'This is Real Life'
September 1, 2003 - Most actors have a dream role—a character they've always wanted to play. But Vicellous Shannon's dream role is probably different than that of most actors.
by Kristen M. Burke
"I've always wanted to win someone to Christ on film," says Shannon, who plays pilot Jim Butler in "Last Flight Out," the World Wide Pictures film.
Shannon, 32, finally plays his dream role when, as Butler, he leads the film's main character to Christ.
"To me, this isn't acting; this is real life," Shannon says of his role. "When you talk about Jesus, it has to come from reality."
Whenever we present the Gospel, he says, we confront people with their spiritual reality—even if we present the Gospel through entertainment.
When Shannon isn't working on a Christian film, his evangelistic emphasis is on demonstrating his faith through his actions. But it wasn't always that way.
Searching for Meaning
At age 5, Shannon's interest in eternal things was sparked when he went to Sunday school with a neighbor. He learned about Jesus but didn't know that he could have a personal relationship with Him.
For years, Shannon unsuccessfully searched for a lasting purpose for his life through sports, acting and money. Twelve years ago, as a fledgling actor and nominal Christian, Shannon played some roles that he regrets today. At the time, he thought, "I guess God understands that I have to make a living."
Now he feels that he was believing a lie of Satan—namely, as Shannon put it: "You can't be a Christian and be in entertainment. You've got to conform to what they want."
But four years of conforming in Hollywood didn't satisfy Shannon's longing for something lasting. He began reading the Bible and discovering what it means to know Jesus.
As his faith in Jesus Christ grew, Shannon felt that God wanted him to raise his standards and to turn down roles that devalued human life or faith in God. While he believes that Christians have a responsibility to be present in the secular workplace, he now turns down roles that involve nudity or profanity.
In "real life," Shannon also looks for opportunities to introduce people to Christ—even on Hollywood sets. But one of the most important aspects of his Christian witness to his Hollywood co-workers is his life off-camera.
Shannon stands out because he doesn't live the typical Hollywood lifestyle. His colleagues notice that he doesn't party and that he is committed to his family. They often ask him why he is so balanced. When he answers by explaining his relationship with Jesus Christ, it provides opportunities for his co-workers to ask questions about faith, Jesus and the Bible. Through studying the Bible, he makes an effort to be prepared to give more than a pat answer to their questions.
"I don't think that people want to hear, 'You've just got to believe,'" Shannon says. "If I'm equipped [to answer difficult questions], God will open the door."
Shannon is equipped to give answers to people outside the set as well. He is enrolled in a ministry school and leads a weekly Bible study in his home, where his friends bring others who have questions about Jesus.
Maintaining Christian standards in Hollywood hasn't always been easy for Shannon, who has faced some financial struggles. Taking a stand for Christ often means turning down lucrative roles, and Shannon admits that he makes less money than he could because of a lack of suitable roles. But amid the image-conscious environment of Hollywood, he's learned that God's approval is not based on a paycheck or on the number of roles he's offered.
"I think a lot of people make the mistake of basing their relationship with Christ on what's happening externally," Shannon says, adding that he's seen God take care of his family's needs at times when his bank-account balance has plummeted and roles have been scarce.
For the Lord
Shannon has appeared in films with Denzel Washington and Bruce Willis, and he has a recurring role on the popular television show "24," starring Kiefer Sutherland. Although these projects have been blessings, Shannon was excited about working on "Last Flight Out" because of its potential impact. When the script for the film arrived, his agent pointed out that he wouldn't make as much money as he usually would for a film.
"You don't get it," Shannon replied. "This is for the Lord, and I'm going to take this role."
"Last Flight Out" was attractive to Shannon because it presents the Gospel and because it can reach people at different stages in their lives. Some people, much like the lead character in the movie, might be in the middle of a crisis and will turn to Jesus. For others, the action and entertainment of the film could evoke an interest in Christ that may mature later. Still, some viewers may have already considered the claims of Christ and, after watching the film, may decide to make a commitment to Him.
Whether working on a movie set or leading a Bible study in his home, Shannon's goal is the same.
"If by standing up for what's right I can demonstrate to one person that Jesus is real, and if one person comes to Christ, it's all worth it," he says.