Let's face it, if I'm going to say Yes to interviewing the makers of SON OF GOD a couple months back, I don't see any real reason to pass up an interview with the highly pleasant actor Greg Kinnear just because he's in a movie called HEAVEN IS FOR REAL, a film that manages to be both very much about the faithful without necessarily being easily lumped in with these spiritually based works of late that never seem to play in downtown cinemas and are more than likely preaching to the converted.
If anything, HEAVEN IS FOR REAL seems to say it's okay to have doubt or even not believe, but if you're going to push Jesus and heaven (or whatever your faith holds as sacred), you better make sure you buy into it yourself. Kinnear plays a real-life minister named Todd Burpo (the film is based on his book), whose four-year-old son Colton (newcomer Connor Corum) has a near-death experience, during which the boy says he was in heaven for brief time, saw angels, and even met Jesus. Burpo seems more than willing to dismiss the boy's visions as a symptom of his illness or an overactive imagination, but then young Colton starts voicing details about what and who he saw in heaven and on earth during his out-of-body time that seem to spot on to dismiss, sending Todd and the community into a crisis of faith.
Rather than embrace the boy's claims, many seem eager to dismiss them, if only because believing them demands an entirely new level of faith that comes awfully close to fact. The film has a great case, including Kelly Reilly, Thomas Haden Church, and the always-magnificent Margo Martindale, and was directed by Randall Wallace (writer of such works as BRAVEHEART, PEARL HARBOR, and WE WERE SOLDIER, which Kinnear also starred in). So why would Kinnear take a chance on a film like this? It's something we talk about. Kinnear is actually more of a risk taker than you might at first think. After working his way from "Talk Soup" host to actor in such works as BLANKMAN, SABRINA, YOU'VE GOT MAIL, and his Oscar-nominated turn in AS GOOD AS IT GETS, he moved on to edgier films like MYSTERY MEN, THE GIFT, AUTO FOCUS, THE MATADOR, and even more off-putting comedies like STUCK ON YOU and the BAD NEW BEARS remake. Watch him in LITTLE MISS SUNSHINE, FAST FOOD NATION, GHOST TOWN or GREEN ZONE; there's something else going on besides a winning smile and charm to spare.
Late last year, he cracked me up as Veronica Corningstone's psychiatrist lover Gary in ANCHORMAN 2, and most recently his Fox series "Rake" ended its short run, opening up his schedule hopefully for more films. Next week, his latest film MURER OF A CAT plays at the Tribeca Film Festival, and beyond that there's nothing but opportunity and hopefully some more interesting choices. I had a great time talking to Kinnear, who never once struck me as attempting to convert and preach to me about the lessons of this film. I think he just enjoyed the challenge of playing a man of the cloth dealing with this specific dilemma. Please enjoy my chat with Greg Kinnear…
Greg Kinnear: Hello.
Capone: Hello, how are you? Nice to meet you.
GK: I’m good. How are you?
GK: You want a cookie?
Capone: No, thanks.
GK: You sure?
Capone: Maybe I’ll take one for the road after we talk.
GK: No, you won’t. We ask when you sit down, and if you pass, that’s all we can do. You just don’t get one now.
Capone: You see if I do a good enough job and then decide.
GK: Yeah, we’ll see.
Capone: It’s a merit-based cookie plan?
GK: Yes. We’ve had some two-cookie interviews and some three-cookie ones. We’ve not had a five-cookie interview. So I wish you the best of luck.
Capone: I can’t handle that level of pressure. Ever since the Christmas I wanted to ask you, “Are you reading my mind right now?”
GK: Yes. Right now.
Capone: Can we do this interview telepathically?
GK: Right now, I’m reading your mind. The power of Gary.
Capone: So almost 20 years ago, you made a film called DEAR GOD, directed by Garry Marshall…
GK: Garry Marshall. You’ve probably talked to him.
Capone: I have. In that film, you play this con artist who’s answering letters written to God. Does it feel like you’ve come full circle in your career with HEAVEN IN FOR REAL?
GK: [laughs] Well, some people pointed out that there are also the Ricky Gervais picture GHOST TOWN, and a little movie I did with Pierce Brosnan called SALVATION BOULEVARD, so I’ve covered the spectrum. But this is my first time in the shoes of a pastor. I’ve never done that before, and you feel quite vulnerable standing there and facing a church of people who are searching for answers. I have new respect for that vocation. But it was an interesting journey. Yeah, I guess I’m back there in that zone again, huh?
Capone: When you take on a role of someone who does this for a living, do you school yourself in what it is he does exactly? It’s not just public speaking. It’s a very inspirational type of public speaking.
