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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