My column on Tony “T.C.” Stallings, minister, actor and former University of Louisville football player, barely scratched the surface in today’s paper. Tony is outspoken and eloquent in talking about his beliefs and experiences, and I thought a more complete transcript of his comments might be of interest to some people. Be advised, Tony is a minister. He talks with an unabashedly Christian perspective and viewpoint. I only mention that so that anyone who takes offense or would rather not be “preached to” can know that ahead of time. When faith is an integral part of a column subject’s make up — regardless of what that faith is — I have no problem with it showing through. And I think Tony’s telling of his own story is worth reading, long form.
EC: All right, run me through how this role in the movie “Courageous” happened.
TC: It’s amazing how I got the role. I actually was competing in a Christian acting competition down in Florida and I did pretty well. Sherwood Pictures was there. I got called back, when they call you back at the end after they’ve watched you all week, by 20th Century Fox and Tyler Perry Studios and a couple of others, VH1 and a couple of modeling agencies, and I was disappointed, because that’s what I wanted. Being a Christian, even with all those other things, I wanted to be called by then.
So Erin Bethea, is the woman who played the wife of Kirk Cameron in “Fireproof” and I shot her an email that I got off her web site and I pretty much gave her my heart. I told her I’m a Christian actor and there’s a lot of roles out there I probably couldn’t do. You’ve either got to take something off or use profanity to get the good roles, and I always thought there wasn’t a role for me in Hollywood until I saw Sherwood and their Fireproof movie. And I said if I’m going to get a role, that’s where it’s going to come from. So I sent her some videos, because I’m in the acting ministry at Southeast Christian Church, and I sort of prayed over that email and let it go.
The very next day, she emails me back and said she was sorry she missed me at the Actors Models & Talent for Christ. She said they were sent by Alex and Steven Kendrick, the directors, to look for teenagers, so they weren’t looking for anyone in my age range, but she said she would forward my information over to the producers. One of the casting directors is actually her mother. So she called me at the last minute and said they were having trouble filling a role with actors in their church. And when they can’t fill the role in their church, that’s when they step outside. And they said now you have to play a pretty mean guy. A gang member. Actually the gang leader. And they had trouble finding a person who was nice in nature, a Christian person, but has a tough side and can turn it on and become a total 180 and be pretty cut-throat. . . . And they gave me an audition, online using Skype, because they were so late in the process they didn’t have time to fly me into Atlanta. They thought they had a person but it didn’t work out. We did it an hour or two later, and God bless, I just nailed it. They called me back later and asked me, Tony, is there anything in your life that would prevent God’s hand from being on this movie. It’s a Christian film and they don’t know you very well. And I told them “Absolutely not.” I told them I believe God has put me in a position to be in this movie, and I’m going to claim it until they say different. And they said, “Well, we’re going to claim it too. We’re going to offer you the role of T.J. I” I was at the gym working out and got that call. I’ve been filming all this past week. The movie is called “Courageous” and it’s out in spring of 2011.
I’ve been an extra in some things, and in the Animal Planet thing, but this is a support to the lead role. I’ve got a great, great, great bunch of screen time. Let’s put it this way. If you see me on screen and you leave to go to the bathroom and get your popcorn, when you come back I most likely will still be there. My first week was great. It took 9 hours to film one scene, and I’ve got about five of those to go.
EC: This role requires a personality change from the Tony Stallings most of us know. How has that gone in preparing for that?
TC: A lot of people know I grew up pretty rough. I spent most of my life trying to disassociate and detach myself from the gangs and violence that I grew up around. All that stuff and the bad music and profanity, I spent years detaching myself from that, down to improving just the way I speak, without all the slang that I grew up around. So now to prepare for the last month, I’ve had to revisit all that.
I’ve spent a good amount of time on the West end just hanging out. Just being in environment. You know, I live in J’town. If I go to the gas station, I go there. Now I’ve been trying to go to the gas station downtown or in the West end. Just to get back in the mix and be around the mannerisms and how people look at people. Most people kind of know me around here from football, and if they do recognize me, rather than try to fight me, they say, Hey that’s Tony Stallings, how you doing? I look at people struggling or having a hard time with finances, or just hang at the bus stop or on the bus, listening to conversations and mannerisms to get back to what I came from and was used to from a kid.
When I was age 12, I really began to hate my life and how I was growing up. Envious of other kids who went on vacations, ate around a table with their families, had money for clothes, had parents at their sporting events. I didn’t have that right away, when I was a child. And here it is 20 years later, everything that I’ve been through prepared me to achieve a lifetime goal.
