October 20, 2014

Christian Villain: Is an actor’s pretend sin still sin?

by Clint Archer

cutActor William Shatner once did a parody performance of himself reacting to his obsessed fans at a Star Trek convention. He exploded with a sharp rebuke: “Get a life! It’s only a TV show!” To a Trekkie that’s like being told Santa isn’t real…by Santa. Shatner then apologized to his rattled fan base explaining he was merely in character as Captain Kirk from episode 27 where he becomes Evil Captain Kirk. So, no harm done as long as it was “in character.”

Not so fast.

A negligible slice of the world’s population is comprised of genuine believers who are professional actors. But I have a handful of dear friends who are believers in Jesus Christ, seek to honor him in their chosen profession, desire to be shining lights in a shadowy entertainment industry, and are thus sometimes confronted with conundrums the watching world isn’t.

We all face temptation to sin in our jobs, and it may happen that a boss instructs you to do something against your conscience. But in those situations at least you know what the sin is and you know how to please the Lord. But what if you were required by your boss to pretend to sin? Granted, that’s not a scenario we face every day; but it is one actors face whenever they are working (which also isn’t every day).

Imagine you are assigned the role of Lady Macbeth or Darth Vader or Judas. Someone has to play the villain. And no director would allow you to massage Shakespeare’s script; “Out, out darn spot” doesn’t quite have the same ring to it. And, except for the role Jim Caviezel snagged in The Passion, even good guys sin—The Good the Bad and the Ugly demonstrates this as adequately as the Die Hard franchise.

Here are two very basic guidelines my actor friends employ when selecting scripts:

 1. Pretending to sin is not sin.

When Clint Eastwood’s character, Good guy, shoots Bad guy then makes Ugly guy his indentured grave digger and then absconds with gold he didn’t earn, Mr. Eastwood has not actually murdered anyone. And although his character was avaricious, unloving, a smoker, and didn’t love Ugly the way he loves himself, the actor wasn’t required to violate the New Testament law of love to stay in character (especially if he didn’t inhale).

Darth Vader selfieThis much most Christian actors agree on. Although “method actors” (those who don’t punch out of character at the end of the shoot but insist that their kids call them Batman at home) blur the lines with their insistence on “feeling the rage” and “living the hatred” or whatever. In general it is safe to say that pretending to be angry is not the same as being angry—just watch the blooper reel for evidence that the actors are still BFFs in real life.


Does this mean actors have license to play any character in any way the director demands? This is where the second, equally basic, guideline kicks in…

2. Actual sin is sin, even when it’s done on screen as a character.

Some of a character’s behavior cannot be captured on screen without the actor actually committing the sin. It’s not murder if all the actors get up after they hear “cut.” But sexual immorality is still sin (especially!) when there is a crew of cameramen in the room.

They don’t use computer graphics to remove the clothes off actors in nude scenes; that’s them baring what God wants covered in public (Gen 3:7, 21; 9:22-25). And they don’t CGI a finger on the Christian actor to create the illusion of a rude gesture.

Likewise, cussing and crude joking in the limelight is being willfully uttered by the same tongue that praises God off-stage (Eph 5:4). [If you are wondering when it is okay for a Christian to swear, check out Bleep! Why Christians Shouldn’t Cusslady macbeth

A wife should not be expected to tolerate her husband kissing another woman or being in a bed with a scantily-clad actress. The marriage bond is still sacred, whether it’s being violated on a Hollywood soundstage or not (Heb 13:4).


What are your thoughts? If you don’t agree with me, at least act like you do.


Clint Archer

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Clint has been the pastor of Hillcrest Baptist Church since 2005. He lives in Durban, South Africa with his wife and four kids.
  • T Howard

    So … violence and gore are okay because everyone gets up and walks away at the end of the scene. Profanity is not okay because you’re actually cussing, even though the words you are saying are not said from the heart but from a script. And, nudity is never okay. (FWIW, I don’t think actors are actually having sexual intercourse on the set during the scene, unless they’re shooting a porno, but I could be wrong.)

