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Off Camera . . . with Louis Henry Mitchell

An intriguing conversation with Dan Rupple and Louis Henry Mitchell, Creative Director of Character Design at Sesame Street Workshop. They discuss how Louis’ love for the Lord and his love for people come together in the workplace.

DAN: Your love for the Lord just radiates from you, Louis. Tell us about how you see your role and why you believe God put you at Sesame Street.

LOUIS: I know that [Sesame Street] is the backdrop for what He actually has me doing. Sesame Street has a big vision, but the bigger vision—my vision—is reaching out to touch people’s hearts.

Years ago, I was called “the pastor of Sesame Street.” People will say, “Louis, can I talk to you?” “Sure, what’s going on?” (I’m thinking it’s about work) One co-worker said, “I know you really love kids, right? I’m having trouble with my son.” He told me about the situation and after a while he said to me, “Would you mind speaking to him?” “Not at all if you feel like it would help.”

When I mention I’m at Sesame Street people’s hearts open up, and it’s the perfect opportunity to talk with them on a deeper level. Generally I just start sharing about the love of God. I love my work, but I love the people where I work even more than the work itself.

DAN: I know how sincere you are in your love for these wonderful people you’ve built relationships with. How do your conversations transition into the moment when it’s right to share the gospel?

LOUIS: Eventually people start asking me things like “What’s your life like outside of Sesame?” It’s not me trying to shove it down their throat; I just share with them in love and they ask, “Tell me more about you. Why do you love this so much? What’s going on?” After a while I say to them . . . “Do you really want to know?”

At that point God has prepared their hearts to receive whatever He’s going to give to me to share. It’s fun. That’s the best part of my job—co-workers asking me so I can lead to why I’m here and who I belong to.

DAN: What role does a Christian community of media professionals like Mastermedia or others have in your life?

LOUIS: The more I’m involved, the more encouraged I am because I don’t have a lot of believers around me. It’s been a blessing to engage with other brothers and to come back to work knowing that in a couple of weeks I’ll be able to be with them again.

It’s a ministry at Sesame Street, and that ultimately makes it worth it, even during the most difficult times. I don’t have to worry because it’s not me, it’s God at work in me. So I rest on that. It makes it fun, actually.

DAN: Louis, it’s always a pleasure to talk with you. Thank you so much for giving us a glimpse of how you walk out your faith as you fulfill your career calling within the entertainment industry. Blessings my friend!

Off Camera . . . with Edwina Findley Dickerson

In addition to long-running featured roles on series such as Treme, The Wire, and Fear the Walking Dead, Edwina stars as “Kelly” on If Loving You Is Wrong, which premiered as the highest-rated series debut in OWN’s network history.

Dan: Thank you for being with us, Edwina. It’s such a pleasure to visit with you my friend. I want to start at the beginning: How and when did the “acting bug” hit you?                                                                                             

Edwina: The acting bug hit me when I was about four years old. My very first show was Psalty’s Christmas Calamity, based on the popular Christian kids’ songbook called Psalty’s Singing Songbook. After that my mother put me in music lessons, dance lessons, gymnastics, creative writing, drama, and classical singing. She did everything she could to make sure my creative juices continued to flow. I always encourage parents to be aware of their children’s natural gifts at a young age. Now I’m the mother of a one-year-old, and it’s amazing to see her manifesting these gifts already—very exciting! I’m so grateful that my mother invested in me that way.

Dan: What were the circumstances that brought you to faith? And were you already working in the industry?

Edwina: I grew up in a Christian home and went to Christian schools until 7th grade. In my early years we attended a Seventh-day Adventist church, but by age 16 I was going to a Pentecostal church. The Lord began to speak to me, and I started learning about the Holy Spirit in an intimate, active way. That really changed my life.

The prophetic side of faith eventually became a big part of my journey. God started speaking to me and showing me signs and wonders and things I could not explain about what my path was going to be. Over the years so much has been prophesied to me through the Holy Spirit, including states where I would work as an actress, my move to Hollywood, whom I would marry, the sex of my baby and her name, and exactly whom I would work with in the industry, including Tyler Perry and Oprah Winfrey whom I work with now. It’s been amazing how the Holy Spirit has guided my path as an actress.

Dan: As an actor you can’t hide behind the camera as a producer, writer or director might do. It’s your face people see on the screen. As a Christian, how do you separate your personal beliefs and values from those of a character you are portraying?

Edwina: That is a really great question, and one that a lot of Christian actors really wrestle with. I was offered a role on my very first television show—a really gritty, raw show with cursing and violence. Just watching it I felt like “Oh . . . I’m not really seeing God there!” At first glance I thought “There is no way God wants me to be a part of this.” But I took three days to fast and pray with a close friend, asking God to show me if I was to take this role. On the third day the Lord said, “I am the one who set it up for you to receive this role. It’s not for you, it’s not for your own self-aggrandizement. There are people at this show who are waiting to hear from you.” It was powerful, and I accepted the role based on the Word of the Lord in spite of my initial hesitation. I had expected it to be a “good Christian role.”

