An Interview With The Shack’s Sam Worthington

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Back in 2008, The Shack took the publishing world by storm. This novel by William Paul Young tells the story of Mack Phillips, a man struggling to come to terms with the tragic loss of his youngest daughter. He eventually spends a weekend in the shack where his daughter was murdered. And there he talks to … God.

Now this story that sold more than 10 million copies has come to the big screen. (You can check out Plugged In’s review of the film, which includes both praises and concerns, here.) I recently had a chance to talk with actor Sam Worthington (Avatar, Hacksaw Ridge, Everest) about his starring role as Mack Phillips in the film.

[Editor’s note: This conversation has been lightly edited for clarity.]

Adam Holz: Thanks for taking some time to talk with Plugged In, Sam. Let me start with a two-part question: How did you get involved with the production of The Shack, and what drew you to want to be involved in the movie adaptation of this story?

Sam Worthington: Well, I read the script, and that led me to the book. I had a very visceral reaction to the script. I couldn’t really tell you exactly why I took the job. I just know that I felt emotionally connected to it. There was something in this story that just affected me off the page, and I thought it would be great to go on this journey and make the film and see where it takes us.

Holz: Sam, you’re a father of two, is that correct?

Worthington: Yes.

Holz: How do you think being a father yourself informed or influenced the way that you played Mack Phillips in The Shack?

Worthington: Well, I’d had my first son three months before we started shooting, so everything was still new. It’s hard to describe the feeling that having a child opens up, and you don’t set out to use your child in your work. But I know that it raised certain emotions in me. When I did certain scenes, obviously those emotions were on the surface. So it kind of helped to connect to certain beats of the script, more so than if I hadn’t had a child.

Holz: I felt that watching the film. The emotions you were expressing felt really genuine to me.

Worthington: Yeah, this idea of learning to forgive was something that I am still on the journey of discovering. We all build “shacks.” It’s true. If the shack is a parable for the anger and guilt and the burden of life and grief that we hold on to in resentment, and then we live in them, the job is to let that go, to learn how to do that with these lessons of forgiveness. That’s what I was kind of looking into as I was filming, learning those lessons of what is to forgive yourself and forgive others. Just by nature of being involved in the scene, it’s helping you explore yourself.

Holz: That leads into my next question. Obviously, the film is about one grieving man’s encounter with God in the midst of an unthinkable loss. How would you say that the film has challenged you to think about God maybe differently you did before?

Worthington: I don’t come from a religious background. I wasn’t raised by a Christian family. But, yeah, at 19 someone gave me a Bible and said, “Maybe read this and calm down a bit.” But I think that over the last 20 year since then, I’ve been on this journey of discovering what my faith is, and how faith can actually help you become a better person and what this relationship to God is. And I think part of doing the movie was also part of that journey that I was on. It made me not be afraid to talk about it anymore, to say, “Yeah, I’m still discovering God and understanding this relationship,” and to be open to discussing it—more so than say I was, say, before I did the movie. Yes, it’s still personal. But it’s nothing to be ashamed of or shy of. It’s OK. So I think that it allowed me to kind of just to talk about it more openly with people.

Holz: Is there a particular scene in the film that you would say has the most emotional resonance for you personally?

Worthington: My favorite scene is the scene at the end with Mack’s daughter that’s still alive. He says, “Look, I don’t really know what I’m doing, but I know I can’t do it alone, and maybe we can do it together if you want.” That’s the message of the movie. We’re all going to hold on to these things. And we’re all going to get through it by forgiveness. And forgiveness is going to take time. It’s not something that happens overnight, like when he says, “I forgive you” to the man who killed his daughter, and he says to God, “I don’t feel any different,” and God says, “Maybe not with the first time you say it, but if you keep saying it and saying it, it will get better and easier.” So Mack learns these lessons. Then he says to his daughter at the end, “I can’t do it alone.” We do this journey and learn these lessons together. And I think that’s a beautiful thing, this connective tissue, you know? We think we’re connecting on our iPhones, but in truth, that’s not really connecting. That to me was a scene that couldn’t ring more true with me and how I feel about the world.

