Chiwetel Ejiofor On Playing The Doubting Bishop Of 'Come Sunday'

Apr 15, 2018

The new Netflix movie Come Sunday stars the English actor Chiwetel Ejiofor as an American leader of an evangelical megachurch who experiences a theological crisis — one that costs him his ministry.

In an interview, he said that his approach to adapting the real-life tale of Bishop Carlton Pearson came from "this idea of how one organizes one's thoughts in terms of a belief structure."

"And I guess we all have that — we all have these systems of reality that we buy into, that we understand ourselves through that prism," Ejiofor says. "To actually change your mind about something — it seems straightforward in a way, but is very seismic for any one of us, really, to very fundamentally change our minds about anything. And seeing somebody go through that process, and go through it with a great amount of grace actually, and to come out of that on the other side of it losing a lot along the way but gaining an incredible amount, was very moving."

Hear the full interview in the audio link above. And hear an interview with Carlton Pearson here.

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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

About 15 years ago, a man named Carlton Pearson had - well, let's call it a revelation. It came to him that ideas that had informed his entire adult life about heaven and hell and what it takes to avoid one and enter the other were just not true. Now while that might not seem like a big deal, people change their minds about things all the time.

In this case, it was a very big deal because Carlton Pearson presided over one of the biggest congregations in Tulsa, Okla., and his rejection of its Pentecostal theology for what he calls the gospel of inclusion would cost him just about everything he had. His story was the basis for a segment on the public radio program "This American Life." And now, it's also the subject of a new movie that premiered on Netflix Friday night. It's called "Come Sunday." In a few minutes, we will meet Bishop Pearson himself. But first, I talk with the man who portrays him in the film. You may remember Chiwetel Ejiofor for as the Oscar-nominated actor from "12 Years A Slave." And I ask him about his new movie and how he understood the spiritual journey of his character, Bishop Pearson.

CHIWETEL EJIOFOR: My basis of investigating where Carlton was coming from was really just on this idea of how one organizes one's thoughts in terms of a belief structure. And I guess we all have that - we all have these sort of systems of reality that we buy into, that we understand ourselves through that prism. To actually sort of change your mind about something - it seems straightforward in a way but is very seismic for any one of us really to very fundamentally change our minds about anything. And seeing somebody go through that process and go through it with a great amount of grace actually and to sort of come out of that - the other side of it, losing a lot along the way, but gaining an incredible amount, is very moving.

MARTIN: Let me play a clip from the film where this is you as Bishop Pearson, and you're trying to explain to your congregation your ideas - like, where you're coming from, what conclusions you've come to. Let me play it for you.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "COME SUNDAY")

EJIOFOR: (As Bishop Pearson) All of my life, I've been taught it. Everything I know points to a choice, heaven or hell. Many people I loved - members of my own family went to hell, and they're there for good. Now, I could never reconcile that, but I do accept it because they had a choice. But when did these people in Africa separate from God? When did they make a choice? And how do they get saved? And he said they don't need to get saved. They're already saved.

MARTIN: You could hear, like, almost the collective intake of breath when they go, what? You know? I love the American accent, by the way.

EJIOFOR: Oh, thank you (laughter).

MARTIN: Just thought I'd mention that. Have you ever changed your mind about something big that caused you to worry about it - think, maybe I'm wrong, maybe this jeopardizes something?

EJIOFOR: I mean, in smaller ways, obviously - nothing on this kind of scale. But I think what is harder and what I don't think I have sort of managed to do really is, as an adult, having formulated myself as an adult is to really sort of fundamentally change my positions on things - not a kind of lip service to changing positions but really fundamental, deep-rooted change.

MARTIN: Was there a key to unlocking this for you? Some people say, oh, it's the way somebody walks. Sometimes people say, well, it's the way they use their hands or the way they hold their bodies or something. Is there a key to unlocking Carlton Pearson for you?

EJIOFOR: Well, I mean, only in the sense that I went and met Carlton in Oklahoma, and we spent time together as well in Atlanta. And I watched him preach, and I found him very - it sort of sounds strange, but it has just very pure of soul, the idea that I understood why people felt that he was incredibly charismatic but also was carrying some sort of message of truth and of hope. And actually shifting that more onto an inclusive basis seems, to me, like quite of a natural progression for somebody like Carlton.

MARTIN: That's Chiwetel Ejiofor. He plays Bishop Carlton Pearson in the new Netflix film "Come Sunday."

Chiwetel Ejiofor, thank you so much for speaking with us.

EJIOFOR: Pleasure. Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.