It’s amazing what God did behind the scenes while I was at that show—absolutely life-transforming. Lives were impacted and lives were changed. And God spoke to me again when it was time to give the show up and leave. I was shocked and asked Him, “Wait a minute, God, you’re the one who told me to take the role and now you’re telling me to leave the show? Does that mean I just quit the show?” I really didn’t know, but I knew that God was speaking to me and finally yielded to His voice and prayed. And sure enough, the very next day I got the script for the next episode—and my character “died” in the next episode. It’s amazing how God works when we actually submit and pray and want to be led by Him, and when our own desires aren’t the most important because we want to be used by God.

I try to be sensitive about my roles. Sometimes it isn’t a matter of “Does the person in this role go to church on Sunday, and do they use clean language all the time?” The truth is most Christians we know don’t go to church every Sunday and use clean language all the time, even if they may look like they do.

I look at a project as a whole . . . what is the message of the whole project? If my character is saying, doing, or believing something very different than Edwina would, I ask the question, “Is this a story worth telling? It may not be my story, but is it a story worth telling—and am I the person to tell this story?”

At the end of the day honesty is what I pursue. I believe God is a God of truth, and sometimes there are uncomfortable truths that many of us as believers shy away from. But it doesn’t make them less true. And sometimes as an actor my roles are used to express great truths, whether they are the kind we want to confront or not.

Dan: I know you and your husband Kelvin just celebrated your 5th anniversary. Regarding the demands of a role, demands of your time, as well as out of town locations, have you found that there are challenges of being in the business that are particularly unique to a Christian couple?

Edwina: Yes, absolutely. I was recently offered a role that is filming in Africa, and I thought it would be as simple as my whole family coming with me and that’s it. But it’s not. Especially as a parent, it can be really tricky figuring out how to balance my husband’s needs and preferences, the needs of my baby, and the demands of my career.

And as Christian wives we are taught that our family is our first ministry, and that God is the head of the man and the head of the woman is the man. There’s a hierarchy there. I try my best to practice a level of respect when it comes to my husband and God. I am a very headstrong woman and anyone who knows me knows that. In marriage I am constantly working on that balance of maintaining my uniqueness, while also growing in the gifts of the Spirit and growing in my role as a wife and mother as well. It really is a delicate balance.

Dan: In light of the recent harassment scandals and the moral crisis facing Hollywood, what is the conversation going on among your fellow actors?

Edwina: The conversation going on among my fellow actors is very similar to what is going on within the wider culture. We are becoming more transparent about the harassment and abuse we’ve endured, whether inside or outside the industry. I feel like this whole movement has been very empowering for women and men who experienced sexual abuse and harassment at different stages of life.

Many people are abused as children and sweep it under the rug or feel like they have to defend their abusers. A lot of times that is perpetuated even into adulthood. Within the industry they are talking about what’s happening in people’s adult years, but that has also brought about a certain freedom for people who have been abused at any stage of life.

Also Time’s Up has been a huge initiative on the disparity of pay between women and men. One fellow actor was sharing with me how she recently turned down a big movie because the amount she was offered was pennies compared with the lead actor who would be her co-star. I was amazed that she did that because a lot of women just settle for what they’re offered. I, and many other women, have been in that position. It may be a high-profile project or maybe your co-star is high profile and therefore you accept low pay just to be a part of that project. I think it’s admirable that women are standing up and saying, “Hey, we are worthy of equal treatment and worthy of being valued in the same way.”

Dan: I know that in addition to your career in acting, you travel the country inspiring young women to uncover their purpose and live their dreams. Any advice you would offer to a young person pursuing a career in the entertainment industry?

Edwina: Absolutely! I am constantly giving advice to aspiring artists. The first and most important thing I encourage is training. Training separates those who are serious about pursuing this as a career from those who are just interested in being famous or “getting out there” or being on the red carpet. Those things are exciting and enticing, but the biggest part of the job is being able to deliver as an actor. I find that some people just want to jump into it without doing any work. There are very few careers that people pursue without the expectation of training.

The other benefit of training is longevity. I’ve been training as an actress since I was a little girl. I went to camps, a performing arts high school, and studied acting and theater at NYU. And I still have acting coaches and vocal coaches because you can never stop growing, and you can never stop pursuing excellence. I really feel the key to longevity in a career like this is proper training and committing to the process. It’s not always easy, but if you align with mentors and have education and knowledge from the start, it will be easier to set up your career for success.

