Today I’m excited to share a guest column by author Bob Valleau. Bob interviewed Rebekah Cook to glean from her wisdom on telling stories that matter. Rebekah has an interesting perspective as she has worked both behind the scenes as well as in front of the camera on a multitude of film projects.
Rebekah Cook is a Christian actress, acting coach, script supervisor and casting director. She has performed, provided advice or managed scenes in over 20 faith-based films. She talked with me recently about her journey into the fascinating field of Christian film. She also shared why she feels God has given her a desire to inspire others through this unique avenue of entertainment.
BV: Thank you, Rebekah, for allowing me to ask you some questions about your role in Christian film. I’ve admired your work on numerous films, especially the short, Wanted, that has won multiple awards. But before we get into exactly what it is you do, I’d like to know a little more about you. I noticed you lived in Spain for some time and you are a missionary’s daughter. Tell me what that was like.
RC: We arrived in Spain when I was a one-year-old, and I didn’t come to live in the States until much later, when I was twenty. Growing up in Europe was at once spectacular and ordinary, like an adventure you live through but are only vaguely aware of just how epic it is at the time.
Being so close to places of history was a real treat: singing in the same monastery where the first Spanish translation of the Bible was begun (during the Spanish Inquisition, not long before the Pilgrims who landed in America were born), or touring Roman ruins dating back to the first century, complete with intricate mosaic floors and the remains of a full-scale arena where gladiators fought. The weekly outdoor markets bursting with the flavors of Mediterranean produce, town choir rehearsals where we sang folk Christmas carols, and commutes that drove through rambling almond and olive orchards are all treasured “everyday” moments.
Homeschooling meant we had a more flexible schedule for ministry work throughout the week. I could help organize games and spiritually educational activities for neighborhood kids. We were able to travel three hours each way three times a week to help a struggling congregation (which led to many weeks of revival and numerous miraculous healings). When I was in my teens, my siblings and I helped develop and teach curriculum for intensive summer Bible youth camps. I learned to get ahead on my studies whenever I was able to have the margin to dive into these “extra” endeavors.
I love the Spanish people. Their melodic language, their don’t-rush-the-moment pace of life, and their appreciation for family have all made an indelible imprint on my own perspective. Though no country’s heritage is perfect, the rich tapestry of Spanish culture has a special place in my heart. Yet my parents’ influence, their reason for being there, and by continuation, my reason for being there, shaped my worldview the most. So in many ways I am bilingual, and bicultural—or as many refer to it, a “third-culture-kid.” For me, this term is especially apt, as I count myself first a citizen of heaven.
BV: It appears you’ve had a heart to help others from an early age, and you’ve had an interesting childhood to say the least. What are some things you like to do in your spare time?
RC: When I was thirteen years old I began to explore my natural talent for handcrafts, from origami and quilling to knitting, beading, and even lace-tatting! Experimenting with new healthy recipes and ideas in the kitchen is a blast. Blogging is another creative outlet for me. I enjoy spending time with family and friends, playing games at home, watching a movie, and going on hikes. I also play the clarinet, a bit of piano, sing, and write Psalmist-style songs.
BV: Sounds like your life is full on many levels, and you are very talented. Now, about your life’s work. How did you know you wanted to become involved in Christian films? Were you headed down a different road or had you always known this was what you wanted?
RC: My deepest desire from my earliest memory is to live life fully, loving God, loving others, and introducing them to the God who loves them even more than I do. But I didn’t know what forms that would take. Drama and other performing arts were a definite interest of mine growing up, but wasn’t until the summer I was fifteen that film entered my mental radar.
I’d been seeking the Lord very intentionally to receive the desires He had for me, with regard to my “mission” and where to direct my efforts for the future. While watching a familiar Christian film, it suddenly occurred to me very strongly that I would like to impact people through stories like that. It was a sort of light-bulb moment in my spirit, where I sensed that a desire was being conceived. So I prayed that if this new desire was of the Lord, that it would grow and that He would show me what to do with it.
From there, I sought out acting instruction from library resources, online articles, and film workshops. I interviewed at one point to join a traveling drama troupe, but then realized that wasn’t quite the right place for me, and would keep me too busy to pursue screen acting. Seeing more films on our satellite channel in Spain, like those from the Kendricks, the Christiano brothers, and others, kept confirming to me that this was a mission-field I was passionate about.
