by C.J. Darlington
Rusty Whitener Interview
"Good novelists strike me as noble warriors for Beauty and Truth." --Rusty Whitener
Rusty Whitener (DMin, Gordon-Conwell Seminary) is a novelist, screenwriter, and actor. His first screenplay, Touched, won second place at the Los Angeles Movieguide Awards (2009 Kairos Prize) and first place at the Gideon Film Festival. A lifelong baseball enthusiast, Rusty and his wife Rebecca live in Pulaski, Virginia, where he writes a weekly column for The Pulaski County Patriot.
Rusty, I’m excited to see all the cool things God has done in your life in the past few years, but I don’t believe I’ve ever heard how you came to pursue acting and writing? Did you know from an early age this is what you wanted to do? Could you share with us your journey?
Sharing my journey seems a
ridiculously long task. I recall a line in a movie where a character
says with exasperation to another who talks too
much, “Everything is not an anecdote! You have to discriminate!”
At a VERY early age, I wanted to be a professional baseball player. That dream is still with me, but I see it for the fantasy it is; it will never be reality; but I use the dream to help me fall asleep at night. When I was in grade school, I started writing poems, very infrequently, in my head at night lying on my bed. I memorized them, saying them over and over, and in the morning I would write them down. Early in high school I thought it might be cool to write a novel, but it seemed a ridiculously hard task. Later I found that it is. I also acted in my first play late in high school. Until then, I had a lot of stage fright, and did not see myself ever acting in any drama whatsoever. But I went to auditions for the school play in my large public high school, not to audition myself, but to encourage some friends of mine to not back out of auditioning. They did, but I ended up auditioning and got the lead role. I discovered I liked it very much. I also discovered that stage fright was, for me anyway, a manifestation of pride (I cared too much how others evaluated my performance). When I focused on the simple calling to “act well your part,” I didn’t have room for stage fright. It’s similar to simply focusing on writing well and not thinking of how many people may (or may not) think that we write well.
I was in a lot of plays at Wheaton College where I got my degree (in Political Science of all things) and ended up studying Acting at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts in New York City. I worked as a professional actor, doing dinner theater, theater in the round, proscenium stage work, living history, and outdoor dramas. There’s nothing glamorous about that very hard work. I started my own band in Chicago with some good friends of mine from Wheaton, and that was fun and by some measures successful, and also a lot of hard work. Anything worthwhile is, as our parents told us! I then finished law school, married Rebecca, the most wonderful woman in the world, and decided God was calling me to the ministry. I got my M.Div. and pastored a PCA (Presbyterian Church in America) church in Virginia for twelve years, eventually getting a D.Min. from Gordon Conwell. I felt a serious call to write novels and screenplays (movie scripts) and work as an actor, this time in movies. I feel our American culture revolves so tightly around “story” and “image,” and rather than curse our culture’s lack of respect for propositional truth, I felt God would have me engage in those things that had beautifully haunted me all my life (my own love for “story” and “image”). So here I am. An actor, screenwriter and novelist, who still wants to really be a professional baseball player. But it’s not my call!
What do you consider your big break?
I really want to say that my big break came in my head and my heart when I resolved, together with my sanctified wife, to ignore the traps of comfort and security and step out onto the battlefield of letting Jesus dictate the mission. But your question also suggests more traditional answers. Getting a publishing contract on my first novel “A Season Of Miracles” was a big break. Being a Finalist in the Christian Writers Guild First Novel Contest was a big break, even though I lost to some wonderful writer named C.J. Darlington! Getting the lead role in a movie opposite Natalie Grant was a big break. Winning 2nd Place in the Movieguide Awards for my first screenplay was a big break. And winning the Gideon Arts Screenplay Contest was a big break.
Ha ha! I still remember meeting you at breakfast at the conference. You were so kind and encouraging. I never forgot that. Now your screenplay “Touched” won several awards, was turned into the novel A Season of Miracles and is soon going to be a feature film. When did you first get the idea for this story, and how did it develop over the years?
Great question. I first got the idea when I entered a contest at the Blue Ridge Mountain Christian Writers Conference in, I believe it was 2006. I had to write the first three chapters of a novel and I had about 48 hours before the deadline for entering. I remembered someone saying that writers should write about things they know and/or things they like. Well, I know and like baseball and kids and God. So I got an image in my head of some kids messing around on an old ball field (as I used to do as a youth) and meeting a strange but gifted boy who they need to help them win the Little League championship. I wrote the first three chapters and the rest of the story grew off of that, especially as I got cinematic images in my head.
What can you share with us about where the movie version of Season of Miracles stands? How much of a role have you been able to play in the process?
