I took a blogging-break during a trip to the States. I am resuming with a different sort of post. My wife and I are good friends with Ellen and Matt Godfrey, and Matt plays a role in the film adaptation of Blue Like Jazz. I have yet to see the movie, but Matt has been gracious to let me interview him. Readers of Hopeful Realism will know that vocation and media are themes that pique my interest. Matt offers helpful reflections on both from inside a unique industry. Here is part 1 of my two-part interview with him….
How did you get your role in BLJ?
My wife Ellen and I are long-time Don Miller fans, and back in 2008 she read on a blog that he was working on turning Blue Like Jazz into a movie. The book had a real impact on both of us, so I knew I had to do whatever I could to be involved. There were basically no details about the film available back then except that Steve Taylor was directing it. I finally came across the email address of Ben Pearson, the cinematographer for Steve’s previous film. I had no idea if he was involved in BLJ, but I emailed him my picture and resume and basically just laid all my cards on the table. I told him I was a huge fan of the book and I really wanted to be involved in the film. He responded and told me he’d forward my information on to Steve, and honestly I thought that was where it would stop. But a day or so later Steve called me and invited me to Nashville to audition. That simply never happens in the entertainment industry. Ben and Steve are a rare breed, and I’m hugely grateful to them for their openness and their talent. I got to Ben’s house in Nashville and read for several different parts in the film but nothing seemed to be a great fit. A lot of directors would have just ended it there, but Steve kept thinking of other roles for me. He called me up one day and asked if I could do a Russian accent, to which I quickly said yes. Then I promptly found an accent coach and learned how to do one. I went back to Nashville and auditioned again for the role of Yuri, which turned out to fit like a glove.
You have appeared in a few of other works, none of which could be labeled “Christian.” Is BLJ a “Christian” movie? Are “Christian” and “non-Christian” suitable labels for movies and other art forms?
I think BLJ is as much a “Christian” movie as Vera Farmiga’s Higher Ground or Tree of Life. It’s a movie that deals openly with issues of faith and American Christianity, but it doesn’t have an agenda to push on you. I think applying a label to a piece of art – like calling something a “Christian” movie – does the art a great disservice. Contemporary Christianity has created such a closed-off subculture that we feel we need to make films that cater to the church, rather than just telling honest, compelling stories. I find films or poems or novels that sacrifice honest storytelling to push an agenda offensive – whether I agree with the agenda or not. Every artist has a point of view that will of course be communicated in the piece of art, but reducing a movie to a talking point or a take-away nugget just isn’t great art.
How do you understand your vocation as a Christian plying his craft within an industry often criticized by the church?
I’m passionate about telling stories. So was Jesus. You can point to countless times in the Gospels where Jesus gathers a bunch of people around and essentially says, “Listen to this story. It’s true.” When God created the world He spoke it into being. We’re made in God’s image, and God is creative by nature. I think God is pleased with great storytelling, and some of the most spiritually impacting moments in my life have happened through art – listening to a certain song or watching a certain film. I think I’m also called to carry Christ out into the world – and the entertainment industry just seems like a natural fit to me. I understand it, I’m fueled by it’s energy, and I love it. We’re also called to love the city where we live and to pray for it. Los Angeles offers such an amazing opportunity to do that. I love being on set and just making relationships with people. Loving people. Showing them that I’m a professional, that I work hard and that I care about my work. I don’t throw my beliefs in people’s faces, but I bet that on 80% of the sets I’ve worked on people have walked up to me and started spiritual conversations without being prompted. Once you’ve worked with someone so closely for several weeks you’ve gained their respect and their friendship. That’s a great place for those conversations to start.
You got to work with Miller. From your perspective, how did he wrestle with the shift from book author to screenwriter?
I don’t know how well I can answer this question without putting words in Don’s mouth. I can say though that it was such an honor for me to get to know him and to work with him. At one point while Ellen and I were in Portland for the premiere of the film, we went with Don to his office. It was pretty surreal to be sitting there where Don works. And from the perspective of a reader of his work, he transitioned from book author to screenwriter like he was born to do it. I remember reading a draft of the script back in 2008 and immediately thinking, “I have to be involved with this movie!”
What have been the greatest temptations and joys for you personally in seeing this film come to the screen?
Since this is my first widely released film it brought up a whole new set of temptations and joys I’d never experienced before. The whole process has been a joy. From working on set with actors I respect, to doing Q&As with excited audiences screening the film, to traveling up to Portland for the premiere. Honestly, it’s just been really fun. What a blessing. It’s exacerbated some temptations I’ve always had, namely putting your identity and self-worth in your work. It’s hard sometimes to read a negative review and not feel downtrodden. Ellen always has to remind me that my identity is an adopted son of God, and my self-worth comes from the fact that Jesus loved me so much He died for me – and a critic taking a crap on your work could never change that. Still I’m learning how to do that. And I think step one is to stop reading reviews. If you get a good one you feel your ego start to expand, and if you read a bad one you’re suddenly having a bad day. That’s not a good place to live in.