Utah director T.C. Christensen knew he had to find a part for Jasen Wade.
The mysterious actor with light brown hair, blue eyes and ruggedly handsome features caught the director’s eye while reading for the 2009 film “Treasure in Heaven: The John Tanner Story.” Christensen was impressed.
“Pioneer films require a certain intangible that Jasen has, a rough quality that will let the audience believe this guy lived in the 1800s, slept outdoors and battled the elements,” Christensen said. “The way he carried himself, his looks, his skills, I had to find a place for this guy.”
Not only did Wade get a part in “John Tanner,” Christensen asked him to play the lead role in his next pioneer film, “17 Miracles.” From there, Wade became a paratrooper in the World War II film “Saints and Soldiers: Airborne Creed.”
It’s a long way from the Southern Utah stage where Wade started acting in the 1990s. It’s far removed from the frustrating years of trying to make it in Los Angeles. And then there’s the morning he woke up depressed and penniless in a Pennsylvania Walmart parking lot.
Wade’s journey to an acting career has been like a pioneer trek across the dusty plains — at times energized with daily bread, favorable weather and optimism, and other times fraught with starvation, early winter blizzards and desolation. Along the way, he has learned priceless lessons in faith, commitment and trust in God.
“That’s what got me through my dark days. It has everything to do with where I’m at spiritually,” Wade said. “I may not be the perfect Mormon, but we just keep trying to move forward. It’s kind of a discouraging tale, but it has a happy ending, eventually.”
Wade was born in Spain, where his father, an officer in the Air Force, was stationed. When he was 4, his father opened a dental practice in South Ogden, Utah.
Wade graduated from Bonneville High School and was involved in student government. He recently helped organize his 20-year class reunion.
“No one told me when I ran for senior class (officer) that I’d have responsibilities for the rest of my days,” Wade laughed. “I’m kicking myself for that one, but we did it.”
Wade served a mission for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Moscow, Russia, from 1993-95. It was a time of political unrest and turmoil in the country, and the church was young. Wade witnessed the best and worst of human nature, but knew the Lord was watching over the missionaries.
“It was like being in a movie. It was fun and challenging, different than I ever thought it would be,” Wade said. “There were things you didn’t think you would be dealing with at 20, but you kind of rise to the occasion, somehow make a difference and help change lives. Then you come home and scratch your head — how did we do that?”
After his mission, Wade started out studying psychology and history at Weber State, but his interest soon dwindled. The idea of becoming a park ranger was appealing, so he transferred to Utah State. But when he learned the process involved some law enforcement training, he bailed out and transferred to the University of Utah.
“I didn’t want to write tickets,” Wade said. “I wanted to be a steward of the national parks.”
This time he decided to major in Russian, but that faded as well.
“I didn’t feel like I belonged. I couldn’t find my place,” he said. “I was still looking for something.”
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.”
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.”
Like the majority of aspiring actors, Wade struggled to get his career going. He threw himself into the work and was able to land several local and national commercials, along with various short and feature films.
But there were a lot of days when he was tempted to give up. For those willing to compromise their values, there were chances to jump-start a career, but Wade was determined to keep his promises and declined such offers.
One defining moment came when a close friend told Wade that if he ever wanted to make it in Hollywood, he had to be willing to sacrifice everything.
“He was saying, ‘I will make your career, but you need to deny who you really are,’” Wade said. “I wanted to do it, because I knew I would eventually clean myself up and it could be a learning experience, but every time I would go to make the choice, I couldn’t. Something would not allow me to do it.”
After seven years in Los Angeles, Wade’s manager believed the actor was on the verge of a big break, but Wade felt it was time to pursue something else.
Dark days in Philadelphia
Leaving Hollywood was difficult, but Wade was about to get rich in Philadelphia.
He left acting to design and sell athletic uniforms to high school and college coaches. The company guaranteed he would make $100,000 within the first two years.
But as Wade was getting started, the recession hit and business suffered. For about nine months he was forced to live out of his car because he couldn’t afford rent. He occasionally pitched a tent in the woods, but Pennsylvania park rangers wrote him trespassing tickets, so he found himself parking at Walmart for the night.
