Stephen Atherholt plays the role of nineteenth-century poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow in the recent movie I Heard the Bells. The film is the first cinematic release from the popular Christian musical theatre Sight and Sound. It chronicles the life of Longfellow as he experiences a crisis of faith following the death of his wife, Fanny, and the grave injury of his son Charley, culminating in his writing the poem that would become the popular carol “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day.” Atherholt has been an actor at Sight and Sound since 2001, and is now my colleague at Lancaster Bible College, where he heads up the school’s Musical Theatre program. He sat down with me for an interview to talk about the film.
The following interview has been edited slightly for clarity.
It seems to be kind of an unfortunate truth that evangelical Christian creators have a long history of producing generic or subpar products. Was that ever something you were concerned about for this project, and how did the team work to develop a piece of successful Christian filmmaking?
Yes, well, we started out with this film being a short film, and so yes, we were all concerned, I think, initially [about] just what is the quality going to be like, but they took all that expectation right out from the get-go, they removed it, because it was intended to be a learning process, it was intended to be a learning process for Sight and Sound, for Josh Enck, for all of the cast members; [this] was a low-pressure project that was supposed to be really for educational reasons. They didn’t expect to release it. It was supposed to be maybe [at] a film festival here or there, kind of garner a little attention for Sight and Sound Films, but Josh Enck knew that coming into this film, he needed to produce something of high quality in order to get the backing of the rest of the company, because it’s historically a theatre company, and film is . . . a new medium and not something they were comfortable with. So I think that by choosing this time period and knowing that they could mask the world around them fairly well with their creativity, I think Josh knew right from the beginning that he was going to be able to create something that was going to be beautiful. Whether or not the storytelling was going to fully work, I don’t think anyone knew. But they knew they were going to be able to create the quality of the film.
So Lancaster’s Sight and Sound company was producing this film, and, as you pointed out, they’re known for their roots in musical theater, which is also where your training somewhat lies. Even though I Heard the Bells is about a song, it’s not a musical, so how did you all go about crafting a dramatic storyline, and what needed to happen to make it cinematic rather than theatrical?
Yeah, Josh even said at the beginning of the filming process that he was not going to shy away from certain theatrical elements, which he didn’t. That’s one of the criticisms I think some people may have of the film is that, like the Children’s Hour, when Henry is recounting this poem—now you may know that in that time period, it’s something they would have done as a form of entertainment, but for the current audience, it comes across a bit theatrical . . . at times, and Josh had said . . . “Sight and Sound is known for theatricality, and I’m not going to shy away from some of that theatricality in the film.” However, I don’t think he took it so far that it overplayed. There were times where he was attempting to incorporate some music into it. When Rachel [Hughes] and I as Fanny and Henry are talking about [Charley] going off to war, we then go in and join the kids who are playing the piano, and we all sing together. Initially, Rachel sang a good portion of the song by herself, which would have very much come across as a musical, and once they kind of saw it in relation to the rest of the film, they recognized, “No, this isn’t going to work. We’re not going that far with the idea of a musical.” So I don’t think it’s that hard in storytelling to . . . remove musical throughlines as much as it is to justify them and make them work when you want to create a musical. I think it’s a lot harder to create [something] musical in film that works than it is for them to remove some of the theatrics that may be naturally present.
That’s interesting. I never would have thought of it on those terms, but that makes a lot of sense. Now as the film points out, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow was a literary celebrity in his own day, and he’s still widely read, though . . . maybe some other writers of his generation have somewhat eclipsed his reputation since then. But how did the team settle on his story as the one to go with?
Josh had wanted to do something within the . . . 1800s time period because of the colonial aspect of the area. Then they wanted something that was faith-based. And as they continued to talk about who . . . was a good representation, who has a good story to tell, a true story to tell, he and his wife, Kristen, were kind of throwing around some different ideas, and “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day” had been one of Kristen’s favorite songs. And as they were talking through historical figures, Josh began to kind of feel like maybe this was a good story to tell. And his wife, Kristen, kind of confirmed that on a . . . spiritual level and on . . . just a family level as . . . they were talking about it. She confirmed it, and immediately they knew this was the right story to tell.
