Billy Graham’s Grandson Discusses His Role in ‘Unbroken’
Interview by Joy Allmond
Today, Unbroken: Path to Redemption is released in theaters. It’s a film that chronicles the life of Olympic medalist-turned-P.O.W. Louis Zamperini after his return home—where he battled demons and eventually, gave his life to Christ after hearing Billy Graham preach the gospel at a 1949 Los Angeles crusade.
Will Graham, Billy Graham’s grandson, portrays the famed evangelist in this film. Graham recently talked with Facts & Trends about what he learned about his grandfather during the project and how he sees decades of Billy Graham’s ministry being used—even after his death.
What ran through your mind when you were contacted about playing the role of your grandfather?
It was a tremendous honor even to be considered. I got a call out of the blue from someone who used to work for the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association. He asked if I’d be remotely interested. I told him it would be a long shot, but I’d think about it.
Initially, I was afraid to take away from it. It’s a great story, and I didn’t want the fact that I’m Billy Graham’s grandson to be a distraction.
They actually had me try out. They interviewed me and had me do some lines. They had already tried out two other people for the part, which I didn’t know about at the time. The director called and said they wanted me to have the part.
There were also a lot of reservations on my part, since I’m not an actor. But they said, “You don’t have to act, just preach, like you normally do.” It sounded a lot easier than it was!
I told them they had much better options than me, but they said they really wanted me to do it.
Do you have any thoughts about the providence of the timing of this movie coming out the year your grandfather went to be with the Lord? What type of impact do you think this will have on audiences?
The timing of this year has been interesting, in terms of film as it relates to my granddaddy. Not only is Unbroken being released, but the Netflix series The Crown also featured an episode where my granddaddy was portrayed.
All the filming for Unbroken was done a year ahead of time. There seemed to be a crescendo building up where God just seemed to be honoring him publicly through people’s portrayal of him through film.
I think this movie was just part of God’s plan, and I get teary-eyed thinking about what He might do with this film around the world.
Describe some of the thoughts you had of your grandfather and his ministry as you were on the set of Unbroken.
I learned a lot about him, as a young preacher, though this project. In preparation for the role, I read through the transcript of his sermon from that night in 1949. And I also listened to the recording of it so I could mimic the cadence of his speech.
I also got some understanding of what was going on during that time. The sermon was titled, “Why Did God Allow Communism?” And you think, Why would Billy Graham preach a sermon on communism?
A month before the Los Angeles crusade, the Soviets detonated the atomic bomb and showed the world they had become nuclear-capable. The thought was to go to war with Russia, and the Arms Race started in 1949.
So that’s why he preached on the topic, “why does God allow bad things to happen to good people?”
And that message resonated with Louis’ heart, since that was a major part of his struggle before he came to Christ. You see that in the movie over and over again: He thinks God must hate him—that he and God aren’t on speaking terms.
But his heart was softened and his life was changed. And now, we’re still talking and hearing about a sermon preached almost 70 years ago. And we’re making movies about it.
Why would Hollywood want to do this? It’s a great story, and yet it surprises me this element is allowed. I’m grateful to Universal Studios for allowing it.
Another cool full-circle aspect of all this is the film producer’s great uncle is the one who got granddaddy on NBC radio many decades ago when NBC wouldn’t have religious programming.
Billy Graham was such a groundbreaker in film and using media to reach the world with the gospel. And now you’re doing it. What does it mean to you to continue the work begun through your grandfather using this medium?
The film is a real story about a real God changing the life of a real person. We get to tell people about Jesus. There are a lot of good stories out there that can resonate with people through film—like we’ve seen recently with I Can Only Imagine. I think it’s remarkable that a secular film company is allowing us to share the good news of Jesus Christ.
Another thing that’s amazing is the platform my granddaddy still gets—even beyond the grave—to preach the gospel.
When he preached in Los Angeles, he didn’t have to pay a dime for the publicity—the media covered it, and people came and heard the gospel.
And when he passed away, he basically preached his biggest crusade from heaven. The attention of the world was on his life and his messages.
In the end, though, this movie isn’t about what Billy Graham did, what Will Graham did, or even what Louis Zamperini did. It’s about what God did. And I hope many people will have their lives changed from seeing it and hearing the gospel proclaimed.
JOY ALLMOND (@joyallmond) is managing editor of Facts & Trends.