m terrified of flying, I’m not ashamed of that. I cross myself right there in front of whoever is watching. I had some controversy over a Christmas dinner at my house about whether everyone should go to church, and my stepfather brilliantly pointed out if anyone had gone to a Passover or any other kind of religious ceremony or holiday, you would respect that person’s wishes in their home. If you did accept that invitation to go to that event, you would be a part of it and not mock it. We are PC-ing ourselves to death here, literally. I think that’s why Trump is doing so well because he’s not correcting himself and he’s not being politically correct. He’s being completely politically incorrect, and not that I think he’s the best choice, but I can see the draw.

BK: Trump is definitely not the best choice and the fact that he has gotten as far as he has is frightening.

MJH: It’s disturbing.

BK: This is a sequel which features the same directors and some of the same writers but none of the main stars from the original returned for it. Was that ever a concern for you?

MJH: Actually I thought that was pretty exciting. I can’t recall another situation where that happened where they didn’t try to get the original cast and didn’t. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a sequel where the star didn’t go on. Well, maybe “Bruce Almighty” (laughs).

BK: There have been a few sequels like that such as “Son of the Mask” and “28 Weeks Later.”

MJH: But this is a completely different story. It’s not even the same movie. It’s a different movie with similar undertones and a few recurring characters, but really it’s a different story and so that’s kind of exciting and interesting. It was definitely a blessing to step into a leading role in a film that’s already well-established as a movement. The first movie ignited a movement across the country and I think it rallied together the Christian community, especially the youth, and they took to social media and started a movement.

BK: Speaking of social media, do you feel that it has helped the Christian movement or taken away from it?

MJH: I think it’s done both. I read somewhere that they say cell phones are the cigarette of the twenty-first century. They say that for health reasons but I think it’s toxic to families. I read a study where they were observing parents sitting in restaurants with their kids, and if they were on their phone they were more likely to be more violent towards their children and impatient and have outbursts towards their children than the ones that weren’t on their phones. I do think social media plays a big part in that because we want to be attached, but we’re not attached. I remember being in my house on a Thanksgiving and sitting around with everybody. We were watching TV and I made some comment about what was on the TV and I was like, “Can you believe he said that?” And I looked around and everybody was on their phone, but they justified it by saying, “Well we’re playing Words with Friends with each other.” And I said, “Well then why don’t we just play Scrabble?” So I do think that social media can be completely toxic. We feel like we are connected when we are totally not connected. We worry more about followers than friends. But in that way we have also found a fellowship out there of people across the world that we can relate to on certain subjects and certain topics, and Christianity is definitely a big one. I think the movement behind “God’s Not Dead” is doing amazing things on social media.

BK: You talked about how you had to do a lot of reacting in this movie, and that was great to hear because listening is one of the key things in African do especially when they are in a movie. How tough was that for you?

MJH: It was really a lesson for me. Obviously I’ve done reaction shots before, but usually I’m talking at a fast pace but trying to be funny. Usually when you’re the lead of the movie you just talk endlessly. Every other line is your line. So it was hard for me to sit there and just observe and then react, but it was also a great lesson for me to take a deep breath and enjoy not having to learn lines, but also being a part of the scene without having a voice in it and trust that the filmmaker and producers have you protected. It was a little bit for me to wrap my head around that the first week. I was like, “Well I’m not even saying anything. I barely talk.” I didn’t even realize until I get there and you start really reading the lines and you go, “I don’t have a line all day! I’m in every scene but I don’t have a line or I say three words and that’s it.” Jesse’s got six pages. It was hard for me to switch roles, but I’m excited I got the opportunity to do it obviously. If I get the opportunity to do that sort of thing again I know how to handle it better, and hopefully I’ll improve and hopefully with each project you’ll improve.

BK: The two “God’s Not Dead” movies have very different stories. It’s kind of like what’s going on with the two “Cloverfield” movies in that it deals with the same thematic elements even though they each take place on a different timeline. This makes the “God’s Not Dead” franchise seem more like an anthology than anything else.

MJH: Which is why I’m bummed because I know I won’t be in the third movie (laughs). But that’s exciting too because it gives the audience something else. They can come to the movie have knowing what to expect, but part of the fun of film beginning is not knowing the twists and turns and not knowing these characters and infuse it with some new energy. It’s about opening up the stereotypes because as Christians I feel like a lot of people, when you say Christian or the name Jesus, go oh you’re going to judge me now or I don’t go to church enough for you or I don’t know the verses of the Bible. People are always so afraid to be judged and I feel like a lot of Christian films do a little stereotyping, but I feel like in this case with this movie it’s really evolved to a place where these characters are complex. They are real people and these are real human experiences. People will hopefully relate to it more because they will find someone they identify with in this movie or they will identify with everyone.

BK: A lot of criticism that was directed at the first “God’s Not Dead” movie was that there were a lot of Christian stereotypes, but this one has characters that are a lot more complex which makes it more interesting.

MJH: Yeah, you don’t necessarily have a protagonist and an antagonist. I’m the victim in a sense, but not if you are an atheist. With Robin Givens’ character, we didn’t really know which way her character was going until the re-shoots. So I actually asked the director, “Is she bad or is she good? Is she on my side or are we hinting at that?” They decided to keep her a little bit more on the side of evil, but they do walk this nice line with everybody. It’s just a very realistic view of people, and you can’t put people in boxes and you can’t stereotype. I’m a conservative Hollywood girl, and yet I grew up in New York. I’m a Republican so I don’t really fit in with the liberal views of Hollywood, but I’m also anti-gun and pro-choice so I don’t fit into that spectrum. I feel like I’m an anomaly because people can’t figure out where to put me, you know?

BK: It’s interesting to hear you say that because in this day and age we have reduced so many things down to soundbites to where it’s far too easy to label everybody and anybody so broadly.

MJH: Yes. I said I was voting for Romney on Twitter years ago for the election, and instantly I got people saying you must be anti-gay, you must hate all other races, etc. Instantly it was like I just got pigeonholed into then you must be this way if you vote that way instead of just thinking maybe the other choice wasn’t so great (laughing).

BK: “God’s Not Dead 2” was a low budget movie that was shot in less than a month. Did the speed of that help you at all?

MJH: The speed of a movie never helps. They are trying to make movies faster and faster and faster these days which ends up putting a lot of pressure on the crew. So when you do speed these things up, the process is not helpful to the production. They say it puts more money on the screen but I don’t think it does. I think time really helps especially the performances. It’s hard to rush a performance. It’s hard to be like, “Hurry up! Cry! Okay, next scene!” But I feel like working in television you get used to a very rigid schedule and a very fast pace which also kind of kills a performance because I’m used to trying to make sure I hit my marks so I get my letting right. I don’t bang on my microphone so I don’t ruin sound. But am I really think about my performance when I’m thinking about all these other things as well? Did I hit my mark? Am I in the light? My makeup artist is telling me to keep my eye open and to keep my head up. If we had more time to rehearse it and feel it out and do everything and go through it systematically performances would be better, so I think that’s the main thing that suffers, the creativity behind the film, when you rush through it. They save a lot of money and it does get you back to your family faster, but at the same time it’s like you still can only work 12 hours a day.

I want to thank Melissa Joan Hart for taking the time to talk with me. “God’s Not Dead” is now available to own and rent on DVD and Blu-ray. Please visit the movie’s website (www.godnotdeadthemovie.com) for more information.

Copyright Ben Kenber 2016.

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