Christian Actors

I was watching the pilot for Doc last night (I know, I watch too much TV!). Doc was a popular show on PAX, and it starred country-singer Billy Ray Cyrus of “Achy Breaky Heart” fame. Billy Ray plays Clint Cassidy, a small-town, Montana doctor who goes to New York City to work for an HMO. He brings his home-spun, Christian values with him, and it’s funny to see how those interact with New York City’s cold sophistication!

I remember reading about Doc on a Christian web site, and it said that Billy Ray Cyrus often led the cast and crew in prayer before the show (see here). Not surprisingly, Doc is popular among a lot of evangelicals. It has absolutely no sex. Christian musician Steven Curtis Chapman played on an episode. Focus on the Family sings its praises. It is a decent, wholesome show that the entire family can enjoy.

But what was weird was something I read in wikipedia’s article about Billy Ray Cyrus (see here). It stated that Cyrus “had a small part in David Lynch‘s 2001 film Mulholland Drive as Gene, a pool cleaner who had been having an affair with the wife of Adam Kesher (Justin Theroux).”

I’m not sure when Billy Ray became a Christian, so maybe he wasn’t one when he depicted an adulterer. But reading that got me thinking about Christian actors and the roles that they play.

There are many devoutly Christian actors who play in not-so-Christian roles. Ultra-conservative Catholic Mel Gibson has depicted characters who have pre-marital sex. Liam Neeson is a Catholic, and, while he certainly did well as the Christ-like Aslan in The Chronicles of Narnia, he also played Dr. Alfred Kinsey, whose ideas on sex were not exactly Christian (to put it charitably).

I recently read Kirk Cameron’s autobiography, Still Growing. Kirk Cameron played Mike Seaver on the popular ABC sitcom, Growing Pains. When he became a Christian, he alienated much of the cast and crew. He refused to play roles where there was the slightest implication that his character used drugs or had pre-marital sex. He thought he needed to set a good example as a celebrity and a Christian. And he continues to hold many of the same standards. For example, he will not kiss anyone other than his wife when he plays a role. One time, when he had to do a kissing scene for a movie, the director brought in Kirk’s wife and gave her a wig so she’d look like the actress Kirk was supposed to kiss. Kirk takes his beliefs pretty seriously!

Kirk’s little sister Candace played on Full House, which was another popular ABC sitcom. And she has the same moral standards as her brother: she will not play in sexually immoral roles. She brings her Christianity into the workplace. The same goes for Jim Caviezel, who played Jesus in The Passion of the Christ. As a devout Catholic, Caviezel refused to do sex scenes with Jennifer Lopez in Angel Eyes.

One thing that interested me when I read Kirk’s book was that a lot of non-Christians work on Christian movies–as part of their casts and crews. When the movie Left Behind was being made, Kirk was one of the few Christians on the set. Some of the other believers kept their faith a secret because they feared ridicule. And this was a Christian movie! What went through Kirk’s mind when he met those closet Christians was Mark 8:38: “Those who are ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of them the Son of Man will also be ashamed when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels” (NRSV).

So I guess that Billy Ray was pretty brave when he lead the cast and crew of Doc in prayer! At least he was being open about his faith. I remember reading in TV Guide that Danny Glover didn’t even know Mel Gibson was religious, and the two of them worked together on who knows how many Lethal Weapon movies!

It’s so easy for a Christian actor to give in to the popular, morally decadent culture of Hollywood. And that’s why it’s great that there are some actors who truly are salt and light for Christ: they stand for Christian values in a community that continually scorns them, even as it spiritually searches. Some of the actors give in to the world totally. Some give in at times, while at other times they make a bold stand for Christ (Mel Gibson). And some are thoroughly consistent, almost to the point of zealotry.

About jamesbradfordpate

My name is James Pate. This blog is about my journey. I read books. I watch movies and TV shows. I go to church. I try to find meaning. And, when I can’t do that, I just talk about stuff that I find interesting. I have degrees in fields of religious studies. I have an M.Phil. in the History of Biblical Interpretation from Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, Ohio. I also have an M.A. in Hebrew Bible from Jewish Theological Seminary, an M.Div. from Harvard Divinity School, and a B.A. from DePauw University.
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6 Responses to Christian Actors

  1. Nathan K. says:

    This is an issue I’ve thought about from time to time.

    Is an actor necessarily sinning if he or she portrays a character committing a sin? I don’t believe so; otherwise nearly all acting is sin.

    If it’s sinful to portray an adulterer or a murderer, then it’s wrong to play King David in an adaptation of Scripture, for example.

    It’s strange how Christian media is sometimes expected to be devoid of sex and violence, when the Bible contains a lot of both.

    I’m describing an extreme the argument can be taken to, of course (and I’m not implying you’re arguing for it; I’m just sort of reasoning out loud).

    I think that portrayals of evil and its effects on human beings can be important and enriching for us to see, just as portrayals of good are. One recent example I can think of is Heath Ledger’s shudder-inducing portrayal of the Joker in The Dark Knight. Here is a character who kills and terrorizes not for some end, but just out of a desire to watch civilization (a concept he sees as a farce) fall into chaos.