    • Jas25

      “I don’t think actors are actually having sexual intercourse on the set during the scene, unless they’re shooting a porno, but I could be wrong.”

      Is your wife okay with nearly naked cuddling with women at your place of work? I’m glad mine isn’t, because I know it’s not okay with me. 😛

      • T Howard

        My point is that actors aren’t committing sexual immorality on set (at least in front of the camera). Even though there may be “nearly naked cuddling,” given that the actors are surrounded by the film crew, being “re-positioned” for different takes and closeups, and working on a cold sound stage I doubt real intimacy is taking place between the actors.

        I’m not saying it’s right to be nearly naked with someone who isn’t your spouse, I’m just saying sexual immorality is probably not taking place on the sound stage.

        • Hey T, I have a broader definition of sexual immorality than having intercourse: anything that it would be sinful for unmarried people to do. My point is that to capture it on celluloid you actually need to transgress God’s commands of holiness. Not the same can be said for pretending to shoot someone. I’m also not saying blood and guts are fine entertainment, my focus is on what the actor’s are required to do.

          • T Howard

            Clint, I understand what you’re saying, but … an unmarried couple are usually doing these things with a different intent / motivation than two actors on a sound stage. Does the intent of the heart not figure into this discussion?

          • As in, “Yes I smoked weed, but I didn’t inhale”? Or “It depends on what the definition of is, is.”

        • Jas25

          Sexual immorality is the only thing that could make it not right. There’s no warning against the ungodly behavior of staying warm using each other’s body heat 😛

          However, since sexual immorality is as easy as having a lustful thought about a woman (Matthew 5:27-28) sexual immorality is (at least commonly) taking place on the sound stage.

          It’s also worth noting that celebrity couples are forming all the time as a result of romance that started on stage. They generally don’t last very long because it’s all founded on a connection invented by a writer, but it’s not surprising that their thoughts head that way when put into these situations (even on a sound stage).

          • T Howard

            Scripture defines sexual immorality (i.e. πορνεία; πορνεύω) as unlawful sexual intercourse, prostitution, unchastity, or fornication. Most CE’s would also include any sexual relationship outside of heterosexual marriage. Additionally, Jesus tells us that adultery is not limited to the physical act, but takes place in the mind.

            So, if two professional actors can be nearly naked together on a sound stage without engaging an unlawful sexual intercourse or lustful thoughts, how are they committing sexual immorality?

            Yet… it’s not sin for them to pretend to disembowel or violently attack each other because when the director yells “cut,” everyone shakes hands and goes on to the next scene.

            Does Clint’s position not cause some cognitive dissonance?

          • Really?

          • elainebitt

            I know Clint, I had the same reaction.

          • Jas25

            Paul warns of the unique, internal nature of sexual sin in 1 Corinthians 6:18. Every other sin proceeds out of a man’s heart, but this particular one is uniquely capable of working its way *into* a man’s heart as well.

            To me it just makes sense. Intimacy is something we’re all God-designed for. Lust is a misdirection of that entirely appropriate desire. Therefore we don’t need lust in our lives to respond (as designed) to intimate contact by desiring it (even though, in this case the focus of the desire is inappropriate).

            However, poking someone with a fake sword isn’t going to awaken a God-designed desire to hate because it simply is not his design for us to hate in the first place. If a person has anger in their life it was there before the fake sword was even brought on set.

          • Dan Freeman

            What about Mark 9:42?“Whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin. it would be better for him if a great millstone were hung around his neck and he were thrown into the sea.” and again, Matt. 18:7 “Woe to the world for temptations to sin! For it is necessary that temptations come, but woe to the one by whom the temptation comes!,” Even if someone is not lusting themselves, it is still wrong to be providing the temptation for others.

    • This is just a guess, but are you single? I think married folks would agree with me that they would not be ok with their spouse doing what actors do in order to film a sex scene.

      • T Howard

        Happily married for 17 years. I’m not a professional actor, although I was an extra on a movie and played a drunken teenager who was passed out at a party. Is it against scripture to act drunk too?

