CC.com: What was it like to work with Randy Travis?
Nancy: It was the greatest. He’s just awesome. He’s one of those guys that you’re in awe of. He’s very successful and talented in so many genres, yet he’s down-to-earth. He’s just kind of “one of the guys.”
In most productions, the tone is set by the production team and the main actor, and they set a beautiful tone for the picture. It was a joy to be on the set.
It’s kind of a funny thing, too. When we first got together to read some of the key scenes before we started shooting, I reminded him that he had done “Matlock.” He then reminded me that, “Oh, my gosh! That was my first acting job.” It was fun to see it come full circle from when he first acted to now, having done quite a lot of things. Now we had the fun of working together again.
CC.com: What was one of the unique aspects you enjoyed about working on The Wager?
Nancy: Right off the bat, a really refreshing thing for me was getting to work on a Christian project with a clear Gospel message.
You know, I love working in the secular marketplace. That’s where I’m called and how I make my living. That’s where my whole career has been. That’s been great! But frankly, I’ve turned down a lot of work over the years, because it doesn’t always provide the kind of material you want to do as an actor.It doesn’t always reflect the kind of values you want projected out there.
So to have a project like this come along that I can get behind with all my heart is wonderful. I’ve read a lot of faith-based projects, and while I’d love to be part of it, some of it is just too much on the nose and too obvious. This project, I really loved what I read on the page. So first and foremost, my excitement at being involved in a project that was faith-based and yet good, something I could put my whole heart behind, that was exciting.
And getting to work with Randy again was a dream. Getting to work with David A.R. White, whom I’ve known for years, was a delight. And doing a small project was very exciting, especially when you come from always being in big-budget, larger mainstream television projects. It’s exciting to see what you can actually accomplish.
You really see just what you need to produce a film. Also, the distribution model and plan is that hopefully it will be used by a lot of churches for outreach. That’s exciting to me.
CC.com: How did you get involved in the project?
Nancy: Originally, I auditioned for the role of Randy’s wife. David A.R. White, one of the producers, asked me to come in and read that part for them, and I did. After that reading, he said, “Wow! I really think you should be the sister. Would you consider reading for her?”
So I went out and read the pages about the sister, and I loved her. To be quite honest, I think she’s the heart of the film. She’s kind of the spiritual mooring, the spiritual foundation of the film. I loved the relationship between her and her brother, Randy Travis, and I loved what she does for a living and the type of faith that she has. It’s very un-religious, devoid of any kind of “Christianese” and any type of sentimentality.
She’s somebody that just rolls her sleeves up and lives out her faith. She pours her life out. So it was a delightful surprise for me to read for one character and come out with another one.
CC.com: What do you think David saw in you that he asked you to switch and read for this role?
Nancy: I think there are a lot of similarities between myself and Annie, my character. One of the greatest is that she has deep compassion, which I believe God has given me for people.
That’s partly what prompts me to now spend the lion’s share of my time writing books and speaking to girls’ and women’s groups and loving them. It also fuels my involvement in SAT7, a Christian satellite television ministry in the Middle East and Northern Africa.
They minister to the Christian church throughout the whole Arab world. They have three channels; one in Arabic, one for kids in Arabic, one in Farsi (Iran) and Turkish. It’s 80% indigenous programming. They are really reaching into one of the most downtrodden and oppressed parts of the world, and are watched by Christians and Muslims throughout the Arab world. (Sat7USA.org is the website)
CC.com: The television connection makes sense, but there are television outreaches to all parts of the world. What drew you to this one?
Nancy: I have always had a love for Israel, and have been involved in video projects to encourage the evangelical world to come and visit Israel. I believe God has a plan for that place and its people. However, I was just focused on making Israel. I had been completely ignorant about the plight of Christians in the Middle East.
A friend of mine asked me to do a favor and host a weekend event in Los Angeles for SAT7’s 10-year anniversary. I was glad to help, and spent the weekend doing this as a courtesy. But some time during the weekend I was overwhelmed by what I was hearing.
God’s favor is on this ministry. In 12 short years, they’ve been able to accomplish amazing things with very little funds. They have 3 satellite dish networks going 24/7, and are reaching over 9 million viewers a week with Christian teaching, women’s programs, marriage and family programs, and kids’ programs about Jesus.. 9 millions viewers in the Muslim world! It’s radical.
