Acting is about connecting. Connecting with your audience. Which can’t happen without connecting with the character you’re playing. You need to know what makes her tick. You want to hear her tone of voice. You want to get inside her skin, her head, her heart. You want to feel what she feels and think what she thinks.
Sometimes, if you’re lucky, there will come a moment, almost an out-of-body experience, when you become one with the person you’re portraying. For me, in the movie 90 Minutes in Heaven, that moment was a turning point not only for the character but for me.
You might know something of the story behind 90 Minutes in Heaven. It was a hugely popular book by Don Piper, a Baptist minister. One cold January day, Don was driving home from a conference when he was hit head-on by an 18-wheeler going 60 miles an hour.
EMTs said he was dead at the scene. There was nothing they could do except wait for the Jaws of Life to cut his body out of his mangled car. But Don was not trapped in the wreckage. He was on a dazzling journey that took him to the gates of heaven, a light-drenched place of enormous peace.
The 90 minutes that he spent there would ultimately change his life forever, but the struggles he faced after he returned to earth were so overwhelming, he wouldn’t talk about his experience for a long time, not even to his wife, Eva.
Another minister came upon the accident and pulled over. He felt compelled to pray over Don’s lifeless body and started singing “What a Friend We Have in Jesus.” The next thing the EMTs knew, Don’s heart was beating again. He was alive, singing along with the minister.
He was cut out of the car and rushed to the hospital. Almost every bone in his body was broken. His recovery was grueling: 34 surgeries, 122 days in the hospital, then 13 months in bed at home. Eva was the one who held the family together. She had to be wife, mom, caregiver, breadwinner.
I play Eva in 90 Minutes in Heaven. When a movie is based on the lives of real people, you feel an enormous responsibility to get their story right. Fortunately, the director felt the same way. I know because he’s my husband, the filmmaker Michael Polish.
We’d just started dating when Michael was asked to adapt Don’s book for the screen. Looking back, I don’t think it was a coincidence that the book came into Michael’s life around the same time I did. We loved the Pipers’ story. We were drawn to the dynamics of their marriage, perhaps because we saw something of ourselves in them.
Michael, like Don, is a very patient person. I’m a lot like Eva. We’re both strong-willed, practical, energetic women who just want to go and get things done.
But it takes time to bring a story to the screen. For us, it took four years. What a test of faith—and patience. Michael was able to trust that the right people would come together for the movie to happen. Eventually, when Rick Jackson—who believed in the story the way we did—came on board as producer, they did.
The first night on location, the Pipers joined the whole cast and crew for a kick-off dinner. Rick set the tone. “There will be times in the next weeks when we’ll be tired and cranky and everyone will feel stretched to the limit,” he said. “What I challenge you to do then is, make this not about yourself. Make this about sharing a real-life story that will inspire others.”
Inspiring others…that was Eva. She was such a saint, tirelessly taking care of Don and their three kids, working long days as a schoolteacher. How can I make her someone the audience can relate to? I wondered. Did she ever feel like giving up? Did she ever blow up at her husband, at God?
Before filming, Eva and I talked so I could ask her all my questions. I admitted that I was nervous about playing her. “I keep putting you up on a pedestal,” I said. “You seem like you don’t have flaws the way the rest of us do.”
She laughed. “You don’t have to worry about that,” she said. “I’m very human.”
She told me about the time not long after the accident when Don was undergoing major surgery, a very risky operation that doctors warned her he might not wake up from. She had a moment alone with him before he went into the operating room. “He looked dead lying there on the gurney,” she said. “Not like my husband at all.”
That was when she broke down and cried out to God. “I’d prayed my whole life, but I didn’t really understand the pure necessity of prayer until that moment, when I felt like I had nothing else left,” she said.
Eva told me that Don was impossible when he came home from the hospital. His pain was so excruciating, it was like hell on earth. Such a contrast to his time in heaven that he questioned why he was even alive.
Instead of talking to Eva, he withdrew. He was self-pitying, irascible, sometimes downright mean. For months she’d been trying so hard to hold their family together, and that didn’t even register with Don.
Finally she let him have it. “Don’t you want to see our kids grow up?” she demanded. “Don’t you want to grow old with me?” Her words shook Don to the core. And they resonated with me. I could imagine saying the same things to my husband.
Eva and Don had gone through a trial that would break many couples, but she said there were always bumps in the road of a long marriage.
“You’re driving along and you’ll go way up, and you think, This is so exhilarating and thrilling and amazing! Then, all of a sudden, you’ll come down and you’re losing your stomach and going, This is terrible! I don’t know how to bounce back from this.”
Yet she did bounce back. What made that possible was prayer—specifically the prayer she said when she broke down at the hospital. I knew it would be the hardest scene in the movie for me, my biggest challenge.
Eva and I got into texting each other. She was open to me asking anything. How were you feeling when you were driving to the hospital that day? Was there a song playing on the radio? She gave me the details I needed, but how was I going to show her praying? It’s one thing to talk about or read about, but how would I make it real on film?
She made me a video of herself saying the exact words she’d prayed. They were from the Bible, Jeremiah 29:11–12: “For I know the plans I have for you, says the Lord, plans for welfare and not for evil, to give you a future and a hope. Then you will call upon me and come and pray to me, and I will hear you.”
“You know, Kate, people often leave out that last part,” she said. “But it’s really important because it’s all about prayer. We call on God and he hears us.”
I memorized those words. They weren’t in the script, so I didn’t expect to say them aloud on camera. I would just hold them in my heart.
The day to film the scene finally came. In making a movie you don’t usually shoot things chronologically, so you have to be ready to go forward or backward in time. Like I said, this was shortly after the accident. Don had to go into surgery. Eva went to the hospital to see him. Doctors said it was not only possible but probable that he wouldn’t survive the operation.
I’d felt really comfortable being the pragmatic Eva. But this was Eva at her most spiritually vulnerable. She hadn’t had a light-infused journey to heaven and back. She didn’t even know about Don’s experience yet. She was here on earth, standing over her husband, who looked like the life had been drained out of him.
She’d never felt so desperate, so far from God. How could I show that?
I kept repeating the passage from Jeremiah, then asked Michael, “What if I say that verse on camera?”
He nodded. “Let’s try it that way.”
I was still in my dressing room when I got a text from Eva: You’ve been on my mind all morning. What’s going on?
She knew. Something had told her that this was the day.
You’re going to do great, she said.
Finally I stepped onto the set. We began filming. That’s when it happened, that out-of-body experience actors hope for, the moment when you and the person you’re playing become one. I was Eva. I didn’t have to pretend that Hayden Christensen, who plays Don, was my husband. I knew it. Just as I knew Eva’s anguish, deep in my heart and soul.
I was in the moment. “For I know the plans I have for you, says the Lord….”
That was the turning point for Eva. She would have countless challenges ahead, but she knew that God had heard her. He would never leave her. The assurance gave her understanding when Don finally told her about his 90 minutes in heaven.
That scene was a turning point for me too. Becoming Eva so fully gave me a new sense of how trust works—in the artistic process, in relationships, in hardships giving way to breakthroughs, and, perhaps above all, in the power of connection.