The Hollywood Insiders

 The power and influence Hollywood holds is no surprise. It directs fashion trends, makes or breaks political careers, and has become the driving force for the morality of our society. What has been a surprise, and a pleasant one at that, is the spiritual programming that?s been hitting the screens lately ? both at home and in theaters.

John Lewis, a writer and director who works in both the secular and Christian markets, believes the shift toward spiritual programming is due to the desire for more personal programming ? filling the void left in the wake of overwhelming special effects. ?I think people want to get back to the basic story concept with programs that have messages and meaning in the end,? Lewis says.

But perhaps the best explanation for the trend toward spiritual programming is Christians working inside the industry. Through their consistent influence and prayers, progress is being made in the way Hollywood uses its power.

While the Hollywood insiders are up against some large obstacles (dealing with how Christianity is perceived, being judged by fellow believers, and struggling to making God-honoring decisions in their lifestyles and careers), it?s encouraging to know there are a number of Christians inside the industry who feel called to work in their field. They encourage each other and network to provide opportunities to expand their profession, their Christian message, and their influence on positive programming. Here are just a few of those who are making a difference.

Victoria Jackson

Many people assume that Victoria Jackson must have come to know the Lord after her years on ?Saturday Night Live.? After all, the popular, late-night, sketch comedy series isn?t notorious for being pro-Christian. But Victoria has been a believer since she was a child.

At a young age, all she wanted to do when she grew up was be Maria in ?The Sound of Music.? Her dad said, ?It sounds like you want to be an actress. That could be tough because you might be tempted to compromise your Christian values in your career. But if that?s what you want to be, then I?d give it 100 percent.?

Realizing the power of comedy during the college years, Victoria moved to Hollywood and started getting roles in movies like ?The Pick-Up Artist? and ?UHF.? Then she joined the cast of ?SNL? and worked with performers like Dana Carvey, Phil Hartman, and Chris Farley. Being a Christian, she was definitely a minority. ?Everybody was very nice to me on ?Saturday Night Live.? They respected me for my talent,? she says. ?But I was the only Christian in the whole cast. That can be kind of scary. Sometimes you want to say, ?I?m not Jesus. Don?t hold me up as a perfect role model.??

Still Victoria took advantage of the opportunities she had to share her faith. Believing that it?s the small things that make the biggest difference, Jackson would sign Bible verses on her 8x10s. She remembers one fan told her: ?I?ll never forget when I sent you a fan letter and you sent me back Luke 1:37.?

People on the show knew where she stood as well. For Christmas one year, she bought an audiocassette version of the Bible for the cast and crew. Another time, writer Al Franken asked Victoria why she acted ditsy all the time when it was clear to him that she was an intelligent woman. Her response was, ?Maybe I act lighthearted all the time because I?m overcompensating for what I?m really thinking about, which is that everyone?s dying and going to hell.?

Finding herself creatively stumped, Jackson wanted to get back on the road doing stand-up comedy. She feels that the Lord gave her an act. ?I thought, ?This is totally a waste of people?s lives unless I tell the gospel in some way.? But it?s difficult to tell the gospel in a comedy club. People want to laugh. So I end with a bit about death and I include John 3:16,? she explains.

When she isn?t working on various projects in Los Angeles, Victoria lives in Miami with her husband and two children.

John and Nancy Lewis

John and Nancy Lewis have been married ? both to each other and to their respective careers in entertainment ? for over 20 years. Twelve years ago, Nancy joined the staff of NBC?s long-running hit ?Days of our Lives? as a runner (or ?gopher?). Four years later, she was named assistant to the executive producer, a job that makes her the liaison between actors and their boss. She says that God has used her behind the scenes, whether for a change in the script that made a stereotypical evil priest character virtuous, or for bringing in her Baptist Hymnal to help the Jewish musical director find hymns for a church scene (an espisode that won the show an Emmy for music). Nancy, like her husband John, feels that the biggest hurdles are within the church. ?People were really putting me down for working here,? she laments. ?Instead of holding me up in prayer, they were attacking me. I just felt like, ?This isn?t worth it. I?m tired of having to defend where I work.? I thought we?re supposed to be a light.?