        • Good to hear. So you’ll know what all happily married men know: you only stay happily married if you don’t expect your wife to believe you were “not thinking lustful thoughts” while you were naked in bed with another women. 🙂

  • Jas25

    One thing I’ve noticed is that the same things affect me differently depending on how it is accepted/rejected by the characters and how explicit it gets.


    For instance, in the movie Taken, when he’s running through the sex trafficking area it was not something I felt was inappropriate because it is relevant to the situation and was portrayed negatively. Plus, they were very passive in their implication (and honestly, how explicit do people think you have to get for viewers to “get it”).

    However, I’ve also watched action movies where barely-clothed sex workers are hanging off the arms of men and I felt dirty for having watched it. Mostly because it was portrayed as “the way powerful men ought to live”. Also, they’re usually not happy with a fleeting implication.

    Violence is similar. Movies like Saw really bring out the urge for me to leave the room (and in fact, when hanging out with some college friends I had to do just that). The violence in those movies is practically worshiped.

    However, I can go to a superhero movie (like Thor) and not be at all disturbed by the violence. The hero is “violent” in opposing the one who glorifies the violence and it doesn’t get unnecessarily graphic to make the point. Violence is ultimately not something portrayed as good but rather as an unfortunate fact of life that the righteous stand in opposition to.

    When it comes to swearing I can’t even think of a movie where it existed but was portrayed negatively. I suppose there may have been some show I haven’t seen where a kid swore once and was chided for having uttered the word… Basically, if people are going to up their rating just to have a curse word in it they’re going to abuse it to no end.

    • Sure. I guess I’m taking it more from the point of view of the actors’ conscience and God’s law. E.g. even if a movie portrayed homosexuality as sinful, I still think it would be wrong for a Christian actor to get physical for the sake of the portrayal.

      • Jas25

        I agree with that. That sort of falls into the “how explicit it gets”. There are a million ways to imply romantic relationships without ever doing more than platonic friends would. At that point it’s basically up to the actor to follow their convictions.

        However, the other part I mentioned (whether something is portrayed in a positive/negative light) needs to be considered above and beyond the actor’s personal convictions, as people do take social queues from their entertainment and we’re expected to be considerate of our brothers and sisters as well.

        • Yes, I’d agree that some instances of the violence in Schindler’s List, for example, was used to portray the historical wickedness of the Holocaust to educate and inform, as opposed to the slasher-fest extolling of violence for the sake of mere entertainment. I’d just like to emphasize that as disciples of Jesus we really want to please him in our thought life and witness and behavior. Anything that is an encumbrance to that goal should be cut loose.

        • Luro

          As an ex-actor and current producer married for 6 and a half years to my actress wife, this question has come up a number of times. As we both wrestle with God in trying to understand his calling in our lives and to this industry, we find the question of how to portray characters and still maintain our Christian morals a fine balance. While I think there is a lot of minutia that can be discussed RE the above posts, I do think there is a macro view that is also important to take. What is the ultimate message of the drama being portrayed? Is there a redemptive thread that the actors performance with help bring home which could unlock people’s lives? Luckily, as a producer, I am largely able to control the content I produce and my wife and I are very particular about the roles she takes, but we are often faced with the question of being relevant to a real world who doesn’t understand our views.

          Of course this macro view needs to be weighed up against a very strict and pre-decided set of moral “What I will do and what I won’t do” codes. All that to say that while I do not believe in the adage, “The ends justify the means” at all, I do believe that certain stories demand realistic performances that could be considered as sin. Take for example The Passion Of The Christ – the extreme violence and brutal beating of Jesus, in my opinion, is absolutely necessary in portraying the story. The manipulation of Judas and his betrayal of Jesus is also totally necessary for the story to be told authentically. Whether these may be considered sins for the pretending actor who performs them or not is something to be debated but they do lead to the crux of my point – taking biblical stories which contain clear sins and portraying them on celluloid surely has a greater good at it’s core.

