“I love the theatre!” exclaims a young churchgoer in writer/director Adamma Ebo’s debut feature, “Honk for Jesus. Save Your Soul.,” based on her brilliant 2018 short film of the same name. It turns out that what appeared on the surface to be a spiritual channeling experienced by the girl was little more than play-acting. Indeed, there is quite a bit of performing going on in this picture, as Pastor Lee-Curtis Childs (Emmy-winner Sterling K. Brown) and his wife, First Lady Trinitie (Regina Hall), put on their cheerful public faces for a documentary crew as they attempt to win back the enormous congregation that left their megachurch, following a widely publicized sex scandal.
What begins as a very funny mockumentary gradually turns into something far more unsettling and provocative, as the couple is forced to confront the cost of their denial. Brown and Hall further cement their statuses as two of the finest actors working today, while Ebo and her identical twin sister Adanne, who produced the film, infuse every frame with the authenticity and insight of their own experiences with organized religion. RogerEbert.com recently had the opportunity to speak with Brown and Hall during their time in Chicago about the spiritual nature of acting and how they hope this film will connect with faith-based audiences.
“Honk for Jesus. Save Your Soul.” harkens back to certain classics of the '60s and '70s, such as Robert Altman’s “Buffalo Bill and the Indians, or Sitting Bull’s History Lesson,” which had the guts to push satire into areas of genuine discomfort.
Sterling K. Brown (SB): Oh I like that!
Regina Hall (RH): I just remember reading the script and thinking about it. Anytime I read something and it stays with me after I’ve finished it, I respond to that. Having Lee-Curtis and Trinitie be such complex characters and watching Sterling bring his character from paper to life were big reasons why I wanted to do this project, as well as Adamma with her great directing, writing and ways to play each moment.
SB: You ever talk to family and they pay you a compliment but it’s not really a compliment? My brother-in-law said to me, “Hey man, you do the drama stuff and I always feel like I’m just watching Sterling, but in ‘Honk for Jesus,’ it looks like you were having some fun!” And I’m like, ‘Aw, that’s so sweet! Yeah, that’s exactly how I felt. Normally I just wake up and be myself…’ [laughs] I’ve watched televangelists all my life. Regina watches Creflo Dollar. I was watching Joel Osteen just the other night, and realized that he’s 59 years old! He’s got a lot of white makeup on. But he still looks good. He and his wife are keeping up.
I’ve also gone to church my whole life, and I said while we were making the film that I think being an actor and being a preacher share similar performative aspects. The audience is different and the same can be said of what your goal, your aim, your objective is. You’re trying to move people, but what are you trying to move them to? Lee-Curtis is trying to move people towards God and whatnot, but then things change once he reaches a certain point. It’s like how once you become president, you don’t then go become a senator. Lee-Curtis was president of a church that had 20,000 members, and then to have his congregation go down to—
RH: We had the Devout Five! [laughs]
SB: He finds that he cannot go back. That is when his motives become less pure. It’s not just about saving souls or winning people for Christ, but the sense of self that my character get imbued with by being in this leadership role. It’s hard to stay humble when you’re stunting on the Jumbotron. There’s something really interesting about someone who starts off with a purity of motive and then it becomes sort of tainted.
Whose idea was it to have Lee-Curtis have the “showtime” catchphrase, complete with the jazz hands, which calls to mind the daily refrain of the choreographer portrayed by Roy Scheider in Bob Fosse’s “All That Jazz”?
SB: It was in the script! I don’t even know if Adamma knows everything that she did. She is so intuitive.
RH: But it’s also the way that you did it.
SB: I tried to do it in the “All That Jazz” way and not the “Bamboozled” way, because that would’ve been a whole other thing.
Would you consider acting a spiritual experience?
RH: I think so.
SB: For me, it is akin to a sanctuary, a safe space. There was a time when I was playing a character that my mom didn’t like. She asked me, “Now how are you doing the Lord’s work with this one?”, and I said, “Well, God made us all, which means that everybody’s story is worth sharing.” She said, “I guess so,” and I said, “Not everybody is going to be a saint, and I think it would be kind of boring if that was all I had the chance to play.” People are fallible, and getting the chance to recognize the credence in everybody’s story is the thing that I love the most about acting. You can’t judge somebody and play them at the same time. You learn something about yourself sometimes, and you learn something about humanity with each character, thus releasing judgment. I cannot think of anything more spiritual.
RH: The amount of prayer that it takes before I do a job is considerable. Once you’re in that character, you do have a bit of an out-of-body experience, which allows you to view life from a different perspective. Many people don’t do that. They have the perspective they’re born with, and that’s all they have. But acting really forces you to understand that no one is all bad or all good. There may be more good brought out of you from love and upbringing or more bad brought out from the same, but there’s always a seed.
