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Jim Gaffigan on Faith, Ghosts, and Seeking a New Complexity in His Career

Written by Joshua Encinias on February 5, 2019 

Jim Gaffigan is ready for his Lost in Translation moment. The actor is known for his comedy but he’s been trying to break into dramatic roles for a while. He thought the break might come in 2005 with The Great New Wonderful. Just last spring he had a substantial part in Chappaquiddick and this year he brought two dramas and one comedy to Sundance Film Festival 2019. We sat down with Gaffigan to discuss this new territory in his career and specifically Light from Light.

Throughout our talk, Gaffigan showed tempered expectations about his career and personal life. When asked about the sexual abuse crisis in Roman Catholicism (he’s openly religious), you can trace the logic of his faith to a belief in human fallibility matched with divine forgiveness, regardless of who’s in charge of the institution. Similarly, Light from Light asks what’s the point of going on, or forging ahead, knowing that bad things will happen. Gaffigan’s personal leaps of faith provide clues to the answer.

In our review, we highlight that “Gaffigan brings a dynamic presence to the film, conveying both the weight of a year of grief and an affectionate openness in his desire to find any sort of resolution.” Gaffigan’s character Richard, like the entire movie, is haunted by ghosts that never manifest, but haunt nonetheless. Read our discussion with the actor about Paul Harrill’s new film and more below.

The Film Stage: What do you think about your character Richard receiving religious care before finding a paranormal investigator to deal with his ghost?

Jim Gaffigan: I think it is so telling that it was Richard’s wife that went to church and he was at such at wit’s end that he was forced to embrace the only helper he knows, which is his wife’s minister and then it leads to this paranormal thing. I think that Richard definitely gets to the point where he’ll try anything. He’s gone to the doctor and they say, “He’s tired, he’s just depressed,” which he is, but he knows there’s something more.

What was it that brought you to this project? I mean you do so many different things from like CBS Sunday Morning to stand-up.

I am a comedian. I don’t shy away from the fact that I’m a comedian. I think it’s a big part of my identity but that’s also the one that I’ve had more success at. I’ve always loved acting and have wanted to do a role exactly like this character in exactly this type of movie and it’s just a matter of the opportunity. I did this movie The Great New Wonderful, and it was about the year after 9/11. It’s a film that leaves you with more questions than it answers. Which is what I think intellectually curious people want. So I’ve always been hoping to prove that I’m a good fit for these kind of things.

There’s this kind of stillness in Paul Harrill’s style of writing and editing that is almost impractical, but as an actor it’s a blast. The movie has all these scenes and then it has like one random, absolutely non-random scene that’s like 8 to 12 pages. When you’re studying and doing research on the character all the meat is in there.

When I first heard the title Light from Light, I recognized it’s inherently religious because the that’s a line from the Nicene Creed. Was that was intentional? 

What’s so interesting about Paul and the geography of this film is Eastern Tennessee is a pretty religious place. It’s like if there’s a Bible Belt, we’re one notch over. Even if people aren’t of faith that kind of informs the whole being. Even the Smoky Mountains feel kind of… you can look at it as haunted, but it’s obviously not smoke. [Laughs.] It’s fog. The religious aspect is very interesting because I think there are far more people that will watch this movie and have maybe an attachment to Father Martin (David Cale’s character) like Richard does. People of faith who may not go to church regularly but did in the past. Paul’s said that religion or spirituality is always a character. The whole paranormal thing is fascinating; the fact that the paranormal thing lines up with the geography of the Bible Belt is no coincidence. It’s people searching and longing for meaning. When we were doing press for this, Paul would give the description of this paranormal investigator, in her second job as a paranormal investigator, but the movie’s not about the paranormal.


Paul draws an interesting line between belief in religious ghosts and spirits in a secular sense. In the script when Shelia (Marin Ireland) was a kid, she had this prophetic dream and people in her community said she had “the gift” and she becomes a paranormal investigator later in life. Culturally, Pentecostals are not pro-ghost hunting, but they believe in prophecy and the Holy Spirit. While the line of connection isn’t there culturally, Paul is making one in the story.

There’s a point in the story where Shelia’s son Owen [Josh Wiggins] said his mom’s boyfriend got her into it but then she says, “I would have gotten into it anyway.” I feel that the paranormal and the spirituality, all the elements in this movie, are moving parts because people are not just made up of blanket-statement identities. The characters are not just from a Pentecostal family, Shelia’s not just a paranormal investigator. There are people who are paranormal investigators that fit into our preconceived notions, but it’s probably unfair of us to describe all of them that way.