    After seeing the movie, I read an article written by a Christian saying how much Ledger’s Joker reminded him of C.S. Lewis’s depiction of Satan in Perelandra– as someone who does almost childish things with no purpose other than to deface God’s creation on the planet Perelandra and in the person of the protagonist, Ransom.

    (Sorry; I realize my examples here may not be much good if you’re not a fan of Lewis’s sci-fi or of comic book movies!)

    Often movies gloss over the nature of evil, showing cartoonish villains or implying a lot of deaths but not pausing to give them much attention.

    By contrast, a character like the Joker can make viewers stop and realize that evil is not attractive by nature; it is ugly and destructive, and maybe tremble a bit to realize that “there is some of the Joker in me.” At the same time, I think the portrayal of Batman in that movie ended up being a powerful picture of principle and self-sacrifice. I would not consider Christian Bale’s contribution to the movie more godly than Heath Ledger’s because he was playing a good character; both were necessary to tell the story.

    Of course, it gets complicated. It’s also possible for people to come away from a movie like The Dark Knight and say “I think I’ll try that.” There was a young man arrested for vandalism a few days after the movie came out, and he had painted his face like the Joker’s.

    I think this is where things become a matter of conscience and knowing one’s weaknesses.

    And the issue may be even tougher for the actor, who has to spend a lot of time thinking about the character in order to do a good job. Certainly people have wondered whether playing such a dark role had something to do with Heath Ledger’s very sad death– we just don’t know.

    I have no acting talent to speak of, but I think I would have a hard time saying “curse words” in a play, to choose an example. For one thing, it’s been so drummed into me not to do that, I would probably be about as convincing as Mr. Spock when he tries to curse in Star Trek IV.

    I have had a lot of classmates who curse casually, and I don’t take offense at them because I can tell there’s almost never any malice behind the words; it’s just a habit (kind of like using a lot of parentheses is for me when I’m writing). I could say “fiddlesticks” and be a worse sinner than someone who says “****” because of the ugliness of the thoughts in my heart that my self-righteous Christian vocabulary isn’t letting them see.

    But one thing about the way my mind works is that it’s hard to get thoughts out of my head. And if I picked up the habit of cursing, it would be a difficult habit to break. That’s something I have to think about when I read or watch TV or movies, and it’s something I would have to think about if I were an actor.

    Your post gives some examples of actors placing limits on what they will do, hopefully out of a desire not to sin or go against their conscience. But I don’t think that God calls everyone to have the same limits, because our strengths and weaknesses are different– I think that’s why we have consciences, and instruction for “stronger brothers” and “weaker brothers.”

    Okay; that was a pretty rambling post– hopefully I was in the vicinity of some points somewhere in there. 🙂

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  2. James Pate says:

    Those are excellent thoughts, Nathan. I’m waiting for the new Batman movie to come to pay-per-view.

    I agree with you that movies present good and evil, and that’s not a bad thing. But what happens when movies present a bad thing as a good thing, as they do with premarital sex?

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  3. Anonymous says:

    I have a hard time with thinking Billy Ray Cyrus is Christian with they way he puts his stamp of approval on the marketing of his daughter. C’mon!
    I agree with Nathan mostly though. Some shows cause us to examine, and these characters of good and evil are necessary for that.
    I tend to think that when they present a bad thing as good and acceptable then they crossed the line, if they are going to publicly flaunt their supposed Christianity and morality. It is the same with the music world and seeing so called “Christian” artists in “sexy” type poses and such for marketing purposes. (Well, marketing God’s word gets my goat anyway.)What does this say to our youth? Compromise is o.k. as long as it get God’s word out? (Of course you could go back to Paul’s saying about “becoming” a certain way to further the gospel, but I don’t think he appeared evil to promote good. Or, the scripture – of which I can’t think of now – about even if the gospel was promoted by false prophets, it was getting out)
    Of course, I am pretty traditional in my thinking, so some things I consider “compromising” aren’t so in others eyes.
    Aunt C.

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  4. James Pate says:

    Hi Aunt C. Yeah, I’ve never watched Hannah Montana, so I’m not sure how risque she is. I know he was upset when some really revealing photos of her got released.

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  5. Anonymous says:

    … So I am a Christian in college, and right now I’m a theater-major. I’ve really been struggling with this issue! Is there a line to draw in what we portray in plays? Are there words that we aren’t supposed to say?
    There’s so many things that pull me both ways; if I am acting, then technically it’s not really me, but at the same time, I want to glorify God through the skills He’s given me. And then at the same time I feel selfish and feel like I’m being held back from whatever talent I have because I can’t accept certain roles, even if they would focus on my acting strengths. AHHH! What to do? I’ve prayed about it, but I haven’t felt like I’m getting any answer. If all the Christians were to never do acting, then who would be a light in the darker areas of acting?
    Does anyone have any thoughts or clarity on this?
    Thanks.

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  6. James Pate says:

    Hi Anonymous. Thanks for writing! This post is pretty old, so you may not get a lot of feedback here. But I’ll write a special post about your dilemma, and maybe there my readers will be able to offer you feedback.

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