Faith-based films have been around since the beginning of motion pictures, and for a long part of filmmaking history, stood alongside other Hollywood genres as both critical and box office successes. Films like Ben-Hur and The Ten Commandments still captivate audiences to this day. It seems that somewhere along the line, however, the genre stopped working on the big screen, and through the 80s and 90s, the go-to creative outlet targeting Christian audiences in North America was television. It wasn't until the massive success of Mel Gibson's Passion of the Christ in 2004 -- which also included accompanying Bible studies and other materials -- that filmmakers realized there was still a market for this films.
Over a decade after Passion, there have been many successes in what is now its own distinct (and profitable) genre, but a vast majority of those films haven't played well outside of strong churchgoing audiences. With Beyond the Mask, Burns Family Studios hopes to change that, offering up an action-adventure set against the backdrop of American Independence and featuring a lead character who is a former assassin looking for redemption -- oh, and a love story, to boot!
Tapping acclaimed actor John Rhys-Davies (Indiana Jones, The Lord of the Rings) in a supporting role, Beyond the Mask stars Andrew Cheney as William Reynolds (the aforementioned assassin) and Chicago Fire's Kara Killmer as Charlotte Holloway. I got the chance to speak with the actors in advance of the film's Canadian release.
Mark McLeod: How did you first get interested in acting?
Andrew Cheney: Film has always been a medium to me when it comes to entertainment that has spoken most loudly. I think there was always that dream in the back of my mind that wouldn't it be awesome to be a part of that story telling. I had been in some plays as a kid, some short films in high school or college, but it wasn't untill after college that I got into doing class work.
Kara Killmer: Well my mom was an elementary school music teacher, she had been doing that for 40 years, and when my brother and I were kids she had us doing local theatre and things like that just so we could be comfortable standing in front of a room. My brother and sister were both really good at it and are older than me, but I caught the bug and she really fostered my love for performance at an early age. I've done lots of local theatre, then I went to Baylor University and got my Bachelor of Fine Arts and went from there.
MM: What attracted you to appearing in Beyond the Mask?
AC: I fell in love with the story, and when you can become involved with a project where you enjoy something about it, that's the key for me. The first time reading the script it was one of those that you could read all in one sitting. I loved the historical backdrop of the story, a combination of action, adventure, and romance all surrounded by some actual historical events. That all being said, it really was the story that attracted me to the role.
KK: I think they were down to their last few girls and I had already worked with the casting director before. A friend had told me about the role and went ahead and called them and asked if I could read for it. I was probably the last girl on the last day of callbacks and when I read the script, it was such a page turner and different. I really liked that it was a period piece and the complete package of action and romance. I was really happy that they chose to meet with me.
MM: The film's been out for awhile in the U.S. and is coming out later in Canada. How has the reaction been so far?
KK: I think the reaction has been very positive. I think people go in with a certain expectation. I feel like faith films have a little bit of a rep. I think people go in and come out really surprised that it's an interesting story that just happens to have a faith theme amidst the rest of the story. I think people are surprised that there are all these incredible elements to it and we're all really happy with the response it's gotten so far.
AC: We've been really fortunate, the feedback has been really good. It seems to me that the audiences have really been enjoying the film. It's groundbreaking for the faith film genre, there really hasn't been an action adventure faith film. A lot of faith films get trapped into that contemporary drama genre, perhaps even "melodrama", whereas Beyond the Mask comes to the table that's a lot of fun. It's still a story with meaning and a lot of depth and a faith message, but it's one that's fun for all ages. It's definately targetted at younger audiences, but it's made by filmmakers who made a movie they'd want to see.
MM: How has the reaction been with mainstream audiences?
AC: The reaction we're seeing at this point seems to be more in the faith-based community. I've seen it with folks that are more of an atheist or agnostic or just don't have interest in the genre whatsoever -- I mean, they aren't blind to the fact that it is a faith-based film, but they come away from the experience enjoying it and having had a good time. I went to a screening last night with a couple of the castmates and one of them was telling me that his friend was a history geek and they walked away geeking out on the historical integration and the fun of the film. I think there is some good overlap. I mean, there will still be those audiences that are resistant to a film with faith integration. I think that with Beyond the Mask, they weren't heavy-handed with it or preachy. They tried to keep it nuanced and subtle and more about the story.
MM: Audiences have a lot of entertainment choices these days. Why should they choose to spend their time on Beyond the Mask?
AC: There's a lot of options out there. I think you'll have a lot of fun, it's good for the entire family, and I think it's an opportunity to support a groundbreaking effort in filmmaking that inspires to expand faith and family-friendly programming and set a new bar in terms of what's possible. It's not just the entertainment value -- you're going to go out and have a good time, there's action and adventure, romance, history -- but also you'll support a film that's really groundbreaking in some ways.
KK: I think one of the things the Burns family wanted -- both Chad and Aaron -- was that (they) wanted to create a story that has all of the classic elements in it but that's also fun and safe for families. I think the reason to go see it is that you're going to see something that's safe for everyone from the eldery down to the little kids. We were really able to accomplish something for everyone. The girls love Charlotte and the romance and the clothes, and the boys love the action-adventure and Will's journey and story of redemption. It's such an interesting and turbulent time, and we're trying to find ourselves in our country, and it's always nice to look back and see where we came from.
MM: The film has a historic premise that deals a lot with U.S. history. Do you think Canadian audiences will still be able to relate to it?
AC: I really hope so. Obivously the American audience might be more familar with the story since it deals with signing the Declaration of Independance. John Rhys-Davies isn't an American and he brings a broader presence to the film. Wheather you're an American, Canadian, or from the U.K., I think it's interesting to just see a story told with such an interesting pivortal historical backdrop. You have characters such as Ben Franklin and beyond the revolutionary significance, you have a story that deals with situations that happened, so hopefully that extends beyond the American audiences.
Beyond the Mask is now playing in Canadian theatres (check www.beyondthemaskmovie.ca for more info). The film comes out on Bluray & DVD in the U.S. on September 8.
Mark McLeod has always loved film. In addition to his roles with ShowbizMonkeys.com, Mark also works on many film promotion projects in Vancouver, BC, through his company, Mark McLeod PR.