“I can’t tell you how depressing that is, to wake up, you’re penniless and you’re living out of your car, and you’re in a Walmart parking lot,” Wade said. “That’s when I hit rock bottom and started to deny everything about me.”
Wade doesn't share all the details, but in his state of despair, he distanced himself from family, friends and the church. He also realized how much he missed the creativity that comes with acting.
More than a year into the sales job, Wade figured out that for him to even make $30,000 a year, he would be required to put another five years into the company.
“That was depressing because I walked away from that job owing the company $40,000,” Wade said. “It didn’t take long to make a decision. I knew I could pay that debt off with one season of fire. I made a call to my former boss, got my old job back and moved within two weeks.”
Fire and films
Wade had spent previous summers employed as a wildland firefighter for the Bureau of Land Management. Somehow he felt at home with a chain saw, hardhat and smoke-filled clothes, surrounded by flames in the blistering August sun.
“It helped me clear my head. It restored my manliness and confidence,” Wade said. “It helped me piece things back together after those dark days.”
Feeling more like himself again, Wade was ready to perform. He signed with Talent Management Group and within months he was reading for “John Tanner.” That role led to "17 Miracles," a film he is especially proud of, and, most recently, “Airborne Creed.”
"'17 Miracles' is a legacy, something to leave behind for generations because in essence, that's my testimony," Wade said. “I’m grateful for T.C.; he has completely altered my career.”
In the lobby following the premier of “Airborne Creed,” Merrill said he grabbed Wade’s shaggy face and gave him a congratulatory kiss on the cheek. The longtime director whispered in Wade’s ear, “Seeing that performance vindicated my instincts about you.”
“I am proud of Jasen,” Merrill said. “Not only because he continues to hone his talents, but because he never abandoned who he is inside. ... He has a firm grip on a rapidly rising career.”
From the moment he stepped on the stage in Springdale, Wade has carried a deep desire to be part of films that tell compelling and inspiring stories. As he immersed himself in characters like Levi Savage and Harland “Bud” Curtis, Wade learned and gained a special strength from their examples. He hopes similar projects come his way in the future.
“It took me leaving Los Angeles and coming back to Utah to find the stories I wanted to tell,” Wade said. “Every character I have played during my entire career has taught me something, but when you get to immerse yourself into characters like Savage or Curtis, your life is changed, for good, forever. These were real heroes. You begin to take on their strengths and wisdom, and you sense a connection to something greater than yourself.”
In July 2010, Wade married Holly Green, a former SUU gymnast. They have two children and live in St. George.
In the meantime, as more movie roles come, Wade will continue to fight fires each summer. In addition to the income, fire keeps him grounded and adds a certain authenticity to his characters. He recalled leaving his buddies in the height of fire season to join the set of “17 Miracles,” which enhanced his masculine, pioneer appearance.
"If I got coddled in a trailer, I would lose a little bit of that authenticity that comes from having life experience," Wade said. “But no matter what movie I go do, I still come back to clean bathrooms and take out garbage.”
When speaking to youth groups, Wade often shares lessons he’s learned over his career.
Follow the Spirit. "It's a guiding force," Wade said.
Don’t take shortcuts. “A lot were offered to me, but I kept turning them down,” he said. “If I had taken one, I know in my heart I never would have been considered for ‘17 Miracles.’”
Remember who you are and don’t compromise. “If you don’t know who you are, there are thousands of people ready and willing to define you overnight,” Wade said. “Know who you are, set that standard, and keep it between you and God.”
Be patient and trust in the Lord. “I was impatient. I thought this dream should have come to fruition many years ago, but there was a reason for it. Perhaps if I had done something earlier, it would have taken me in a different direction,” he said. “I think one of the greatest lessons the Lord is teaching us is patience, that there is a time and place for everything. You can’t give up. Trust in the vision he has given you until it unfolds.”
Email: firstname.lastname@example.org Twitter: tbtoone
Copyright 2015, Deseret News Publishing Company