Inspired by Film’s Hopeful Message Sam Worthington Embraces Role in The Shack
If you could talk to God, what questions would you ask? In 2005, William Paul Young made 15 copies of The Shack for Christmas presents. The Oregon-based father of six had written the spiritual parable about the tragic loss of a family’s young daughter after his wife repeatedly urged him to compile, in one place, his perspective on God and on the inner healing he experienced as an adult. He passed out the copies to family and friends and thought little more about it.
Two of his close friends encouraged him to publish it and after some editing, rewriting, and dozens of publisher rejection letters, this first-time author, born to missionary parents, decided in 2007 to self-publish this book that started out as a personal gift. Within the first year, The Shack sold one million copies. It found a publisher and also a spot on The New York Times Best Seller List, where it remained from June 2008 through early 2010. Since its publication, more than 22 million copies have been sold and this spring it becomes a feature film with the same title.
Avatar’s Sam Worthington stars as the central character Mack. As the story goes, after suffering a family tragedy this father spirals into a deep depression that causes him to question his innermost beliefs. One day he receives a mysterious letter in the mail urging him to an abandoned shack deep in the wilderness. Despite his doubts, Mack makes the journey and finds important truths that will transform his understanding of his tragedy and change his life forever.
While many who read The Shack found it inspiring and powerful, others called it heretical and theologically inaccurate – largely because of its depiction of God. In the book, the Trinity was imagined as three characters: God the Father, an African-American woman called “Papa”; the Son, Jesus Christ, a Jewish carpenter; and the Holy Spirit physically manifested as an Asian woman. On-screen they are played by Academy-Award winner Octavia Spencer, Israeli-actor Avraham Aviv Alush, and Japanese actress Sumire Matsubara respectively.
Country superstar Tim McGraw also stars, and he and his wife, Faith Hill, recorded a new duet, Keep Your Eyes on Me, specifically for the film. Other top artists and Christians like Kelly Clarkson, Lecrae, Hillsong United, Francesca Battistelli, Skillet and more have songs included in the picture.
Risen got the opportunity to talk with Worthington about responding to the script, his faith, the Trinity, and as a new dad himself, his perspective on an earthly father and the Heavenly Father. Oh and of course we had to talk Avatar sequels.
Interviewed exclusively for Risen Magazine
Risen Magazine: Had you read the book, The Shack? What drew you to this story?
Sam Worthington: I hadn’t read the book. I read the script first and then I had a very visceral reaction to the script. It’s almost like sometimes you choose a project because the story is true, or the actors involved, or the way you shoot it. This one, I still can’t tell you why. There was just something about it that really affected me emotionally. After [reading the script] I did read the book several times to see which path they had taken, because obviously, you can’t put everything into a 90-minute movie. Then I talked to the producer and we started the journey.
RM: In the film, Mack loses a child. It spirals him into depression and he questions his innermost beliefs – something I feel like everyone can relate to because the questions he asked are truthful and complex. Share a little bit about the journey Mack goes through.
SW: I think you said it. Maybe that’s what I was attracted to, these questions of why does it happen to me? Why does God let these terrible things happen to people? Mack loses his daughter. It breaks his heart quite literally, I think. He has to struggle with learning about forgiveness. Not only forgiving the person that committed the murder, but also forgiving God for letting it happen. And ultimately, most importantly, forgiving himself in order to be able to move through the fog and get a bit of clarity in his life. I think that was the message that was so central and strong to me. Out of all the grief and the frustration and the anger that Mack had as a character, I still feel that that’s a hopeful message for a film.
RM: Being raised in Australia, was faith a part of your life growing up?