Holz: I’m a fan of actress Octavia Spencer, who plays the God character known as Papa in the film. What was it like working with her?

Worthington: She’s a very generous and open actress, And, you know, here’s a woman that had to play God. So I think that she was a bit daunted by that. Where do you even begin? God presents Himself to Mack in the movie in the least confrontational form. And if you come as the dad because of the experience that the character had with his dad, it would be too much. Mack would have closed down. So she came at it as this grounded, motherly, open figure. That’s kind of what Octavia’s warmth is like, that’s where she is best. So when you’re doing those scenes together, it’s actually like two friends talking rather than the reverential God/man scene, you know?

Holz: It seemed like you two had just tremendous chemistry. It felt authentic, and I know that’s an overused word, but …

Worthington: But, no, you’re right. It stops it from going into a “man meeting God.” Mack is still discovering who he is, and to him it’s like, “I’m in this weird place. I’m gonna get the answers. I don’t care whether you’re God. I don’t care whether you’re Jesus. I’m just gonna ask you, straight out.” I think if you look at people’s relationships with God when they pray, it’s not necessarily praying to a higher being, they’re praying to a friend to help them and give them wisdom and comfort.

Holz: Sam, what would you hope that viewers take away from The Shack?

Worthington: No matter how emotionally wrenching it can be and how heartbreaking this man’s journey is, at the end it’s a hopeful film. No matter what, little by little you can get through something. And even if you feel completely and utterly alone, God’s there. There with you, and there to help you get through. That’s a great message.

Who wrote this?

Adam R. Holz is a senior associate editor for Plugged In. He also writes for Focus on the Family’s Clubhouse magazine and has been a Boundless contributor. In his free time (which there is sometimes precious little of) Adam enjoys playing guitar and constructing LEGO kits with his son. Adam and his wife, Jennifer, are the proud parents, in fact, of three children, one boy and two girls.

Have something to say? Leave a comment.

Anonymous 10 months ago
I read the book with some skepticism because I always understood God in my "minds eye" as male. This made it difficult for me because I did have an abusive father and to see God as caring or loving was impossible because I did not have a frame of reference from any male figure in my life. That perspective started to change after reading the book because I was able to grasp the idea of a gentle, loving creator. I would say the book and the movie hit home for me. 
Anonymous 12 months ago
My comments are the elephant in the room that nobody wants to actually grapple with
charitysplace 12 months ago
I like elephants. Let them out. Let's hear it. ;)
Anonymous 12 months ago
I've left my comments three different times and the editor keeps deleting them and refuses to respond to them here's my current comments.
Hi,

In the past I was assisted by your movie reviews, but now I have lost all confidence in your discernment.
Just watched your movie review of the Shack movie, And I'm very concerned that a professing Christian organization would give that movie a rating of four out of five stars for family friendliness.
After reading your review of the movie it's clear to me that the Bible says in the first of the 10 Commandments "you shall have no other gods before Me". To make a God in the likeness of a woman is blasphemy. God the Father is always masculine in the Bible and never presented feminine. 
For the Father to say he did not forsake/abandon the Son on the cross is to reject the true gospel and make a gospel of our own.
To reject God as our Father(masculine) and substitute a woman(femenine) in his place, and to reject the message of the cross of Jesus Christ, saying the Father did not forsake/abandon the Son is to be destructive to the family and not friendly to the family. 

Why you would give this movie a four out of five for family friendliness? I hope your lower the rating to the lowest possible number of stars. Perhaps your movie reviewer's don't know what the gospel is, so they don't try to protect the family from a false gospel. The gospel is the power of God unto salvation to everyone who believes. Having a false gospel is to have a form of godliness but to deny the very power of God himself. A false gospel results in the eternal wrath of God and lake of fire. I will pray for you. May God give you a knowledge of the true Son of God and of the true Father and of the true Holy Spirit. 

