"Flyboys" Actor Called to Preach Through His Work
- Monday, September 18, 2006
“So it was that war in the air began. Men rode upon the whirlwind and slew and fell like archangels. The sky rained heroes upon the astonished earth.”
— H.G. Wells
It’s not every day that you interview a Hollywood star and talk about all the things you have in common – much less your faith in Jesus Christ. But that’s exactly what happened when I spoke with Philip Winchester, one of the stars of the upcoming World War I drama, “Flyboys,” featuring James Franco, Martin Henderson and Jean Reno.
Produced by Dean Devlin (“Independence Day,” “The Patriot”) and directed by Tony Bill (“The Sting”), “Flyboys” tells the story of the legendary Lafayette Escadrille, a group of 38 young men who took to the air well before the U.S. entered the war, flying newly-invented planes in order to assist the Allies. Winchester plays William Jensen, an idealistic young man who enlists in order to uphold a family tradition of military service, but who soon loses any illusions about the horrors of war.
Plucked from Montana at the age of 14 to appear in “The Patriot,” Winchester attended the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art (LAMDA) then starred in several stage productions, including “The Crucible,” “The Master and Margarita” and “Blood Wedding.” In 2004 Winchester landed his first major film role opposite Bill Paxton, Anthony Edwards and Sir Ben Kingsley in the futuristic production “Thunderbirds.”
While living in England, Winchester also became firmly acquainted with drugs and alcohol, partying his way to success. Fortunately, God had other plans.
Here’s what Winchester had to say. ...
What an interesting film – the first World War I aviation film in more than 40 years. How did you become involved?
I was at home in Montana doing a play with my father, who is also an actor and a director. I received the script and was struck at how brilliant it was. I loved it – it was great, with great characters and a true story. I came in to Los Angeles as soon as I could, and I met them and they kept bringing me back in. This went on three or four times until finally, after they had gone to London and cast a few parts, they asked me to play the part of Jensen.
That had to be exciting.
It was a huge break and a huge deal, because a lot of my heart is in London. I was there for six years and I trained over there. My mother is English and her family lives over there. So it was great to not only land the role but to film in England.
I lived over there, too. Right near where you attended the LAMDA.
Oh, that’s amazing! It is such an amazing city, isn’t it?
It is. So you’re half-British?
I am half British.
Which means you’re getting that whole going-home-to-your-roots connection. I think that’s almost a spiritual thing, when you go somewhere and immediately feel like it’s home, then discover that you have family or ancestors who have lived there.
It is. And actually, my spiritual journey started in London. That’s where God really reached down and said, “All right, dude. You’re coming with me.”
Don’t tell me it was at Holy Trinity Brompton. …
It wasn’t at H.T.B, but it was at a church called St. Mary’s, an offshoot of H.T.B. in Bryanston Square.
H.T.B. is where I came to Christ.
Did you really?! That’s fantastic!
Well, [H.T.B. started the Alpha course, and] that’s where I became a Christian – on an Alpha course!
Me, too – more or less. But enough about me! How did all this happen to you?
Well, I grew up in kind of a Christian household but it was presented as a religious idea. I basically grew up in the church and it was boring. I didn’t like it. I didn’t like how it was presented. I knew these guys outside of church and they’d dress up with their Sunday face and that was it. I didn’t see any power. It didn’t seem like it was something you needed to do every day in your life to get by. So, when I moved to London, I was in college and I did the London thing. I bought a motorbike and I started smoking and drinking and partying. I said, ‘Well, this is it. I want to be a bad guy for awhile. I’m going to rebel, basically.
So I did that for a few years. During my third year of drama school at the London Academy I met a girl one night on the London Underground. I had been partying and she had seen that I was out of it a little bit. She helped me get on the train and she helped me get off the train and she helped me get home. She called me a week later and asked if I wanted to have coffee with her. She was pretty, so I said okay. When I met her down in Kensington, it was in front of St. Paul’s Onslow Square [Ed. – another church plant from H.T.B.]. We had coffee, but she said that the reason she had brought me down there was that she went to church in the evening. I was furious. I could not believe that she had tricked me with her looks. I was really angry with her, but I said, “We’re here, so you might as well take me. Let’s go. Bring it on.”
