ChristianCinema.com caught up with Garry Nation, the star of Henline Productions’ Polycarp, during Holy Week, as he was preparing for his church’s Easter passion play. With notable awe, Nation shared how the story of the second century Bishop of Smyrna had changed his life, and the way that he believes God will use the martyrdom of Polycarp to grab people’s attention.
I have a PhD from Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, and always thought that the college or seminary classroom where I was aimed. I was a pastor for a number of years and directed a Christian school, and I’ve written the book, Fool: Identifying & Overcoming Character Deficiency Syndrome. But about four years ago, a friend of mine, who had written a Broadway style music based on the story of Esther called For Such a Time as This, offered me the lead role of Mordecai.
The play went over very, very well, and had packed audiences at each performance. A woman came up to me after one of them and said, “I’m working on a film called Indescribable, the hymn story for “the Love of God.” The third stanza was originally penned by a Jewish rabbi in Germany. I’m onscreen for three or four minutes tops, but it’s pivotal. Joe and Jerica Henline saw that film and chose me to fill the role of Polycarp.
I hadn’t thought of the role and wouldn’t have submitted an audition if it hadn’t been for Rebecca Cook who was casting. I prepared a video audition, which was something I hadn’t ever done. My casting in the role was completely providential.
I thought it was going to be a neat project that I would have fun with. I had no idea it was going to have the impact on me personally that it did. It was the most intense and profound spiritual experience I have had in years. It was like going away on a desert retreat with an apostle.
The things I had to make materially on the film, the relationship building, just the totality of the whole thing was beyond a verbal experience for me. When I say it has been life-changing, it is not an exaggeration. It has interrupted a lot of thing, but also brought to fruition things the Lord was working in me.
Both my coworker and I noticed that much of Polycarp’s dialogue is scripture, but not in a forced way. How did the collaboration work to get that kind of strong, Christian message across?
When I read Jerica’s screenplay, I noticed that, but it really flowed. I got into the writings of Polycarp, but the only thing we have is the “Epistle to the Philippian Church”. He sent it because there were people there who said they needed his counsel. The flow of his writing was quotations, allusions, and echoes of Scripture. It showed that in his speech, his mind was saturated with the writing of the New Testament before we had the New Testament, and the teaching of the apostles.
One of my role models was my grandmother. She was soaked in scripture- it was natural for her to quote scripture or to talk from the bible because that was just how she thought. It’s a matter of getting into the mind of a person who thinks that way and letting it become how I speak in my own life. You realize the flow of the word of God in your life – not because you’re trying to quote scripture but just because it’s in your mind and heart.
I remember Dr. Robert Neighbor standing up in chapel and quoting a Psalm from the King James Bible. He was halfway through before I recognized that he was quoting scripture. He was so natural as if he had prayed the prayer himself. I remember wanting to be like that!
What was it like working with someone as young as Eliya Hurt who plays Anna?
We first met in a Google Hangout session. Joe, Jerica, Rusty Martin, Eliya Hurt, and I just had a group session. She’s a natural blonde- she doesn’t have the dark hair she has in Polycarp. I saw this bright-eyed, young, blonde-haired girl with a wonderful smile. Just a delightful girl, and I’m just trusting Joe and Jerica cast the right girl.
We both arrived some days before the shooting, so we could get acquainted and start to develop a rapport. We began to develop a bond and a trust. It helped that the earliest scenes were the ones where Anna meets Polycarp. You’re not shooting the movie in a linear way, but the first meeting of Anna and Polycarp really is the development of the two characters.
Eliya had never acted before, beyond videos that her brothers had made; she had never acted in a church play. About midway through the shoot, she has possibly her biggest scene. It’s just an excruciating scene where she has to do a lot of crying and emotionally taxing work. By the time I’ve come from makeup, she is cried out of her own tears. So she called for makeup to help with that. It’s not the most pleasant thing to work that way but she asked for it, and she was dedicated to the work. I didn’t have to act because my heart was going out to this child. I was genuinely worried about her as a person. But then the assistant director says, ‘cut,’ she gets up and is the little girl again, and I’m the one who is an emotional wreck!
To get through the grind of the shoot, I created a kind of mantra for myself. I believed that someone was arriving earlier, staying late, and working harder. That was Eliya Hurt. She took one day off throughout the shoot, her birthday, as she turned twelve during the filming. Our shoot could be a grind, from 3 p.m. to 3 a.m. in a warehouse turned into a sound stage. There really was no day and night, just the passing of time. But I looked to her and it was just wonderful to work with her.
Not all of the characters who were Christians chose to stay in Smyrna under Roman persecution. What would you say about those Christians who left to share the faith elsewhere and avoid persecution in Smyrna? Why do you think Polycarp stayed?
I’ve been recently reviewing the circular letter sent out from the Christians in Smyrna who recount Polycarp’s martyrdom. He really believed it was God’s call, God’s will, for him.
The main thing is that we don’t compromise on our core belief: we will not give our worship to another. Within that, God may be calling us in different directions, some to stay and others to go. What he tells one to do, that one has the freedom to do within what the Lord has told him to.
When Polycarp stood, he did so under the will of God. It’s hinted at in the film, but three days before Polycarp was arrested, he had a vision where his pillow caught fire. He awoke and told those with him that he would be burned alive. It didn’t alarm him but gave him peace, because he knew where he was going. Remembering that he had been a companion of apostles, and a disciple of John, he was accustomed to the idea that those who follow the Lord would be following him to the cross. It gave him great peace and our story reflects that.
What’s next for you?
Out of Polycarp, I made connections through Justin Lewis who plays Justin. Justin is a Canadian and has worked with a group of filmmakers in western Canada who were making a couple of films. Justin said we need someone to play an old guy, so I applied for the part [laughs].
I won the role of the part of Grandpa in My Grandpa Detective. I want to find out if I’m funny!
Polycarp will be screening at the International Christian Film Festival in Orlando in April, and recently won the Audience Choice Award and Best Feature Film at the Christian Worldview Film Festival. It is currently available for churches seeking screenings of films for discussion.
"For the word of God is full of living power. It is sharper than the sharpest knife, cutting deep into our innermost thoughts and desires. It exposes us for what we really are." - Hebrews 4:12
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