The 2014 movie “God’s Not Dead” only cost $2 million to make, and it went on to gross over $60 million and began a movement to strengthen the faith of Christians everywhere. That movement continues on with “God’s Not Dead 2” which reunites director Harold Cronk with screenwriters Chuck Konzelman and Cary Solomon but tells a completely different story. This time the action moves to a public high school where Grace Wesley (Melissa Joan Hart) helps her students to appreciate history. But after Grace gives a reasoned response to a question about Jesus, she becomes the center of an epic court case that could end her career and expel God from the public square once and for all.
We all know Melissa Joan Hart from her popular television shows “Sabrina The Teenage Witch” and “Melissa & Joey,” and she is a veteran of show business having started at the age of four. I got to speak with Melissa recently while she was in Los Angeles, California for the “God’s Not Dead 2” press junket. She talked about joining a sequel which had none of the main cast members from the original returning to it, how social media has both helped and hindered the Christian movement, how she had to do a lot of reacting in this sequel, and why she feels likes an anomaly in today’s Hollywood.
Ben Kenber: It’s interesting how your character talks about Jesus as a historical figure and not a divine person, and yet it somehow leads to this legal case which dominates the movie.
Melissa Joan Hart: Well someone did ask us today in one of our interviews, “Is Jesus a bad word, and why has Jesus become a bad word?” You say Jesus you make people uncomfortable, especially Christians. I have become very comfortable with talking about things within my religion and within my faith. I have been a faithful person my whole life, but only in the last 5 years have I started bible study and really, really studying the word. It’s a hard thing to feel comfortable in this day and age. It’s weird that it used to be such an easy topic, and now it has become such a difficult, strained topic. You say things like “God bless you” and they look at you sideways. It is a weird situation going on these days, and so I like to make sure when someone sneezes that my kids go “God bless you” or if they see a man in military fatigues to say “thank you for your service.” People find it a little disconcerting, but when you do it they appreciate it. I was telling someone earlier about the ten commandments and someone pointed out to me and said, “Which of the ten commandments doesn’t hold up today?” The only one that seems to be fading out slightly is though shall not take my name in vain, and so I make sure I don’t, in my work, say “oh my god” or “OMG.” It really bothers me when other people do now, but in my house they don’t. My kids’ friends come over there and they are not allowed to say it and I’ll tell them why. If I feel the need to pray on an airplane because I’m terrified of flying, I’m not ashamed of that. I cross myself right there in front of whoever is watching. I had some controversy over a Christmas dinner at my house about whether everyone should go to church, and my stepfather brilliantly pointed out if anyone had gone to a Passover or any other kind of religious ceremony or holiday, you would respect that person’s wishes in their home. If you did accept that invitation to go to that event, you would be a part of it and not mock it. We are PC-ing ourselves to death here, literally. I think that’s why Trump is doing so well because he’s not correcting himself and he’s not being politically correct. He’s being completely politically incorrect, and not that I think he’s the best choice, but I can see the draw.
BK: Trump is definitely not the best choice and the fact that he has gotten as far as he has is frightening.
MJH: It’s disturbing.
BK: This is a sequel which features the same directors and some of the same writers but none of the main stars from the original returned for it. Was that ever a concern for you?
MJH: Actually I thought that was pretty exciting. I can’t recall another situation where that happened where they didn’t try to get the original cast and didn’t. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a sequel where the star didn’t go on. Well, maybe “Bruce Almighty” (laughs).
BK: There have been a few sequels like that such as “Son of the Mask” and “28 Weeks Later.”
MJH: But this is a completely different story. It’s not even the same movie. It’s a different movie with similar undertones and a few recurring characters, but really it’s a different story and so that’s kind of exciting and interesting. It was definitely a blessing to step into a leading role in a film that’s already well-established as a movement. The first movie ignited a movement across the country and I think it rallied together the Christian community, especially the youth, and they took to social media and started a movement.
BK: Speaking of social media, do you feel that it has helped the Christian movement or taken away from it?
MJH: I think it’s done both. I read somewhere that they say cell phones are the cigarette of the twenty-first century. They say that for health reasons but I think it’s toxic to families. I read a study where they were observing parents sitting in restaurants with their kids, and if they were on their phone they were more likely to be more violent towards their children and impatient and have outbursts towards their children than the ones that weren’t on their phones. I do think social media plays a big part in that because we want to be attached, but we’re not attached. I remember being in my house on a Thanksgiving and sitting around with everybody. We were watching TV and I made some comment about what was on the TV and I was like, “Can you believe he said that?” And I looked around and everybody was on their phone, but they justified it by saying, “Well we’re playing Words with Friends with each other.” And I said, “Well then why don’t we just play Scrabble?” So I do think that social media can be completely toxic. We feel like we are connected when we are totally not connected. We worry more about followers than friends. But in that way we have also found a fellowship out there of people across the world that we can relate to on certain subjects and certain topics, and Christianity is definitely a big one. I think the movement behind “God’s Not Dead” is doing amazing things on social media.
