From director/co-writer Jon Avnett, Three Christs is based on an extraordinary experiment conducted by psychiatrist Dr. Alan Stone (Richard Gere), starting in 1959 at Michigan’s Ypsilanti State Mental Hospital, with three men – Joseph (Peter Dinklage), Leon (Walton Goggins) and Clyde (Bradley Whitford) – who each believe that they are Jesus Christ. In an attempt to treat schizophrenic patients with empathy and understanding, instead of confinement and invasive electroshock therapy, Stone hoped that he could break through their delusions in a more humane way.
During this 1-on-1 phone interview with Collider, actor Walton Goggins talked about why he wanted to be a part of telling the story of Three Christs, what fascinated him with the subject matter, figuring out how to play this character that’s based on a real man, understanding mental illness, and working with such a talented cast. He also talked about his CBS TV series The Unicorn, his decision to do a broadcast network show, and finding the heart of a story that’s lighter than what he’s used to telling.
Collider: I was fascinated by this movie and thought the subject matter was so interesting. What was it like to read this and figure out how to play this character?
WALTON GOGGINS: Honestly, it’s such a great question. It’s baffling. Obviously, (director) Jon Avnet is an old friend of mine. He’s more than a friend. He’s a father figure to me and a dear friend of mine, and he asked me to read the story that he was doing. I read it, and when I got to the end of it, I thought, “No one will ever see this movie. I have no idea what this movie is about, but I know, in my heart, exactly what it’s about.” I didn’t understand anything, and I understood it all, simultaneously. It was the most confused that I’ve ever been, after reading a piece of material, for the first time, which I think is what a person’s suffering through schizophrenia feels like, the very first experience that they have with it, or what a family member or friend of someone suffering with this condition must absolutely feel like, times a hundred.
There began my journey into becoming intimately connected and on my way to understanding what this is about. It was an opportunity to see it up close and personal, and really understand it, from the inside out. It was an extraordinary journey, really, just to get to the day of almost filming, a few times, and then the day in which we actually began photography. I don’t think any of us had those answers, really, until the first day that we all got together, which was two days before we started, and read it aloud, for the first time. Then, it began to take shape.
I think you have to take the actor out of it. I don’t believe these are characters. These are real people, suffering from this condition. This is based on a true story of a man who deeply wanted to understand how the mind works, and treat people that suffered from this affliction, more humanely, with kindness, with love, and with empathy. This happened. These people happened. Almost verbatim, everything in the script is taken from Milton [Rokeach]’s book. Jon and Eric Nazarian, our writer, were both very careful to protect the integrity of that experience. So, I don’t know how to describe it, other than that. Insanity, as perceived by people that don’t suffer from that, clinically speaking, once you really get close to it and try to understand it, all of a sudden, it becomes sane and the real world, the world outside of it, becomes insane.
It’s such an interesting topic and subject matter because it feels like, with any illness of the brain and mind, the more you understand, the more you realize that you don’t understand.
GOGGINS: Yeah, that’s right. I’ve been with this project for a long time. Even before we were close to making it, I just became obsessed with it, and obsessed with Milton’s book, and obsessed with author and psychiatrist R. D. Laing, who wrote a book called The Divided Self. I actually wrote down a quote that I was taken with, knowing that I was going to get on the phone here, that said, “Insanity, a perfectly rational adjustment to an insane world.” Over the course of preparing for this, if you will, there’s a documentary that R.D. Laing did about a halfway house for people suffering with schizophrenia in London, on the outskirts. It’s called Asylum, and it’s one of the most interesting films that I’ve ever seen in my life, and I watched it over and over and over and over and over again. I must have seen it 15 or 20 times. What you realize, the first time that you watch it, is that you believe that you’re doing something voyeuristically and you shouldn’t be there. And then, by the last time I watched it, I felt like I was a member of that house and I understood what everyone wanted, at any given moment. They all made sense to me. Everything made sense to me. That’s what Milton attempted to do. That’s what Richard Gere attempted to do, in the story. He wanted to lean into this and be a part of it, as opposed to trying to manage it, manipulate it, box it in, or concrete it in, like the Los Angeles river. It was just about letting it flow where it flows, and understanding that water will react in a certain way, just like thoughts, in this environment, will react in a certain way. There is sense here, and there can be a life here, that has dignity and value. That’s what we tried to do. I’m so happy that I did it, and I’m so happy that people are finally gonna get a chance to see it.