So from your perspective as an actor, what did you need to do to inhabit the role of Longfellow? In spending so much time inside his head and his works, did you learn anything . . . from him about how Christian artists can engage with their cultures? Two-part question.
Two-part question. So first part: engaging with this character. The largest engagement piece was with his grief, just because so much of the movie deals with the loss of Fanny, the . . . potential loss of Charley. I was able to kind of tap into his creativity partly because I’m a creative myself, but [also] by reading his works and reading about him in biographies, and his story of when he first met Fanny and where they were and him falling in love with the sound of her voice, the first thing he fell in love with. Kind of connecting with these key moments of his life helped me to get an overall feel . . . for what he was like. . . . Edgar Allan Poe was not the kindest in the way that he wrote about Henry Longfellow, but [Longfellow] still sent [Poe’s] sister after Edgar Allan Poe died, sent her copies of his books . . . so that she could sell them and make money. You know, just this really kind soul that was willing to give wherever he could, who loved history. . . . Their home in Cambridge was the fort where George Washington was, and so he . . . fell in love with that idea of history. So kind of just learning a lot of these tidbits that give you insight into the character, and then working through the grief process with him. That was the most connected part of his journey, mainly because I’ve not experienced that level of grief myself, so to have to step in and cross over with the character on an acting level was a challenge, and it’s . . . an interesting process. . . . With theater, you know, you’re always living within a linear progression through the show. You’re living within this kind of fourth wall, protected, creative environment with a bunch of people. And in this process, I was alone a lot in that grief journey. And having to be so intricately connected with Henry that when the camera is on you, it’s completely believable means I had to really go there in a lot of ways. That has its own effect on the performer.
Well, and you were also just a moment ago pointing out—this is interesting, I hadn’t thought about this, that it’s . . . not linear in the way the film is actually filmed, right? So you’re actually acting different stages of his life out of the order that you would normally experience them.
Yes, and, well, just on a technical level, Rachel Hughes was pregnant for the first almost three quarters of the year that we were shooting, and so we could [not] shoot any of . . . her pre-death scenes. We couldn’t shoot anything with her. And so, I had to mourn the loss of her for almost a year of filming, and without ever having the joy and the family time that we got to have at the beginning of the film. Which made shooting the beginning of the film a lot sweeter in that this was what we’d been waiting for, but, at the same time, having that relationship with her would have helped inform the loss later on. It wouldn’t have used so much imagination to get there. What was the second half of your question?
Yeah, the second half was, after spending so much time in his head, did you learn anything from him about how Christian artists can engage with their cultures?
In our portrayal of the film, Henry is reluctant to get involved politically; he’s reluctant to get involved in things that would be controversial. But he does, because his wife Fanny, of course, challenges him to, and . . . calls him up to using his creative authority to change people. And I think that someone with the level of talent like Henry, there is a calling, and there is a responsibility . . . to use that to the best of your ability to spark positive change. And I think . . . it can be an inspiration, I think, to people who have a creative genius, or at least a creative spark, to share that, I hope.
You’re an actor, and also kind of an academic, working at a Christian college where biblical integration is emphasized. So what is your own approach to acting, and are there ways that your faith affects that, either directly or indirectly?
So my approach to acting is a bit of a mixture. I will look at the script, do the research, detail out the given circumstances . . . knowing these particular items and facts about a character and their situation—again, how . . . Fanny and Henry met—to create kind of the outline of the life for the character. And then I do some Stanislavski work where I can look at what does a character want in this scene, what . . . are they attempting to accomplish, what are the obstacles that stand in the way, and . . . what are the tactics they’re going to use to overcome those . . . obstacles? And then, the rest of it, you go on set, and you forget everything you thought about, everything you analyzed, and you listen, and you . . . open yourself up to the circumstances the character is in. And then you have to buy into the imaginary circumstances, to the point where you are emotionally connected to the character, to the other people on set, and that . . . anything that they say to you that is positive or negative has an emotional response because of that relationship and that open listening.
