WALLSBURG — Shawn Stevens' emotions were just below the surface last week as he observed a camera crew filming scenes for an upcoming movie in a small, rural Utah town.
For the first time in almost 30 years, the Los Angeles native had a part in a movie.
The last film he performed in was "Our Heavenly Father's Plan," an LDS Church production released in 1986. It was filmed under these same mountains, Stevens said.
"Things have come full circle in these last 28 years. So much has happened. There were some difficult years," Stevens said. "But being here today is a real tender mercy. I can't deny it."
In the late 1970s and early 1980s, Stevens, a convert to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, had a promising career in acting and singing. He had roles in several feature films, TV miniseries, specials, movies and daytime dramas, as detailed in a 2012 Deseret News article. Stevens also had a recording contract.
But after participating in "Our Heavenly Father's Plan," Stevens felt compelled to leave his career in Hollywood behind and find a new career that was more conducive with his religious beliefs. It was a difficult transition because he had no back-up plan, but he and his wife endured and raised a family of four children.
Stevens eventually found work in television and film production behind the camera involving props, special effects and catering. He worked on the sets of TV shows like "The Wonder Years," "Hannah Montana" and "American Dreams." He and his wife also owned a restaurant for a time. Things worked out.
After Stevens' story was featured in the Deseret News, he felt it might be time to give acting another try.
"It was like an awakening," Stevens said. "I was contacted by so many people who suggested I come back and give it another shot. I feel like I can use my life experiences as a husband, father, grandfather and church member to delve into different characters."
Utah filmmaker T.C. Christensen saw the Deseret News article and remembered Stevens from his work in the 1970s. The movie director reached out to Stevens and expressed hope that they could work together on a film in the future.
"When this film came up, I didn't have anyone for his age range," Christensen said. "He sent an audition video and it was just terrific. Everything about him was perfect for the part. I didn't read anybody else. I was sold."
Christensen's new movie is based on a 1986 Cokeville, Wyoming, elementary school bombing in which a couple took the entire school hostage and accidentally set off a bomb. "The Cokeville Miracle" is the working title for the film. It's scheduled for release in spring 2015. Christensen is telling the story from a perspective of faith and hope.
"I believe there is great power in telling a true, faith-based story," Christensen said. "It's so amazing, and yet it is not very well known."
Stevens was cast as the leader of the local religious congregation. The character is based on the man who served as bishop of the Cokeville Ward of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in 1986, but will not be denomination specific in the movie. His responsibility is to help the members of his flock cope with what transpires in the movie.
The part reminds Stevens of speaking in church after the Sept. 11 attacks when he was serving as a counselor in his LDS ward bishopric in California.
"I’m drawing on that experience to help me understand a modicum of what my character went through," he said.
Jasen Wade, who stars in the film, has enjoyed getting to know Stevens while working on the movie. Because Wade has wrestled with similar decisions and challenges in his acting career, he considers Stevens to be a kindred spirit and a mentor, Wade said.
"I would like to think I come from a common background, at least on a similar spiritual journey," Wade said. "Any time I talk to him there is this real connection of understanding him on a deep level. The more he talks the more I realize that maybe I am making some of the same right choices he made, and that will hopefully benefit me in the future, especially with my career."
Stevens is more than happy to share what he's learned. He's also just grateful to be back on the set.
"I'm not sure where this will lead," Stevens said. "But I've felt the hand of the Lord in all of this."
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