          Take the story of the prodigal son, or as Tim Keller calls it, the prodigal God – it’s my opinion that the full impact of a feature film retelling of this story would not be complete without seeing the depths of depravity that the prodigal falls to – how these depths are captured on screen is where the rub lies and is something I think the Christian actor battles with. On screen, there are literally a million ways to shoot and infer a sin in being committed, but not all of them involve the act of actually committing a sin between two actors on the stage. It may seem untenable to expect actors to demand scenes are shot in a certain way, but take for example the film Fireproof with Kirk Cameron – in the final climactic build up, the script calls for main husband and wife couple to kiss. Cameron refused to kiss anyone other than his actual wife who was not acting in the film. the film makers devised a way for this to happen and the scene was shot in silhouette as Cameron kissed his real life wife and the other shots were edited together for it to seem like he was kissing the actress… Cameron’s insistence of not compromising his morals acted as a powerful testimony to the crew as well as the audience who found out about his actions. the trick is, as an actor who doesn’t have a say over the script, it’s not always possible to make these kind of demands. This is where we rely on God to make a way and have to stick to our guns.

          That being said, we’re not perfect and this whole being a Christian actor/creator of content in a dark industry is a mine field we navigate with God as our guide – but we do feel called to this industry. Thought I’d just talk about our less abstract theoretical point of view as well as raise the issue that the end result of a story being told is often much more powerful than the individual parts thereof which is to be considered as well but not abused as a license to sin.

          PS – Howzit Clint, long time… Luke Rous here.

          • No way! Hey Luke. Good insights bro. You have the advantage of having a godly and discerning actress wife!

  • We had this discussion recently after seeing a musical our Christian friend was in. It was a G-rated, family friendly production but he courted, married and embraced his pretend wife. All I could think of was how it made his real wife feel. I wouldn’t want my husband to be that close to another women, even if it is G-rated.

    • Yup, that’s a good point. There are real people in the real world affected by what is being pretended on stage.

  • Michael

    Clint, thanks for initiating this conversation through a good post. I agree with your comments, but it does seem to miss a key aspect. This discussion would not be complete without considering the impact of a movie on the intended audience. Even in those scenes which you have argued are not sin, what is the result of an individual viewing the movie? For those that argue a sex scene is not sinful, what about the lust created as a result of the portrayed action? Isn’t that the point of a sex scene and if it is not, what is the point?

    We must realize that causing someone else to sin, is also sin. When we encourage sin and tempt people to sin, are we not also guilty of sin. If we are to be like Christ, giving ourselves to holiness, then can we argue Christ would have us encourage this behavior? Does God or did Christ ever tempt people to sin? Absolutely not, the Bible only speaks of Satan tempting people to sin.

    • This is a very valid point; I was addressing the angle of the actor’s sin, but there is certainly a question about what the portrayal is doing to temp/discourage/confuse others.

  • 4Commencefiring4

    Interesting discussion. Let’s turn it around: Suppose an actor, who is actually quite depraved real life, portrays a pastor or some other (apparently) righteous character in a film. Who will say God is more pleased with him for playing that role? It’s not who he really is. But it sounds as though, if the opposite situation arises, and a righteous man plays a wicked man on film, God now pays more attention to the role than the life.

    If the wicked actor is not really being obedient to the Lord–even when he plays someone who is–then is the righteous actor being disobedient when he plays a wicked character?

    • Dan Freeman

      What I think (and what I think Clint is saying) is that it is wrong for a righteous actor to do wicked acts in “real life” while portraying a wicked character, but it is not wrong merely to portray a wicked character. There is clearly a distinction there, because I don’t think anyone is going to argue that an actor portraying Stalin is sinning because of that fact, but there will no doubt be some disagreement over precisely what is sinful when acting.

      • Yes, that is what I mean.

    • Jim Caviezel playing Jesus for example?