John Lewis has written a little bit of everything ? from films like Hallmark?s ?Anabell?s Wish? to the pirate stunt show at MGM Grand in Las Vegas. He has felt the same lack of support from the church. ?Christians judge why we?re here. Someone once asked me, ?What are you doing in Hollywood?? I replied, ?Having lunch with Zacchaeus.? I think there?s such a misconception that this industry is any different than any other industry.?

John is interested in writing films that will impact the world but doesn?t think impact will happen until he gets the backing of the church. ?You?ve got big denominational organizations who have budgets of three or four hundred million dollars a year, and they won?t give a penny to make a great film. ?If I was given the money right now, I could make a phone call tonight and assemble a top-notch team of Christians who are working in this industry. They would bail on the studios and come to make good films, but all we hear are the complaints.?

The good news is that God is using the Lewises right where they are. John feels that his mission is not in Hollywood, but in educating people on the need for higher standards in church productions. Nancy is encouraged by the weekly Bible study being held at NBC. She says that revival is taking place on the set of ?Days of our Lives.? Actors Bryan Dattilo, Julianne Morris, Jamie Lyn Bauer, and Austin Peck are four stars who have given their lives to Christ. It?s gotten to the point where other staff members are nicknaming them the ?Born-Against?.

What can those outside the industry do to make a difference? Besides praying for Christian brothers and sisters in Hollywood, write a letter of thanks when you see something you like. ?Every letter gets read,? says Nancy. ?A synopsis is sent to the network and producers. They figure that for every letter, there?s probably 10 thousand others who feel that way.?

John Kersey

Universal Studios paid for John Kersey?s seminary education. He worked the swing shift in the set department from 2:00 a.m. to 11:00 a.m., then went to seminary during the rest of the morning to prepare for three years on the mission field in Japan. When he returned to the States, he eventually picked up his career in Hollywood where he had left off.

In the past 25 years, Kersey has climbed his way to being the set director on numerous TV shows and movies (such as ?Independence Day?).

As the boss, being ethical and fair is one way John earns the admiration of his crew. However, when a national paper quoted him saying, ?I accepted Christ as my Savior in September 1966 and I?m proud of that,? his employees did take shots at his faith, even asking him if he could perform weddings and funerals on the set.

It?s easy to see how an actor can make a difference on-screen, but what can a set director do to send a visible, spiritual message to the mass audience? Currently, John is working on the NBC drama ?Providence.? The series required an old church that functions as a medical clinic. After installing the arched doorways and stained glass windows, the producers felt that something was missing in capturing the look of a church. John suggested they paint Scripture verses on the upper trim to give the set authenticity. The writers loved the idea but wondered if he would have trouble locating a Bible. When he assured them he could find one, their only request was that he keep the verses generic. That?s how passages like ?The Father has sent His Son to be the Savior of the world? (1 John 4:14) came to grace the walls of a network series.

John also witnesses to his crew by inviting them to church during special events when he may be singing or speaking. ?We were having a Christmas special and 20 members of my crew came to see me. One of the guys who came has since accepted Christ as his Savior. Then his wife became a Christian,? John enthusiastically relates. ?I didn?t throw it down their throats. I didn?t force Christ on them. I was there for them.?

At times, some churches settle for less when it comes to the technical aspects of their Christmas or Easter productions. But John, who has written and built the set for a long-running passion play, thinks that the church can do better. ?I think they should be higher in their vision because we?re reaching a crowd for a higher cause ? the cause of Christ. If we had the quality that was done in the (Hollywood) industry, it?s unimaginable what we could do for Christ.?

