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Corbin Bernsen

The Advocate

Corbin Bernsen Interview

by C.J. Darlington

"Good movies have characters seeking redemptive values." -- Corbin Bernsen

Well known for his Emmy- and Golden Globe-nominated performance as Arnie Becker in L.A. Law—and as Henry Spencer in Psych—Corbin Bernsen also has made a name for himself as writer, director, and producer of independent films.

His newest film, Rust, is about a pastor in the midst of a midlife crisis of faith who goes back to his hometown and finds hope where he least expects it. James Moore (played by Corbin Bernsen) is a former pastor who returns home to learn that a family new to the area died in a mysterious fire. What’s more, his old friend from childhood is implicated in the murder. Convinced of his friend’s innocence, Moore sets out to uncover the truth and rediscovers his own lost faith. RUST is an uplifting drama with important life themes about faith, family, loyalty, the past—and understanding the ties that bind a community together.

Read our review of Rust here.

You have a degree in playwriting, so I’m curious when you decided you wanted to write movies as well as act in them.

I’ve been writing films for years and years. I usually always thought about myself, whether it’s a role that I play, or it sort of comes from me and my world. Usually it’s a character that I can play. I only became serious about doing it as a business, if you will, in the last ten years or so. I’d written stuff before, but the idea was to maybe sell a screenplay like anybody else. I was acting enough to get by. I started thinking more about what the subject matter should be, who I’m writing for, what kind of movie I want to make in the last ten years.

So writing was something you wanted to do as a kid.

Yes, always. My Masters degree was in playwriting so I’ve always enjoyed writing on various kinds of levels. Whether it’s plays, short stories, or poems. I’ve always enjoyed taking pen to paper.

RustI think it’s pretty cool how you haven’t limited yourself in your career either. You’ve made horror movies, and now you’re making a faith-based movie like Rust. I’m sure all your movies are special in their own way, but Rust sounds like it’s a more personal movie for you.

It is. I will say this when looking back at some of my movies that I imagine the faith based, family, Christian audience might look at and go, “Ooh. What was he doing?” I would argue that even within those films, even though there might be language or situations that people might not like, I’ve always been attracted to central characters who are looking for some sort of redemptive value in their life. Ultimately, I think that’s what stories turn on. All stories, really. Whether it’s somebody coming to terms with a death, or somebody falling in love, or the redemptive value of saying I’m not going to be alone, I choose to be with somebody—even within the weirdest romantic comedy . . . even all the stupid, yet very funny, teen comedies that are gross . . . if you really look at the central character, there’s this underdog that wants to be accepted. Good movies have characters seeking redemptive values. It’s a little easier to tell the tale when you put it into the genre of family and faith. It becomes more clear. I’m enjoying being able to write directly to the subject and not have to know that it’s there, but write around it. Rust doesn’t pull any punches.

I like a line from the movie that says, “We don’t know what the plan is, we just have to have faith in the plan.” Is that the message you want to leave people with when they watch Rust?

That is the entire crux of the film. For my character, James Moore, the lesson he’s learned and thus the lesson he passes on, and I guess a lesson from the story---though I don’t write lessons, I just write people. What comes will be—is that in the end we don’t know what the journey is. We really don’t. When we look up into the infinite sky at night, we just don’t know. Beginning of time and end of time. They are concepts larger than us. The only thing we can do in that chasm of chaos of non information (chuckles), things that can’t be explained by science, is put our faith in something greater. And really that’s what I’m talking about. The plan, the journey, this blessed thing that we’re on has reason and purpose. We don’t know when and where we’re going to find it. It may be in this life, it may be in the next. It may not be in any of it. Who knows where? I do know that when I went to write Rust, I thought I was writing a movie about faith, and I found out that in the writing of the movie and doing these interviews with people like you I’m learning more about me and those things which I sought than I did in writing the screenplay itself. Corbin Bernsen

When you started to write the movie did you decide, this is what I want to say? It sounds more like it was the story.

