Hollywood, CA to the World– Emmy Award-winning actor Peter Coyote bursts onscreen at the start of The Girl Who Believes in Miracles. Coyote’s character, Sam, protects a food concessionaire at a high school soccer game when two punks take food and attempt to run out without paying. The duo are given “a little guidance” by Sam. Despite Coyote (who turns 80 this year) playing a grandfather, he handily demonstrates his agility to provide that guidance with impressive martial arts moves- graying hair and all. And then we meet Sara Hopkins (played winningly by Austyn Johnson), Coyote’s on-screen granddaughter for whom his character, Sam becomes protector as she demonstrates the paradoxical wisdom in Matthew 18:3 as well as Matthew 17:20.
Co-written and directed by Rich Correll, the film details what happens when little Sara obediently operates in her gift of faith “like a mustard seed” and miracles begin to happen. Correll presents viewers two love stories here: one about the gift of faith God gives to believers, another about a grandfather willing to do anything- including risking jail time- to protect his innocent granddaughter. Coyote describes his own role of attached-at-the-spiritual-core grandfather to young lead, Sara as a “Vietnam war vet… who’s had his own arguments with the Creator.” Coyote feels a kinship with his on-screen persona. “He’s not so quick to believe miracles and such… this guy was really close to me…,” Coyote said, indicating, in pre-publication promotional film, his clothes worn during shoots: “These are my clothes; this is my vest; this is my hat; this is my knife case. It’s like I just slipped into this guy and I understood him, completely…” When asked to speak further about those comments, he told me during our interview time together that what he wears on set has great importance- most especially his shoes. This opened our conversation to faith walks, differences in religious and spiritual beliefs, and how Coyote, a Zen Buddhist priest known for taking non-conformist stands on various social issues, was so perfect for his role as Hero in a Christian faith-based film.
“I have a superstition as an actor,” Coyote said, “that if the shoes are wrong, I can’t walk in the guy’s foot steps. So any costumer I’ve ever worked with will tell you that I’ve beaten the shoes up, I’ve sanded the edges of the soles- just because when I’m looking down and I see my shoes, that’s ‘the guy’…”
“I come from a secular Jewish family,” Coyote shared in response my my question about his apparent comfort with the role of a character depicted as Christian. “A lot of political work, a lot of Socialist, Communist (influences),” he said. “The Holocaust was a very big issue in my home, and it’s really hard for anybody who’s been through an experience like that or, been through, maybe, being African American in America to believe that there is a God looking after just them. And certainly anybody who comes through a war and sees what started out as what good ‘ole American boys can do would have his faith tested. And, so, as someone whose faith was tested myself in my youth- and surrendered to a lot of bad habits and a lot of vices- I had a turning point where I realized that I needed wisdom in my life or I was just going to die: I didn’t want to make this guy a ‘pushover,’ and I thought it would help the film. So I thought the closer I could keep (Sam) in my clothes and keep him to my sensibility, the more I could really believe it- because I’m not a Christian. I’m a Zen Buddhist priest, and I don’t really understand the Christian mystery as well as I understand my own. So I wanted this thing to work.”
And “work,” it did. It’s evident Coyote liked this guy, Sam as much as he was “like” him because his performance was superb. But there seems more here to the ease with which Coyote handles the role of the lead’s champion. When asked how a Zen Buddhist priest landed in a Christian faith-based tent pole production, Coyote credited Mira Sorvino for his joining the cast, adding that he “has a lot of regard for” her. But the two lead actors, Sorvino and Kevin Sorbo, Episcopalian and Lutheran, respectively, are vocal and openly expressive about their faith in Jesus Christ. And Coyote?
”As a priest,” he said, “I’m pretty aware of all of the Abrahamic religions… Judaism, Christianity, and Islam… and I’ve read around them and I’ve thought about them… They’re all faith-based practices; they all have a supernatural being or something like that. So I understood that… it’s more like I don’t have a gut appreciation of it as a Christian would… I come from a long line of skeptical Jews and Buddhists… and we take almost nothing on faith— in Zen practice, anyway.” The closeness on screen mirrored the sharing of goodness on the set. Coyote said many of the people attached to the film were “very devout and expressed Christians…” adding this “certainly showed me how lovely the people with whom I was working were. And we just had so much fun together, particularly the kids; we were just like a bag full of kittens… It just opened you right up.”
Coyote lit up when asked about his experience working with the film’s young star, Austyn Johnson. “First of all,” he said, “I’m a grandfather. Second of all, Austyn is an astounding little person: she has a great sense of gravity; she has no sense of entitlement… no sense of being special; she’s just this little kind of ‘awareness’ floating in a Tinkerbell suit. She’s impossible not to love and, so, we just hit it off. I mean, to be cynical, it’s my ‘job’ to hit it off with her, but she made it so easy that we became friends- and same with Luke Harmon (who played Sara’s brother), Tommi Rose (who played Sara’s brother’s girlfriend, Cindy) and the other kids on the film. And I thought that if she had had any trace of a ‘Hollywood brat’ about her or a kid that was used to being treated as special, it would never have worked.”
In one particularly memorable scene, Coyote as Sam returns to a place at which Sara had her first miraculous experience. Spoiler alert: It’s a stunning moment for viewers, let’s just say, to see a man interceding with such passion for someone he loves. These scenes can be tricky, be seen as treacly, even, but Coyote’s portrayal is convincing. When asked what was running through his mind at the time of filming this moment, Coyote responded with both candor and humor.
