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?
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.