Do you see any way that your faith works into that process, or is . . . this . . . more like a trade where there’s just like a practical skill set that you do, or is there some combination?
Well, I mean, faith is easily worked into this process because it’s a faith film. So, depending on the material . . . I mean, my faith is always going to be integral in my performance, just because all of my empathy and all of my emotional connection to other human beings is filtered through my . . . understanding of grace and truth. So, with this particular project, it was even easier in that it was a struggle of faith that is kind of the core of Henry’s journey. Within his grief, you know, he questions everything. He didn’t have a super-strong faith before Fanny’s death. . . . The family, and his . . . creative pursuit in writing were pretty much everything to him, and then after Fanny died, he even says, you know, “When Fanny was alive, my faith was alive.” So, I think when we lean on our own creative power, we lean on [our] finances . . . (they were wealthy)—I don’t know that before Fanny’s death he needed God that much in his life. And I think I can understand that. I am blessed myself, and . . . there are times when too much blessing in your life can become an idol, can become something that draws you away from the Lord, and I think that’s what happened with Henry. Until the Lord stripped all of that away, which he tends to do—in this case, extremely tragically. And so I do feel a lot of parallels in my own life, except I want to learn from Henry and not have to lose my own wife.
That would be ideal.
That would be ideal.
So, when you look at the current Hollywood landscape, what do you think Christian actors, artists, and filmmakers bring to the table? And what, on the other side, do you think Christians could learn about their crafts from their secular counterparts?
I think really good storytelling is difficult to do, and I think . . . people overgeneralize storylines because they either want to spoon-feed material or they’re just not good writers. I think that’s the biggest part of it, is that they have a great concept—Christian writers want to get a specific theme across, but you cannot just put it out there. It has to be subtle. . . . There is a proper way of writing that is going to allow the audience to experience and fill in the gaps of the creative process that I think a lot of Christian authors and moviemakers are not good at. I do think that we have something that needs to be told, and that is, of course, our faith and the belief in Jesus Christ, and so when films will attempt to reach the heart, they will attempt to reach the mind, they can even try to press into spiritual areas, they’re always going to fall short without truth. So secular films, while they have potentially better writers, higher budgets . . . the movies that can come from a secular arena, for the most part, are going to only affect two or three different areas. Whereas the films that we’re trying to create from a Christian perspective, also can meet a spiritual need, which I think, when the secular world attempts to meet spiritual needs, it’s usually just confusing and lost. So what we need to do is we need to join the fact that, okay, we want to reach them mentally and psychologically and emotionally . . . and even physically, have a physical response within the film; we also want to reach them spiritually, and then we need to do it in a way that is not preachy. . . . As a lot of the reviewers are saying, [we were] not “cringey”—apparently that’s a term—you know, they were like, “Thankfully, I Heard the Bells was not a ‘cringey’ movie.” . . . But [in many cases] the storytelling, the writing, is really where . . . it’s lacking.
Do you have anything more you would like to add, anything you would like to say about the project that would be good for anybody to hear?
I think in that same vein, one of the biggest failings of writers are that they write the story as they see it in their mind, not the story through the human experience. And so . . . they want to express a certain feeling, they want the audience . . . to engage in a certain feeling. But the fact is, humanity . . . it’s not linear, point A to point B in any human journey. There’s a constant human struggle and the fight against the things that are good for us and against the things that we’re afraid to face. So a good writer needs to be able to . . . take the storyline and then weave it in and out of the messy humanity in a way that isn’t clean. . . . With [this] film, it was awesome—that’s a terrible word—it was . . . a pleasure to work on the film with the team. The team was extremely talented. I mean everything that we did on the film was mostly all done in-house. Even the snow effects were done in-house. . . . they built the whole structure, the costumes, just such a talented team. It was really humbling to be a part of the film and work with just a mass[ive] amount of talent amidst all these other people.