“That was the most terrifying scene in the script,” Coyote shared. “All I was thinking about for days (beforehand) was, ‘You canNOT mess this one up!’ I’m not sure if I’ve passed my own muster… You’re not really thinking when you’re in that situation; you’re down in deep feelings. And if you think, if you’re calculating your effect, if you’re doing all this stuff, it’s never going to work or it’s going to appear ‘mannered.’ An actor is the ‘defense attorney’ for his character: you’re making the best argument for your character; you’re looking at the world from his or her point of view and, by the time I got (to this scene) I knew who this little girl was. I knew what she meant to me, I knew what the drill was, and I knew what it was like being helpless. I’ve had experiences of being helpless before. But I’m not a method actor in the sense that I consciously do sense memory and pull this stuff up… but it’s just that I try to bring it into my imagination and my heart and follow some impulse…”
As for miracles, the film’s focus, Director Rich Correll shares in his Production Notes that he feels miracles are not just about loud, dramatic, powerful events, ie, the kinds of theophany stories and healings remembered in both Old and New Testaments. Miracles can also involve quiet, internal, experiences from change in state to change in mindset to change in future behaviors- from restoration of faith to healing of relationships. Perhaps the best definition of “miracle” of all is Correll’s assertion in those Notes, “In the Scriptures, miracles are not really presented as miraculous at all: they are simply part of God’s goodness to His creation.” When asked about miracles in his own life, Coyote had this to say:
“We’re surrounded by miracles but we don’t see them because we call them the ‘ordinary’. But we can’t even explain the existence of a house fly. Just look at this little creature washing its little face (he gestured sweetly) and sitting there; usually we’re just swatting it away. But if you think about it, it’s inexplicable: look at a hummingbird, or a dolphin, or an ocelot. Then remember that we’re made by the same thing that made them, the same generative force of the universe. So, we walk in starlight every day. We’re surrounded by miracles… and then we reserve the word “miracle” for stuff that’s inexplicable or a ‘lucky accident’ or something. But I think that we do that at the cost of overlooking that our existence is miraculous: we don’t make our heart beat; we don’t make our lungs breathe. We’d forget! So, I try to remind myself that, basically, my next breath is a miracle.”
As Director Correll, states in his Production Notes, “while roughly 75 percent of Americans believe in miracles, less than a third say they have ever personally seen them.” Are we not noticing them? Or are we not actively pursuing them, as we are instructed to do in Matthew 7:7? As actor Kevin Sorbo (playing Dr. Riley in the film) offers, “…It’s common, among those of us who are Christians, to say intellectually we believe in a God who can perform miracles but then not back up that belief with action.” Coyote pointed to the fact that the film’s executive producer, Laurence Jaffe producing his very first film- and one about faith, no less- at age 98 might be considered a miracle.
“You see people running all around the world, trying to get a movie made,” Coyote said, “and ‘this guy’ (Laurence Jaffe) who’s not at all related to the film business, made this movie, and he’s going to live to see it come out April 2, in time for Easter; I mean, that is a miracle in its own right! I’m impressed by that.”
When asked if he’s ever experienced a sense of the supernatural working through him, Coyote had this to say: “In a way, I’ve experienced, let’s say, counseling people, and seeing them wake up and… seeing them get something or see a problem end. Things where you just say the right thing to somebody at the right point, what we call a ‘turning word.’ That’s not me; that’s wisdom coming through me. I don’t own it. I think it was part of the little miracle of Austyn (as Sara) that she could transmit that. It would be blasphemy to say that she was the ‘miracle worker.’ For a kid her age to fully understand that and, somehow, integrate it into her performance? I was impressed.”
In the film, Sara’s mother (Sorvino) says, “Something happens not just to the people she prays for, but to Sara, herself, when she matches belief to action.” As another cast member’s line encourages: “A little girl with a strong faith is something we could all use more of…”
“The lesson of this movie,” Director Correll states, is that no situation, no matter how dire or painful, is beyond the reach of God’s ability to hearten and to heal.” This is hope-inspiring. “There is never a wrong time to pray big, audacious mountain-moving prayers,” Correll adds. “If this movie encourages more of us to pray for miracles, I believe more of us will see miracles firsthand.”
Mulling Austyn Johnson’s superb handling of the responsibility of her role as perceived “miracle-worker,” Sara, Coyote shared one of his own hoped-for audience take-aways: understanding the importance of “authenticity.” That, I might add, is exactly what our loving, patient, and understanding Creator God- as portrayed in The Girl Who Believes in Miracles– longs for: that we be the authentic selves as we were created to be, yes…
“When you’re being authentic,” Coyote said as we were ending our time together, “you’re being the way creation made you without refashioning yourself according to your own ideas. I think it was (the character Sara’s) authenticity that was so powerful in this film… ” These words are perfect segue to introduction Coyote’s forthcoming book- expected in December- from Simon & Schuster Unmasking Your True Self (or The Lone Ranger and Tonto Meet the Buddha): Masks, Meditation, and Improvised Play to Induce Liberated States.
“As Oscar Wilde said,” Coyote reminded me, “ ‘Be yourself; every other role is taken’.’”
I would add to that: and believe in- and ask for, and notice- Miracles, no matter how big or small…
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The Girl Who Believes in Miracles opened in theaters across the country on April 2, 2021. For Ticket Information at a theater near you please click here: https://thegirlwhobelievesinmiracles.com/theaters/.
Peter Coyote’s next projects include interviewing Rickie Lee Jones on April 26, 2021, as well publication of his forthcoming book from Simon & Schuster Unmasking Your True Self (or The Lone Ranger and Tonto Meet the Buddha): Masks, Meditation, and Improvised Play to Induce Liberated States and his first book of poems The Tongue of a Crow ( Inner Traditions Press).
Interview ©2021 Michele Caprario All photographs property of 130Agency & used with permission