BV: I like how you described your epiphany as a spiritual “light-bulb moment” and how your desire was conceived. Faith-based films are receiving a lot of attention now. What do you attribute this interest to?
RC: Stories matter, and those who tell them well influence culture. They always have. A persuasive perspective and engaging portrayal of information will transmit the storyteller’s values to their audience. For better and for worse, film is one of the most powerful ways out there now to tell a story. While we love to be entertained, I believe that we are hardwired to want and appreciate stories that leave us with more than an occupied imagination. The stories of substance are the ones we remember best.
In a culture that claims to celebrate diversity, people of faith feel increasingly marginalized and muzzled. So when they see a film that resonates deeply enough, they are excited to share it! With the rise of the digital age, more filmmakers are able to add to the conversation (with varying results) to engage in the relevant issues of our day. Whether they love it or hate it, the mainstream audience and creative community will take note of whatever stories gain traction.
BV: To help us better understand exactly what you do, can you briefly describe each of your roles as an actress, acting coach, script supervisor and casting director? And did you have any specialized training for each role? How do you prepare for each of these roles? Is there a process? For instance, if you were chosen to be an actress in a film, what is the first thing you would do?
RC: The very first order of business for any of these roles is to read the script. It gives the foundation to any other prep work by helping me ask the right questions going forward.
If I’m offered an acting role, one of the first things I like to do is get the logistics out of the way. Getting paperwork in place, dates on the calendar, measurements for wardrobe, etc. helps unclutter my creative brain space to begin exploring and discovering my character in a deeper way. Then I will read the script over and over to absorb the scope of the story, the layers of relationships, and the nuances of dialogue.
Subtext at its core is the thoughts behind the words and actions on the page. A surface reading is an empty shell of what the scene should be. But if you can decipher the thoughts and intentions of your character and others, you will crack the code to the interpretation. An actor’s job is to portray a character as truthfully as possible—apart from whether or not the character is truthful! “For as he thinks in his heart, so is he.” (Proverbs 23:7a) So I make it my mission to figure out how and what my character thinks, harmonized with the speech and behavior those thoughts produce. It’s a balance between instinct, imagination, and honest detective work.
My real plunge into the business of acting was as the casting assistant for Alone Yet Not Alone, which had a total of over seventy speaking roles! The casting director was based in a different state, whereas I had been working with director George Escobar already on the script revisions, proofreading and outlining character profiles. He mentored me throughout the process of evaluating headshots/resumes, video auditions, and even had me be the reader for live callbacks. I got my first casting director credit a year later, for The Screenwriters, which had a total of nine roles to fill.
When I’m casting a film, grasping the director’s vision is essential. Establishing rapport and effective communication channels is my first priority. Without understanding what they are looking for in each character and why, it’s near impossible to assemble a cast that will fulfill their expectations. The budget level, the historical period, and the size of the ensemble also play a part in the casting strategy needed. Once I’ve gathered the intel, it’s time to create the breakdown.
The casting breakdown is a concise expression of everything agencies/talent need to know in order to submit their information to us. This includes project specs (production personnel, dates, rates, deadlines), character synopses (including physical attributes and clues to story function/arc), and submission/audition instructions. Once submissions start flooding in, we look not only at how well each actor fits the individual character description, but what they would add to the texture of the ensemble and marketability of the film.
A script supervisor is perhaps more accurately described as a “continuity coordinator.” During pre-production I will proof the script and make detailed breakdowns to ensure that elements affecting continuity will be accurate and clearly understood. Time progression is communicated visually through the set, character appearance, weather/climate, lighting, etc., so it is imperative that every department be on the same page at the outset.
During filming, I also make note of any script changes in look, dialogue, and more, especially when it has ripple effects for scenes we haven’t done yet. The main objective is to help get everything on screen that needs to be there, and keep everything distracting off! I take copious notes on the script and in log sheets both to keep track of the details each take for matching purposes throughout production, and to help the editors understand what happened on set (and why).
Although the script supervisor interacts with practically everyone else on set (and works especially closely with the director), it’s technically a one-person department. This makes it hard to get experience without just learning on the job, so I’m pretty much self-taught. There are some great articles online that give a basic overview of what to do, but putting it all into practice under pressure is the tricky part. Having worked continuity on over half a dozen films now, I’ve developed a system that works well for me.