Throughout the weekend there were wonderful stories of people’s whose lives were changed. I learned about the integrity of the ministry, and through all of it, I was in tears the whole weekend. Here I am trying to introduce all these different players, and I could barely speak. At the end of that time, I said, “Count me in. I want to do anything I can to help.”
I just came back from visiting Egypt. There are studios in Cairo and in Beirut, with uplink facilities in Cyprus. We are embarking on a major capital campaign because even with studios and production facilities going 24/7, the demand has gone beyond our ability - in programming and facilities - to be able to keep up with the growing needs.
We really want the church to know what’s happening, because most people have no idea how alive and active God is in the Middle East. It’s an incredible ministry and many churches are behind it, but lots of people (like I had been)are unaware of everything that’s happening. it’s an open door in a very closed society!
I’ve come to realize I don’t have to choose - building up Christian Arabs doesn’t diminish my love and concern for Israel. There’s no better way to guarantee peace in the Middle East than to have both the Jewish world and Muslim world come to know the Prince of peace. My heart is for all our brothers and sisters in the Middle East. It has really cracked open awareness in my own heart.
CC.com: What is your spiritual foundation?
Nancy: I became a believer when I was 8 years old, and from that point I was very involved in church. I was raised a Southern Baptist in Florida. Before I went to college, in my immaturity and arrogance, I thought my own local church was full of hypocrisy.
I realized when I matured that we’re all broken and fallen people. None of us are perfect. However, before that realization, I judged the church and judged God. I wasn’t mad at him, I just lived a life that didn’t really pay attention to him.
I just lived my life saying I didn’t need church; it will be just Jesus and me, thank you very much. I was a prodigal for 15 years, outside of a relationship with God. I think I was a little like the frog in the pot of lukewarm water that’s turned up until it is boiled. I was lukewarm, not realizing that I was in danger of being boiled.
I came back to my faith through a crisis. Right out of the chute, God blessed me in my career. As a young woman, I had a successful career as a model and actress in New York. Then at 24 or 25 years old, I was diagnosed with extremely severe skin cancer on my face. My surgeon took my hands in his and said, “Tomorrow’s your surgery. I can’t guarantee what you’ll look like afterward. If I were you, I would consider another career.”
That shook me to the root. I grew up very shy and insecure about my appearance. I was totally unsure about my physicality. It was a great irony that what had been a source of pain for me growing up and now was the source of attention, affirmation, and income for me was now likely to be gone. It broke my heart.
It was at that point of heartbreak that I realized how far from my faith and family I had come. I was embarrassed, humiliated, heart-broken and ashamed. But my family said, as they did all my life, that my beauty was on the inside, and that’s what counts.
That crisis fueled a hunger in me to get back to my spiritual foundation again. I didn’t go to church, I wasn’t ready for that. I thought I could do it on my own. Instead I stumbled around taking “spiritual” books off the bookshelves. They sounded OK, but were really Eastern theology couched in “spiritual” terms. I was headed down the wrong path.
I studied Buddhism, Hinduism, New Age, Quran, the Bible, everything. Then I had an encounter with Christ.
I was filming an episode of Magnum, P.I., but the producers brought me to Hawaii three days too early. I’d just had my skin cancer surgery, so I wasn’t going to sit on the beach. Instead, I sat in a cool hotel room and opened up one of the “spiritual” books I had ordered. It was a book of Christian testimonies. God revealed himself to me in that appointment. I saw how destitute, miserable, and in pain I was. He showed me how much he loved me and wanted to be my father. He showed me that I didn’t have to clean myself up, but just come to him. The truth I’d known as a little girl was really the truth. He brought me back to understanding.
It radically changed my life. I came back to Los Angeles and prayed for work I could be proud of as an actor. So I’ve spent years selecting carefully what roles I would do. It’s not been easy, and has really escalated in the last 10 years. There is so much bad stuff coming out now.
I’ve been fired by an agent. That’s not supposed to happen! Agents work for their clients. He told me, “I’m cutting you loose. You don’t want to work; you keep turning everything down. What are you doing?”
Now I have an agent who is “gets me.” She understands and is onboard with my parameters, and I’m very grateful for that!
CC.com: What are the parameters you’ve set for yourself?
Nancy: The first thing I look for is redemption and/or consequence. A story doesn’t have to have a redeeming ending, but it does have to have truth. Artists love to say, “I’m just telling the truth,” but the bigger lie is that lots of stories told in film and TV don’t tell the truth.
