Continuing with my articles that highlight films and folks from GloryReelz Christian Film Festival, I’m excited to talk with Rich Swingle about his roles in two of the featured films, The Messenger’s Box and Providence.
When did you first discover a love for acting?
I typically tell people in the fourth grade when I played Mr. Beaver in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, but I was just having lunch with someone today and told a story from when I was much younger, five or six. I was in a restaurant, and I performed for the table, showing how I’d made my body into a crane to sort pears on our family farm. I put my hands on my forehead craned down to grab my water glass, a stand-in for a pear. I craned up, spilling water all over myself. Not my finest performance, but it got a reaction!
What led to your decision to make acting your full-time ministry?
The glass of water notwithstanding, I always saw performing as a means of ministry. Bringing one of C.S. Lewis’ characters to life, letting the heroes know Aslan is on the move, put me right into it! My next performance was as a space alien who came to earth to witness the birth of Jesus. Throughout high school our youth group performed in our church and around the region.
When I was in seminary I was sick for a week, and sometime while I was flat on my back I knew my calling was not to minister from behind a pulpit but from stage and screen. After a brief stint at home, I moved from our family’s 70 acre farm to an 8.5 by 11 room on Times Square so I could work on a masters in theatre.
The actual catalyst for quitting my day-job came in 1994 while I was living in The Lamb’s Church, which housed the largest Off-Broadway theatre. Roger Nelson stayed there while he was performing his one-man play The Man From Aldersgate, about John Wesley. Roger had attended The Lamb’s Church in the ’70s, and the pastor, Paul Moore (currently launching a new church plant in Manhattan) had a vision of Roger as John Wesley. Roger’s response:, “Doesn’t he play for the Mets?” Ever since Roger has made a career of personifying Wesley, who actually founded the Methodist Church. Roger later added St. Patrick to his repertoire. On that visit in 1994 Roger let me tail him as he was rehearsing, setting up, performing and tearing down after The Man from Aldersgate. At some point Roger mentioned that he’d been doing his one-man plays full-time since 1979. It sparked something in me! I knew if I was going to minister through the performing arts I had to be the very best I could be. When I first sensed my calling I went out and saw all the Christian theatre I could, and–sadly–much of what I saw wasn’t all that great. When Dan Rupple took over Mastermedia he came to NYC and addressed our chapter. He mentioned that Christian performing arts can stop shy of greatness because Christians are quicker to praise than criticize. I knew I needed help! And I knew that cutting the life-line would force me to do my very best.
The very next year after Roger’s visit, July of 1995, I quit my day job. My friend Sean Gaffney was hired by Taproot Theatre, a Christian group in Seattle, as their managing director. He asked if I wanted to drive out to Seattle with him. I immediately said yes. It was the launching pad I needed. I quit my job assisting Cindy Dupree, who was managing cross-over artist Kathy Troccoli at the time. I continued to work 15 hours a week at The Lamb’s Church to cover my room, so I knew I wouldn’t join the ranks of homeless who we served on a daily basis.
Things were going pretty well until the start of 1996, what I call Black January… and not because I was in the black! My bank account was hovering just above zero and I didn’t have a booking in sight. I applied for a part-time job, but my buddy Mac Nelson, later to be best man at our wedding, took me to a movie and wouldn’t let me pay for my ticket. He talked me into holding out a little longer. I’ll never regret heeding his advice. By the time Joyce and I got married in 1998 I’d worked up to about 100 bookings in a year, and now it tends to be about twice that in about 15 states and one foreign nation every year for a total of 41 states and 28 nations (www.RichDrama.com/Home).
What are some of the faith-based films you’ve been a part of?