George Newbern

Playing son-in-law Bryan MacKenzie in the blockbuster film ?Father of the Bride? pigeonholed actor George Newbern into nice guy roles. Not that niceness isn?t a good quality ? the man is nice. After all, most people wouldn?t invite me over to their house on a Sunday afternoon following a sleepless night with their new baby. George?s wife, actress Marietta DePrima who stars in ?The Hughleys,? even offered me some apple juice. Let?s face it: this is a nice family.

George appeared in films life ?Adventures in Babysitting? and ?Switching Channels? before the big Steve Martin film made his face famous. ?It?s pretty rare to have a job where you?re fulfilled creatively, it?s a success, and a good experience. All of those elements don?t usually come into play,? he says of ?Father of the Bride.? After the movie, he did the sequel and continued the character in Hallmark commercials, a decision that was made with his children?s college education in mind.

Millions more saw his face grace their TV screens last fall when he played the object of Jenifer Aniston?s affection on NBC?s ?Friend.? That was fun. It?s a great cast ? very friendly,? says George.

Do people in Hollywood know about his Christian faith? ?It seems that in every job, I get into a conversation about God,? he explains. ?Once you?re talking about God, you can start to talk about Jesus.? He says that people?s reaction to his faith includes pausing for a moment, glazing over a bit, then saying, ?OK? with some skepticism in their voice. He can see them processing it, thinking, ?Well, he doesn?t have a big pompadour haircut. He isn?t wearing shiny white shoes. He doesn?t live in a neo-gothic living room like they do on religious television.? He explains, ?That orange crushed velvet carpet stereotype that gets beamed out to the world is really looked down on in Hollywood.?

The Newberns have a lot of Christian friends in the industry like Patricia Heaton (?Everybody Loves Raymond?) and her husband David Hunt (?Eyes Wide Shut?). When they get together, they discuss how difficult it is to be in the world, doing good work within your craft, yet not alienating people who dislike your beliefs. ?The culture out here is anti-Christian,? he says. ?It?s not like they say, ?We hate Christians.? It?s just that everything that gets made has to have an edge, some sense of betrayal, danger, or deceit. But living within that culture can be like waling across hot coals.?

With most of the available roles involving the dark side of human nature, George admits that he has chosen jobs that may have compromised what he stands for. About a year ago, he did a small, independent feature with Robert Downey Jr. and Stephen Baldwin that was questionable. His reason for taking the role was that his character wasn?t involved in some of the darker stuff, but after viewing the finished product, he and his wife groaned. ?There are times that I?ve definitely screwed up, and there are things I shouldn?t have taken, but I do try. I really do try.? In other words, not every role is going to be Moses. Until there are more films like ?The Apostle? and ?Shadowlands,? Christian actors like George Newbern will keep trying.

Austin Peck

?God isn?t impressed with me being on ?Days of our Lives.? He isn?t impressed with the success that I may have in Hollywood. It makes it easier to know that if things don?t pan out the way that I want them to, it?s OK. If it?s in His will, that?s what I want for my life,? So begins my conversation with Austin Peck, a man whose face is familiar from his show, his calendar, and stories in fan magazines.

Four years ago, Austin was working as a model in New York City. As he walked up 10th Street, he said, ?God, if you want me to be a successful actor, I will. I give my life to You. My life is Yours.? But it felt as if God was replying, ?I see your heart, Austin, but you don?t know My Son. You have no power in your life, no covering ? you don?t have that hedge.?

A few years later, his mom called to tell him that his sister was born-again. At the time, he questioned his sister?s loyalty to the faith, thinking, She?s gone from silk-screening T-shirts to car washing to wanting to be a masseuse and now she?s a born-again Christian? But the convicting of the Holy Spirit was so strong during conversations with his sister, he?d hang up the phone and pinch himself to make sure he wasn?t imagining things.

Meanwhile, Austin was trying to fix his bad habits by his own will power, which clearly wasn?t working. Finally, it was the passage in Matthew 6 that says you can either serve God or be a slave to the devil that hit home.

