Will Graham on playing his grandfather in ‘Unbroken’

The grandson of the late famous Protestant preacher says the new film's message is one of forgiveness

Will Graham with Luke Zamperini (Louis Zamperini’s only son) on the set of "Unbroken: Path to Redemption." Photo: WTA Group/Universal 1440 Entertainment

Louis Zamperini — Olympian and World War II veteran — has been the subject of two films. In 2014, Angelina Jolie’s movie Unbroken — adapted from the best-selling book of the same name by Lauren Hillenbrand — told Zamperini’s story up to his return from the war after being held in a Japanese prison camp. That movie only showed half of the story.

After his rescue, people hailed Zamperini as a hero, and shortly afterward he met and married Cynthia Applewhite. Things seemed wonderful on the surface, but PTSD plagued him and nightmares about the man who had tortured him kept him from sleeping. Zamperini turned to alcohol, and he lost all faith in God.

Unbroken: Path to Redemption, which will be in theaters nationwide on Sept. 14, tells the rest of the story. The film shows how Zamperini’s life became progressively worse until he made a life-changing decision to attend Billy Graham’s 1949 Los Angeles revival. It’s a message of hope, forgiveness, and abandonment to God.

Catholic Digest attended the red carpet for the film in Dallas. While there, we spoke to Billy Graham’s grandson, Will Graham, who plays his grandfather in the movie. Graham shared what he thinks his grandfather, who passed away earlier this year, would have thought of the movie, what it was like playing his grandfather, and what the film has to offer Catholics.

Q: How do you think your grandfather would have liked the movie?

A: While he was alive, he told Louis Zamperini, “I’m going to go to California, and with your permission, I’d like to talk to some producers about making a real life movie on your life and do a good job on it.” My granddaddy, he never pulled it off, but God was already in the works on it.

Q: What do you think is the most important message of the movie?

A: I think the central message of Unbroken: Path to Redemption is forgiveness. The movie centers on two people who were struggling with problems in their marriage and their personal lives. When Cynthia gave her life to Christ, she was able to forgive her husband for being such a bad husband. Louis would end up coming to know Christ because of her forgiveness, and that restored their marriage. Later, that personal forgiveness would allow him to express forgiveness to those who had tortured him.

Most people can’t forgive today because they never asked Christ to forgive them. Only when we ask Christ to come into our lives and forgive us of our sins can we turn around and forgive other people. And, boy, if there’s a world that needs it now, it’s our world. We could use it a lot more forgiveness.

Q: Throughout the movie, Louis kept trying to fill the hole in his life with worldly things, but they were never enough. Can you talk about that and why that message is important?

A: So many people are like Louis. If they’ve got a problem in life, they want to try to fix it with the things they know. For Louis, he was having all these nightmares and problems with alcohol, and then he found love. He found a true life partner in Cynthia, and he said, “This will fix everything.” But yet it didn’t, and he thought maybe a child would. He thought, “If I had a child that would help bring some stability, and I got something to fight for and live for.” But yet that didn’t. He tried running again, thinking, “If I can just get back to running, that’s going to solve all my problems. That’s what I’m born to do.”

All these things were just an earthly fix to a divine problem. They weren’t going to fix Louis, and that’s why God had to come into his life. So many people today will try to fill that void with money, sex, drugs, alcohol, success, and fame. These earthly things won’t fill a spiritual void; only Jesus Christ can because he’s the one that made the human heart.

Q: What do you think Unbroken has to offer Catholics even though it comes from a Protestant perspective? [Louis Zamperini grew up Catholic but later became a Protestant.]

A: I think it’s what I was talking about: forgiveness. I believe we have to make a personal decision about Jesus. Jesus is not some type of religion — Jesus is alive, and he’s real. He wants to come into our lives personally, and we have to ask Him to come into our lives and forgive us our sins. I think that’s for any Catholic, Protestant, or even any person that’s not religious. Jesus desperately desires a personal relationship with each person. He chased Louis until he finally gave up, and said, “Christ Jesus, I want you in my life.” When he surrendered everything over to God, that’s when his life changed.

Q: What was your favorite part of the movie?

A: I’ll be honest; I’m a crier. It’s because I see the transformed lives, and I see hopelessness now filled with hope — that which once broken now are fixed and restored. All of that takes place in what’s one of my favorite parts of the movie. Toward the end of the film, Louis and Cynthia’s marriage is coming to a critical point. She’s given her life to Christ, and she’s urging Louis to go with her to hear Billy Graham speak.

He finally says, “Yes, dear.” That was the moment he just gave up, and it was a first step in the right direction.

Q: What was it like playing your grandfather in a film?

A: It was rewarding and an honor. But it was also nerve-wracking because I’m not an actor, and I wasn’t looking to do a movie. I just have a small part, but it was a great privilege to honor his memory. We told him that I was playing him while it was being filmed, and he was delighted. Sadly, he died during the editing phase, but he lived the story, so he didn’t need to see the movie.

Q: What would you say to someone who’s hesitating to see Unbroken?

A: Well, if you’re hesitant, I don’t know why because Hollywood puts out a lot of junk, but this movie is wholesome. There’s no bad language and no bad scenes. It’s a true story about hope, and there are so many people that need hope today. There’s nothing that should keep you away from it. I think it’s going to be one of the best of all time for Christians to see.

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