GK: Well, it’s the opposite of Richard Hoover from LITTLE MISS SUNSHINE. He’s actually good at talking to an audience. I’ve seen pastors over my life--I’ve seen good ones and not good ones--and I mean that not in terms of who they are, but in their ability to deliver the message or articulate a feeling or a thought. It’s no small thing to have to stand before a group that are looking for some clarity on something, and they try to express something to them that will cause some internal dialogue. It’s not easy to do, and I think that sounds so heavy, yet here was this guy, Todd.
Yes, he's a pastor, but he wasn’t walking around in a cloak carrying a candle. He was, in fact, a guy who installs garage doors, and he was a volunteer firefighter and a wrestling coach. He was a man who loves his wife, which you don’t usually see in the pastor world. There werea lot of things that I was like, "I haven’t seen this kind of guy represented before." And that’s not even considering the conversation about what happens in the story, but just in terms of the guy himself that was front and center for me. It was a few other colors on the palate than I had been used to expecting for this type of role.
Capone: At first you think that he’s just a part of the community, everybody knows him, not just as a pastor, but even people who don’t go to his church know who he is. But then you start to realize that the reason he has all these jobs is that his family is struggling financially, and to have this thing happen with his son just piles onto what’s clearly a rough existence already. The film takes someone of the cloth and challenges him like this. And it’s not that they’re asking him not to believe. They’re saying, “Well, you already have faith. What if you have facts to back it up now?” That’s such a strange conundrum for a minister especially. Was that an element to this story that you clung onto?
GK: Absolutely. I felt like that notion, specifically that hook of a guy who is going to have his belief system challenged, not by the negative, not by the reverse of what he was expecting, but challenged by his four-year-old son saying, “Oh, no. You need to dig deeper. You need to believe more than what you believe.” And that is the stepping off point for his own internal struggle. You’re right, the struggle of the church itself and the community, and the newspaper angle.
There was a lot more conflict in this story than I would have expected from a title like HEAVEN IS FOR REAL. That’s not an ambiguous title, and I hadn’t read the book, but Randy Wallace, who’s a talented guy and I worked with on WE WERE SOLDIERS, really found a good way of telling this story so that it was entertaining, and that it didn’t get bogged down by the dogma of what heaven is and what it feels like, but instead to set that aside and focus more on the events that happened to the Burpo family as told in this book.
Capone: It would seem on the surface that when presented with a story like this by his son, based on his profession, it would be an easier thing for him to accept. So, why do you think Todd struggled with it?
GK: Yeah, well it'd be a short movie. If his son says there’s heaven and he high fives him, then we're in credit credits.
Capone: That’s true. But he really did question it in real life.
GK: No, I’m kidding. To me, that’s the most interesting aspect of the movie, and I think Todd has said this: just because you struggle doesn’t mean you’ve given up on God as a pastor. And the notion that there is a mystery here--it’s not an occasional story that happens, or at least that I was aware of. Since the book, I think it’s underlined a little more heightened awareness of this. But I think the reason the book grabs such an extraordinarily large audience and hung onto them for so many weeks on this bestseller list is because there was an angle there that people just have not really considered, and that this boy delivers this message to his father and the skepticism. In my opinion, even if I were a pastor, the understandable skepticism, the struggle to understand what he’s hearing feels very honest to me.
The kid was at that age…I have three kids that have all passed through that corridor, and they can see dolphins out there--“Daddy, I can see dolphins out in the lake right now.” They have very fertile imaginations. At the same time, they have delivered to me some of the most honest observations that I have ever encountered, to the point where I think Colton Burpo was 35 delivering this to his 65-year-old father, it’s a different story and doesn’t have nearly the degree of interest for the broad audience that has found it, because there is an inherent innocence there at that age. Is it imagination, or has this child really experienced something? That's what he’s wrestling with through the course of this movie.
Capone: It’s a really great collection of actors here. But I was thinking as I was watching it, I have seen all of these actors play horrible characters, some of the meanest people. So clearly Randall wasn’t looking for a puritanical cast. Did it matter to him at all what people believed personally in order for them to become a part of this film?
GK: Yes, he had us all fill out a three-page document, I believe, with a number two pencil, and we all passed. [laughs] No, he didn’t. That just wasn’t the criteria for him. If anything, I think Randy’s interest in the movie, he didn’t wanna get caught up in the dogma of it all and be a message film. I don’t think his interest was in making the audience think or believe one way or the other about heaven or no heaven.