Another thing I share with aspiring artists is how to be a successful entrepreneur within the landscape of arts and entertainment. Many actors see themselves as just an actor, but the truth is we are our own business. We have to learn how to be CEOs of our own business, and it’s the business of us—we are the talent. My husband and I lead a course called #ARTISTCEO that really helps aspiring artists to navigate that terrain.

Dan: Edwina, your friends at Mastermedia are so proud of who you are as a Christian in this business and your heart to inspire an emerging generation. And we ask our entire Mastermedia community to continue to pray for you, your career and your marriage.

Edwina: Thank you so much! You don’t even know how much that means to me. I am deeply appreciative. I truly believe we are one body with many parts. Just as there are people whose names and faces you recognize on TV, there are many people supporting them behind the scenes. Intercessors, pastors, spiritual guides, and friends are all part of the total community. We couldn’t do what we do up front if people weren’t praying for us, encouraging us, and inspiring us behind the scenes. So I just want to express my gratitude to all of you as well.

[www.edwinafindley.com]

Projecting Dignity

by Dan Rupple

Each year, as I consider films to see at the Sundance Film Festival, I find myself giving preference to the documentaries. To be cinematically transported to foreign cultures and exposed to the beauty and pain of others’ experiences can be transformative.

One such film was War Dance, chronicling the story of three Ugandan refugee children whose lives are torn apart by war and then brought together as they prepare to take part in a nationwide music and dance competition. In the filmmaker’s juxtaposition between the atrocities and resilience of the human spirit, he brought such dignity and honor to these children who were trying to make sense of life in a world far dissimilar to mine. This produced in me an empathy, admiration, and respect for people and places of which I was previously unaware.

Whoever oppresses a poor man insults his Maker, but he who is generous to the needy honors him. (Proverbs 14:31)

One of the most powerful lyrics ever written comes from “O Holy Night” in the phrase, “Till He appeared and the soul felt its worth.” When Jesus Christ left the glory of heaven and visited this soiled world, He brought unmerited dignity to all of mankind. Sinful human beings were given worth, demonstrated by the simple fact that our righteous Creator chose to come to us. Jesus brought dignity by dining with the vilified tax collector, granting mercy to the accused adulterous woman, and allowing the sinful woman to wet his feet with her tears. Without condoning or overlooking the damage caused by wrong or immoral behavior, Jesus first restores dignity to the brokenhearted—they are welcomed by God. And His goodness leads to their repentance.

Atticus Finch: “If you just learn a single trick, Scout, you’ll get along a lot better with all kinds of folks. You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view . . . until you climb inside his skin and walk around in it.” (To Kill a Mockingbird)

Movies are a powerful medium, granting the viewer entry into the world of someone else. When a filmmaker appears in the life of the “other” with a lens of dignity, it can make beautiful strides in acknowledging the intrinsic value that God places on every human being.

Conversely, a camera can be a powerful weapon of destruction when used to project a skewed, derogatory, unfair stereotype that brings with it ridicule and scorn, degrading an individual or people group.

The filmmaker has to decide, “Am I going to use my camera to ultimately illuminate or to degrade?”

Behind the camera, increasingly we hear heartbreaking accounts of individuals, usually in a place of power, holding the dignity of others hostage. We see it reflected in personal stories of sexual violations, vile verbal slurs, racial discrimination, and many more displays of human degradation.

The treatment of others as objects to be used for “my needs,” rather than individuals who are fearfully and wonderfully made by their Holy Creator, is fueled in part by the erroneous thinking that by lowering someone else’s value, I will increase my own self-worth.

And the deep harm brought to a life by these assaults on an individual is having a ripple effect on so many others within the media and entertainment industry. I hear tragic stories of media professionals losing their jobs and livelihood literally overnight, due to cancellations caused by the cruel actions of the star of their show or the head of their production company.

Of course these issues are not unique to the film industry. Tragically, they can be found throughout this fallen world in most industries, organizations, and communities. But the level of belittling seems to be on the rise, particularly on social media. This growing onslaught of ugliness is eroding the fabric of our society. There is a meanness to our cultural conversation.

How desperately we need the love of God to fill our hearts, allowing us to see and treat our fellow man in the same manner that God sees and treats each one of us!

“At one time we too were foolish, disobedient, deceived and enslaved by all kinds of passions and pleasures. We lived in malice and envy, being hated and hating one another.

“But when the kindness and love of God our Savior appeared, he saved us, not because of righteous things we had done, but because of his mercy.” (Titus 3: 3-5)

Appearing at the office door of a media executive, grabbing a cup of coffee with a film producer, praying with a media professional whose life has gone off the rails—all these lie at the heart of Mastermedia.

Our hope and intent is to project the kindness and love of God in a manner that reflects the invaluable price that God Himself paid in order to restore us—and those we serve—back into relationship with our Creator.