You may not know Darin Southam by name, but if you live along the Wasatch front you certainly know his face, plastered as it is across billboards, posters, and newspaper ads for Ephraim’s Rescue (in theaters May 31). The film, which director T.C. Christensen described to me as “17 Miracles from the rescuers’ perspective,” tells the true but often overlooked story of Ephraim Hanks, a Church history hero who put his life on the line to follow President Young’s call to save the Saints stranded and dying on the plains. I recently connected with Darin, eager to get to know the actor responsible for bringing Ephraim Hanks to life on the big screen.
JONATHAN DECKER: While some of us are familiar with your previous work in One Man’s Treasure and The Last Man(s) on Earth, a lot of our readers have no idea who you are, and suddenly your face is on billboards and ads everywhere they look. Introduce us to yourself. Where are you from? What’s your background, both in life and acting?
DARIN SOUTHAM: My late father was a pilot so we moved a lot. I was born in the small farm town Vernal, Utah but growing up I lived in California, Iowa, Oregon, and then we settled in Vancouver Washington for about 11 years; that’s where I grew up and developed my love for film. In the summer, the sun would come out for about 3 months and we would cliff dive (like the movie Twilight) and go river tubing, but the rest of the year it rained and so movies became the thing to do. I still remember skipping school to go to Star Wars when it came back to theaters.
I’ve always been a dramatic kid; I used to fake injuries from running into doors and scare my mom to death. I was introduced to organized acting in 7th grade when I took a drama class. When I was in my late teens I started telling people I was going to be an actor in film – you know, the “what do you want to do when you grow up?” questions. I got into the game late I guess you could say. I got my first agent when I was 22 and six months later I booked my first role in Disney’s Going to the Mat. That led to another Disney role and it just continued from there.
As far as my background in life, I grew up with the best mother in the world and that’s not just lip service. She gave me everything: confidence, support, encouragement, faith, and love. My father taught me hard work – we had two huge gardens on an acre lot in Washington, which I had the privilege of weeding with my older brother. It wasn’t fun but I learned to toil and do the job right the first time. This has served me well in everything, especially in my acting career. 50% of acting is confidence (from my mother), and the other 50% is focused preparation and downright hard work (from my father).
I was always a pretty sober kid; I never drank alcohol or did drugs in my life. I didn’t mess around with girls. Because of this strange behavior, my mother never gave me a curfew. Of course, my older siblings complain that was just because I was the youngest (laughs) but for some reason, I didn’t give my parents a lot of grief in my teenage years and that has paid off immensely in my own family life. I am a husband of 8 years to a beautiful and amazing woman, Michelle. I’m also a father of three young kids.
JD: How did a relative unknown land the lead role in what is, in our community at least, one of the year’s most anticipated films?
DS: My family and I had spent two years in California pursuing acting out there. We had just moved back to Utah when I landed this role. While I was in California I studied at Playhouse West in Hollywood and that really prepared me to carry a film I think. We had also gone through a lot of things personally that prepared me for this role.
My agent sent me out on the audition, I got called back for a second audition but I went to a wrong address and missed it. Luckily, T.C. Christensen agreed to see me the following week and I guess he liked me.
Seriously though, I felt good about my audition, but one thing you learn in this business is you can feel really good about an audition and not get the part. Conversely, you can feel horrible about an audition and end up booking the role! So you really have to just let it go after the audition and move on, which I did, and then about three weeks later I got the call that they were giving me the role. It was exciting.
JD: I love the ad that I’ve been seeing here and there, which emphasizes that unlike this summer’s other movie heroes, Ephraim Hanks isn’t fictional. He was a living, breathing, real-life hero. Many are still unfamiliar with his life and story; why should they pay for movie tickets and babysitters to see this film instead of a Hollywood blockbuster?
DS: Let’s be honest, a lot of Hollywood films are garbage. You can’t hide a terrible story with special effects or boorishness; the audience still leaves feeling empty. Somewhere, in the past few years especially, Hollywood has forgotten this. You have to have characters with breathing life, developed to the depths of emotion; characters the audience will sympathize with and feel deeply for.
Ephraim’s Rescue isn’t a big budget blockbuster film but it has a story far superior to most films currently on the big screen and a depth of emotion that meets or exceeds the highest Hollywood standards. The brutal reality of Mormon history has been largely untold. We could all learn something from their unwavering commitment to Christianity amidst savage persecution and severe tribulation. Those who see Ephraim’s Rescue will see a part of this history told in a compelling and heart-felt way. The cinematography is also breathtaking because T.C. is as good as they come. From the few test screenings the film has had, viewers have laughed, they have cried, and they have been enthusiastic about returning with their friends to relive it again.
JD: I’m sure there was a lot of pressure, trying to do justice to the story of Ephraim Hanks, as well as carrying a film like this. I mean, even if everyone else is terrific, if the lead actor doesn’t do his job well the film sinks. Did that pressure fuel your preparation? What research did you do on the character, and how did you prepare spiritually?
DS: The fear of looking like an idiot as the lead in your most widely seen film to date is painfully motivating.
