A local pastor and accomplished actor are excited about a movie scheduled to screen in Bakersfield on Saturday, though they admit they may have a tough sell convincing others to see it: Not only is the release a faith-based film, but it's a faith-based film about hell.
Pastor Marlan Knittel of Bakersfield Central Seventh Day Adventist Church said his congregation is sponsoring the screening of "Hell and Mr. Fudge" because the film explores an important theological question that has become controversial in Christianity.
"As a pastor I talk to numerous people who have completely walked away from God because of their perception of what Christianity teaches about hell," Knittel said. "It's frustrating for me to talk to people who say, 'I can't believe he would torture people forever.'"
"Hell and Mr. Fudge" -- the main character is played by Mackenzie Astin -- is about a deeply religious man who begins to research the question of whether there is a physical hell, whether John Milton's fiery lake of eternal suffering is a biblical truth or whether evangelical Christian theology, throughout the centuries, has somehow misconstrued the very nature of "the bad place."
Lance E. Nichols, who has a role on the critically acclaimed HBO series "Treme" among other impressive credits, stars in the film.
"It's based on the true story of Edward Fudge, whose father was a Pentecostal preacher in the deep South in the 1960s," Nichols said. "It's a faith-based movie.
"I play the janitor at this predominantly white church in southern Alabama. At one point, Edward Fudge has me come up front to lead the congregation in prayer. You know what hit the fan."
Redemption is a predominant theme, Nichols said of the film, as is the idea that no one group or denomination have an exclusive claim to God's love.
"God looks at all of us with the same eyes," he said.
That message, resonating with Christians in several communities, moved Knittel to arrange the Fox Theater screening.
"We're excited to bring this film to Bakersfield," the local pastor said.
For a veteran actor like Nichols, projects that explore deep questions and complicated human relationships like "Mr. Fudge" and "Treme" are exactly what he's looking for.
"I'd rather be in an obscure film with great writing and dynamic, changing characters than a big-budget film that makes a lot of money but doesn't say anything," said the actor, who also was featured in the Oscar-nominated 2008 film, "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button."
He's clearly jazzed about his role on "Treme" playing dentist Larry Williams, the devoted husband to strong-willed LaDonna Batiste-Williams, who is played by Khandi Alexander.
His only regret, if you can call it that, was when one of his most powerful scenes ended up on the cutting-room floor. After his character learns that his wife was raped, the guilt he feels that he was not there to protect her overwhelms him in what he remembers as one of the most intense scenes he has ever performed.
"I wanted them to keep it in so bad," Nichols said. "But HBO thought it was too intense."
But that disappointment is overshadowed by what Nichols considers his great fortune to be able to play such a complex role in his hometown of New Orleans, where music is embedded in the bricks and mortar, the concrete of the sidewalks and is folded into the history and culture of this most European of American cities.
"Music is a character on the show," Nichols said. "How can you have a show about New Orleans and not have the music?"
The seasoned actor still can't quite believe his good fortune in landing the part, and in working with series creator David Simon, who also created HBO's "The Wire."
"I'm still pinching myself, asking, 'Is it real?'" Nichols said. "Not only is 'Treme' about my home town, it's specifically about a neighborhood my wife was born and raised in. Talk about double-irony."
Next up for Nichols is the feature film adaptation of the New York Times best-selling series "Beautiful Creatures" and the horror film "The Haunting in Georgia," both slated for release this year.
For a guy who drove a taxi on and off for 10 years to support his acting career, Nichols is doing better than OK.
"I count myself to be extremely fortunate," he said.