Since becoming a movie producer in 2008, Steven Chester Prince has had to slow down his acting work. He’d accumulated more than 30 TV and film credits, including recurring roles on Friday Night Lights and Prison Break before getting hired to produce by Traveling Picture Show. So he was a little surprised when Richard Linklater mentioned in 2013 that a film he was in was accepted into the following year’s Sundance. He hadn’t worked with Linklater since 2006’s A Scanner Darkly.
“I said, ‘No, I’m fairly certain I don’t,’” Prince recalls at this year’s Sarasota Film Festival. He’d all but forgotten about filming one of the first scenes of what was then called The 12-Year Project—the Oscar-nominated Boyhood—a dozen years ago.
But Linklater wasn’t the only one with a slow-burning project that’s just seeing the light of day. Actor/producer Prince just added writer/director to his resume when a screenplay he began writing with Michael Zagst and John O’Connell in 2003 recently debuted on the film festival circuit.
Divine Access tells the story of Jack (Revolution’s Billy Burke) who becomes a popular spiritual guru, almost by accident. The character’s background is loosely based on Prince, who grew up with his mother flitting from one spiritual discipline to another. Werner H. Erhard was a friend of the family, so Prince ended up going through his est seminar at the age of 13. “All these people were over at the house all the time,” he says. “They all had their different sort of philosophies, and my mom started getting into doing past-life regressions.”
The film takes a generous view toward faith without ever actually recommending it or taking a particular side. The antagonist, Rev. Guy Roy Davis (Gary Cole), is a fundamentalist preacher who’s replaced by Jack on a public access call-in show. He’s misguided and judgmental, but he’s also an extremely empathetic character. The question of faith is an open-ended one—the movie is much more interested in prompting inquiry than in answering questions, something that’s reflected in Prince’s own beliefs or lack thereof.
“That’s sort of my take on everything,” he says. “If it’s real to you it’s real. Doesn’t mean it’s real to me, but if it’s real to you it’s real. So I take everything to be 100 percent real because it is to that person. And so I got to be around all these sort of things and I pick and choose, and I ended up doing some Buddhist chants and vows for world peace, and sort of just going around and participating tangentially with these other people that would show up. They’d have something new, and they’d be vocal there. And at the end of the day, everyone was—with the exception of an occasional creepy guy that was just doing it to meet women—it was a pretty sweet movement. So I started picking it up, and then I got to where I could argue it, and not in an angry way. I would challenge people in their beliefs, and that’s sort of where Jack was born.”
Prince recognizes that plenty of evil has been done in the name of religion, as well as much good. Cole’s character struggles with a desire to reach an audience, and the concern for that audience is overshadowed by his own ambitions. “There’s a fine line between being okay with everything, which is where I find myself, but one thing I’m not okay with is people that are being manipulated, even if they’re willing. We talk about it in the movie. [Jack] says you can believe in anything as long as you live a good life and nobody gets hurt in the process. But the minute people get hurt in the process then that’s not about anything other than greed and delusion. So I wanted to make sure that Guy Roy wasn’t that, but he was heading in that direction, potentially. I tried to make sure it was a combination of his myopic view, which was exclusionary, and also his desire to be famous for it. And I’ve seen that before. I chose fundamentalist because that’s what I knew.”
Avatar’s Joel David Moore provides much of the film’s comic movements as a professional “catcher,” in the event that Jack causes fainting among the gathered crowds as the pair go on a speaking tour. The supporting cast also includes Seinfeld’s Patrick Warburton as their erstwhile agent and Friday Night Lights’ Dora Madison Burge as Amber, the Mary Magdalene to Jack’s Christ figure.
If anything, the film is a celebration of both faith and humanism and becoming comfortable with the ambiguities of Big Questions. “I try to be a pretty good dude,” he says about his own beliefs. “I don’t align with anybody but I don’t negate anybody, because I’m not qualified to do so, by definition. Jack says you can’t know the unknowable, and I’m very comfortable in not having an answer to things that are beyond my pay grade. It doesn’t give me any sort of pause at all.”