Coaching actors is a natural, almost accidental outgrowth of my cross-trained skills in acting, casting, and continuity. Maybe especially continuity, as that position has allowed me to witness a variety of directing styles. Because of my unique perspective and experience, I began to get a lot of questions from talent about how to best prepare for their audition, effective scene analysis, headshot/resume feedback, and what to expect on set. So between projects I now offer my services to actors online via video chat appointments.
BV: I’m sure there is a lot of prayer and thought that goes into your decision about each project you accept, but are there other things you consider?
RC: Prayer is vital, for sure! If I don’t feel peace in my spirit about a project, even if everything looks good on paper, I choose to turn it down. But some practical things I look at are: the script, the budget, the people involved.
Does the script contain material I find objectionable? There are lines that I have personally decided not to cross. Is the budget appropriate for the scope of the film? If too low, you risk shoddy production value, or the project being abandoned for lack of funds. If too high, you risk an imbalance of priorities in the production process if the above the line decision-makers don’t have the experience to pull it off. And finally, the people. What is their reputation like, both in the content and quality of stories they tell, and for how they treat others throughout the production process? Red flags on any of these can lead to me turning down a project.
BV: What was the greatest advice someone gave you when you first started out in this field? What would you add to that, when speaking to others considering Christian films as a career?
RC: I’ve had a lot of advice given to me over the years. My parents, my brother, my mentors at Advent Film Group—George Escobar and Michael Snyder, and many others have poured wisdom into my life. Here’s what I’d pass on:
Trust God, and take the steps He shows you, even if they don’t make sense to anyone else. Make decisions out of faith, not fear. Don’t compromise your values; say “no” when you need to. Take responsibility for your mistakes, for your department, and your department’s mistakes. Share the credit whenever possible; filmmaking is a team effort. Learn your craft well, and never stop learning. Volunteer, but not forever. Seek out mentors in your craft, and honor them by paying it forward to others. Accept criticism with grace. Be proactive. Don’t point a finger if you’re not willing to be part of the solution. Find a problem and fix it. Look for a need and meet it. Instead of trying to follow the trends, identify a hungry audience and feed them a nourishing story. Work to build a legacy, not a career.
BV: Excellent advice! Tell me more about what it is like working on a faith-based film. Share an example where you used your skill as a casting director. How do you assist in the process of choosing the right person for a role?
RC: It’s a kind of adventure, where God is not only acknowledged, but He’s the axis everything else spins around. We strive to honor God in the product we are making, and how we go about making it: excellence in our work, humility in our interactions, caring about each person involved and their personal well-being, and treating the community and locations we are working in with respect.
For casting, I work hard to design the process to enable every actor to present their best work. Once the parade of auditions has gone by, we have to decide who to pick. Does the actor’s physicality fit the role? If part of an on-screen family, do they look related? Do they balance well with the rest of our cast choices in talent level, acting style, energy, and look? Will they be able to work well with the director and the rest of the crew? Can we afford to hire them? Will their agent and/or guardian be a pain or a joy to work with? Do they have an existing affinity to a cause showcased in the film? Will they elevate the marketability or reach of the film? These are some of the questions I endeavor to answer throughout the casting process so we can make an informed decision.
I keep speaking of “we” because it’s not a call that I make on my own. It’s important to me that the director feel very comfortable with the casting choices. I certainly pitch my own top picks, but if they have a different opinion, we discuss the options and pray about it until we come to a point of agreement. Sometimes that means me submitting to their differing creative vision, sometimes they decide to defer to my judgment, and other times it means that we keep looking for another option altogether.
One time, there was a local actor who had a stellar submission, great look, great delivery, and also did well in his callback. All the lights looked green. But I wasn’t convinced. What concerned me was that the actor’s attitude was unintentionally threatening the creative authority of the young director who would be working with him. I couldn’t risk having that be a constant distraction and drain on the director during the shoot, so I advised the team to keep looking until we found a better fit. It’s just as important to know when not to settle as it is to help recognize who to actually cast.