Becoming a Christian didn?t solve the problem of temptation. He had little problem ignoring drugs and alcohol, but things like pride, vanity, and lust still present a daily struggle. Once he realized he could have a relationship with God instead of a religious act, Austin began asking for help. ?Lord, I?m a stupid man. Help me out. I don?t want the devil laughing at my Jesus.? He says that when a Christian sins, it?s as if the devil is standing and sneering before the throne.

When someone becomes a popular soap actor, he is presented with many additional offers for work. So how does an actor who?s a Christian choose roles? ?If it involves blasphemy, I?m not going to say it,? Austin explains. ?I?m not going to take the Lord?s name in vain. It?s like cussing out my Father. I believe that if I stand with Him, God will guide me protect me. Besides, ?Stronger is He that is in you than He that is in the world.??

It sounds as if he may have an alternate calling as an evangelist. But for now, Austin Peck is being used as an actor. ?I believe in being an artist,? Peck says. ?I believe in going after the passion God?s given you. If I bless someone?s day, it blesses my day. If I can minister, I?m doing what God wants me to do. He has blessed me with the boldness and the platform as an actor to speak to a multitude of people?to go on national TV, to say what I believe in, to let my fruit bear good.?

Deezer D

Walking on the set of ?E.R.,? television?s No. 1 drama, feels like entering a parallel universe. From a sunny, 75 degree California afternoon on the spacious Warner Brothers lot, you step into a dimly lit, familiar Chicago hospital that comes to our screens every Thursday night. You follow the NBC publicist around empty gurneys and (thankfully) empty bedpans to meet Deezer D, the actor who stars as Malik McGrath. When he isn?t acting, he visits churches and schools around the country, performing songs from his rap album Livin? Up in a Down World (available in Christian stores everywhere).

During his childhood and adolescence, Deezer?s relatives got together to drink. ?My parents told me not to drink or do drugs. But when I started doing it, it wasn?t really a big deal,? he remembers. For a while, sports kept him out of trouble. Then he was kicked off the basketball team. That?s when the heavy drinking started.

Years later, his bad habits weren?t kicked when he developed an interest in acting. One of his friends was making decent money being an extra in films. Deezer D got his SAG (Screen Actors Guild) card and started working. After a role on ?China Beach,? he told John Wells, the show?s casting director, ?If you ever need an actor or something, call me. I don?t have to be the star as long as I work.? A couple of years later, John Wells came up with a script called ?E.R.? He was putting the nurse?s names down and included a role intended for Deezer.

At that point, Deezer had quit acting. He was working as an intern in a rehab clinic and sobering up when his agent called and said, ?You got the part.?

?What part? I haven?t auditioned for anything.? Deezer said.

?You know a guy named John Wells? He thought you should know that you?ll be playing a nurse named Malik.?

Since that call, Deezer has appeared in the majority of ?E.R.? episodes, as well as in films like ?CB4? and Romy and Michele?s High School Reunion.?

A few years ago, he met some friends who were fun and loved the Lord. They took him to church, and he asked Christ to come into his life. Now everyone on the set sees the change in his life and knows that he attributes it to his faith.

He has a great relationship with his ?E.R.? co-stars. ?It?s like another family. I?ve probably been to everybody?s house. I go to Eric (La Salle)?s house to watch the fights. I used to go over to George (Clooney)?s house after church every Sunday. I think he went to Bible school when he was a kid because he leaves some crazy Scriptures on my answering machine, mixin? them up into his own style, telling me to come over to play basketball,? Deezer says, laughing.

What?s the biggest mistake for a Christian to make in the entertainment industry? Deezer D says, ?I think people get born again and then come to work slapping people upside the head with the Bible, passing out tracts ? I mean, you have to be the tract. You gotta live it.?

Some celebrity interviews taken from the video ?Hollywood Lights?, available to order by calling toll free 1-877-WVINSTITUTE.