Hollywood, homelessness and '17 Miracles' shaped LDS actor's faith

Published: Thursday, Sept. 20 2012 5:00 a.m. MDT

A brother-in-law invited Wade to check out Southern Utah.

“I’m not going to SUU," Wade told him. "That’s cow country."

The brother-in-law promised to reimburse Wade for the gas if he didn't like it, so Wade drove to Cedar City. To his surprise, he felt at home.

“It was one of those moments where I knew I needed to be there,” Wade said.

Manly men needed

A week later, Wade moved to Cedar City. He had dreamed of becoming a veterinarian as a child, so he looked into his fourth major, animal science.

About that time, his sister auditioned for a summer play, “Seven Brides for Seven Brothers,” at the Bumbleberry Inn/Grandma’s Playhouse in Springdale, Utah, near Zion National Park. She didn’t get the part, but the director still needed “manly men,” and she recommended Wade.

“I get this random phone call from the director. He and I fight back and forth on the phone. I tell him he’s got the wrong guy. 'I’m not an actor, why did you call me?'” Wade said. “Finally, he said if I changed my mind, he was in Zion. I said, ‘Wait, wait. If I do your play, I get to live in Zion? OK, great, I’ll see you tomorrow.”

When Wade walked on the stage, he had another one of those profound life moments, thinking “this is where I need to be.” That summer he waited tables at the Inn's restaurant during the day performed in shows during the evening — 83 in all.

“I got addicted (to acting),” Wade said. “I came back and changed my major to theater and broadcasting. It completely altered my life.”

Kieth Merrill

About four years later in 2001, Wade was preparing to graduate when he learned Kieth Merrill, an award-winning filmmaker and writer, was hosting a three-day workshop at SUU. Wade skipped all his classes so he wouldn’t miss a single minute of the workshop.

On the last day, Wade was able to get some one-on-one time with Merrill, who asked the aspiring young actor what was keeping him from going to Hollywood?

“We had a heart-to-heart. He asked what my fears were, I told him, and in one conversation, he dispelled them all,” Wade said. “Basically he said we need people like you, people of faith and substance. The market is getting saturated with people that are willing to sell their souls for a little bit of celebrity.”

Merrill has met hundreds of wannabe actors, but the meeting with Wade is still clearly etched in his memory. He noticed "the brooding young cross between James Dean and Marlon Brando" in each workshop and thought there was something heroic about his look. He told Wade to go to Hollywood and stay out of girls' beds. He told Wade that if he would maintain his standards, he would have a successful career.

“I sensed that Jason had something special,” Merrill said. “I was talking about true success. The kind of success that is much more than making money as an actor or even being 'a star' for a season. Success for LDS actors has to incorporate a culture, a tradition, a theology and a commitment that most have never thought about. Success for an LDS actor is about life, not a job.”

Merrill’s words influenced Wade for years to come.

7 years in L.A.

On his way to Southern California, Wade pulled off Interstate-15 at the Cedar Pocket exit in the Virgin River Gorge and took a walk.

“I found some nice BLM land where I was totally alone and said one of the most heartfelt prayers of my entire life. I made some serious promises,” he said. “Not one day went by when I wasn’t reminded of those promises. I made a lot of mistakes, but I stayed true and I didn’t take shortcuts.”

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