How did Adamma approach directing you, particularly during your characters’ monologues, which are filled with a sense of hypnotic unease?
RH: She lets you do what you want. Then she’ll come and give you another direction and you’ll be like, “Damn, that’s hard!” Right when you think you’ve got it, she’s got something else for you to do. It’s all about layers and subtleties. Her suggestions drop into your approach for a given scene, and you want to please her. She’ll see something that she loves and ask you to try an idea that might be the complete antithesis of how you started. But she also allows you to just play too.
SB: Adamma is notorious for filming until you begin asking yourself, ‘Is she gonna cut this scene? Because you can’t fit all this into the 100 minutes that we’re trying to shoot…’ [laughs] But if she sees a spark of play that is transpiring, she will let it run as long as possible, and she is so gentle with her suggestions. After a take, she’ll come up to you and whisper, “Okay, how did you feel about that one? How about we try this?” And you go, “Yeah, I haven’t thought about that. Let’s do it!” I exhausted myself for that young lady because it was fun to do and it was a challenge. As an actor, you kind of want to see how many ways you can approach a scene.
RH: The script was more challenging than it read. When I read it, I was like, “Oh, this going to be so much fun!” And then we began filming, I went, “Oh shit!” [laughs]
SB: It was a workout.
I had never heard of the act of “praise miming” until I saw this film.
RH: I have seen it in churches and it’s quite beautiful. Trinitie couldn’t mime at all [laughs], but I have seen it, and it’s usually done to an incredible song. Sometimes they’ll have a mask on while performing.
SB: I think it’s beautiful and fascinating too. The way that it is used in this film is really kind of exceptional for someone who sees themself at a particular status within the church, who is being asked to do something that she considers to be at a lesser status. The way it is deployed in the film, it’s as if Trinitie is having to put on clown makeup, which is really interesting visually.
RH: You don’t normally see the First Lady doing that on the sidewalk. Lee-Curtis didn’t do it—and he can dance! [laughs]
To me, this film is clearly not a takedown of religion, but a satire about the corruption of institutions. How would you want a faith-based audience to approach this movie?
SB: Lord have mercy, I’ll have to take my glasses off for this. I honestly think about my mom because I know she’s going to be like, ‘Alright, Sterling, what’s this thing you’re doing now?’ She’s going to be excited to see the film, thinking that it’s going to be one thing.
RH: It does look like one thing in the trailer.
SB: That’s the hook. A spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down. I think anytime anybody from any religion says, “If it’s against this book, then it’s wrong,” that’s when you stop critical thought and you stop bringing yourself and what resides in your spirit, in your soul to the equation. I think that is worthy of questioning. I think of a young Sterling Brown who was in Bible study in the third or fourth grade when he asked, ‘So all gay people are going to hell?’ And the thirty-five-year-old dude who was teaching Bible study was like, ‘Why are you asking me these hard questions?’ This film is for those people who find themselves asking, “How come the Bible says something that doesn’t seem right?”
RH: It reminds you of being young and not feeling right, being taught something that in your own soul does not feel right. I think that was the hard part for Trinitie. It didn’t feel right. She loved this man, but was so close to leaving him, until her mom was there to say, “Nope, Christians stay.” That belief in the trinity of marriage—the two people and God—is further complicated by liking all the trappings of it, and believing that the trappings you possess are a sign that you’re doing good. It equates prosperity with proof that you’re in alignment with God’s approval.
SB: Absolutely, man. I feel like if you’re not growing as an artist, you are in stagnation. Like Regina said, anytime you pick something and it doesn’t require prayer, then maybe you don’t want to be doing that all the time. There is growth in discomfort. You have a comfort zone until it gets stretched and then it becomes bigger, but if you never stretch it, I think it kind of shrinks a little bit. So I look forward to doing things where I constantly need to pray, “Lord, help me do this!”
RH: I look at a film like this and I think, ‘What an opportunity to tell these two people’s stories, regardless of how it will resonate with people.’ I mean, yes, big movies are wonderful, but so are these stories.
SB: For the record, I like big movies too. [laughs] There are a lot of opportunities to stretch in those too!
RH: Stories like “Honk for Jesus” are important, and they get you down to the basics of acting and character. You’re not working with a green screen on a soundstage. You’re really right there, in the hot sun under a tree, and there’s something really romantic about that type of filmmaking. I think about films that have effected me and made me want to become an actor. I don’t want to just watch them, I want to have the opportunity to be a part of those films too.
SB: Regina doesn’t watch pop culture movies.
RH: I do sometimes! I saw “Bullet Train.”
SB: You did? [leaves the room, laughing] That doesn’t count!
RH: He knows I love Brad Pitt. [laughs] Who doesn’t?