Greg Kinnear stars in “Heaven Is for Real,” director Randall Wallace’s adaptation of Todd Burpo’s best-selling book of the same name. Kinnear plays Burpo, a small-town businessman, volunteer firefighter and pastor struggling to make ends meet in a tough year for his family. As his bright young son Colton (Connor Corum) is rushed to the hospital for emergency surgery, Todd and his wife Sonja (Kelly Reilly) are overjoyed by his miraculous survival, but they are wholly unprepared for what happens next. Opening in theaters April 16th, the drama features an impressive ensemble that also includes Margo Martindale and Thomas Haden Church.
At a roundtable interview at the film’s recent press day, Kinnear spoke about what appealed to him about the script and his character, what surprised him about the story, his collaborative process with Wallace, his lack of familiarity with the book when he was approached to do the film, his impressions of Burpo who he initially met via Skype, his preparation for the role, what it was like working opposite Reilly, how their on-screen relationship helped strengthen the believability of the story, and why the roles he picks are often a result of luck rather than by design.
Here’s what he had to say:
QUESTION: In playing a character like this, does it make you examine your own vision and thoughts about life, or is it just a role?
GREG KINNEAR: No, I think it’s impossible to do a movie [like that]. I guess it could’ve just been a role. Randy doesn’t tend to make movies like that. “We Were Soldiers” had a big impact on me, and I would say the same with this movie. I haven’t played a pastor before. I mean, just inherently to be in a movie that brings up a fundamental question about whether you believe or don’t believe is something you’ve probably come across in your life. Is there something beyond or not? It’s impossible not to have some of that resonate within you. Certainly, we had a bunch of smart actors and Randy (director Randall Wallace) and producers up there. We had some very thoughtful conversations about it, but also, without being disrespectful to the subject matter, I thought Randy’s script did a nice job of telling the story and not getting totally distracted or bogged down with the heaven issue. Is it for real? Is it not for real? What’s it look like? I think there is some element of that that instantly goes into people when they get into this discussion and the movie certainly has that theme in it. But, it does a nice job of instead staying on what I found this fascinating story, considering the father was a pastor of this family going through these events and how they dealt with it, how the community dealt with it, how the newspaper and the church dealt with it, and the ramifications of all those things that are kicked into place when this son comes back with this story. There was a helluva lot more conflict in it than I would have thought just having heard the title.
Q: I find him to be one of the most human pastors I’ve seen on film, and I liked the fact that it wasn’t just the church story, but he was also a dad going through family and financial problems. Was that as important to you as the other part?
KINNEAR: Absolutely. I read it and then look, it’s based on Todd. I was like, oh, of course, it’s a pastor who’s not walking around in a robe, a man of the cloth going, “Hello.” I felt like, oh yeah, I’ve always seen that guy, but I really haven’t seen this guy. He’s a wrestling coach, a volunteer firefighter, repairs garage doors, and dad, father. That felt honest to me and that felt real to me coming from a small town myself. Instantly, I had a connection with just the composite of the character that I was going to play in the sense that it wasn’t that one note thing that I feel like I’ve seen before.
Q: Had you read the book before you read the screenplay?
KINNEAR: I hadn’t. I went in and met with Randy and Joe (producer Joe Roth), who come from very different backgrounds, and they were both speaking with the same enthusiasm about this story. Honestly, when Randy told me the idea, I thought even if that wasn’t based on the book, it would make a very compelling movie. It’s really no small feat, I think, for Randall who’s obviously a great screenwriter to craft something here. When I heard “Heaven Is for Real,” I was like, “Is this a two-hour church sermon? What is this?” He finds a way to bring you into this story and open it up for an audience that’s broader than a church-going audience. I felt like the story, regardless of whether you believe in him or you don’t, is secondary to the journey of this family in this small town.
Q: How did you prepare for this role? Did you have the opportunity to work closely with Todd? What were your impressions?
KINNEAR: I never went with him to the Wesleyan Church in Nebraska unfortunately. I didn’t have a chance to do that. He’s certainly a guy of strong convictions and has this underlying strength to him. The wrestling coach meets pastor thing is very close together. I feel like at any moment he’d take you down. I felt like that combined with the sermons were really interesting messages and I tried to play that as honestly as I could. I’ve seen pastors in my own life and tried to give him that strength. But ultimately, one thing is for sure with Todd. The two takeaways I had when I first connected with him, which was through Skype because I didn’t even meet him, we were Skyping, is he’s a man of very strong convictions and he has a ferocious love of his children. I mean, he’s a very strong, protective guy in that way. Those two elements were what were important to bring to the forefront, and Randy had written some very nice things. I thought that bear and the lion sequence that he preaches about in the first sermon was very effective. It didn’t feel like standard preacher stuff. It was a really interesting and compelling story that surprised me.
Q: Can you talk a little bit about acting opposite Kelly Reilly? We heard from Randall that she wanted the relationship to seem very real and earthy.
KINNEAR: I love Kelly. I had seen her in Robert Zemeckis’ picture, “Flight,” before I took this movie. Randy didn’t even talk to me. I was in the movie, and he called me and said, “Greg, I’ve met your wife.” He was right. He just knew that he had a strong woman and a smart actress for the role. I thought she was tremendous, not only in the job of doing the performance, but in terms of developing it and talking about it and our rehearsals, so that that relationship stay as complicated as you would think that it is. The trick of the movie is regardless of what your takeaway is of heaven, my feeling is that you can watch the film and it’s still an entertaining and interesting examination of this family. That can only be done if it feels honest. I felt like there were so many little moments in there with Kelly that are tremendous in helping strengthen the believability of the story. If she were here, she’d probably be telling you that Todd has his own suspicions and skepticism about what this all means and what it’s leading to. But he starts to get on a track and she is the voice of reason saying, “Where are you going?” She really does a beautiful job in her performance.
Q: When you pick a role, do you examine the career you’ve had and look for something different that you haven’t done, or is it just a role and the people that are involved in the project?
KINNEAR: I’ve never called my agent and said, “I want to do a comedy. I want to do a drama. I want to do a pastor whose son sees heaven.” No, honestly, I just have never done that. I doubt any actors do that. I can’t imagine an actor doing that, but maybe. I just haven’t had that experience. I do find sometimes that I’ve been very lucky. A lot of times I’ve been hoping for something a little more serious, and then something a little more serious will come. I’ll hope for more of a comedy and a comedy will come. But it’s never really by design. Like everything else with me, it’s an accident.