Good people pretending to be bad

Anyone superficially familiar with “Mormon cinema” recognizes the face of one of its early rising stars, Kirby Heyborne.

You may have seen him as the hapless title character in “The R.M.” Or as the fresh-faced greenie in “The Best Two Years”:




Perhaps as the R.A.F. pilot in “Saints and Soldiers” (that’s him with the bleeding leg):




There are many, many other examples of his work.  For a time, it seemed impossible to watch an LDS-themed or produced movie without him in it.  Now that Mormon cinema is either dead (if you believe Richard Dutcher) or merely in a state of slow rebirth, Kirby has moved on to other projects.  He’s released a few music albums over the past few years, and taken on small acting jobs here and there as he’s tried to support his family in Los Angeles.  His last major role was as a supporting character in a short-lived Fox TV series, “Free Ride,” back in 2006.

Now his latest career move is certainly turning heads among his predominantly LDS fan base, and provoking deeper reflection about the boundaries of Mormon morality.  Here’s the commercial:



So, is it wrong for an active Mormon to appear in a beer commercial?  Enlarging the question a bit, is it wrong for a Mormon to pretend to be anything contrary to the high standards of the Church, even if it’s just “acting”?

We’ve seen plenty of bad guys in Church-produced films, yet we intuit nothing about the actors’ personal righteousness based on their characters’ behavior.  Even Heyborne’s character in “Saints and Soldiers” smoked a cigarette on occasion (don’t worry, it wasn’t real), yet it didn’t cause nearly the same reaction as the beer commercial.

Kirby’s feelings on the subject are these:

‘I’m a temple-worthy member that loves his wife and kids, and fulfills his calling at church and does his home teaching. And yet I’m going to play characters that might have moral dilemmas, or do a commercial — or whatever it is — because my job is the way that I provide for my family,’ he said.

‘I look at it as Heavenly Father was blessing me with a way to support my family and stay afloat for another year,’ he said.

That’s not to say he went about accepting the job lightly. Both he and his wife, Trish, discussed their options, knowing that some observers were going to be vocally upset if he chose to do the commercial.

‘People think I endorse beer now, which isn’t the case. I don’t advocate anyone drinking,’ he said. ‘I’ve never drank before in my life. Whatís funny is that the other guy that’s in the commercial with me, he’s never tasted alcohol either.’

The morality at play here is fairly murky.  Let’s extend Kirby’s argument to a more extreme case.  Would he feel as comfortable taking on an acting job that required simulated intimacy with another character?  If not, is that because immorality is “evil” and consuming alcohol is simply one of those peculiar no-nos that only Mormons and Muslims worry about?

Maybe the difference is in the portrayal of evil.  In Church films, there’s always an obvious distinction between the good guys and the bad guys.  The bad guys are almost always recognizable on sight, with their scraggly beards, copious drinking and shouting, and redneck Southern accents.  (OK, I’m exaggerating a little, but you get the point.  With the exception of Jesus and the original twelve apostles, and Church history figures like Brigham Young and John Taylor, there seems to be an unofficial rule that No Good Character Wears a Beard.  Also, the more evil the character, the bigger and scragglier the beard.  See “The Work and the Glory” as an example.)  I have yet to see an LDS-themed movie, outside of Richard Dutcher’s oeuvre, where enemies masquerade as good people for a time.

So maybe the problem is that by appearing in the commercial, which (as all beer commercials do) romanticizes drinking alcohol by placing it in a fun social context, Heyborne is contributing to the downfall of humanity by making bad look good.  If that’s the case, it would seem to put an unfair and artificial restriction on the kinds of roles a temple-worthy LDS actor can accept.  It would certainly rule out appearing in any of Shakespeare’s plays, for example.  And no LDS actor would think of turning down the roles of Mr. or Mrs. Macbeth just because they got a little blood on their hands.

Another LDS actor who draws a distinction between his personal and professional life is Ricky Schroder.   You mean that kid from ‘Silver Spoons’, you ask?  Yup, that’s the one.  He converted to the Church eight years ago.  Now here’s the kicker: would you believe he was baptized during a break from his role on “N.Y.P.D. Blue”?

And yeah, that was him killing people during his season-long stint as a CTU agent on “24.”  (Don’t worry, he was a good guy.  But he was pretty handy with a firearm.  And he was a racist.)  You can read about his conversion story here.  Yes, he did actually say “damn” while speaking at an LDS single-adult conference.  But he also has four children, is sealed to his wife, and was recently called as an assistant executive secretary in his ward.  Here’s what he has to say about the distinction between his real life and his work:

Ricky, who continues to act and also has written and directed in recent years, said he hasnít been the recipient of any prejudice or judgments from people in the entertainment industry concerning his religion. He said when most members find out heís Mormon, they want to know how he reconciles his faith with his profession, to which he says: ‘You have to separate sometimes what you do for work and what you do for your own life. They donít always go hand and hand…. You have to make a living, you have to hold a job…. Business is business, and church and religion are different than business.’

So now we return to our original question.  What does it mean to “stand as witnesses of God at all times and in all things, and in all places,” according to the Young Womens’ theme?  Can one have the guidance of the Spirit while engaging in wrong behavior, even if you’re just pretending to do so – particularly in cases where the bad guy wins, or at least doesn’t receive his just comeuppance by the end?

What makes appearing in a beer commercial “wrong” (even if the character never take a drink or even opens the bottle) and smoking a cigarette in a WWII film “right”?  Or are they both wrong, or both right?  Is the beer commercial wrong because the characters are never named, thus giving the appearance of reality (as in, that’s really Kirby Heyborne searching for the kegger)?

Of course, the world isn’t going to come to an end because of one beer commercial.  And what Heyborne and Schroder do with their lives is their own business.  But in terms of using these examples to puzzle out a moral standard or rule, there appear to be no clear answers.  For every argument I make against it, there’s an equally valid counter-argument in favor of it.

Do we just give up here and say, “It depends” (gotta beware of moral relativism though), or can we discern a clear moral standard? 

2 Responses to “Good people pretending to be bad”

  1. That’s really a hard one. I know I wouldn’t be comfortable doing a beer commercial, but I’m not sure how far to extend that. It is true that we have good, temple-recommend holding members playing very bad people in church movies (sometimes even as bad as you can get), yet we don’t question their own motives. Is that because the movies are church-produced (and therefore “OK”) or because the bad guys are obvious and do not prevail in happiness, or a little of both? I do know that one rule for playing the Savior in the Testaments was that he could not have played a riske part (I think it was particularly a nude part, but I’m not sure)–but (1) that was for playing the Savior, and (2) playing the part of someone who may drink is not exactly on par as actually exposing your body (not just implying it, but actually doing it–though I don’t know that I’d be comfortable with implying it, either). Definitely a subject to think about.

  2. The standards regarding the actor who would portray the Savior in “The Testaments of One Fold and One Shepherd” are described in an article by the film’s director Kieth Merrill. It’s quite a remarkable read if you’re interested.

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