Robin Givens has graced us with her presence in show business for years whether it be on television, onstage or on the silver screen. She caught Theodore Huxtable’s gaze on “The Cosby Show,” she played the infinitely spoiled Diane Merriman on “Head of the Class,” and she gave Eddie Murphy a taste of his own medicine in “Boomerang.” Now she adds a faith based movie to her long resume with a role in “God’s Not Dead 2,” a sequel to surprise box office hit from 2014. In it she plays Principal Kinney, the chief administrator at Dr. Martin Luther King High School where a teacher, Grace Wesley (Melissa Joan Hart), becomes the center of controversy when she mentions God in a response to a student’s question. From there Principal Kinney is forced to decide whether to stand up for Grace or to stand by the school district officials who demand Grace apologize for violating the “separation of church and state.”
I got to speak with Givens while she was in Los Angeles to do press for “God’s Not Dead” and she could not have been nicer. Her own family were huge fans of the original, and she jumped at the chance to appear in this sequel. She discussed what was most challenging about her role, how doing the movie affected her own faith and she shared her opinion about the fact that it is not only opening on April Fool’s Day, but also National Atheist’s Day.
Ben Kenber: You play a high school principal in this movie. Did you do any research on principals at all?
Robin Givens: No, I didn’t too much and I kept thinking of my own. I didn’t have a principal. I had a headmaster, Dr. Paul Firestone. I kept thinking of my children so I approached one from the students’ point of view and then one from a parents’ point of view. It’s interesting when you begin to approach the character and you are actually in the school. We were in a very, very large high school, and however big the kids were makes you assume a certain posture. You really do assume a posture even physically, so that was pretty interesting for me.
BK: This is a sequel which has the director and screenwriters returning to it, but most of the cast from the original did not return. Did that concern you at all?
RG: No, no, not at all. My family and I are very big fans of the first one. I guess I was not surprised they were doing a second one based on its success which I’m sure even surprised them. You kind of got the feeling that they were going to camp it up a little bit. When I met Harold Cronk, the director, I just loved him so much so I was not concerned about it at all.
BK: What would you say was the most challenging aspect for you in playing this character?
RG: Just for me, what I believe versus what she believes. You can play different characters that have nothing to do with you; that’s the most wonderful thing about acting. But with this one, I kind of wanted to insert myself for the first time. I wanted to be on Grace’s side in helping her along, not just sort of walking the line or concerned about following the rules. So that was the big part for me that was difficult.
BK: It can be tricky because you don’t want to judge your character.
BK: “God’s Not Dead 2” is being released on April 1 which is not just April Fool’s Day, but also National Atheist’s Day. Do you have any thoughts on that?
RG: (Laughs) Somebody mentioned that to me and I didn’t know there was a National Atheist’s Day. I think it’s interesting that it’s also April Fool’s Day and that April Fools’ Day is different from National Atheist’s Day, but they also mentioned the irony that they didn’t know that was the day when they decided to release it, so maybe that was God intervening.
BK: Perhaps. You said your character was torn between her job and her heart, and that makes her complex as a result. What would you say were the challenges of playing those complexities?
RG: I think it was really difficult for me to get out of the way, that’s what I would say. I wanted to not judge her, but I wanted to not play the subtext of this really isn’t me and this is not what I believe. Just letting myself get out of the way of it was really hard for me. If I could go to Harold now, and now that I know him better, I would go, “Could you write a scene that actually explains the difficulties she is having?” It’s like one scene for me is missing, you know?
BK: Was there anything you brought to this movie that wasn’t in the screenplay?
RG: I try to portray the difficulty she was having, that’s the choice that I made. So I tried to bring the fact that she did believe, but she was still wanting to do her day job well. I tried to bring the conflict she was having, and I don’t know if that was originally planned but I wanted her to be conflicted.
BK: Has doing this movie strengthened your faith in your own life a lot?
RG: I feel like, for me, it was one big God wink. A friend of mine gave me a book called “God Wink” which talked about how there are no coincidences. It was such an important movie in our lives, my family personally, that to be asked to do the movie a year later was almost like a big God wink or validation of like “I’m with you.” So in some respects, not that it changed my mind about anything, it just sort of brought validation.
BK: When Melissa Joan Hart’s character of Grace Wesley talks about God in the classroom, she is really talking about him as a historical being instead of a divine one.
RG: I love that! I don’t know how you feel about that, but for me I think that was so smart. I loved how they put Christ in a historical context with Martin Luther King and Gandhi. I just love that.
BK: There seems to be a lot of confusion about when or if you should bring up God in the classroom, and the way Grace does it is not really offensive at all. But if she was forcing people and saying believe in God or you will get an F, that would be a different story.
RG: Absolutely, and also when she’s talking about it she’s just talking about it in very simple terms: tolerance, being a better person and being kind. I think because she’s talking about it in such simple terms then how can anybody complain about this, but that it still creates an uproar is interesting and shows where we are at.
BK: Christianity is still the dominant religion in America, but in “God’s Not Dead 2” it is presented more as a minority because of the way certain Christians are treated. How do you feel about that?
RG: This is America; we have freedom of religion. You can’t be persecuted for what you believe. People come from other countries to this country maybe not for only that reason, but that’s a big thing. You get to believe the way you believe here, and sometimes we get so caught up defending other people’s rights that even things that have been the fabric of our country have gotten pushed to the side. I do think Christianity is a big thing in America still, and I think that’s why these films are so successful because maybe people shouldn’t talk about, but they love that they get to see themselves or what they believe are the discussion. I think people really do love it.
BK: Was there anything in regards to religion you really wanted this movie to have?
RG: I think that probably lies a lot on Melissa’s shoulders in terms of what she wanted it to have. I was there to sort of help her in many respects to find her way and help her character find her way as opposed to my own beliefs.
BK: This movie has quite the cast with actors like Ray Wise, Ernie Hudson and Fred Dalton Thompson in what turned out to be his last role before he passed away. Did you have the opportunity to work with Fred?
RG: No I didn’t, but I always think of Fred Thompson when he was running for office which is like, it’s so cool. I’m a big fan not only of his acting but also politically. He was so thought-provoking in many respects, so I’m just happy to have been in the film with him.
BK: You mentioned that your mom goes to church every Sunday and that she saw “God’s Not Dead” and it made the family very happy. I imagine they were very happy to hear that you were involved in “God’s Not Dead 2.”
RG: Oh my God. My family doesn’t know where I’ve came from just in terms of the entertainment business. They are never too into it. But they loved it and they couldn’t believe it. It was something we did together as a family, so when she went to see it (“God’s Not Dead”) and then we all went to see it as a family there was a certain irony there. But it made them very happy.
BK: What would you say your mother got out of the first movie?
RG: It was a difficult time in our lives as a family, and I think that what everybody needs is just faith. I think certain things can always trigger what’s going on in our own lives, so just to have faith I think was a big thing.
I want to thank Robin Givens for taking the time to talk with me. “God’s Not Dead” will be released in theaters on April 1, a.k.a. April Fool’s Day and National Atheist’s Day.
Copyright Ben Kenber 2016