It's apparent that your ministry has slowly compromised basic Christian tenants of faith. 
John 1:18 says no man has seen God at any time, the only begotten Son which is in the bosom of the Father, he has declared "HIM"(NOT FEMININE) Besides the fact that the second of the 10 Commandments says do not make any image of God. The apostle John says"No man has seen God". Why would you support as family-friendly the making of the invisible God into a woman when John 1:18 says God the father is a HIM not a her?
I hope you answer my questions with Bible verses. I leave you with one verse to consider whether you know him or not – John 3:16 for God so loved the world that "HE" gave "HIS" only begotten son that whosoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life.
Anonymous 12 months ago
First of all, I would like to say, I have respect that you are willing to put your ideas out there.
Now that that is out of the way, I would like to address to personal issues I have with your opinions of PluggedIn's review. First of all, whether you agree with their opinions or not, there is absolutely no call to challenge their knowledge of the gospel. You (and I) are simply not in the position to do that, we do not know these reviewers personally, it is simply inappropriate to question their knowledge of the gospel. This is a personal matter to me, as I have had my own faith and testimony challenged by people who barely know me, and I would not wish that anger and pain upon any other Christian. Second of all, you are obviously annoyed that they gave it a four out of five for family friendly, but I would like to point out that that rating is deemed by the material 'content' (Violence, Sex, Drugs, Profanity, etc.) of the film, and not by the spiritual 'content' (Spiritual references, etc.) Obviously there are films where the spiritual 'content' is an issue, but I do not believe that it is, or should be, considered for a family friendly rating. Therefore, the family friendly rating is based simply off content, and while there are mild concerns with regards to content, it certainly does not warrant a one star rating. Also, this website, at least to my understanding, is to give parents (and teens!!!!) an idea of what is in movies they are interested in, not to preach that a movie is wrong or right based on it's doctrine. They have their opinions, but those are their opinions, and they share them as such. If people are interested in watching this movie, they most likely know all the drama this book has been a factor in, and are simply looking at the content. This is not the sort of movie people who are not interested, or have no knowledge of the plot, would wish to go see (an opposite of this would be Logan), therefore it does not merit the full blown fear rating of supposed false gospel. Also, in response to the false gospel, I cannot vouch for The Shack, but my question would be, 'Do they believe Christ died for the sins of ALL mankind on the Cross, do they believe that he rose again on the Third Day, do they believe that he will return in glory?' That would be my question, rather than, 'Do they believe that God the Father would appear in flesh as a Man, not a Woman, do they believe in all the fine points of doctrine that caused Jesus to call out the Pharisees?'
Once again, I have respect you for putting your ideas forward, but I personally can understand why your comments were deleted initially. To challenge reputable Christian reviewers, from a reputable Christian movie-review site, that is connected to a tremendous resource for Christian counseling, and say that they do not understand the gospel, is frankly a little foolish. If you will protest this site, and never read them again, by all means do so, but do it in silence please. I hope that I have been coherent, and not come off as arrogant and foolish, I simply wish to convey my response to your comment.
Anonymous 11 months ago

Posted by the Other Anonymous


To rate The Shack as terrible as, say, Deadpool or the Wolf of Wall Street renders PL's rating system practically useless. The Shack is heresy, but a family with older kids or teens could watch it and then refute its false claims. I've met several people at church who saw the movie and explained its problems. Now, blood spurting all over the camera, close-ups of sex scenes, and f-bombs in every line of dialogue make movies impossible to watch. Plugged In is here for us to know what's coming our way before we sit down in the theater. I think they're doing a great job :)

