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The journey of Wesley comes home to Winston-Salem

by Mark Burger

The independent feature film Wesley, a biographical drama tracing the life of clergyman John Wesley (1703-1791), the architect of the Methodist movement, will enjoy its Winston-Salem premiere this Saturday at 7 p.m. at the Stevens Center (405 W. 4 th St.). Much of the cast and crew will be on hand to greet the audience and discuss the production following the screening.

The majority of principal photography took place in the summer of 2007 throughout Forsyth County, with locations in Old Salem doubling for Savannah, GA and Great Britain.

The film was “absolutely” the most ambitious and arduous project yet tackled by screenwriter/executive producer/ director John Jackman, also the pastor at Trinity Moravian Church in Winston- Salem. “We broke every rule of lowbudget filmmaking, and still made it work. But it was accomplished only by the dedication of a huge crew of talented people who were willing to sacrifice to make it happen,” he says.

“As far as I know, this is the largest locally-produced movie there has ever been in the Triad,” adds Jackman. “We had over 75 speaking roles and nearly 200 extras, all in a costume drama that included children, horses, carriages and hundreds of period costumes.”

In addition, the film required extensive CGI special effects to convey John and Charles Wesley’s journey from England to America. Remarkably, the film was accomplished on a budget of under $1 million.

For the pivotal role of John Wesley, Jackman tapped Burgess Jenkins, a Winston-Salem native whose film credits include Remember the Titans (2000) and The Reaping (2007). Jenkins is also the founder of the Carolina Actors Group, an acting studio in downtown Winston-Salem.

Although not a Methodist in real life, Jenkins considers himself a student of theology and religion, and was fascinated by John Wesley.

“He led an uncommon life and a tested life,” Jenkins observes, “and it was very powerful for me to be a part of it.”

In researching Wesley, however, Jenkins discovered that many biographers offered differing accounts of his life and personality.

“Every single book had a different opinion of his life,” he says, “so I decided to stick to his journals and to the script and to the historians I consulted.”

So dedicated to the role was Jenkins that he swore off meat and alcohol — as Wesley had done — and adopted hair extensions to simulate Wesley’s lengthy locks. Given that much of the film was shot in warm weather, once it was over, “I was happy to get rid of the hair, for sure,” Jenkins laughs.

R. Keith Harris, whose credits include the Oscar-nominated Big Fish (2005) and Junebug (2005), was cast as Charles Wesley — a result of “divine providence,” quips Jenkins, who actually suggested Harris for the role to Jackman.

When Jackman and Harris discussed the role, they found they were of like minds and Harris signed on.

Likewise, Harris also delved into the

history of Charles Wesley by poring over his journals. Charles Wesley was one of the most prolific hymn-writers of all time, having written over 5,000 of them and contributing to at least 2,000 more, and although he and John often disagreed, they shared an unbreakable bond.

“They loved each other and respected one another, and relied on each other,” says Jenkins. “Obviously they would go to hell and back for each other.”

It was important, notes Jenkins, “to show some of the depth of that relationship. Brothers inherently have a richness between them, and whether it’s entirely historically accurate or not, I think the depth comes out.”

“They are both tremendously creative actors with a lot of spiritual and personal depth,” says Jackman. “There are several scenes that made the final cut where we allowed Burgess and Keith to improvise as the brothers, and what they did was better than what was in the script.”

“It was important to find those ‘brother’ moments,” says Harris. “The humanness of their relationship has to come out. When you’re working with people you trust, you can play and find moments that work.”

“We wanted the audience to experience what these guys were experiencing,” says Jenkins, “and I think that comes out on screen.”

The cast also includes Hollywood veterans June Lockhart (as the Wesleys’ mother) and Kevin McCarthy, as well as an “all-star” lineup of local acting talent including Jim McKeny, Mark Boynton, Michael Huie, Ray Collins, Bill Oberst Jr., Robert Harris and newcomer Carrie Anne Hunt.

“God says ‘I will turn all things to my purpose’ — and I believe that’s what happened to John Wesley,” Jenkins observes. “I respect him immensely for what he had to do. He basically had an entire nation despise him. In the proverbial sense, he was knocked off his horse more than once, but kept getting back on. He faced the same struggles and same feelings on a daily basis that we all do.”

Tickets are $14, $12 for students (with valid ID), $10 for children (under 12). Reservations are strongly suggested. For tickets or more information, call 336.721.1945. For more information about the film, see the official website: wesleythemovie.com.

John Wesley (Burgess Jenkins) teaches French to the lovely young Sophy Hopkey (Carrie Anne Hunt) (courtesy photo).

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