Story and character. What does this character want? What is this character seeking? What is this character missing in his life? What will come will come. Storywise I know my story points. I suppose you could make the main character a fireman or you could make it the devil (laughs). It doesn’t really matter. Then after you have the story points, you add the color, this world that you place it in. I do write rather free form. I’m not a heavy duty outliner. I know my story beats. I know my ending, which is always important . . . though often that changes during the course of the movie. The ultimate ending is there, but how you get there exactly, what the ending is informed with obviously comes from the writing.

Did the ending change for Rust?

No, I knew that in Rust what I wanted to get to was whatever happened---I don’t want to give away the ending because I want people to see the movie—but what transpires is evidence of God that this man had thought was no longer speaking to him. I knew the turn of events at the end, his discovery, the purpose for this tragedy is a testament of God saying, I’m here. Just listen a little louder.

This isn’t the first Christian movie you’ve acted in. I remember seeing you in Judgement back in the day.

Yeah. It’s easy and it’s helpful to be able to sell these movies based on a name, a label. I know it’s important, and it helps sell it, and you’ve gotta have a place on the Blockbuster shelf, as they say. By the way, I didn’t write a Christian movie. I wrote a movie that Sony picked up and put in its Christian genre. I wrote a movie about a guy who’s having a mi-life crisis of faith. I wanted to personally write about mid-life crisis. That was what I was trying to explore to some degree. I just didn’t want to do the red Ferrari story. I don’t like to think of them as Christian movies. I like to think of them as stories that have these Christian characters.

A lot of the directors I’ve been talking to lately, they really don’t like that label. They want to be known as good film makers that tell good stories. They do recognize like you do that the label is necessary to sell, but . . . yeah. I get what you’re saying.

You know, it ultimately is that. You just don’t write to it. I think you just write your movie. It is important, what I do want to do is make sure it has faith messages in there. I could tell you Rocky is a message of faith. Really. Isn’t it? A wonderful message of faith. But it doesn’t have direct up faith characters. I don’t mind . . . not only don’t I mind, I want to employ those characters in my stories. I think that having people of faith is part of the fabric of the characters within a story. I don’t think it’s represented much. Much like you could say the Asian character isn't represented or the African American or Hispanic. If you look at the fabric of our society, there are many, many components that are with us daily side by side around the water cooler. We now make a great effort to make sure African Americans are represented, and I think there’s a great push to make sure Asian characters are represented well, as they’re usually somewhat stereotyped. We make a push to make sure people of different sexual orientations are represented. But I don’t see a push to make sure that people with a view of faith are represented in stories, and I think that’s a piece of the fabric that’s missing in storytelling. Even the show L.A. Law that I was on. One of the best things about that show was you had somewhat of a representation of many kinds of people and ideologies . . . pro choice, anti-abortion . . . everything. Even in the lawyer group ourselves you had me as this guy having what he will have, you know. But even in that you didn’t see the representation of somebody of faith. You could say Christian, but we didn’t have that in there. We did later. We added a character who was a Christian. I think it was a rather interesting addition to the cast. And she went straight in my face, which was all the more interesting.

Corbin BernsenWould it be too personal to ask you what you believe personally about God and faith, or is that something you think you’ve covered already?

I don’t mind discussing it. I mean, my hesitation only comes from a misinterpretation of people who think I ride the fence. What I say is . . . and I’m working on this. I don’t know if it’s going to be a book, or a set of letters, but I call myself a man in the middle. Which is what I really think most people are. It doesn’t mean we ride the fence. Certainly in my belief in God I don’t ride the fence, but I’m open. I investigate all sides of the argument. I’m open to understanding all sides, which is something I think is lacking in the world. I try not to put definition to me. To answer your question more directly, first and foremost I don’t like to put definition. I don’t like to call myself something. People ask me, are you a Christian? When did you come to Christ? I say, I'll tell you what. You ask me a series of questions, you check your little boxes, and you determine what I am. I’ve been married for twenty-two years to my wife. I have four wonderful children, have an incredible marriage going on twenty-three years. I try to donate to charity. I help people across the street when they’re in need (chuckles). I do all the things that are good things in life.

