Evangelist Will Graham says his movie acting career began and will end with him playing his famous grandfather, Billy Graham, in “Unbroken: Path to Redemption,” which starts in theaters Friday.
He’s ready with a joke when asked if he caught the acting bug on the set of the Christian film: “No, I’m retired.”
But the 43-year-old Will Graham told the Observer this week that there is a real-life role he’d relish someday: Running the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association.
The Charlotte-based organization was launched by his grandfather in 1950 and is now led by his father, Franklin Graham, who’s 66. It promotes Christian evangelism around the world, sends emergency chaplains to disaster sites and operates the Billy Graham Library in Charlotte.
William Franklin Graham IV — Will Graham’s given name — is Franklin’s oldest son. His title at the BGEA: vice president and associate evangelist .
So is he next in line to run the multi-million-dollar ministry?
If that’s what God wants, the younger Graham said.
“People say, ‘You going to take over your granddaddy’s ministry?’” he said. “I say, ‘There’s a lot of things you can inherit in life. You can inherit a big nose like I did from the Grahams. ... You can inherit a business. ... But ministries are God’s. We don’t own them. It’s not something I can just inherit because of my last name.’”
Would he like to succeed his father at the helm of the BGEA?
“I would,” he said. “I feel like God’s preparing me to do it. Whether it happens or not, I don’t know. But I just feel like in my heart that’s what God wants me to do. And to continue telling people about Jesus Christ.”
Like his father and grandfather, Will Graham headlines crusades — he calls his version “celebrations” — around the world. His first was in Gastonia in 2006. Since then, he’s preached on six continents.
Married with two daughters and a son, he’s based in Asheville, the site of The Billy Graham Training Center, or The Cove.
Besides the movie, he has a new book coming out in October. It’s called “Redeemed: Devotions For A Longing Soul.”
In “Unbroken: Path to Redemption,” he delivers parts of real sermons Billy Graham gave during his breakthrough 1949 tent crusade in Los Angeles.
To prepare for the role, he grew his hair longer and listened to recordings of the Cold War-era sermons (one was titled “Why Would God Allow Communism?”).
At first, he tried to mimic his grandfather.
“I did a couple of my lines in my grandfather’s (voice),” he said. “And (the director) said, ‘No, no, you sound like you’re imitating. Don’t do it. Don’t be ‘Billy Graham.’ Be yourself.’”
The film tells the true story of Louie Zamperini, an Olympic runner in the 1930s whose life was nearly broken by the torture he endured in a Japanese prison camp during World War II. Zamperini, who died in 2014, has said hearing Billy Graham preach rescued him from the nightmares, anger and alcoholism that had plagued his post-war life.
This is the second “Unbroken” film. The first one, released in 2014 and directed by Angelina Jolie, left out the Graham crusade and Zamperini’s born-again Christian experience.
Here’s more of what Will Graham said in the interview.
▪ On one of his favorite memories of Billy Graham, who died in February at 99: When Will was 10, he and his father showed up at a hotel in California to find a long line of people waiting to shake hands with his grandfather. Instead of waiting, Will said he bolted to the front of the line. “And a cop said, ‘No, son, you need to get to the back of the line,’” he remembered. “And I’m, like, ‘it’s going to be two hours and this is my granddad.’ But at that moment, I heard, ‘Will!’ And I looked and my granddaddy was down on his knee with his arms open.”
▪ On why he thinks he got the role of Billy Graham in the movie: “In all honesty, I think the others (vying for the role) were actors. So they ‘act’ like a preacher, while I’m a preacher naturally.”
▪ On the Graham family’s ties to U.S. presidents: His grandfather was criticized for getting too close to President Richard Nixon and his father for being a strong supporter of President Donald Trump. Will Graham, a registered Republican who has voted for some Democrats, said he wouldn’t campaign for a president, but would advise him or her on what the Bible says. “We’ve been friends with a lot of presidents — some we definitely stand on the other side of on issues,” he said. “As a citizen of the United States, if a president calls on me and says, ‘Hey, can you help me?’ ... (I’d say), ‘Well, Mr. President, this is what the Bible says.’ ... And we think one of the most important things we can do for our presidents is to pray for them.”