Jon Avnet and Walton Goggins on Embracing Mercy Through Perception in ‘Three Christs’

We talk with the director and actor about inhabiting a delusional headspace and our country’s desperate demand for care.
Three Christs Screenshot
IFC Films
By  · Published on January 8th, 2020

Three delusional men sit next to each other in a room. Each one believes themselves the son of God. There can be only one, but here they are. We called them crazy. We jammed drugs down their throats and sent electricity through their brains. The three Christs remain, as does our confusion regarding their belief.

Some stories enter your head and go out just as quickly. Others become squatters, refusing to leave until they’re violently expunged upon the page. For director Jon Avnet, Three Christs was that story. He became aware of the true saga when he was studying psychiatry in college, but it wasn’t until¬†producer Steven Haft (Dead Poet’s Society) put Milton Rokeach‘s book in his hands that the fire was lit. No matter how long it took, he’d make this movie.

The concept of three men who believed themselves to be Christ was too deliciously provocative to pass. “I thought it was really interesting on an identity level,” says Avnet. “Meaning, who are you? Who gets to tell you who you can be or you can’t be?”

Is it our responsibility to force a person’s sense of self into something we know or claim to be true? “The core of this movie is what I would call ’empathic therapy,'” Avnet adds. “Treating these people who are different with compassion and seeing the humanity that’s in them, as opposed to treating them as if they are broken and subhuman on a certain level. That’s what drew me in.”

Casting the “three Christs” was an inspired endeavor and not difficult once the green light was blinking. The first person on board was Walton Goggins, four years before production began on the film while they were working together on the television series Justified. “Jon is like a father figure to me,” says Goggins. “He’s grown to become very important in my life, and I’ve known him for a long time now.” There was never a question in Avnet’s mind — Goggins was the guy to inhabit Leon, one of the three wannabe Christs.

Such confidence from his director was essential because Goggins was equally compelled and perplexed when he first read the screenplay. “After finishing it, I had no fucking idea what it was about!” exclaims Goggins. “And then simultaneously, I knew everything that it was about. I said to him, ‘Buddy, you have orchestrated one of the most inaccessible stories I’ve ever read in my life, but it’s a story that you have to tell. It’s extremely important.'” Thus began the actor’s journey into understanding schizophrenia.

Avnet relied on Goggins’ early input on the script. “He’s an amazing actor, but he was also very devoted and dedicated,” says the writer/director. “He helped me shape that part enormously.”

Then came Richard Gere as the doctor charged with observing the three Christs, and Bradley Whitford¬†as Clyde fell into place shortly after. With Peter Dinklage came a key question to their performances. As Avnet puts it: “He said to me, ‘How do you play someone who’s insane? I don’t want to use tricks and tropes.’ That’s exactly what he said. I told him, ‘You play him sane.'” The Christ in question does not see himself as a crazy person. He’s the sane one. Those around him are crazy. “You don’t have to try to act a certain way. You just have to understand from his point of view and how he sees the world.”

Operating within such a headspace could give a person pause. Goggins found his place through research and planting himself firmly within the text of Rokeach’s book, as well as R.D. Laing’s The Divided Self. “I’ve underlined one quote from that book,” says the actor. “‘Insanity is a perfectly rational adjustment to an insane world.’ I don’t know which is more insane, this version of reality or the reality in which I believe the rest of us live in.”

Empathy is not a hard muscle to practice, but you do have to practice. “I looked at Leon as a human being that was suffering greatly, but someone who was also liberated from conventional thought,” says Goggins. Unfortunately, researching the similarily inflicted face-to-face was incredibly difficult. “I called around and tried to find a place where I could go and converse with people and interact with people with schizophrenia that was a safe environment for them, and one where they were tended and cared for. And I couldn’t find it, man! I couldn’t find it anywhere, and it blew me away that we have stripped that from our civil society.”

Avnet is deeply concerned with the state of mental health in America today. As wretched and offputting as the 1950s institution depicted in Three Christs is, at the very least, there was a place for the inflicted to be tended. “I hope Three Christs starts a conversation,” says the filmmaker. “A country as wealthy as we are should invest in professionals and stop having the police be first responders for the mentally ill, many of whom are on the streets, many of whom are in jails. We must find a way to give them empathetic care.”

Watching a film or reading a book is the first step. Considering the lives within is the second. “It is very scary,” says Goggins. “Just read how people with this disease have been treated throughout history, and look at the conditions under which they were forced to live and how they were feared and maligned and marginalized from society.”

When Goggins placed himself inside Leon, a whole horrific record of pain revealed itself. “There is a feeling that any one of us could go there,” the actor adds. “That’s not the case, but certainly, I got to a point where I had to question, ‘Wait a minute, why am I seeing this right now? Why am I saying this right now? You begin to question, what is reality?”

As long as your point of view aligns with the majority of those around you, then you’re safe, but the second your POV shifts from them, watch out.

Three Christs will open in select theaters as well as release on Digital HD and VOD on January 10th.

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Brad Gullickson is a Weekly Columnist for Film School Rejects and Senior Curator for One Perfect Shot. When not rambling about movies here, he's rambling about comics as the co-host of Comic Book Couples Counseling. Hunt him down on Twitter: @MouthDork. (He/Him)