Newcomer Ignites the Screen in Woodlawn
There’s a fire burning. The fire is burning as a symbol of hatred, the fire is burning to warm up a bitter chill, the fire is burning to bring light into darkness. A fire represents so many things, many of which are depicted in the movie Woodlawn, a film portraying an early 1970s movement away from segregation and toward Christ.
A gifted high school football player learns to embrace his talent and his faith as he battles racial tensions on and off the field. With a government-mandated desegregation, tensions rise, but when the chaplain of the team opens the door to a better way of life through following Jesus Christ, considerable change occurs. Nearly the entire team, both black and white, accepts Christ. They support one another in pursuit of a life of unity and faith. Their stand is so remarkable that the entire community catches wind of this movement. What cumulates is a game played by formerly bitter crosstown rivals before 40,000 fans – a true story depicted in this film – the affair is still the largest crowd ever to watch a high school game in Alabama history.
God set a fire a blaze deep within the soul of Caleb Castille, leading actor for Woodlawn, giving him a heartfelt longing for a part in this film. After graduating high school, Castille attended the University of Alabama and proceeded to win two National Championships. When life was looking pretty good, God instilled a new direction in his life. Caleb felt a tug on his heart to pursue to dream of becoming an actor. After the national championship in Miami, he put his football career aside and trusted the Lord.
When he read the script for Woodlawn, he knew he needed to be involved with the film. “The first time I read the script I read it overnight. All the way through. I couldn’t put it down,” Castille recalls. “I felt so connected to Tony, on even a spiritual level. And I said to God, ‘I don’t know what you’re doing, but this is my movie.’ I just felt so strongly about it I prayed about it every single day.”
Castille always prayed from Habakkuk 2: 2-3. He believed those verses so strongly, in fact, he signed and dated the script he used during his audition, to create a permanent record of the moment he believed God would fulfill the divine purpose of giving him the role. And then his audition tape got lost – the directors never even saw it, so they hired another actor to play Nathan. But Castille refused to give up on what he felt God had promised him.
“I felt very strongly that I needed to be a part of this story,” he says. “So I just stuck with it.” He kept after it in the gym to stay in game shape. He didn’t cut his hair since Woodlawn is set in the early 1970s, he wanted to make sure he would look the part with a period hairstyle. Then he tried out to be an extra, one of the players needed for the football scenes. He wound up impressing the filmmakers so much that he received the job of the chief stunt double for the British actor who’d beat him out for the role of Nathan. Then, the actor ran into visa problems and couldn’t get out of Britain.
So, a new star was needed. “It was just more confirmation,” Castille says, “that this role was for me.” By this time, the directors had been hearing from the football coordinator that Castille was a “special kid.” A dream that seemed impossible came true. Castille, a newcomer in the industry, landed the lead role to a film in which he so deeply connected.
Caleb Castille is an incredible testimony about how God places all the pieces together to lead you into the path and direction He desires for you. Castille so deeply pursued God, that his desires became the same as God’s desires. “Little did I know what God had going on behind the scenes,” says Castille. “Three days before production, one of our directors calls me, and he’s like, ‘Yeah, I think you’re going to be our Tony.’ I knew it was going to be a challenge, but at the same time, I had seen what God had done. He had brought me to this point, we’re just going to knock this thing out.”
For Castille, getting to suit up as Tony Nathan was a dream comes true. “I knew that God, in some sort of way, would fulfill my dreams, but I never thought that it would have been at this moment,” says Castille. Not only is it a meaty role for an actor in his feature-film debut, but he also has a childhood connection to the story through his dad, who played with Nathan at Alabama. “My father knew him and I just kind of grew up with the knowledge of what a school legend he was. But I really didn’t know his story in-depth, of what he went through prior to Alabama. I haven’t been through as much as he’s been through, but I’ve been through similar situations. I felt so connected to Tony and I value a lot of the same things that he values,” Castille adds. “I think the biggest thing that he had to overcome – what every human being faces in their lives – was that he had to learn how to conquer his fear. “
Woodlawn is based on the true story about a reluctant hero named Tony Nathan. The character wasn’t certain of his ability on the field. He needed a coach, friends, family, pastor, mentors and team mates who could place a mirror in front of him and help him see his outstanding talent. He needed to stop looking at other people and start looking at himself to see that God gave him an incredible talent to embrace. Once Tony accepts his skill, he realizes that there’s more power to him than what resides on the field. He has a strong faith in a mighty God and he learns to stand firm in that faith. By doing so, he creates change and makes a difference.
My life is not insignificant, my life matters –this is an essential theme of the film. Castille describes the message this way, “My life has meaning. My faith is what’s important to me. My faith is what’s going to bring us all together. My faith is going to set an example.” Castille’s faith in himself, a legend and God help him portray this truth that he so deeply believes. “I’m passionate about the truth that the only way to overcome hate is by a greater law – and that’s love and forgiveness,” he says. “And Jesus is the ultimate way to receive and give both love and forgiveness.” Love shows up in many forms. It’s accepting others, it’s seeing your own value, ability and worth, it’s connecting with the lost and hurt as well as helping to carry the burdens of others.
So, even a little bit of light in the midst of darkness, a tiny spark, can make a big difference. And when it seems like the darkness is closing in, we must trust in the Lord and rely on His strength to hold us up so our light can shine brighter, penetrating to the furthest places of the universe. And, as Tony Nathan felt so often during his time at Woodlawn, you don’t have to have the brightest light, you just have to take it where things are dark and it will shine.
The hope of bringing light into his hurting generation is strong in Caleb Castille as well. “We believe that God can revive this generation. My generation,” he says. “This is a huge, entertaining sports film; but it’s more than that, too. It puts out the message that our nation needs most right now, which is revival.” So, rather than just seeing another movie, or going through the motions of another day – take it all in. Don’t let the world pass you by, instead soak up it’s beauty, soak up those moments of ecstasy, soak up the times of overcoming battles and obstacles. Because you find where you belong when you embrace what God is doing in your life.
niNe. magazine: Give our readers an overview of Woodlawn.
Caleb Castille: “In a city filled of hatred, a Jesus Revolution occurs through a young kid who decided he was going to overcome his fear and step out and become a beacon of hope.”
nm: You got the meet the real Tony Nathan, tells us about him.
CC: “The opportunity to actually meet Tony changed my whole perspective on what I was doing. And it brought a greater respect to my craft. After I met him, I was like, ‘I really need to do this man justice.’ Because I saw for myself what an incredible human being he was. Seeing his humility, I just tried to absorb as much of that as I could to bring to camera, to bring to set, every day. He felt a lot of responsibility to his family, to his faith, to his teammates to the whole city. He’s the real deal. This is an extraordinary man. He’s just wonderful. “
“You can see he’s been through so much and he’s learned so much in his life. He is just full of wisdom. He’s truly someone who has learned from his adversity. He is very humble. He is very quiet, I asked him if he had any input on the story and he said, ‘Man, I’m just sitting back and I’m still in awe that they’re telling my story, telling this story through my story’.”
nm: As a newcomer in the industry, Oscar winning actor Jon Voight was really encouraging on the set, can you tell us what he said to you?
CC: “Mr. Voight told me, ‘You have that essence that you can’t teach.’ He was like, ‘You just have the it.’ I’d heard that before, but it just rang differently to me coming from him.”