So I basically played that rough guy card – showed up, went to church. And I saw that it was different right away, but I wasn’t going to say anything. But I was completely struck down and started bawling. I had no idea.
All on that first night?
That first night. So after that, I’d show up and hang out on my motorbike, so everyone could see me on my bike and I’d smoke and I’d drink. One night on an Alpha Course the pastor, Jon Peters, came up and said that he wanted to pray for me, and if that was okay. I was like, “All right. Bring it on.”
But what was it that made you agree to go on the Alpha course? Of course, it’s for nonbelievers, but people still have to agree to go.
It was the free food.
Ha! But, I suppose, you were a college student. And I firmly believe that you’ve got to give people free food to get them to come to church.
You’re right. It’s gotta be free, and it’s gotta be good! That’s what hooked me.
So what happened that night?
Jon, the pastor, offered to pray for me. I said, “What’s the worst that can happen to me, right?” He said, “We really believe in the power of God. We ask God into our lives and he wants to relate to us.” So they prayed in the power of the Spirit. I didn’t know what that was then, but they laid hands on me. And, basically, I can only describe it this way. You know when, in “The Lord of the Rings,” Frodo puts the ring on, and he’s just washed; he’s just washed over with these blue flames. I felt like I was being washed and cleansed. Of course, by then I was on this pile on the floor sobbing and weeping and I literally felt this voice – that I now know to be my Father – saying, “Philip, it’s time to come home.”
Oh, Philip! You’re making me cry.
Yeah, God was like, “You’re coming home.” And I said, “Okay.” I was totally set free from drug addiction and alcohol – everything.
You were really addicted?
I was hooked, and God set me free that night. It was in that moment that I realized, this isn’t your happy, go-lucky, be-a-good-person kind of deal. This is a God who cares for you, but he’s flippin’ powerful! And he’s gonna do whatever it takes to get you to come home, ya know? That, to me, is what I hope I bring out of Hollywood. That’s what I try and do out in Hollywood. It’s not about being a good person. It’s not about being happy. It’s about being real and it’s about understanding that you’re not doing this by yourself.
What do you feel like God has given you in terms of a calling as an actor?
You know, I’m really fortunate. I have a group of guys that meet on Saturday mornings and they’re all involved in the business. And we hold each other accountable.
Any names I might know?
Adam Campbell, who was just in a film called "Date Movie." He had the lead. And some other guys who work with agencies. And Don Williams, who used to be one of the pastors at the Hollywood Vineyard, he’s one of our mentors. Adam and I met him at a conference in London and God just put it on our hearts that we were supposed to start this group. And it’s just taken off. I mean, the things that God has healed, the things that God has walked us through – and is walking us through right now – are just huge. Every week, we put it on the table, and we pray for each other. Because that’s where it’s at.
That’s very cool – and so important, especially in your field. So how much did you enjoy shooting "Flyboys"?
Oh, it was unbelievable. Unbelievable.
And I know you enjoyed being in England.
Being here was incredibly important. One of the things that England has that America doesn’t is the age, history and culture. There’s a weight to everything around you. The trees, grounds and buildings look tired, established, with a touch of class. Shooting here, with the airfield that is like a moving museum, it feels like it’s supposed to feel. It wasn’t hard to imagine ourselves in 1916 France.
Tell me about your character.
Jensen wants to prove to his family and prove to himself that he’s a man. I think he slowly realizes the reality is not the heroic, pretty pictures he’s had in his head. It’s death and destruction. The war doesn’t build him up, it breaks him down. He can’t handle it. He snaps… I think he realizes he’s not a knight or hero. As much as he wants to prove to his father he’s a warrior, it’s not going to happen.
What do you hope people will take away from "Flyboys"?
That we can’t do it on our own. We need community.
You’re in Hollywood, and you’re about to become a star. What do you think God is doing in terms of your calling to act?
I honestly feel like he’s called me to be a preacher. But it’s not a preacher in front of a congregation. It’s a preacher through my work and the people I meet.
Starring James Franco, Jean Reno, David Ellison, Martin Henderson, Jennifer Decker and Philip Winchester, “Flyboys” is rated PG-13 for war action violence and some sexual content. Distributed by MGM Distribution Co. it opens in theaters nationwide on Friday, September 22, 2006.
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