BK: You talked about how you had to do a lot of reacting in this movie, and that was great to hear because listening is one of the key things in African do especially when they are in a movie. How tough was that for you?
MJH: It was really a lesson for me. Obviously I’ve done reaction shots before, but usually I’m talking at a fast pace but trying to be funny. Usually when you’re the lead of the movie you just talk endlessly. Every other line is your line. So it was hard for me to sit there and just observe and then react, but it was also a great lesson for me to take a deep breath and enjoy not having to learn lines, but also being a part of the scene without having a voice in it and trust that the filmmaker and producers have you protected. It was a little bit for me to wrap my head around that the first week. I was like, “Well I’m not even saying anything. I barely talk.” I didn’t even realize until I get there and you start really reading the lines and you go, “I don’t have a line all day! I’m in every scene but I don’t have a line or I say three words and that’s it.” Jesse’s got six pages. It was hard for me to switch roles, but I’m excited I got the opportunity to do it obviously. If I get the opportunity to do that sort of thing again I know how to handle it better, and hopefully I’ll improve and hopefully with each project you’ll improve.
BK: The two “God’s Not Dead” movies have very different stories. It’s kind of like what’s going on with the two “Cloverfield” movies in that it deals with the same thematic elements even though they each take place on a different timeline. This makes the “God’s Not Dead” franchise seem more like an anthology than anything else.
MJH: Which is why I’m bummed because I know I won’t be in the third movie (laughs). But that’s exciting too because it gives the audience something else. They can come to the movie have knowing what to expect, but part of the fun of film beginning is not knowing the twists and turns and not knowing these characters and infuse it with some new energy. It’s about opening up the stereotypes because as Christians I feel like a lot of people, when you say Christian or the name Jesus, go oh you’re going to judge me now or I don’t go to church enough for you or I don’t know the verses of the Bible. People are always so afraid to be judged and I feel like a lot of Christian films do a little stereotyping, but I feel like in this case with this movie it’s really evolved to a place where these characters are complex. They are real people and these are real human experiences. People will hopefully relate to it more because they will find someone they identify with in this movie or they will identify with everyone.
BK: A lot of criticism that was directed at the first “God’s Not Dead” movie was that there were a lot of Christian stereotypes, but this one has characters that are a lot more complex which makes it more interesting.
MJH: Yeah, you don’t necessarily have a protagonist and an antagonist. I’m the victim in a sense, but not if you are an atheist. With Robin Givens’ character, we didn’t really know which way her character was going until the re-shoots. So I actually asked the director, “Is she bad or is she good? Is she on my side or are we hinting at that?” They decided to keep her a little bit more on the side of evil, but they do walk this nice line with everybody. It’s just a very realistic view of people, and you can’t put people in boxes and you can’t stereotype. I’m a conservative Hollywood girl, and yet I grew up in New York. I’m a Republican so I don’t really fit in with the liberal views of Hollywood, but I’m also anti-gun and pro-choice so I don’t fit into that spectrum. I feel like I’m an anomaly because people can’t figure out where to put me, you know?
BK: It’s interesting to hear you say that because in this day and age we have reduced so many things down to soundbites to where it’s far too easy to label everybody and anybody so broadly.
MJH: Yes. I said I was voting for Romney on Twitter years ago for the election, and instantly I got people saying you must be anti-gay, you must hate all other races, etc. Instantly it was like I just got pigeonholed into then you must be this way if you vote that way instead of just thinking maybe the other choice wasn’t so great (laughing).
BK: “God’s Not Dead 2” was a low budget movie that was shot in less than a month. Did the speed of that help you at all?
MJH: The speed of a movie never helps. They are trying to make movies faster and faster and faster these days which ends up putting a lot of pressure on the crew. So when you do speed these things up, the process is not helpful to the production. They say it puts more money on the screen but I don’t think it does. I think time really helps especially the performances. It’s hard to rush a performance. It’s hard to be like, “Hurry up! Cry! Okay, next scene!” But I feel like working in television you get used to a very rigid schedule and a very fast pace which also kind of kills a performance because I’m used to trying to make sure I hit my marks so I get my letting right. I don’t bang on my microphone so I don’t ruin sound. But am I really think about my performance when I’m thinking about all these other things as well? Did I hit my mark? Am I in the light? My makeup artist is telling me to keep my eye open and to keep my head up. If we had more time to rehearse it and feel it out and do everything and go through it systematically performances would be better, so I think that’s the main thing that suffers, the creativity behind the film, when you rush through it. They save a lot of money and it does get you back to your family faster, but at the same time it’s like you still can only work 12 hours a day.
I want to thank Melissa Joan Hart for taking the time to talk with me. “God’s Not Dead” will arrive in theatres on April 1 which is known as both April Fool’s Day and National Atheist Day.
Copyright Ben Kenber 2016