SW: I wasn’t raised religious in any way. I had not come from a Christian family. I was about 19 years old or so though and railing against the world and a friend of mine gave me a Bible and said, “Why don’t you read this? It might calm you down a bit.” I think it was his little way of saying, “You’ve gone a bit off the rails. Let’s see what this does.” That was twenty-one years ago. I’ve always been on this journey with my faith and this discovery of God and what religion means in my life and how faith helps me within my life. I’ve been lucky enough to travel around the world and I go to different churches. Mainly to start with the architecture, but the people that are there, regardless of the country and the culture, have embraced me and opened up. I’m in a way like Mack going on this spiritual journey of what faith is and how the Bible and the lessons from it can help you in your life and help you become a better individual. I’m still on that journey.
It’s a great thing to not have had it [faith] forced on me as a young kid. Therefore, the journey is by my own choice. That’s a great thing. Rather than rebelling against Christianity and the Bible, I’ve actually sought it out myself, and tried to discover questions for myself, and answers for myself.
RM: Mack meets the Trinity – God, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit – visually depicted, and it might not be how one would initially think they would be represented. How did making this movie and spending time in the material affect you?
SW: I think you said a great thing. I love the idea that God is represented in His most non-confrontational form for Mack. Mack had been abused as a kid. To come in as the archetypal image that we have of God would have been too confronting. It would have been too overwhelming – just in the fact that it’s a masculine form. God appears in the form that we need to have Him in at that time. I think when you’ve got someone like Octavia [Spencer], she brings that warmth and openness like a motherly influence. It becomes about two people talking about issues and questions that they have with life and what happens in our lives. To do those things, they were less confronting than they could have been in another form. The scenes become grounded. Then, once the scenes become grounded, they become more truthful. By examining the truth, it helps an audience go, “Yeah, that could be me. I’ve had those issues.” It’s not too far-fetched.
RM: As you mention, Octavia Spencer plays God in the film and God is specifically female because of Mack’s difficult relationship with his dad. What was it like exploring how important the impact of a dad is on his son whether it be a heavenly or earthly father?
SW: Well look, I’m a new dad myself. It’s always on my mind that what my actions are, and who I am as a person, are directly going to influence the men that my sons become. With that, I have a friend who is estranged from his partner, so he doesn’t get to see his son as much. It weighs heavily on his soul that things didn’t work out with the mother. But he can still have an influence on his son’s life and a relationship with his son. That impact can help his son become a better man and a better person. I don’t know whether it’s about primarily just being a father and needing that father figure, because I’ve got friends that have grown up without dads and they’re very together people, but you do need someone that has navigated their way through the pitfalls of life to help you navigate the way and be there when you fall and help pick you up.
It sounds so naïve that when my kid falls over – he’s two – when he falls over and I pick him up, everything is okay. When he’s upset and he spins around, I can give him a hug and everything is fine. That’s the role I’m going to have forever – no matter what happens in his life. When he falls over, I’m going to be there to pick him up. Then with God, just as when I hug my son and make him feel okay, if I pray, that’s in a way what God’s saying. God comforts me with that hug. I feel comforted just like my son feels comforted when I do it to him. I think that kind of connective tissue helps us get through anything in this world, anything in this life. Having someone there that’s always got our back, who always has our best interest.
RM: One of my favorite scenes within the film is ultimately this lesson in wisdom and discernment and a caution about judging others. Talk to me about the bigger theme of us trying to take control and play God in this world.
SW: Well we all think we’ve got the answers. We all think we know what we’re doing. That’s the thing. When you become a parent, you realize you don’t have a clue. You’ve got no idea. It’s okay. There are no guidelines or a rule book. You can Google all the questions and everyone’s opinions all you want, but I said to my wife, “We have no idea what’s about to happen.” That’s with life in general. We’re always trying to control it because we don’t know why we’re here. We are out of control just by destiny, harm and fate. By trying to control it, we actually tend to squeeze the life out of our lives. I think that we end up getting ourselves in situations where things just seem hopeless and pointless and clouded. It’s nice to know that there is always going to be someone there. Even when you’re at your lowest and you feel most alone, God can always be there. He’s always there to give us that hug and help us forward. We don’t have to control so much.
