Racial reconciliation is the theme of the new film “Paul’s Promise” starring Linda Purl, Nancy Stafford, Ryan O’Quinn, Shari Rigby, Josef Cannon and Dean Cain, which opened in theaters this weekend. The true story centers on fireman-turned-pastor Paul Holderfield, Sr., who started one of the first integrated churches in the American south.
Cannon portrays Jimmy Lipkin, Holderfield’s childhood best friend who reaches for a handshake and is refused, setting events in motion that lead to the firefighter’s transformation. In this exclusive interview, the Chicago-born actor, who previously appeared in “Hell Hath No Fury” and “Debt Collector 2,” relates a surprising “life-imitates-art” true story he encountered after filming, his unconventional journey in being cast, and how the character of Jimmy Lipkin inspired him.
Can you tell me about how you got involved with “Paul’s Promise”?
My involvement with “Paul’s Promise” is very unconventional. Usually, you find out about an audition either your agent or someone or you referred, and you go in and you do the audition. Either they like you or don’t. In this case, I didn’t even go in as an actor. In the early stages of the script, they were looking for someone to kind of come in and give some more suggestions towards the Jimmy Lipkin character. I came in for what was supposed to be a 15-minute meeting ended up being three hours. And I was leaving immediately after that, I was completely clean-shaven, my hair was high and tight because I was getting ready to go to Lithuania to do a World War Two movie. So I was completely opposite of the character, visually. So I leave. And while I’m away, I get a phone call saying that they are interested in you for the role of Jimmy Lipkin. I remember listening to the message, and I was so dazed and confused. I called my mom and I’m like, “Mom, I, I think they made a mistake.” She says, “Baby, God doesn’t make mistakes.” Then I reached out to them. Sure enough, they were interested in me as Jimmy and that’s how I came on board.
Sounds like divine providence there.
Absolutely. I was passionate about the character. And the director, Matt Reithmayr, had pointed out that when I was speaking about how I saw Jimmy, I just wasn’t coming from a place as a writer. He said, what he saw was Jimmy comes to life. I was very animated about the way I saw him. I even spoke his lines, how he would say certain things. But it wasn’t my intention. My intention was to go in and give suggestions, the best suggestions that could to help flesh out this character.
So, what were some of your initial thoughts about Jimmy and what you shared with him?
First of all, it was exciting that it was a true story. And then as I kept digging, I found out that a lot of this took place doing the Little Rock crisis, the Little Rock Nine situation back in 1957. I found it to be so intriguing that another part of history was in the making, but we didn’t know it at the time. These two men were there for opposite reasons. Paul Holyfield’s there with the firemen, with water hoses to somewhat keep the peace, if things get out of hand, then they would have to do what they needed to do. On the other hand, Jimmy was there as a supporter, and to cross paths with his childhood friend on opposite sides of the proverbial track. It had to be amazing, especially after not seeing each other for so many years, and then to reach out to him as a dear friend, only to be refuted, to not acknowledge his existence. I felt that Jimmy should always stay above the fray. He should never fall into it. He should always stay prayerful. stay mindful. No matter what obstacles were thrown out here, between myself and all the other writers in the room, I think they really fleshed out Jimmy’s character quite well.
So, some of the lessons I would think that people could walk away with, some of the things that you just touched on — maintaining your integrity in the face of adversity and not responding to hatred with hatred. Is that what you think audiences will walk away with?
Hopefully, I hope they grasp what you just touched upon, that sometimes you have to rise above the challenges in your hurdles. It would have been very easy for Jimmy to retaliate or to just be dismissive of Paul. But he stayed prayerful. Despite the rejections, despite his all battles within his family. He stood steadfast. I think we as a nation, as a people, if we were to do that, and go above color, gender, whatever the case may be and just be there for one another.
It was interesting how sometimes they say art imitates life. Just the other day, I’m down here on the pier a couple weeks ago, in Venice, California. I ran through an old friend. We had not spoken in a while. Like Jimmy and Paul, he and I had disagreements. I approached my friend and I said, “Hello,” but he turned around and said, “I am not your friend.” And it was so interesting because I felt like I was literally back in the scene in the movie. Like in the movie, I just said, “I’m gonna’ pray for you. Have a good day now.” And I just walked away. And I felt so relieved. I have to say, if I hadn’t done this film, I don’t think I would have reacted that way. So, the film has even impacted me. I remember walking away and a couple of tears were falling down my face, not out of sadness, but out of I was very proud of myself, I was very proud of how the Jimmy character just seeped over into my own life, and to be able to implement some of his beliefs and teachings and behaviors into mine. So, yes, and I’m hoping that the people watching it with get some of the same things.
Right, so much of how we respond to other people, I feel like it’s so counterintuitive. It’s counter our instincts. Our instinct is to let the flesh take over. So the whole idea of rising above is fascinating. It’s inspiring.
It’s definitely challenging, because when you read the script, obviously, I have this painted path for me. So, all I have to do is say the words before me, but now to be able to live that, that was my test. And I remember walking away, and I spoke to my mother later on about it. And she said, “That was your test to see if what you learned on that film, actually, was something that resonated enough to stay within you. If it does that to you, then has an excellent chance it would do that to the viewers who watched this.”
I’m curious to hear how you got started in your career.
Speaking of my mother, she worked as a projectionist in movie theaters. She would put us together and put us in our pajamas late at night because she worked on Friday nights, and it’s a part-time job and would take us to work with us. We would sit up in the booth and watch the movies from up high, just looking at movie after movie after movie. And it became such a love for me that I knew that I wanted to be a part of that in some way, shape or form. Initially, it was the writing because when I was younger, I had a speech impediment, and I stuttered. So, I hid behind the written word. So I took that journey. I was a writer and a school teacher. Until elementary school, all the while still pushing my scripts and trying to get that scene. I started doing theater, where I had plays produced. One day, I was just praying, and just asking for guidance, or asking for signs, asking for something, and then I realized that instead of waiting for someone to develop a role for me, or put me at something, to just create it myself. And I started writing things that I knew that my grandparents and my parents would love to come see, characters completely different than the ones that I was getting as an actor at this point in time.
Anything else you want to add?
Paul Holderfield and his story, it’s something that I hope everyone will get to go see October 21 in the theaters. Meeting, P Paul Holderfield was actually the highlight because he was able to give us stories about his father, and as well as Jimmy, and even to this day, every week, we are texting back and forth with one another. It’s the same way with the Jimmy Lipkin family. I’ve been able to get in contact with members of his family since he’s passed on.
“Paul’s Promise” from Damascus Road Productions, Uptone Pictures, and SaltShaker Media is currently in theaters.