Anonymous 11 months ago
By CbinJ
You are exactly right with regards to how PIO's rating system works, but I do sympathize with the first anon a bit. It seems to me that there has been a tonal shift in PluggedIn's reviews the past couple years; they seem to temper or write off a lot of the underlying issues--the stuff the film says as oppose to what it features. I know PluggedIn has never really done too much indepth analysis with regards to thematic elements, but if you read older reviews you will find that they are much more skeptical of the messages the film is trying to convey.
By CbinJ
Anonymous 7 months ago
Review of The Shack movie

I understand your concerns and I struggled with some of the same things at first when reading the book.  Can I share with you my personal story?  My husband and I have been involved in Christian ministries at various churches and in our home for over 40 years.  We know the publisher of The Shack personally who also spent 16 months collaborating on the writing of the book with another brother who was one of the producers of the movie.   I've heard the author speak at a church when the book first came out 10 years ago about his personal testimony and why he wrote The Shack.   This was a big church (Central Christian) with several campuses.  We know the pastor personally and so respect his willingness not to run from controversy when other churches were canceling William P. Young's speaking engagements of sharing his testimony, but to hear what the author had to say.  The entire place was in tears and deeply touched hearing about his sexual abuse from age 4 as a missionary kid growing up in Papua New Guinea.  He had no relationship with his father and every male in his life caused him pain.  Just like in C. S. Lewis's "The Chronicles of Narnia" where Aslan the Great Lion is representing Jesus, God is often depicted in other ways besides a loving Father.   In the Bible God is portrayed as a mother hen in Luke 13:34  
“Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who kill the prophets and stone those sent to you, how often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, and you were not willing.”  He also speaks through a burning bush in Mark 12:26 “Now about the dead rising—have you not read in the Book of Moses, in the account of the burning bush, how God said to him, ‘I am the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob’?” and a donkey (Numbers 22:28).  God has both male and female qualities but also seems to be neither male or female.  The Bible states in John 4:24  "God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth."  Gen. 1:27  "God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them."  When it comes to the part about the Jesus asking why God had forsaken him on the cross he was referring to Psalm 22:1 written by David and it was expressing how he felt.  He went on to say in Psalm 23 the Lord was His shepherd.  The Father obviously didn't forsake Jesus (although in His humanity He felt forsaken) because the last thing Jesus said before dying recorded in Scripture says in Luke 23:46 "Jesus called out with a loud voice, “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit.” When he had said this, he breathed his last.”  This was also a quote in Psalm 31:5.   The scripture also says in 2 Corinthians 5:19 “that God was reconciling the world to himself IN Christ, not counting people’s sins against them."  I believe it was curative, not punitive and they were in this together.  It's easy to make assumptions (I've done it many times myself) unless you listen to the heart of the speaker.  I went on a 10-day tour of Israel with the publisher and it was life-changing for me, my husband, our son and 40 other believers who became like family from all over the world.   I hosted a Living Loved weekend at my home also with the publisher who led several life-giving group conversations with over 200 people that came through our home for five days.  The two brothers who helped re-write and publish the book and eventually produce it into movie form  have a weekly podcast called The God Journey.   I have listened to it for years and it has made a huge impact on my life and the lives of my friends and family to love others well and walk with Jesus authentically apart from a "do better, try harder gospel" apart from Christ.   I have been learning what it means to really listen to another's point of you before judging it.   Many people who judge the book and the movie have not read it or seen it.  Those who have been abused or damaged in this life or wouldn't step foot in a church have found a reason to pursue Jesus after reading the book or seeing the movie.  I have hurting personal Christian friends who have found healing in the message and conversations with unbelievers I've never been able to have before.  My husband and I work with young adults (many disillusioned growing up in church feeling they can't measure up and ready to leave it behind) and have discovered Jesus as their daily personal friend who they can talk to about anything and it has changed their lives.  Books and movies like The Shack have helped them grow in their relationship with Him by knowing they are completely loved by God.  Sorry for the long story but I hope it helps in understanding why the book was written.  The shack represents 11 years of healing in the author's heart and life.