How do you portray one of the most beloved men in recent Latter-day Saint history? This was the monumental task set before New Zealand actor Russell Dixon, who had never heard of Thomas S. Monson before auditioning for “The Other Side of Heaven 2: Fire of Faith”.
His journey to learn about Elder Monson (who’d later become the Church’s 16th President and Prophet), his lasting friendship with John Groberg, and the rich history of the Latter-day Saint community in the Pacific Islands led to a heartwarming performance that will resonate fondly with Latter-day Saint moviegoers.
Filmed nearly two decades after the first film became a surprise success, “The Other Side of Heaven 2” follows John Groberg and his family after his call to serve as the mission president of the Tonga-Fiji mission.
Elder Monson, a newly called Apostle, oversaw the Church’s operations in the Pacific Islands during that time and the friendship between the two is a highlight of the film. The interactions between Elder Monson and Elder Groberg are made even more poignant when you remember it was President Monson who originally requested Elder Groberg write a book about his time in Tonga, leading to the series in the first place.
“With so much division in the USA and around the world today, we need to be reminded that our families and communities have gained so much from the faith, courage, love, and commitment to basic Christian values,” Dixon said of the film. “This movie demonstrates the strength of those who work together, regardless of differences, to overcome life’s challenges.”
So, how did Dixon become involved with the project? He first met with director Mitch Davis in February 2018, an encouraging audition that made it clear Dixon was meant for the role of President Monson.
“Upon meeting Mitch for the first time, he seemed somewhat surprised and encouraged by my ‘actual likeness’ to the character I was auditioning for,” Dixon said. “We experimented with the audition scenes as Mitch set out to discover how interpretive and malleable I was as an actor. He was also happy to learn that I could wiggle my ears. I remember at the conclusion of our final audition scene Mitch saying – ‘That’s about where it needs to be’ with a wry smile on his face.”
Dixon learned he got the part a few weeks later and was excited to travel to Fiji to start filming. However, it didn’t take long for Dixon to realize how important his portrayal would be, especially to the Latter-day Saint community.
“I feel it is an incredible honour and huge responsibility when playing any real person on stage or in film. When portraying a man so revered, respected and loved by his community, this responsibility is exponentially compounded,” he said. “It wasn’t long into my character research that I realised how important this man was and how important any approach to his memory would be in my performance.”
To help take on this responsibility, Dixon threw himself into research, watching hours of video interviews and General Conference addresses.
“Some of his somber sermons and speeches offer valuable insight into his tone, inflection, and style as well as his unwavering commitment to his faith. Other, more relaxed presentations showed a real family man with a fantastic, youthful exuberance and quirky sense of humour. The more I watched, the more I became intrigued by his love for humanity and community.”
It was this love of humanity that provided an extremely personal tie for Dixon, who was able to use the life of his grandfather to inspire his performance.
After so much work to embody the man, Dixon was determined himself to bring the spirit of President Monson to set. Not only did this method approach help him while filming, but it gave him the surprising chance to experience some of the love Church members had for their prophet.
“Without going to the extreme, I made it my mission to reach out and really get to know people,” Dixon said. “I tried to connect with all those associated with the filming in a way that I feel would have been similar to Thomas S. Monson’s approach. I feel I got a glimpse of what it was like to briefly view the world through President Monson’s eyes. He was clearly a much loved and respected leader of the church and although I was there to play him as an actor, I was in a unique position to experience the continued reverence and veneration afforded to his memory.”
Of course, it would have been very easy for the film to overinflate President Monson’s persona. Yet the film takes his larger-than-life love and balances it with numerous scenes displaying that “quirky sense of humor.” This includes squashing bugs with children and pushing a cow off the road as Jean Groberg is rushed to the hospital to give birth to the Groberg’s first son. Through Dixon’s human portrayal, there’s a touching sense that President Monson, who passed away in 2018, is just a little bit closer to us all. As Dixon attests, this is due in part to Davis’ script, which deftly juxtaposes President Monson’s playful character with his “poignant moments of concern, reflection, and deep faith.”
While it’s clear in every scene that Dixon embodies President Monson with a reverent joy and humility, the practical aspects of taking on President Monson’s likeness provided some unique challenges.
“I remember on my first day of filming as I was in makeup, being told that we were going to try and work with the ‘prosthetics’. I knew that President Monson had prominent ears that tended to stick out and although I looked very similar to the way he looked when in his 40’s, minor aging was required and prosthetic supports were needed to make my ears push forward and stick out more so as to create a truly authentic look. They did the job, though I must add were extremely uncomfortable. A highlight for me at the end of each day’s filming was to remove these and allow my ears to recuperate before the next day.”
“It has been an honour and adventure researching and playing the role of Thomas S. Monson. I hope that the portrayal of his character in the film is consistent with how he is remembered. He was a great man with an incredible legacy. I hope people find it interesting to see a glimpse of what he was like during those years working in the Pacific with his close friend John Groberg.”
“The Other Side of Heaven 2: Fire of Faith” opens in theaters nationwide June 28, 2019. Click here to get tickets.