It’s weird. We have all this technology nowadays that we try and use it to control the fact that we can connect with each other when in point, if you just reach out and touch someone, that’s called connection. That’s the ultimate connection.
It’s almost like by relinquishing the control, which is scary to do, we find our way. God’s there to help us. He’s not there to hurt us. That’s what I’ve discovered on this journey. I say that to my kid. “I’m here to help you. I’m always here. I’m always going to be here.” I may not have all the answers, but I’m always going to be here. If you hold onto something too tight, you ring the life out of it.
RM: Speaking along those lines, within your own life, what is something that may have been perceived negative or a tragedy, but then ultimately with some time and perspective, you were able to see that it was actually something that was used for good?
SW: I won’t get specific, but it’s more I identify with the fact that the shack is a parable for this thing that we take all the anger, the grief, the mistakes, the bitterness that we have… we build them and live in them like a shack. We build these things and we hold onto them like backpacks. That’s what the metaphor is. I had done that and I was doing it. I knew when my kids came I didn’t want to be the person that held on to so much anger and bitterness and resentment and jealousy and all these frustrations. I didn’t want to be that person. The movie helped. The Bible helps. Friendships help. My wife helps just give me a set of guidelines to get through and let it go and realize that it’s actually not that hard. The hardest thing is the thought of, “Okay, I forgive. Okay, I can let it go.” Once you’ve had that thought, you can move forward. It’s going to take its time.
My favorite bit in the movie is when he [Mack] says, “I forgive you.” Then he turns to God and says, “I don’t feel any different.” God says, “It’s okay. It’s a process. It’s going to take time, but you’ve got to be willing to go on that journey.” That’s the hardest thing to recognize because we all want it now, because we all want control, because we live in a society where we can get it on a Google search. It’s the hardest thing to realize it’s going to take time and you can do it that way. That’s what I’ve learned from it and how to let 40-odd years of my shack go.
RM: For our fall issue, we got the opportunity to have Mel Gibson as our cover story. We delved into Hacksaw Ridge (2016), which you were a part of and the film also was nominated for an Oscar for Best Picture. And, of course you have worked under James Cameron’s direction for Avatar (2009) which was the biggest grossing film of all time. What does it mean to you to tell such powerful stories and have audiences respond to them?
SW: It’s so weird because no one makes a movie thinking it’s going to fail. No one makes a movie thinking that no one is going to see it. You put everything you can into these stories because you want and desire that connection to an audience to change their life. When they leave the theater and walk across the lobby and go to their car, that’s still with them. That [story/message] still hopefully has changed them. Now you don’t know what’s going to work and what’s not going to work. No one has that answer – James Cameron, Mel, myself – no one. That’s a difficult thing because you can put so much into these films and they never get seen or embraced, but that’s why you keep coming back to it.
To me, I’ve always said the audience is what matters. It doesn’t matter if the movie is a billion dollars to make or $50 to make. You don’t make it for yourself. You’re making it for an audience. You’re hoping that the message that you make, can affect them and affects them where they can drive home, they can talk about it and you’ve created some positive change in their life. Not just entertainment. That’s what you’re striving for. Whether you get it, who knows? That’s why you keep coming back. You keep making movies.
RM: I can’t let you get away without giving a couple Avatar details. I know you’ve got a few more slated to come out over the next several years. What can you share?
SW: Well I think James is an extremely smart man in the sense of, if you look at his track record of sequels, they’re fantastic – Terminator 2, Aliens – he knows how to up the ante, but also make it fresh and original. I think he’s approaching Avatar, not trying to replicate the first one, but give the audience not only a new experience, but also what is it about. I think it’s no secret that in the movie, we have kids; we have a family. That’s what the movies are about. Regardless of the spectacle, and the world, and where he’s [Cameron] going to transform and take the audience, it’s going to be about a family and their relationship to each other. That’s something, whether you’re six or sixty, you can understand and appreciate. We can all identify and see the problems that come with families and the issues that come with living together. Then on top of that is the blockbuster aspect. He’s extremely smart.