As we were filming there were 12 extras from Albany, Ga., kids playing the gang members that I lead. And I was acting, and Alex, our director, gave them some backstory on me that I had played professional football, and he said he could see through the lens that those kids were looking up to me. So he walked up to me in between takes and asked if I would be willing to give my testimony to these kids when we break for lunch. And I was shocked. This kind of stuff does not happen on the usual serious movie set. But once again, you’re dealing with Sherwood Pictures and they’re working for the Lord.
So I’m talking to these 12 kids, and at lunch time normally, people cant’ wait to get out of there. But all of a sudden the cameramen put down their stuff and came over. And the guys doing the lighting put their stuff down and walked up. Next thing I knew, instead of 12 men it’s a hundred people standing around listening to me talk to these kids.
EC: You don’t have to give the whole talk, but what did you tell that group?
TC: I asked them, how many of you got cousins? How many of you got uncles and aunts? Have you ever met somebody who didn’t have that? I said, You’re looking at him. You know, all that stems from me not knowing my father, because my mother was an only child and I’ve seen my father once in my life and that was when I was 18 years ol
d and getting ready to go off to college. I didn’t know him and I feel like he snatched away a big, huge chunk of my childhood, because he fell to drugs and things like that. And I hated that part of my life.
And I said, My brothers chose a life of crime, all through my childhood. So they spent most of their time in jail. So I didn’t get a chance to box with my brothers or wrestle with my brothers or hang out. So I hated that part of my life.
I told them, I grew up in a neighborhood of gangs and violence. My mother didn’t like me to go outside even though she was at work, so I felt like a kid on punishment even though I hadn’t done anything wrong. So I hated where I lived and hated that we had to be there.
My sisters, you know, I was a young tagalong, and it was never really pleasant hanging with them. They had little interest in me as a kid because of what they were going through, so I hated my relationship with them.
So my life was filled with that kind of hate. I watched my brothers get carried off to jail. I watched them cook up drugs. I saw them get beat up in the back yard to initiate them into gangs. I watched my mother struggle. I grew up where most of my friends, their mothers and fathers are together, they’re eating around a table. I told them I could count how many meals I had in my lifetime as a kid around a table with my family on one hand. We didn’t eat around a table. That wasn’t the way it was.
So I told them all that and that I was a kid with a lot of hate in his heart and was looking for some joy in my life. And that came through football. I was 12 years old and I joined a city team. And I could run with that ball. When I saw people cheering for me, even though it wasn’t my family and I couldn’t get a ride to practice so I ran 10 miles, it was everything because it brought me that much joy, and then friends, and then popularity, and then they started talking about scholarships, things my family couldn’t afford. So I poured everything I had into being a good football player because of what it could give me.
I get to college and the trend continued everything was about football. I didn’t grow up in what I would call a Christian home, but I did have a Christian mom, who at least tried to teach me the right stuff and take me to church. In college, I didn’t focus too much on the Lord but I did boast that I was a Christian. But one day a kid challenged my Christianity. . . . He said, You claim to be a Christian yet I see you at these parties chasing girls around, and using bad language. You should be using your popularity as a witness and not just for you. . . . And that broke me up. So my sophomore year I took all my cussing music and threw it away. I stopped looking for girls online and stopped chasing girls at parties and began to live life the way God wanting me to. And that gave birth to the Tony Stallings that people have grown to know in Louisville, the one that speaks to groups, who preaches in churches, who entered the ministry in 2003, and I turned my life around.
And then I told them, Here I am 20 years later talking to you about it all. And I realize right now that God had a plan. And I’ll tell you, the main thing for me was protecting my head. In a football game, I never go into a game without a helmet. Because even though I was fast — I’ve got great legs — evne though I’m strong — I bench press 410 and squat 585 — even though I’ve got a heart like a lion from all I’ve been through, I’m really hard to deal with on a football field. But one time a guy got a shot on me on my head, against Kentucky, and that took me down. When he got my head, my arms went, my legs went, my heart went. Everything went. So just by hitting that one part of my body, he knocked out all the rest. My speed didn’t matter, my strength didn’t matter.
It’s the same thing with you guys, I said. You’ve got to protect your heads spiritually. If sin can get in your head, that’s going to control what your hands do. That’s how a nice guy becomes a thief. That’s how a nice guy ends up in strip clubs. It controls what your heart goes after, your desires. It controls the books you read and the music you listen to and the movies you watch. So I’m challenging you, if you protect your head, and give your head to Christ, he’ll control your heart, your arms, your legs, your feet. Because that’s exactly what happened to me. It was in Jesus’ name that I prayed, and it was for him that I played. And now it’ for him that I act. And they went crazy.
Later, they told me that a guy who had been listening gave his life to Christ. That makes the whole thing for me. It just shows me that I’ve got work to do, and I’ve got a purpose.