By REID TUCKER
Chance Byrd doesn’t see his first feature film role as a lucky break. He sees it as the culmination of a mild case of divine intervention.
The 17-year-old Walton High School student is no newcomer to showbiz, having performed onstage at local venues since age 6 and auditioned for American Idol in 2012, but a lot has changed in the last seven months, and not all of it was good. Byrd suffered two heart attacks, one major and one minor, this year alone, and when tests showed a possibly cancerous mass on his heart the ambitious young actor thought his career was over before it had even really begun. That was when he had a change of heart – almost literally.
“There came a time when I was asked God if this was how it was going to all end,” Byrd said. “But then the next day all the tests came back negative and the mass was completely gone. The doctors all said it was a mystery, but I said ‘No, this is a God thing.’ I believe God healed me and that’s what made me believe that I am made for more. I think God was making sure I was really grounded in faith before he set my career in motion.”
That was in April. In May came the news from his talent agency that he had an audition for a starring role in the upcoming faith-based feature film The Good Book, helmed by husband-and-wife team of Will and Sharon Wilharm, whose last production, Flowers for Fannie, won notice at film festivals around the country. Byrd won the role of Jacob, one of seven strangers whose lives are changed when they are brought together by a small hotel-room copy of the New Testament. Principal filming is set to begin in Destin come early August before shifting to the Nashville and Springfield, Tenn., area later in the month.
Life has been a whirlwind for Byrd since then. He was accepted to attend an acting workshop with Jenn Gotzon, who portrayed President Richard Nixon’s daughter in Ron Howard’s 2009 Academy Award-nominated film Frost/Nixon. He signed his first autograph at a gas station a few weeks ago when someone recognized his face from The Good Book facebook page. His dedication to the independent production is such that he turned down a chance to audition for a film starring Tommy Lee Jones in order to focus on The Good Book.
Byrd said it isn’t that he’s closed himself off to secular movie roles, but rather that he wants his first paid acting performance to be one that helps further his Christian testimony, and that attitude is what helps him find his center.
“The biggest thing I want to do is make sure that God is first and make sure that I don’t get too carried away with myself,” Byrd said. “Just because you’re getting paid doesn’t mean you’re better than anyone else. Just because people know your name doesn’t mean you’re better than anyone else. My main goal is get God’s word out there through the performing arts.”
That isn’t to say that Byrd’s first major role will be an easy intro into the movie-making business. He said faith-based films are always a gamble because one never knows how it will be accepted by large audiences, especially secular ones. The solution the film-makers came up with is to show, not tell, the story via the route of making a silent picture with little to no dialog, which will be even more challenging for Byrd, who is used to memorizing lines and performing in front of a live audience.
In spite of the difficulties, Byrd said features with religious or family-oriented overtones are becoming more and more common as the movie-going public becomes less and less satisfied with the realities of life in modern America. Movies like The Good Book thus fill a growing niche in the entertainment industry and find a wider-than-expected audience, he said. All those factors solidified in his mind that he made the right choice for his film debut.
“At the end of the day, the reason I can perform in the first place is because God gave me this gift,” Byrd said. “He didn’t give me this talent to just sing in the shower at home. If I kept this from people then God would have wasted the gift on me when he could have given the talent to someone else. I want to make sure I do everything that I have the chance to do for God, and this movie is the perfect way to get me started.”
The high school senior-to-be had his first forays into acting at a young age after seeing a Florida Chautauqua Theatre production of The Jungle Book. He became a regular performer in local productions throughout the area since then. Even at 6 years old, Byrd knew he had found his calling in life as soon as the lights went down and the music began playing.
“There was something about the atmosphere of the theater that made me want to be a part of it,” he said. “I thought it was the coolest thing, being able to portray someone else and to put yourself in someone else’s shoes. My favorite part about performing is not even acting, though. What I enjoy the most is interacting with the audience and hopefully inspiring them to follow their dreams the same way I was inspired to follow mine.”
Byrd said pursuing his dreams would not have been possible if not for the support of his friends who stuck by him even when he felt sure that the pressure and publicity surrounding his upcoming role might drive some away. He needn’t have worried, as the outpouring of good will and prayers from friends and classmates surpassed his expectations, giving him the confidence boost he needed to overcome his anxieties in the face of his recent health problems. That said, Byrd relies most of all on his family, which includes his girlfriend Hannah Phillips and best friend Brad Hilley, who always believed in him even when he doubted himself.
“If I didn’t have my family or Hannah or Brad I don’t know where I’d be,” Byrd said. “It means everything in the world to me to know there are so many people who love and support me in my goals. Words can’t begin to describe how blessed I am to know these people and have them in my life. This movie is a one-in-a-million chance, but I wouldn’t even have that if they weren’t here for me.”