There are consequences that follow our choices, and when the choices are wrong, devastation can follow. It can create emotional baggage, carnage, and leave wreckage behind. But that’s often not shown. I’ll happily play a wicked or evil or broken person as long as there’s some acknowledgement of consequences for this person.
I’m involved in some Christian groups in Hollywood that help actors define boundaries for themselves. Often, people coming to Hollywood don’t have strong boundaries, and they flounder. A lot of people drawn to our industry have a lot of need for accolades or affirmations and need to know how to stay centered in their faith while in this journey.
These groups really encourage us to be whole persons. They provide a holistic approach with seminars, panel discussions, one-on-one mentoring, and keeping relationships strong and intact. The question of judging scripts and setting boundaries comes up often, so it’s great to have a group like that.
It’s really fascinating me to meet other Christians in Hollywood. I’ve met so many who work both behind and in front of the camera on projects that I’m not comfortable with. But God has given them grace to be where they are. Many times they’re on the darkest shows that you might think, “No believer should be a part of that,” but there’s a believer on that set that’s making a difference just by being there. Their lifestyle is a testimony to the grace of God.
There are others who will only play characters that don’t use foul language, or only characters who are “good,” and that’s OK. Their view is, “I’m only responsible for my character and myself.”
My call from God has been to look at the whole message of the project overall, regardless of my character. What I am free to do might be too much of a burden for someone else. Everyone has to come to their own boundaries, and many times others won’t understand. It’s unfortunate, but sometimes it leads to misunderstandings among others in the community.
CC.com: How would you encourage people in the church, whether inside or outside of Hollywood, to support those Christians working within the entertainment industry?
Nancy: My plea to the church is not to view anyone - actors, producers, writers, directors, etc., who identify themselves as people of faith. - by a narrow set of criteria. Don’t throw out what could be a very powerful piece of work and have more impact on people’s lives than other things just because of personal preference.
I think it’s possible to have a G-rated film full of lies, that’s focused on works getting you to heaven. In contrast, you could see something with a stronger rating that might be rougher and coarser but is more redemptive in the long run. That type of film could point the average audience closer to Christ, versus a “cleaner” film that says at its heart, we don’t need Christ, we just need to “be a good person.”
Some Christian watchdog groups will add up whether or not a movie should be seen based on the number of curse words and miss films with powerful messages that could be life-changing, depending on who is watching. “Magnolia” is a horrible film in many ways, but it has one of the strongest messages of forgiveness I’ve ever seen.
People in the arts doing these projects are stretching our hearts and minds. We don’t live in a G and PG-rated world. We do need some Christian movies geared toward the church.One of the things I appreciate about The Wager is that it’s not afraid to address some hard issues that many Christian films won’t touch: materialism, temptation, seduction, divorce, accusations of abuse.
CC.com: Nancy, then what are some shows where you’ve seen truth strongly displayed that many Christians might turn from?
Nancy: Not everyone might be comfortable watching “Scrubs,” but I do think it’s a morality play. I have watched it on a couple of occasions, and in the midst of pretty wild actions and language, there are things they cause you to have to examine. It’s a lot about how we treat each other, how we love.
A recent episode of ER had a scene about forgiveness that made me weep. A character dying of cancer said, “I need someone that will look me in the eye and tell me how to find forgiveness because I am running out of time. Get me someone who knows what they’re talking about!” How many millions of people saw that?
We need to keep praying for this industry. There are believers everywhere writing scenes like that. Believers are peppered throughout every area: props, design, executive producers, writers on series and films, and they are making a difference. There are even studio heads greenlighting projects who are believers.
We urge the church to pray for Hollywood; God is alive and well in this place. The darkness is increasing, but more people are coming to the Lord. Our hope is to see more qualified, talented, and committed people making their way here who want to affect our culture through media.
If we stay in our Christian world separating ourselves by our stories, we continue to build ourselves a ghetto. Going back to The Wager, I appreciate that it’s a story that’s not really Hollywood, but has this appeal that’s far more mainstream than if it were a period piece or something. It’s edgier and evokes a lot more temptation. It does lend itself much more to being crossover, while having a Christian message, than what I’ve seen in the past.
To learn more about Nancy Stafford, her books, and speaking schedule, please visit her website: www.nancystafford.com