Here’s the thing. I believe in God. What I believe in God and what God is is a much longer conversation. I believe in something greater and bigger than many Christians that I come across who have definitions of what God is. I again, take off all descriptions. I’m not looking for the man with the white beard and the pearly gates. I think God is something that’s larger, greater, more infinite, glorious, all loving, all encompassing . . . it’s the mystery of the sky that goes beyond us and on and on, and investing into that mystery. Some people say, why do you call it God? I say that’s what God is to me. God is this largeness, and I believe that God is great good. I believe that this journey, this experience, is good. I believe it’s God’s journey. People ask me about Christ, what do you think there? That really tells you if you’re a Christian. I say, well, again, I believe that Christ did come to this earth, was the Son of God, the representation of God, and there have been other representations along the way. Like in prodigies . . . I mean we all are representations, but some show it more. You know Martin Luther King, Mother Theresa, certain people jump out. There are some people who are more in His likeness than others. At the end of the day, God in His infinite wisdom needed to bring somebody at that point in time when we were just civilizing as man. We were coming out of these sort of creature kind of habits of ours to a civilized society, and it was important to send somebody to earth to say, Look, this is the way to think and believe and act and treat one another. Let’s not beat each other with clubs over the head. Let’s turn our attention to the poor, to the weak. I think it was important that somebody come along at that time and say this is what civilized man is going to be. This is what we should be. And I think it was important that man become a martyr and to be taken from this earth. And I think it’s more important for God to prove His infinite power, if you will, to resurrect that. You can do all that . . . which you can say is Martin Luther King, or John Lennon, or whoever you want to think it is. But in this case He said, I need to do one more thing. I need to resurrect this person from what appears to be a definite end. And in that resurrection, in that miracle of the resurrection, is where you really see the work of God. Through that, through Christ, through that sacrifice and through that resurrection, we get closer to God if we can simply invest in the belief of that. And then we become the children that God would want us to be.

Again, you can check your boxes and tell me what I am. For some people outside the realm this could be a purely philosophical conversation. We don’t have to be talking about it as religion. Is it philosophically possible for something grander and greater, beyond nature, that which created nature, larger . . .

You know, I look back at my childhood, and you know there is no beginning and no end. Scientists can explain the edge of the universe, and I go, then what? (Laughs.) I keep going further. In that mystery is where I see God. In that mystery is where I say, can there be a resurrection of Christ? I say, why not? I mean come on. That’s a small leap for me when I keep looking at the night sky and it goes on forever. You can’t put your head around that. I can put my head around the resurrection. I mean, I’ve seen evidence, physical evidence of people dying and coming back to life in our generation. So I believe in the story that’s been passed on, and I believe in the man that was here and the teachings of the man. I think it’s sort of a test. If you can commit to that, take that leap of faith then you get closer to God. That’s sort of my review on it.

I had somebody explain it to me with all the passion in their gut saying, “You’ll still see that it’s through Christ that you’ll be saved.” And I think, isn’t that what I’ve been saying? Sometimes I get upset that people want to hear it in a way that’s by rote and what they've heard a thousand times. I’m saying to a new generation of people to believe it in your own way, in your own words. And ultimately that brings you closer to God. I also don’t go out and pound people’s doors saying you must, you must, you must. I sort of live by example.

That’s so much better than pounding someone over the head with something.

Well, my wife is not in the same place as I am. I’m not saying she’s anti, but she sort of lives very much in the moment, and we were talking the other day and she just noticed in the last six months a calmer me. A more loving me. Even the way I treat my pets. Anything, everything. Seriously.

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C.J. DarlingtonC.J. Darlington is the award-winning authof of Thicker than Blood, Bound by Guilt, and Ties that Bind. She is a regular contributor to Family Fiction Digital Magazine and NovelCrossing.com. A homeschool graduate, she makes her home in Pennsylvania with her family and their menagerie of dogs, a cat, and a paint horse named Sky. Visit her online at her author website. You can also look her up at Twitter and Facebook.