At the same time that you are exploring an important subject matter, you are also making a movie. Could you ever have imagined, in your career, that you would be telling a story about three men who think they’re Christ, and that you’d be one of those men alongside Peter Dinklage and Bradley Whitford, and that Richard Gere would be playing your doctor?
GOGGINS: No, not in a million years. I’m friends with and fans of everyone that you just mentioned. I deeply love Peter and Bradley, and Richard was a God to me. He was for everybody in my generation, coming up and watching him do his thing for so long. I’ve seen An Officer and A Gentleman 60 or 70 times in my life. It’s one of the greatest all-time movies for me, and I’ve mimicked him and tried to emulate his behavior, in my own career, although I was never given the opportunity to be a sex symbol. He’s Richard Gere, and I’m not. But like so many times in my life, I’m so privileged and fortunate to call those people that I hold in such high regard my friends.
Congratulations on the success of your CBS TV series The Unicorn. That show is such a change of pace for you. Did that feel scary and risky, when you signed on to do it, just because it was so outside of what you’ve previously done, or had that been the type of thing that you’ve always secretly wanted to do?
GOGGINS: I suppose we all want to feel normal, right? If we’re all that question without anyone looking, we all want to feel like we’re accepted, we’re okay, and we’re just like everybody else. And so, I suppose selfishly, on some level, being on a network show meant that you’re accepted by the public, and that you’re not weird or different. Early on in my career, I desperately wanted that because I didn’t know how to be me. I wasn’t okay with being me. But, that didn’t happen. That really wasn’t a place for me. So, when I got to a place in my life, and television got to a place where that was celebrated, and it’s okay to be fucking weird and they’ll reward that ‘cause that’s what they want, it happened for me. I became really okay with my version of storytelling, just like the people that I’ve looked up to.
All of the people that I’ve looked up to were so avant garde and strange, in their own right. And then, I realized, it’s about how you define being normal. What does that even fucking mean? I had a misconception of what that meant, all along. And so, when this came around – and I’ve had these invitations a few times, over the last few years, but it was never something I was really interested in doing – and this character came around, I approached it from a very different angle. It was really scary ‘cause I felt like I needed to conform, when all that I really wanted was just to be me, and to communicate and be as honest as possible, and to tell this story from that point of view. That’s what CBS wanted and that’s what my showrunners wanted. I wanted to make them laugh, but also not shy away from how this shit hurts, too. Life is difficult, but it can also be kind and we can make our way through it. It was extremely intimidating, in the early days, but then became something that I am so unbelievably blessed and grateful to have said yes to, and to participate in this opportunity. I just love what this story has to say about the life we live in.
You’re great at drama and dramatic roles and these intense characters, but how have you been adjusting to and settling in and finding your place with this particular kind of comedy?
GOGGINS: That’s such a great question, and you know I’ll answer it honestly. There are days on the set where I will get in my head, and I want to get extremely depressed and go to a very dark place, but then it’s like, “Well, wait a minute, that’s not Wade and that’s not the story.” I’m used to going to work and having those feelings. It’s certainly peppered in with lighter moments and with laughter, but I always have that to go to. With this experience, it’s the opposite, which is more true life. We all live in comedies that are peppered with moments of drama. That’s the truth for most of us, and that’s really been my experience. So, once I stopped resisting that and leaned into it, now I love it. I love the story, I love the people that I work with, I love this guy Wade Felton, I love how kind it is, and I love that that’s working and touching people, in a way that’s what I hoped it would do. I just can’t believe that I’m sitting here talking to you about it, and I’m on it. Its’ fantastic. And don’t think I’m not gonna go do a movie right after this that gets dark, and I’ll do something like Three Christs, that scratches an itch that I have. But this also is an opportunity and an itch that I’ve wanted to scratch, for a very long time, and it’s very satisfying to reach that place on one’s back.
Three Christs is out in theaters on January 10th.