I think he was interested in telling the most real family and community story he could find. "Real" being the operative word, because for the couple of weeks we rehearsed and our time together, it was all about strengthening the relationships and making ask, "How do you show this to an audience so they don't go, 'Oh, boy. Here we go.'"? There are some moments where you see this boy's prospective of Jesus and his perception of what he saw, which is obviously a vision that’s supposed to be representative of heaven. It doesn’t dwell on it, and I think that was a smart choice to make because there’s not a one-size-fits-all perception of it anyway.
Capone: I didn’t realize Randall had directed this until I saw it in the credits. His films, typically the ones he’s directed and written, are on a much bigger in scale. Were you at all curious why he would pick something this small and intimate to settle in on?
GK: I wasn’t curious. He was effusive about it. When I first met with him in Joe Roth’s office, who’s our producer and had done the THE SIXTH SENSE and OZ THE GREAT AND POWERFUL a few months ago, both of them--think everybody on this movie has worked in big movies at one point or another. But big is relative. I guess budget wise, I don’t know exactly what it was, but there’s not a scope of it that is forced by the convention of the storytelling to be any bigger than it is. I don’t know how you would have made the $75 million version of this movie. In fact, I think that movie would be the most uninteresting one I could possibly imagine, because it’s like, “Okay now we’re going actually inside the clouds, and we’re going to have a sit down with the angels…” I can’t imagine the CGI danger you could get into with something like that.
Capone: Oh, I certainly wasn’t encouraging you all to spend more money.
GK: Oh, I know you’re not. But I’m just trying to answer your question honestly, and I think that different stories demand different scope. Thankfully, the scope on this was right. So, I guess everybody was just feeling like this was the right size and right story.
Capone: One of my absolute favorite actors working right now, Margo Martindale, is in this movie. That scene that you two have in the cemetery on the bench almost had me in tears; it’s such a great moment. What do you learn from working with someone with the talent and the experience that she brings to everything?
GK: Well, we’ve worked together before. She was in the first movie I ever did, SABRINA. After I sat on the glasses and I’m jacked up on morphine laying on my bed, she’s the nurse sitting outside my room, and we have talked about that actually. We actually had a couple movies that we crossed over together, but we just never technically worked together, and of course I feel the same way as you. She’s just absolutely, eternally great in everything she does, and I was so happy that she played this role. In fact, when I read the script ,you had a sense that that was the person this needed to be. Randy has worked with her a few times thankfully and was able to get her.
I learn a lot from every actor I work with. I learned a lot from the 5-year-old I work with in this movie. I try to be as spongy as possible, especially with people like her, because she’s so gifted. But that scene actually was a really great, great scene to work with her on. We have a few in the movie, but that was great. We didn’t want to rehearse it, we didn’t want to talk about it, we didn’t want to get too wordy about it; we just went in and did it, and I think a lot of what we shot on the first take is what’s important.
Capone: However hard you tried not to be preachy, or not to make this one of these many faith-based films…
GK: Faith based!
Capone: Hey, they're pretty popular sometimes.
GK: There are so many faith-based movies, pretty soon they’re going to have to start calling movies that are out "non-faith based." “So, this non-faith-based movie you’re working on, tell us about it.” [laughs]
Capone: "Can we have a scene set in a church so we can call it faith-based?" Whatever your intentions are in terms, there’s still a certain audience that probably will come because of what the film is about, and maybe even people that don’t go just based on the title. Does any of that really enter into your mind when you’re making the film or when you’re talking about the film?
GK: I would hope that nobody would discount it because it chooses to be about this story. That would be sad for that person. I think the movie is unexpected, so I hope that people would stay open to it. But your point is correct. There is a segment of the audience who’s is going to say, “Check please. Thanks but no thanks, not interested in seeing that.” I think unfortunately they’ll have a clear impression of what it is. I think the movie kind of avoids the obviousness of what you might think, but still none the less. "Thanks but no thanks."
And then there’s a segment of the audience who has obviously read the book. I think the movie is respectful of the book, and they’ll enjoy it, and they’ll be there for them. But to me the most interesting aspect is for that audience somewhere in between, that won’t just close down to the notion that there might be something here and that maybe don’t have volume one, two, and three of the book. But they’re open, and maybe not sure what they believe, where they stand on any of this, or maybe still evolving their own search. And I think that that audience--my hope is that that audience--would find a movie here that is both entertaining and allows them to have some sort of internal discussion about some of the questions that it raises. I think these movies can do that.
Capone: You're looking at the undecided vote.
GK: The undecided, exactly. You’re exactly right, the undecided vote category.
Capone: Alright. Greg, thank you so much. It was really great to meet you.
GK: Thank you very much. And don't forget you cookie. We really force them on people here. We've laced them with a thing that's going to make you want to write a little more favorably than you might have. Don't read too much into that. And you'll be very sleepy afterwards. Take care.