LOS ANGELES – Greg Kinnear says it's impossible for an actor to be part of a movie like "Heaven Is for Real" and not start thinking about his or her own personal convictions. The film, based on the book of the same name, recounts 4-year-old Colton Burpo's story of visiting heaven.
"I guess this could have been just another role. But to be in a movie that brings up the fundamental question of whether you believe or don't believe, it's impossible not to have some of that resonate within you," Kinnear says. "We had some very thoughtful conversations about it."
Kinnear plays Pastor Todd Burpo, the head of a small church in rural Nebraska who deals with the revelation by his son while trying to hold his family together despite financial hardships and personal tragedies. Kinnear likes that while the film deals with the huge question about heaven and hell, the real core is the family story.
That the character was flawed and dealing with doubts was one of the reasons Kinnear wanted to be part of the movie.
"It's a pastor who's not walking around in a robe, a man of the cloth. I have seen that guy, but I really haven't seen this guy," Kinnear says. "He's a wrestling coach, a volunteer firefighter and repairs garage doors. He's a dad and father. That felt honest and real to me, coming from a small town myself. I had an instant connection because this wasn't that one-note character I had seen before."
Kinnear hadn't read the book before signing on to the project. When he heard the story for the first time, he was convinced it would make a compelling movie — even if it weren't based on a true story.
"I think the film has been opened up to more than a churchgoing audience," Kinnear says. "Regardless if you believe in heaven or you don't, that's secondary to the journey of this family in a small town."
Co-star Thomas Haden Church hadn't heard of the book when he was sent the script. After making movies like "Sideways" and "Spider-Man 3," Church wasn't certain if being part of a faith-based movie was the right career choice. His mind was changed when he visited the widow of his longtime cattle partner and saw the book on her table.
Church stops short of saying that was a sign, but it was the point when he decided to do the movie.
A big part of the movie deals with the crisis of faith the pastor has after his son begins to reveal things to him that he shouldn't be able to know. After spending his entire life convincing parishioners they should believe in heaven, Burpo becomes confused even though it looks like his son has given him proof.
"To say you believe in heaven is a totally different thing to say what you believe about near-death experiences. We know in the Bible it says you get a better body but here's my son saying he knows what that looks like. But how can I prove that?" the real Todd Burpo says. "I think as a pastor, one of my biggest fears is to stand in the pulpit and not be able to preach something I don't know for sure. I want to make sure when I preach and I teach that I know the answer.
"I don't want to stand up and say 'I could be right.' That's a real heavy burden for me."
More than a million copies of the book have been sold in printed or e-book versions. Despite the popularity, there are plenty who dispute the claims because Colton's trip didn't come during a near-death experience. No matter the detractors, Colton knows what he saw and he deals with that on a daily basis.
"Just because I had my experience doesn't mean I'm special. I still get tested every day," says Colton, who is now 15. "It may mean I know what to expect but there's still some stuff I never see coming."