Thankfully, preparation is the antithesis of fear. I rode horses before landing this role but I was not a horseman by any means, so I found a horse trainer and got in the saddle early. I trained twice a week for about 5 months before filming. I probably racked up over 100 hours of riding and I had the saddle sores to prove it!
Ephraim was also uncanny with the lasso, so I also spent hours learning the art, even though this was not something I directly used in the film. I traveled nearly 450 miles on my motorcycle to visit the grave of Ephraim Hanks, so I could pay my respects to him. I came to know him there in a very personal way. I read everything I could get my hands on about him and I connected with some of his descendants who gave me insight to his persona.
JD: For what it’s worth, I’m sure you’re great. The last time I spoke with T.C, he had nothing but praise for you. Judging from the trailers, you do a lot of hard physical work in this film. You’re riding horses, trudging through snow, and doing a rigorous-looking type of 1800’s dancing. Was this a grueling shoot? What was the most challenging aspect of it? What was the most fun?
DS: It wasn’t too grueling but it wasn’t a cake walk either. The most fun part of it was riding my horse. Every chance I got I was riding around, even when I wasn’t filming I was running laps around set. There was so much riding that got cut out of the film, including a scene where I am galloping down a super steep mountain, while Indians are shooting arrows at me. It will most likely be in the deleted scenes on the bluray.
The most challenging aspect of filming when you are the lead is the constant focus you have to maintain on holding character. If you get lazy and drop a scene emotionally you will regret it later. Before every scene I would tell myself to give it all and keep nothing. I knew I might only get one shot at this and I couldn’t bear the thought of letting it fall flat. I also felt an immense responsibility to do Ephraim and his decedents proud.
JD: One scene that gave me the heebie-jeebies in the promos has you, from what I can tell, waking up with a rattlesnake on your chest. To me, it conjures up images of Indiana Jones face-to-face with a cobra. Any film buff worth their salt knows that Harrison Ford did that shot with a plate of glass between him and the snake, but no such trickery appears at play in your scene. Care to divulge how that was done?
DS: Sure. It was a real rattler and there was no glass… I can’t remember the breed, but it was the more aggressive type because the first one they put on me was too mellow and wouldn’t rattle for us. I was told they were “defanged” but I wasn’t told their fangs apparently grow back in 4-6 weeks.
In hindsight, ignorance was bliss, but I’ve always been pretty level headed in a crisis. My wife and I got caught in Hurricane Wilma during our second anniversary trip and we were in a shelter for 5 days. When the ceiling started falling, someone in the shelter said, “We’re all gonna die!” My wife and I still remember how ridiculous it was. I think, if you know who you are and your purpose in life, it gives you the kind of perspective that helps you stay calm in difficult circumstances.
JD: I want to talk with you about The Last Man(s) on Earth, a film you did with my buddy Charan Prabhakar. To me, that was last year’s funniest comedy [read my review here]. You play a mild-mannered elementary teacher who gradually morphs into something of a narcissistic action hero. What did you enjoy most about that shoot?
DS: Working with Charan, Rick [Macy], and Brady [Bluhm] is always a fun adventure. I liked sporting my “epic” cowboy gear and walking around with a bazooka – that was pretty fun.
JD: I love that you went from battling zombies and wooing ladies to rescuing stranded pioneers. That, sir, is range. What type of film would you like to do next?
DS: The film I want to do next is a period piece that involves playing a war general who tries to save a morally-degrading people. Warfare, intrigue, love, honor, you name it… I’m excited about it but it’s still in very initial stages and I can’t say much about it. I think, period films are my favorite for sure. There was an innocence back then that I love to portray.
JD: What are a few of your favorite movies?
DS: Meet Joe Black, Gladiator, Knotting Hill, Pride & Prejudice (2005)
JD: Aside from the Savior (who’s likely everyone’s #1 choice) and Ephraim Hanks (since we’ve already talked about him), who is your favorite hero from the scriptures or Church history and why?
DS: Without question, Chief Captain Moroni. He was a commanding and captivating leader, magnificently fearless to defend liberty and rally his people to “the cause of the Christians.” Where else do we read this about someone?
“And Moroni was a strong and a mighty man… a man of a perfect understanding… a man whose soul did joy in the liberty and the freedom of his country, and his brethren from bondage and slavery… a man whose heart did swell with thanksgiving to his God… a man who did labor exceedingly for the welfare and safety of his people… (I)f all men had been, and were, and ever would be, like unto Moroni… the very powers of hell would have been shaken forever” (Alma 48:11-12,17).
Yeah… he’s my hero.
JD: Thank you Darin, for the interview, the fascinating insights, and for dedicating so much of yourself to this important role.
DS: Thanks, Jonathan.
EPHRAIM’S RESCUE WILL BE IN THEATERS ACROSS UTAH, AS WELL AS LAS VEGAS, NEVADA AND MESA, ARIZONA, ON MAY 31ST. FOR PARTICIPATING THEATERS AS WELL AS TO REQUEST A SCREENING IN YOUR AREA, PLEASE VISIT www.ephraimsrescue.com/theaters/
To learn more about Darin, please visit: www.facebook.com/darinsouthamfan
For my film reviews, articles, and videos, please visit www.mormonmovieguy.com