Elevating Entertainment Motion Pictures and Executive Producer Dave Moody have just finished filming. I have been blessed to be involved in much of the pre-production process including casting, and that’s been very exciting and challenging. Making a movie, of whatever scale, is an enormous endeavor fraught with obstacles, but also exhilarating! It is a fantastic quest.
One of your recent acting gigs was playing the father of Natalie Grant’s character in Decision. What was that role like? Any stories you can share about the filming process?
I play a tough, hard working
rancher type who loves his daughter very much but wrestles with some
things Natalie’s character did in years
past that left me estranged from her in some ways. I end up helping her
and her teenage son (my grandson) come to terms with the harshness of life
but also the sufficient grace and love of God. It’s a fun role; much
of the acting was outdoors and that was fun dealing with horses and camping
out and such. A wonderful acting opportunity for me, and I felt able to
step into the role easily, authentically.
Ah, stories about filming! What to share, what to keep hidden. It was probably a relatively uneventful shooting, as movies go. I did think I was going to fall off a horse, more than once. Natalie is a wonderfully authentic Christian, very kind and not self conscious at all. A beagle dog stole the Director of Photograhy’s lunch and was chased around the shoot while it wolfed down the entire lunch. A crew member hurried to get another lunch and was caught speeding by a trooper who said he liked Natalie Grant but he was going to give the crew guy a ticket nonetheless.
You actually play the villain in a new film coming out, Undaunted. How did this role stretch you as an actor?
Why do you assume that playing
a villain stretches me? Just kidding! I want to stress, I do not become
the character I play. Some actors do,
and I feel that is often dangerous. I do believe an actor can find the
truth of that cinematic “moment” and highlight it, without
becoming that character. Yes, this was the hardest role I’ve ever
had in anything (film or stage), not because the guy was a villain; I’ve
played lots of bad guys, including my first play in high school where I
was the murderer in The Spiral Staircase. But this villain in Undaunted is off the charts with his villainy. The film is the story of the writer
and speaker Josh McDowell’s journey from an extremely difficult childhood
to an incredibly fruitful life of service. I play someone who grossly mistreated
and manipulated him as a child. The film is masterfully shot by director
Cris Crusen and is the true story McDowell wanted told. After he saw my
scenes, I had a chance to meet him and talk to him, and he said I did a
terrific job, which eased my mind a great deal.
Actors love playing bad guys; good guys can be boring cinematically and story wise. But this role was really tough. It compelled me to honor the true triumph of Grace over Evil and somebody has to realistically portray evil. It is not easy, but if Truth is highlighted, then the arduous task is worth it.
What is your goal as a storyteller?
The short answer is I want to reach people’s hearts. I want them to finish reading the story I write and FEEL cleaner and more alive having read the story, because they ARE cleaner (less phony, I suppose) and more alive having read the story. Story has the power to do that. I think Lewis and Tolkien were right that “myth” and “story” can and should have more truth in them than our ordinary, walk-about lives.
As a man wearing many hats: pastor, actor, novelist, screenwriter . .
. what would you most like to be known for?
Just to be clear, I don’t pastor any more. I act, and write novels and screenplays. If God wants to call me back into pastoring, or into teaching, I will not hesitate; I am counting on God to continue to show me what He wants me to do and I don’t want to do anything else. I’d most like to be known as a faithful soldier in the King’s army. If my choices are the four titles or vocations you name in your question, I’d like to be known as a novelist. That should tell you how foolish I am, since the impact of movies is surging and novels seem to be waning as cultural influencers. Still, the people who have impressed me most, even when I was a teenager, are novelists. Good novelists strike me as noble warriors for Beauty and Truth.
I’m intrigued that you actually don’t read much contemporary literature but stick mostly to the classics. Why is this?
I think it has less to do with my perceptions of worth and merit, than it does with my taste. In other words, I don’t believe that classics are intrinsically more meritorious or worthy than contemporary literature. But of course there is a reason they are classics. I guess I don’t read much casually to start with. If I’m reading a novel, it’s normally because I want to be stretched and challenged or set on fire. Those are principally alien goals to contemporary literature which is more likely to comfort and assuage than to challenge. Contemporary literature is more apt to put fires out. But like anyone, I enjoy a contemporary story well told.
Since you were a pastor, you really have an inside view of the human condition. Where do you see the role of Christian literature in the church?
Christian literature needs to drop the adjective. I wish we could commit to writing and reading great literature rather than “Christian” literature. If we did so, and lived out the call to let our minds dwell on “whatever is noble..pure..right..good” Philippians 4:8, then great literature would emerge more often and God would be glorified by the glorious invasion of writers who happened to be authentic Christians simply writing about the true human condition. In a similar vein, I wish Christians would move more in the direction of writing and making great movies rather than “Christian” movies. Too often in Christian fiction and Christian movies, the most high God is reduced to a winsome uncle or a cozy security blanket. The Church and Christian artists need to step out in more power, for God’s glory.