BV: Let’s talk about one of your recent films, Wanted. I’ve seen this short film, and it’s a powerful story about adoption and how one boy, Luke, tries to deal with a new home, a new family and the trauma of his past. The ending surprised me. Because of his troubled upbringing, Luke feels no one wants him, and he settles for not wanting anyone either, until something gives him a change of heart.
To quote a line from the story, “He has to want this,” says Luke’s new mother, Rachel, who is played by Stacey Bradshaw. It’s a simple line that encompasses every reformation, as far back as when Jesus would query before performing a miracle: Do you want to be made well? (John 5:6) In other words, how badly you want to be made whole involves a decision that comes from within.
Wanted has won multiple awards and has received many rave reviews. Does this surprise you? Why or why not?
RC: It really doesn’t! I think everyone on set could tell that this was going to be a super-special story to share. So while we couldn’t predict exactly how it would be received, it wasn’t for lack of believing in the film ourselves. Almost like having a birthday coming up, and not knowing if people will care or not….but they do, and everyone decides to send you a nice card letting you know how much your friendship means to them.
The amazing reception the film has had lets us know that we’ve reached our audience effectively. There are so many layers to the story of Wanted. Anyone can relate to at least one of the characters, and the theme touches home on multiple levels: family, foster care, adoption, belonging. There’s a jewel there for each person to find, and often not the one that they expected to see.
BV: In particular, how did you participate in the making of this film?
RC: Both the director and the producers are good friends of mine, so during pre-production, I was approached for my feedback on the script. In fact, I knew all of the cast and crew from previous projects, so it kinda felt like a work-party with friends! My main role was serving as the script supervisor.
BV: I know that, as creative individuals, every project we become involved with changes us in some way. What film, that you have worked on, sticks out in your mind as the one that changed you the most and in what ways?
RC: Hm, that’s tough! The easy choice, I suppose, would be Alone Yet Not Alone. It was my first experience working on production of a feature film, and I underwent a huge learning curve, as well as gaining many close friends. But there’s another project I’d like to highlight here, because there was such a clear shift that happened inside me, and that is Indescribable.
On the set of Indescribable I was simultaneously learning what to do for my own job, and mentoring others on set with less film experience. It was the first time I truly had to juggle a full-time crew position with the demands of a supporting acting role. I served as the Second AD, filled in for the Production Coordinator for two weeks, directed a unit during a split shoot, and even got my start in continuity when I subbed one day for the script supervisor. I was also invited to coach the child actors for certain emotional scenes; I’ve always loved working with kids, and this was the first taste I had of helping fellow actors access the tools they needed to to bring authenticity and strength to their performance. On the whole, it was a very stretching experience for me personally and in my craft!
BV: I’m sure you have given many of us a lot to think about today, especially those who are interested in pursuing some type of role in telling stories that matter through Christian film. Thank you, again, Rebekah, for your time and for talking to me. I appreciate your hard work and for your contribution in this fascinating field. I love your website, and I enjoy reading your blog. Before we go, please give everyone a brief synopsis about what else is on your site and what you offer.
RC: Thank you; I appreciate it! Well, in addition to the standard actor-website elements of bio, resume, photo gallery, and social media links, there are a few items worth mentioning. The News tab is where I post what I’ve been up to in recent months. The Films section is where I share behind the scenes photos from each project along with relevant links (trailer, where to buy, etc.). I offer Online Coaching for actors who would like mentoring in their craft and/or business approach. And finally, there is a handy Contact form for anyone who wants to get in touch with me about their project.
BV: Is there anything else you would like to say?
RC: For anyone interested in learning more about filmmaking, I started doing a guest blog series recently for the Midwest Christian Filmmakers Academy. Drawing from my own experience, I’m outlining a “Crew Profile” for the various film positions I’ve held to help others understand the unique challenges and responsibilities of each one.
Another training/networking opportunity is the annual Christian Worldview Film Festival. This will be my third year teaching in the acting track of the Guild along with gifted actors and teachers Rich Swingle and Mimi Sagadin. The Screenwriters, Badge of Faith, Refuge, and my directorial debut Changing Majors, are all screening this year at the festival. It is easily my favorite industry event every year, and I highly recommend it!
Rebekah Cook’s website: http://www.actressrebekah.com/
This interview also appeared in this month’s issue of Point North Tidings.
Bob Valleau is an award-winning Christian writer and the author of three books.