Greg Kinnear had never even heard of Heaven is for Real, Todd Burpo’s bestseller about a Methodist pastor whose young son claims to have visited heaven during a near-death experience, when he met with director Randall Wallace ( We Were Soldiers, Secretariat) and producer Joe Roth about starring in the film.
“I didn’t know anything about it,” Kinnear, 50, said during a recent visit to Miami to promote the film. “But Joe and Randall are complete opposites. Joe is Jewish, and Randall went to seminary school. And they both spoke with such enthusiasm about the story, I was intrigued.”
Heaven is for Real, which opens Wednesday, straddles the line between modest faith-based films such as the recent Son of God, which told the story of Jesus Christ, and big-budget spectacles such as Noah, which uses the Biblical story to explore issues of responsibility, morality and familial ties.
“There’s been a surge in spiritual movies recently, but I hadn’t really paid attention to it,” Kinnear said. “Because of Hollywood’s success with extravagant tentpole movies, there is some money left aside to spread around on films like this one. But what I’ve learned in my career is that everything is cyclical. While this may be a current trend, the kinds of movies audiences flock to see tends to change periodically. Nobody dictates this stuff except the audience.”
Despite its overt religious overtones, Heaven is for Real is more about how we confront our fear of death and our eternal questioning about if there really is an afterlife.
“This is the story of a father, pastor and wrestling coach in a small town who has his own crisis of faith,” he said. “When his son comes back from this experience and tells his father what he’s preaching is the truth, he needs to decide whether or not to share that information with the world. Randall captured a story that felt honest and entertaining to me, regardless of one’s spiritual beliefs, because it focuses on people.”
Kinnear, who got his start as the wise-cracking host of Talk Soup before making the leap into movies in the 1990s, still hasn’t lost his sense of humor. When you mention his Best Supporting Oscar nomination for 1997’s As Good As It Gets, he replies “What do you mean, nomination? I won!” A few awkward seconds of silence later, he lets you off the hook (“I’m just kidding with you.”)
But despite his funnyman origins, Kinnear has proven best at playing ordinary, relatable men struggling with everyday issues.
“I don’t know how that happened,” he said. “It wasn’t practice or anything. A lot of it comes from the support and comfort you get from the people you work with, which helps to build your confidence. I had already worked with Randall on We Were Soldiers, so I trusted him fully with this movie. But you’re right, I’m playing a straightforward man dealing with a big change in his life brought on by his son. The particulars may be different, but any parent can relate to that. I have three children who have crazy imaginations, and at the same time there is no one more honest than a 4-year-old. So sometimes you can’t tell if they’re telling the truth. That’s the ride in this story, to follow that journey and watch how this man makes peace with an extraordinary situation.