Have you ever watched a movie and wondered what the actors are like off-screen? Growing up I thought Keanu Reeves could probably kick my butt, or that Harrison Ford would be a fun guy to go with on archaeological digs. Or, I used to wonder what Heath Ledger was like between takes while shooting The Dark Knight (Many of his fellow-actors say he was a funny and enjoyable guy.) But why do we wonder? I think deep down we want to encounter the humanity of these actors and actresses in Hollywood. We only get a superficial glance at them on the silver screen or through the media, and that limited access can only go so far to satiate our appetites. Also, only having that superficial perspective has led me to romanticize what their lives must be like. Similar to reducing homeless people to stats and numbers, we can perceive what’s on-screen as who they really are. And just as one may think and feel a bit different when they put a face and story to the numbers of the homeless population, I think we can also come to approach the “celebrity” of actors and actresses in a different way if given the opportunity. We can encounter them more deeply in their story, through their humanity, just as God did when he became human, like us, in the person of Jesus.
I’ve been grateful for that opportunity with Tom Wilson, who’s perhaps most best-known for his role as “Biff Tannen” in the Back to the Future trilogy. Tom is an artist in the full sense of the word. He has been in other films, TV shows, and comedy shows/specials. Moreover, he is a prolific photographer and painter, and has been invited to speak at many conferences and retreats on various topics of faith. Most importantly, however, he is a loving husband and father of four. I’ve been blessed to know them for the last ten years, and he has taught me many things in that time. I recently had the chance to sit down with Tom and interview him about his faith journey, his road to Hollywood, and how his Catholic faith influences his work. After the interview, and upon reflecting over the last ten years I’ve known him, I wrote down some key things I’ve learned from him, and have provided some clips from the interview, as well. You can listen to the clips associated with each number, or the entire interview posted below. Although this list is not exhaustive, here’s my top five (in no particular order):
1. Express what’s in your heart. (26:15-27:20)
The Wilson home has always cultivated an artistic atmosphere. Literally, the whole family is full of singers, actors, athletes, painters, and musicians. I was incredibly intimidated at first because I never really considered myself an “artist” like all of them (at least not a good one!). And although I may not still sing well, my time with Tom and his family has helped me understand how important it is to express who you deeply are. All of us have a desire to live out who we truly are, and to let that self unfold and deepen over time. Feeling safe and free to express ourselves is key, and we need courage to do so when we find opposition. Thankfully, in being surrounded by a family that lives to express the core of who they are, it empowers me to do the same in my life as a Jesuit.
2. It’s important to have an expansive faith, rather than a narrow one. (7:35-8:12)
Before I was officially introduced to the Jesuit idea of seeking and “finding God in all things” in my undergrad days at Loyola Marymount University, my conversations with Tom about God and faith primed the pump to experience my faith in everything and everyone. What did that usually look like? Sitting around the dining room table on a Saturday night eating pizza and drinking soda with the family while waiting for cookies to finish baking, and Tom would simply ask: “David, what’s God like for you?” These kinds of questions really engaged my imagination. And I’m not talking about the imagination in a way that suggests fleeing reality into fantasy, but rather one that enters more deeply into reality. To talk about the many ways of how God reveals himself to each of us includes (and is not an exception) our lived experiences and the encounters we have with others. Praying with the Gospels or other texts, or praying over your day, then, takes on a new and dynamic dimension each time. I always enjoy coming back to that space at Wilson World…for the pizza, the soda, the cookies, the company, and the reminder that hopefully faith in God expands towards unbounded horizons in everything and everyone we encounter.
3. No room for fear. Trust in the difficult. (9:00-10:16 and 14:53-16:25)
Jesus was very fond of reminding his followers: “Do not be afraid.” Tom, as with any actor, does his best to take that direction to heart. He shares how he feared what his life would end up like after being sick with lung infections, asthma, and pneumonia throughout his time in high school. Even with this uncertainty, Tom remained open to where God was at that moment, and paid attention to where God was leading him.
He thought of possibly following in his father’s footsteps as a lawyer. Turns out that his debating teacher also happened to be the theater teacher. Next thing you know, Tom was cast in a play, and the audience loved him, which led him to continue to pursue this newfound skill set and passion. In the midst of these difficulties, as well as the chance-y situation of his debating coach being the school theater teacher, a call was revealed to him. And he answered without giving into his fears. He looked for a way through, rather than a way out. These little “calls” are sent our way all the time, and yet so much can obstruct our view and hearing, especially when times are difficult. The important thing is to not immediately dismiss the difficult moments, for grace can lie within its very depths. It just may be hard to notice at first.
4. Hospitality is key.
I always feel welcomed in “Wilson World.” A special time would be during each Christmas break from school, in which I would take the opportunity to bake cookies with them and sing carols. One Christmas their hospitality became official when Tom “knighted” me into the family. It was a lot of fun sitting around the Christmas tree and having the long wrapping paper cylinder waved over my head and shoulders by the father of a family who you came to love. They make me (and countless others) feel at home in their house and with myself.
I’m always invited to stop by for a swim, a meal, a chat, a sing-along, a movie, and everything in-between. These seemingly ordinary moments have taken on extraordinary meaning for me. In them I feel this sense that God makes his hospitality “official” with us (great for the Christmas season, but not limited to it!). God wants to feel at home with us, and us with him. Kinship is the fruit of this desire. God wants us to feel welcome and to let us know we’re not alone, and Tom and his family are a living sign of this for me.
5. It’s all Good News. (32:31-33:18)
When I struggle with something it’s always difficult for me to see any good in it in the moment. I’m usually left with a sense of helplessness, failure, or a hopelessness that any good can come from it. I remember feeling that way my senior year of high school when I went on my first immersion trip to Tijuana, Mexico to learn more about the border issues and the lives of the migrants. It was my first encounter with that kind of poverty and generous hospitality from those in that poverty. And my distress and confusion over it made me feel like I wasn’t in the right place, or probably doing the right thing. I thought that maybe I shouldn’t have come because I couldn’t seem to handle it.
But, as Tom says, “it’s all Good News.” As I look back, what I thought was a failed educational experience was in fact another step on this long journey that was actually leading somewhere. That trip was the beginning of my own deepening of faith and it’s inextricable tie to solidarity and justice, which only continued to grow and unfold through my involvement with De Colores [footnote: De Colores is a program where students spend a weekend helping a community in Tijuana build homes for their members, and also learn more about border issues.] while at LMU, my semester abroad in El Salvador with Casa de la Solidaridad, my entrance into the Jesuits, and my current assignment in Manila, Philippines with the study abroad program, Casa Bayanihan.
From watching Back to the Future as a little kid to getting to know Tom and his family as a teenager and (now) young adult, Tom is not what you’d expect. In getting to know his story, and in being able to share many memories with him and the rest of Wilson World, I came to love and, therefore, see him in a new way. I never thought I would be learning so much about life and faith from him and his family, but that is the gift of the mystery. You meet certain people along the journey and, if you remain open and willing, what you might learn from them can astonish you and may even help reveal you to yourself.
You can listen to the full interview here in two parts. The whole interview lasts about 40 minutes and is completely worth it.
You can also hear more from Tom by tuning in to his podcast, Big Pop Fun with Tom Wilson , or visit his website to stay updated with his comedy schedule and to see his artwork.