I’ve been blessed to be in over 20 faith-based projects. I didn’t really start doing film until 2010 when I was the only actor cast through Facebook in A Christmas Snow. I found out I had the role on Christmas Eve 2009. But I just came across a short film I did in 1997. I play the wounded man in a modern telling of the Good Samaritan: “And Who Is My Neighbor?” I’m trying to help get it distributed via digital download, and if we’re successful I’ll announce it via http://www.RichDrama.com/Updates. Some other highlights are Beyond the Mask, Alone Yet Not Alone, Princess Cut, Polycarp, The Screenwriters, Indescribable, and I can’t wait for Rather to be Chosen, Lifestone Velocity and Mayflower II to be released. Mayflower II contains my favorite 30 seconds of my career.
Tell us about your roles in The Messenger’s Box and Providence.
It’s interesting to talk about those films together, since I was growing out my beard to play Jesus in The Messenger’s Box when I was performing in Providence. Also, the role of Mitchell Little is certainly a Christ figure. I’ve played the Lord in many stage productions, and He’s in three of my one-man plays (The Acts, The Revelation, Journey to the Garden), but it was an honor on a whole different level to play him on film in The Messenger’s Box. There was a gentleman who followed us around, and my conversation with him was as exciting as the performance! You can read our correspondence about it at www.RichDrama.com/TheMessengersBox in the comments.
Playing Mitchell Little in Providence was a gift! I LOVED performing in a silent film because every single line was improvised, so they came straight out of the experience. Juli Tapken, who played opposite me was fantastic, and I’m so glad she’s been honored with Best Actress nominations at some film festivals! We had so much fun in our reunion scene we were prompted to move it along! One of my favorite moments was the look I give her at the end. It wasn’t a planned shot, but I was able to see my own bride in her in such a way that I just had to ask for a separate camera setup in case they wanted to use it. I’m so glad it worked out, because whenever I see it, it takes me back to my own wedding. Because of the emotional intimacy we shared, Juli and I carefully de-roled when we were finished. Her husband, Jeff, was there, so I was able to ceremonially return her to him. If A-level actors would refuse to do physically intimate scenes and be diligent about de-roling from emotionally intimate scenes I believe the tabloids would go out of business.
What’s the greatest challenge with playing roles like Jesus or a Christ figure?
Though it’s daunting to represent the Lord on stage or film, followers of Jesus are called upon to do just that every day to the dying world around us. Though we should all demand excellence from each other as artists in the most collaborative art form, perfectionism kills a performance. It’s a paradox, but once you’re confident in the lines, speech and movement patterns of the character, you have to let it all go and live in the moment as that character. So trying to match the perfection of Jesus Christ could actually ruin the experience.
What advice would you offer to aspiring actors?
I’ve actually worked up an article of advice at www.RichDrama.com/Tips, but if I were to reduce it to one word I would say, “Grow.” Grow as an artist but also as a representative of Christ. Find great instruction and mentors in both areas. And practice both as often as possible. At the Christian Worldview Film Festival this year Rich Christiano said Christian films often aren’t really Christian because we don’t practice the Christian life in front of the dying world. We have to practice listening to the promptings of the Holy Spirit or the still small voice will be drowned out by the noise of our society.
What are you currently working on?
This month I’ll play the lead in a short film, in Southern Oregon, where I was born and raised. I’ll get to stay on our family farm while filming.
Right after that I’ll be teaching and coaching at the Rocky Mountain Christian Filmmakers Camp in gorgeous Norwood, Colorado.
In July I’ll play a driver who lost control of his truck in another short film. I’ll also serve as acting coach on that.
I’m also turning one of my one-man plays into a screenplay we hope to produce.
The stage acting continues, as well as my work with presentations skills training and coaching (www.GraceworksInc.com).
Not having a nine-to-five since ’95 has been a real challenge, but a great delight. There’s no place safer than the center of God’s will. One of my mentors, sociology professor Mike Allen, turned down tenure because he didn’t want any agreement with man to prevent him from following the calling of God. That had a major impact on me, and I think it set me up to live life without a steady paycheck. People often ask us if we see ourselves living the rest of our lives in the Big Apple. We’d love that, but we’re also open to whatever the Lord has for us.