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By Gregg Shapiro
Out actor Chad Allen grew up on television. Beginning in 1983, when he was eight years old, Allen portrayed Tommy, the autistic son of one of the doctors on the acclaimed TV series “St. Elsewhere.” He also made frequent guest appearances on popular shows such as “Webster,” “Punky Brewster” and “The Wonder Years,” among others. He was next seen regularly alongside Shannon Doherty in the Deidre Hall/ Wilford Brimley series “Our House.” A few years after “Our House” was canceled, Allen returned to prime time television for five more years as Matthew in the Jane Seymour vehicle “Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman.”
In October of 2001, Allen appeared on the cover of The Advocate in which he did his coming out interview. Since that time he has been seen in a variety of acting roles on screen and stage. Most notably, Allen filled the gumshoes of gay detective Donald Strachey in the film adaptation of “Third Man Out.”
His latest film, “End of the Spear,” finds Allen playing a dual role. For the first part of the movie, he plays Nate Saint, a missionary murdered by Waodani tribesman in the 1950s. Later, he portrays Steve Saint, son of Nate, who returns to Ecuador and meets the man who killed his father.
BTL: What was it that attracted you to the “End of the Spear” project?
Chad Allen: They sent me this script over two and a half years ago, probably. I read it (and) immediately fell in love with this amazing story of forgiveness and love and the transformational spirit of love. At that time I’d never heard of Nate Saint or Steve Saint or any of these people. I came to find out that these people were very famous. Many people that I came across grew up knowing their stories. I was sort of in the minority. Secondly, it was a story where I got to play to characters. As an actor, that’s just extraordinary. You very rarely get that opportunity. I wanted to do it as an actor and because I loved the story. And, lastly, they were talking about going away to Panama for three months, and that appealed to every National Geographic bone in my body. I actually marched into the producer’s office and said, “Look, I’m going to Panama with you guys. Whether I’m working in craft services or cleaning up after you or cleaning up monkey dung. I’m going to be there, so you may as well just let me play these parts. He nodded his head and said, “Yeah, I think you are” (laughs).
BTL: You play the father Nate and his adult son Steve. Was it difficult to make the characters distinctive?
CA: Yeah. It was difficult on a few different fronts. I realized, shortly after starting to prepare for these roles, that these characters were an enormous responsibility. Because they were real men, because they were famous and meant so much to so many people, I really felt that pressure. Nate’s been dead since 1956. There isn’t a lot of available footage on him. The stories you find about him are larger than life tales – he’d become almost like a superhero. So it was difficult to delineate the real and the human from the superhuman that tends to happen when people are heroic. As I got into developing Steve, he was a real person, and standing ten feet away from me while we were shooting, so that was a whole other thing of fear and responsibility. I couldn’t just mimic him, because Steve now is very different from the one you meet in the film. To delineate his humanity was also quite an effort.
BTL: “End of the Spear” is being released at a time when there are a lot of biographical films in which actors are portraying real characters, such as Philip Seymour Hoffman in “Capote” and David Straithairn in “Good Night, and Good Luck.” What are the challenges to playing a character based on a real person versus a fictional one, and do you think that is something you’d want to do again?
CA: In truth, it’s a great and fantastic challenge. The challenge, as I’ve discovered it from doing it a couple of times, is delineating what is useful from the actual person or character and what is useful to the story that you’re telling. The two don’t always match up. In this story, the movie is very accurate to fact. But, it’s a huge story, that covers a lot more than what you see, and a lot of generations and a lot of time. Half the movie, as we shot it, is Steve battling with the Ecuadorian government and politics. All of that isn’t there anymore, because there was too much story to tell. We shot well over three and a half hours of movie.
BTL: So is this the kind of thing that will show up on the DVD edition?
CA: Yes. There will be a lot of bonus extras and that kind of thing. I guess the clearest example for me is when you meet Steve Saint, you meet this bold, exciting, loving and big, broad man. When you meet him in the film, he’s not that. He’s troubled and fearful and doesn’t quite know what it is that God’s calling him to do. He’s not sure what the right answer is and he’s trying to find substitute answers for what they’re asking of him. One of the greatest gifts I was given was when I got to meet Steve. He had bold mannerisms and big hands and long arms and specific behaviors. The first night I met him and we had dinner together, he was deeply burdened with the responsibility of bringing this film to life. We actually both cried. It was fantastic, because I didn’t meet the guy you’d meet today.
BTL: This was all before the project was done and the responsibility was weighing on him.
CA: They’d been shepherding this story forever. There were people who didn’t think it should be made into a movie. It would destroy the legacy. I know he was burdened with all that.
BTL: What was it like to shoot in Panama?
CA: It was awesome (smiles). It was difficult at times, of course. It was dirty, and we were shooting in jungles. But I love all that stuff. After Panama, I was invited by the Waodani tribe to go to Ecuador and spent several weeks living with them. We celebrated Easter Sunday with the Waodani. I’m sitting there with five of these men who all killed fifteen or more people in their lives by spears, and we’re celebrating life together.
BTL: As an out gay actor, how do you think that missionaries such as the ones depicted in the movie would react to you portraying them on film?
CA: It’s been amazing. When I was coming out of the closet, it was gay people that were more concerned about its effect on my career than straight people. I find this so much of the time – and it’s important for us to remember – it’s an issue when we make it an issue. I decided when they asked me to do the part, that they must not know who they are talking to; because, surely they wouldn’t want me. I said to the producers, ‘Look, you need to know that this is who I am. And I need to make sure who you guys are and where this money’s going and so on.’ They pulled out The Advocate (with the coming out interview) and said, ‘We know. We read this. We shared it with Steve Saint. The things you spoke of, in terms of spirit, are the same things that Steve’s fought his whole life for. We want you to play this role.’ And they said, which I thought was brilliant, ‘There may be some people on your side of things who don’t like the idea of you working with us. And there may be people on our side of things. But isn’t that the point that, when we can walk together and show that we can create together and love one another?’ It wasn’t easy at times. It brought up stuff in me and I watched my preconceived notions go away and it did the same thing for them. At the end of the day, when we said goodbye, Steve and I were both in tears and hugging one another. It was sad because we were going to miss each other as friends.