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Thomas Haden Church's thoughts on his latest film ‘Heaven is for Real'

Thomas Haden Church (who looks like a laid-back Texas cowboy) humbly met with me to talk about his latest film, ‘Heaven is for Real. ‘ We discussed the film's power to bring people to together while we bonded over our South Texas roots, (he is from Harlingen and I'm from Corpus Christi). In fact, he is by all means a true Texan who owns a ranch on the other side of San Antonio. And by his account, ‘A really good one.’ He is a man of conviction that doesn't take his calling as an actor lightly.

Thomas Haden Church.
Thomas Haden Church.
Photo: Allen Fraser courtesy of ©2013 CTMG. All Rights Reserved. SONY PICTURES ENTERTAINMENT INC. with permission.

‘Heaven is for Real’ (based on the #1 New York Times best-selling book of the same name), brings to the screen the true story of a small-town father who must find the courage and conviction to share his son’s extraordinary, life-changing experience with the world.

Hayden portrays Todd Burpo’s best friend, Jay Wilkins whose character is actually a composite of several people who witness the event unfolding in the Burpo family’s life. The film also stars Academy Award® nominee and Emmy® award winning actor Greg Kinnear as Todd Burpo and co-stars Kelly Reilly as Sonja Burpo, the real-life couple whose son Colton (newcomer Connor Corum) claims to have visited Heaven during a near death experience. Colton recounts the details of his amazing journey with childlike innocence and speaks matter-of-factly about things that happened before his birth ... things he couldn't possibly know. Todd and his family are then challenged to examine the meaning from this remarkable event.

‘Heaven is for Real’ seems to be more than a movie about faith. After talking with friends, I found that we were able to get something different from it. To me, it’s about a community and family that come together.

What do you want people to get from this movie?

To me, the quick answer is that for me heaven is in your heart; it is very specific to you, your spirituality, your emotional condition and your human experience. So to me, it is what your expectations are of yourself and what might be beyond of this plane of mortality. So, I think everyone might come away as you explained, there are going to very quicksilver distinctions of what one moment means to you verses another moment, that you might (say) ‘Aw OK, that was on the nose versus that was a little corny, that was a little bit too close. Somebody else might say wow that was the revelatory moment for me. ’

And, whenever I read the script, I didn't think it was for me. I thought it was too specific in its message about faith. But, I wanted to talk to the writer/director to Randall (Wallace) and we had a great conservation. After that conversation, I realized that he was raised Southern Baptist in Tennessee and I was raised Southern Baptist in Texas, South Texas and there is a common voice here. This is a guy, a filmmaker that I can understand and I think he understands me, because we have a similar backstory when it comes to how we were trained as Christian young men. I know that sounds oversimplified, but it meant something to me at the time.

In 2012, I had three very close people to me to pass away and that (event) triggered the next level of self-reflection. Where am I? And, why is it I only reflect on my spirituality when there are these dark events? I don’t want my spiritual life to be defined by the darkness anymore. I want the darkness to be defined by the light that I know I have in my heart and I know I have with my family and friends and people that I love, my daughters, and whoever. So I saw it as a bit of a pivot point to be a part of a movie that I think has a very life affirming message.

It is a very secular film; it is very specific film. But, they’re not making ‘Fast and Furious 7’ for me, you know. And honestly, Tyler Perry is not particularly worried if I go see his movies. He is doing it for an audience that he appreciates and respects. I think that this movie has an audience that is going to appreciate the message.

I have been reading a lot of the critic’s reviews the last couple of days and I think that it is a great American tradition, that critics are being as receptive to this story as specific as it is, in being a faith-based movie. They are really responding to it. And, a lot of them are saying the same thing that there is an authenticity to the performances and the story that you can get on-board with. Of course, some of them really like it. I just think it is a good story for where we are as a country. I like what the message is. It becomes full circle and life affirming, about a community, a church and a family and how they are willing to close that infrastructure tightly to heal and to be able to carry on.

In the movie, adults were very cynical. You know, what about me? Why not me? Why do you think adults are so cynical and have a fear of the unknown?

They are just growing up. The innocence of a little boy having almost crossing over and dying and that little boy coming back with that innocence in tack and also such a clarity of what is in his heart about what he saw, conversations he had and the people he met, the angels, meeting Jesus Christ, meeting the grandfather who died fifty years before he was born. Really and truly, you can look at it in a glass half empty, a glass half full scenario. On the one hand, it is like there is no way he is too little, everything in his mind he has been trained to believe, he has been programmed by his parents’ memories.

I remember my mom said to me a long time ago that when I was a kid, I said, ‘I remember the apartment building that we lived in Woodland (where) the staircase that went up to the second story was painted black.’ And my mom goes, ‘There is no way you remember that. You remember it from a photograph or I told you that.’ And, she was saying it I because I wasn’t even two when we moved from California to Texas. But, a few years after that, I said, ‘Mom, I know I remember it.’ She said, ‘Tell me why you remember it?’ And, I said, ‘Because I remember falling down it cutting up and skinning my knees and I remember that happening.’ My mom said, ‘You did fall down those stairs on more than one occasion.’

My mother is a college teacher and has a psychology background. So she started reflecting on it and a couple of years went by and she said, ‘I want to apologize to you for something.’ I said, ‘What’s that?’ She said, ‘When you told me years ago that you remembered that staircase and I told you there was no way. I believe now that you do. That was such a vivid event that you really learned about it and it is forever in your mind because it happened to you and we didn’t imprint it on your brain.’

And that is why; I think that a four-year old could have such vivid recollection of heaven. But, it hasn’t been because he was programmed by things he read, things he saw, things his parents said, his teacher said, while on Earth.

Your body of work represents diverse characters from comedy to serious subjects. What motivates you as an actor (what do you consider) when you take on a role? Do you feel it in your gut or is it a desire to bring this character to life?

Truth. However truthful the character is and even though the character can be a villain, deceitful or whatever, it is the truth of his mission in the movie. And if he really believes in what he is doing. Unless, he is supposed to be a duplicitous character and in which case he still has to have convictions in doing whatever deceptions he is doing. So, to me it is, is this a guy that I can believe is doing what he is doing in a sincere and authentic way? That’s what it is for me. I don’t care, comedy, drama, cowboy, banker, Laundromat operator, what do I care. I have played them all.

Like your character in ‘Heaven is for Real’, the characters you play all seem to be someone that we know or can identify with.

I hope so. I have a few of those movies coming out too, including a movie this fall. I play a homeless guy who is street fighting for money that we shot in the worst part of downtown Los Angeles. I look in those faces and that’s me. I saw myself in those people every day. Nobody is untouchable in our society.

So, there you have it, there are all my profound thoughts.

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