  • vinas46

    This is an interesting topic. I think the real difference lies in the word “pretending”. I am saying this in the actor’s point of view. When he acts and in it he hates, tortures, kills, beats his enemies, he is just pretending and the actual thing doesn’t happen. Does he beat? no. Does he kills? no. Does he hates? no. But it is entirely different in terms of cussing and sex. Even though it seemed to be pretending, they are not actually pretending but they are actually doing. Take for example, sex scenes. A scene starts with a passionate kiss. The scene might not have nudity in it but it may involve sensual touches which are reserved only for an husband and a wife. Here they are not pretending to kiss but they are actually kissing. The same goes for nudity and cussing. Kirk Cameron did it right when he brought his wife for the last scene in the movie Fireproof which involved a kiss. There are somethings in acting which can’t be pretended. They can’t be acted without violating the God’s commands.

    I think this verse sums it up – Matthew 5:28: But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lustful intent has already committed adultery with her in his heart.

    • GinaRD

      It just isn’t as simple as all that. Take Jimmy Stewart: a Christian, a faithful husband who married only once and stayed married, and an actor who had to kiss Grace Kelly onscreen as part of his job. Do you think Alfred Hitchcock would have stood for his bringing Gloria in as a stand-in every time Jeff Jeffries was required to kiss Lisa Fremont?

      So then, is “Rear Window” inherently evil because of what Stewart did as part of his job?

      Or Jim Caviezel — another happily married, faithful husband who’s kissed other women onscreen. (I’m surprised he was brought up on this forum as a good example of anything, because he’s — GASP! — Catholic!!!! 😉 But he WAS brought up, so let’s go with it.) Should we all refuse to see every project he’s been in other than “The Passion of the Christ,” then? Should I never watch “Person of Interest” again because Caviezel decided — on his own, mind you; it wasn’t in the script — that a certain suspenseful scene would play better if his character kissed Taraji P. Henson’s character?

      • Daryl Little


        It really is a simple as that, but that’s not the same as “as easy as that”.
        It makes zero difference what Alfred Hitchcock might’ve thought of having Stewart’s wife on the set. It’s either OK to kiss another man’s wife, or to kiss a woman to whom you aren’t married, or it’s not.

        Regarding Jim Caviezel, it makes no difference whether he is Catholic or not, sin is sin. It’s as wrong for Harrison Ford to swear or touch a woman on stage as it is for you and I.

  • Truth Unites… and Divides

    I was listening to Pastor J-Mac on the Grace to You morning broadcast the other day and he was saying that much of what we see on TV and at the movies is not good. Probably bad and sinful even. And I enjoy watching some R-rated movies once in a while. Not for the gratuitous sex scenes or ridiculous gore, but some of cinematic stories are really fascinating and engrossing.
    Anyways, if it’s not even okay to watch R-rated or PG-13 rated tv shows or films, then by logical extension, how can it be even okay for a genuine Christian actor or actress to even act in them?

  • Corey Fleig

    I agree. In fact, this is important. Alistair Begg accepted the movie role of golfer Bobby Jones’ mentor, and in the script Alistair was required to curse, which he did. I called his church a week later and asked why he did that. The party answer was that it was “in character. It was the mentor cursing, not Alistair.” Well, that’s a lousy answer. I didn’t hear the mentor curse, I heard Alistair curse!

    So I asked a Christian acting instructor about this, and he said it was too bad that Alistair didn’t take the time to negotiate with the screen writer. What a concept!!!!

    (BTW – I won’t even describe how far unsaved actors will go in a bedroom scene.)

    Suffice to say, I don’t think the issue is your conscience, nearly as much as “Would you do or say what’s in the script when you know full well that Jesus is staring at you?”

    For example, Kirk Cameron’s sister Candace recently was filmed on DWTS. Her dance moves were *quite* provocative, so much so that an interviewer asked her how she justified it. Candace explained she doesn’t have sex on her mind when she’s dancing – she has the idea of creating art, and after all, God is the God of art. What a pathetic answer.

    Regardless of her own conscience, her dance moves did not reflect the kind of “art” that Jesus would look at – her partner was not her husband, and she violated all sorts of Biblical principles with her gestures. I really can’t imagine what her husband thought about it. I don’t even want to know. (You can tell I’m a dis-interested observer!)