What does your dream role as an actor look like?
I have to find the bad buy. I find him. I kill him. I discover he wasn’t bad. I discover I’m the bad guy. I try to kill myself. God stops me. He kills His Son. I am not the bad buy anymore. I am new. If I can get the girl, that’s cool too, but the girl has to be played by my wife. Otherwise, my dream role is any one I have in a movie where I get to where a gun and holster and say in a low voice to another guy wearing a gun and holster “You brought your guns to the wrong town, Mister.”
What’s the number one thing your experience in acting and theater has taught you about writing fiction?
Excellent question. I feel unworthy trying to respond to such a probe! Good actors talk about “finding the moment” and “living in the moment.” They mean there is some core of truth in that scene, that dialogue that you need to discern and feel and know and then communicate (all the while being conscious of where the camera is or the audience!). Acting is not easy. But when you find that moment, and sort of “let it breathe,” then you are acting. Otherwise you’re just remembering lines. When I write fiction, I look for those moments in my plots and scenes; I am counting on them emerging organically and me being able to see and feel them. I use humor a lot in my writing precisely because I suspect people are more real in their comic instincts than in their dramatic ones. Or maybe it’s just me who feels more real, more vulnerable after I laugh.
Okay, gotta ask. Your most embarrassing moment as an actor (or writer) :)
I think such a moment is still coming, which will traumatize me if I dwell on it too long! I do remember hitting my head on the hard edge of a desk drawer in a scene in the movie Bill Collector. I was just an extra in that movie, so I shouldn’t have caused any problems but . . . whenever such things happen, the actor knows to keep going because the scene may actually be more interesting with the snafu in it than out of it (which doesn’t say much about us writers). I kept going, but someone said “cut” and they stopped because “that guy’s about to bleed.”
Would you call yourself a Christian fiction writer or a fiction writer who happens to be a Christian? Why?
Good question! I like it! I addressed this in answering the earlier question about the role of Christian fiction in the church. Still, I do call myself a Christian fiction writer at times, when the situation merits. Some venues lend themselves to one title and some to another. It’s not a distinction we should draw like a weapon to critique our sisters and brothers.
What are two things people might be surprised to know about you?
ONE – I have a Juris
Doctorate from George Mason University School of Law.
TWO – I listen to “Last Night, I Didn’t Get To Sleep At All” by the Fifth Dimension (1970?) almost every day. It’s at the top of my i-Tunes “most played” list. I just like the song. And it feels like it draws me to what I liked about my childhood. Crazy?
When you’re not writing, what do you enjoy doing?
Going on walks or hikes with my wife, Rebecca.
What did you eat for breakfast this morning?
I had a piece of toast and Smart Balance buttery spread which looks like butter and tastes like I suspect plastic does. I also had sliced turkey on 45% less calorie sandwich bread with Smart Balance Omega Plus, which the label calls a “light mayonnaise dressing.” It’s sort of the purgatory of mayonnaise. I’m trying to be smart and balanced.
Three things always found in your refrigerator:
Low sodium turkey slices. Smart Balance buttery spread. Smart Balance Omega Plus “light mayonnaise dressing.” This is because I am married. If I were single (and very unhappy) I would always have leftover pizza, hamburger meat and Mountain Dew soda in my fridge. Oh the horrors of bachelorhood.
You’re next in line at Starbucks. What are you ordering?
That big fat chocolate chunk cookie in the clear container off to the side. Two of them cookies. Okay, those cookies.
What’s left unchecked in your “goals for life” list?
I’d like to play Macbeth to a packed house of Shakespeare haters who discover, in my journey through the role, that the old bard knew some things. If I can’t do that, I’d like to successfully eat a 64 ounce steak at that steakhouse in Amarillo, Texas where you get the meal free if you finish that steak. “Goals for life” ennoble us, or kill us, don’t you think?
When was the last time you cried?
Watching “Places in the Heart” again (Sally Field, John Malkovich, Danny Glover) the other night with my wife, when the little girl Possum holds the blind man’s hand and tells him to “Step down! Step down!” at every step of the stairway while the tornado is raging and they’re trying to get to the underground cellar’s safety. I’m crying now as I write this. Many tears. Many tears.
Three words that best describe you:
Sentimental. Reflective. Forgiven.
What’s currently in your CD player/iPod?
Old stuff and worship music and classic country. Glen Campbell, Chris Tomlin, Johnny Cash, the Carpenters, more Chris Tomlin, Jim Croce, David Crowder, Acquire the Fire Youth Conference Music. And Handel’s Messiah. Seriously.
C.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.