 There’s so many things I can say about this film, but one thing I can say is that we’re all wounded. Like Owen says, “What’s the point about a relationship?” What is the point? It’s risky, your partner leaves you, dies, whatever. But his character eventually comes to the point of ‘it’s better than nothing” and that’s the same with taking the leap of faith and that same with even with the symbolism of the ending. I don’t want to give away any spoilers, but when I read the script, I wasn’t sure how Paul was going to do the page turning. The passage that she’s reading makes perfect sense for Susanne [Richard’s deceased wife], but I think that people, we have a tendency towards cynicism, so one of the questions I would have is six years from now does Richard and Sheila remember that situation in the exact same way? There are moments when people get the opportunity of a lifetime and think “it’s a miracle, I’ve been blessed” but after time goes by people go “well you know, science explains it,” but I think the core relationship putting yourself out there when inevitably it’s going to fail versus the logic of why pursue is… which one’s more is more insane?

Talking in terms of making a leap of faith, is it difficult for you as a Roman Catholic to continue to make that leap of faith every Sunday when you hear about hundreds of new sex abuse cases in the church every week?

Oh my god. My faith, like everyone’s, is individual and my path to it was not constructed on the perfect community of the Catholic Church. It’s about the teachings and I should say even more of my understanding of the teachings. I do believe that many human beings are pretty bad. I’m shocked at the horrible things that have happened… you know there’s going to be more bad news. But I also think that my individual faith is not constructed around even man’s interpretation of these teachings or some authority. Every generation of human beings has this arrogance, “We figured it out. This is how medical science works: we use leeches.” And they were convinced that it worked and it’s insane. Even in our lifetime there was this thing saying you should have your kids playing on an iPad; it’s good, it’s interactive, it’s better than passively watching television, it’s better. No, I’m not saying that’s not valuable, that there isn’t some value in it, but it’s naive. It’s like we have this new technology and human beings arrogantly think they have it figured out. And I think that’s a question that’s brought up in this film. The paranormal is such a classic example of something where I’m personally like, no, I’m not interested in jumping on board. I don’t care if people pursue it. I’m not 100% sure. So the journey of this, where you think the widower is going to come to the conclusion of “alright, I’m through the Kübler-Ross stages of grief” and that this paranormal investigator is going to realize that her pursuit of the paranormal is similar to all these men that have betrayed her, but life isn’t that simple. Maybe I’m making sense?

In the movie Sheila’s character she asks the priest, “Do you believe?” and he says, “Well some people say that Jesus was a ghost.” So what is your take on spirits?

It’s weird because I need to believe there’s something that can forgive me. That’s the crux of it: is that I need to believe that I’m not in control. I need to believe that not only am I not in control and that something will forgive me, but that something’s on my side. That’s not that foreign from the belief of karma, you know what I mean? So how that’s navigated in everyday life with spiritual people that guide you through life, whether they be a priest, a nun, or a rabbi, in some ways they’re kind of like professional friends. They’re like, “No, I promise I’m not trying to sleep with you, I’m a rabbi.” It’s an ongoing question and I would be lying if I said I had it all figured out and I’d be lying if I said I didn’t have doubts. I mean I have doubts. Even Mother Teresa doubts all the time and I think there’s an inherent hypocrisy in Christianity. None of you are behaving like this guy Jesus, you know what I mean. Didn’t he say “give up everything and follow me?” and you guys are like, “Yeah you know, but I need this second home.” So I think you can get caught up in the hypocrisy, and by the way, Them that Follow is all about this different interpretation of just one line in the Bible. I think it’s Matthew 6 or something, so human beings, we’re animals, we’re just trying to figure it out right?

It sounds like you’re describing the Christian concept of grace, that’s sort of the predominant thing you’re looking for in spirituality.

Yeah. It’s grace, but here’s where I lose everyone. I also think that these teachings, going to church, this time of meditation, communal mediation are positive. I know that going to church with my kids… I don’t really like leaving the apartment, do you know what I mean? But I like the idea of standing there with my children, getting the time to look at them, and you know, it sounds corny but could I do that in another place? Yes, but every Sunday I get to do it.


You have a few out-of-character movies at Sundance.

It’s so funny because when it comes to acting I’m always looking for the best opportunity but also… I brought up The Great New Wonderful… there are moments in my acting career where I’ve felt like now people are going to know I can do this. When I did a Broadway play, I thought I was going to prove to people that I can act so that I can be considered for really interesting and compelling characters. As a guy with a comedic background I get characters where the guy has no distinction, he’s just pushing the plot along. He has no complexity and I don’t want to do those roles, those characters. I want to be considered for more complex ones and with The Great New Wonderful I was like, “Here’s the thing, this is gonna change it” and then I did the Broadway play and I was like, “This is gonna change it, here we go.” And so I’m hopefully not as naive, having three films at Sundance. Part of me’s like, “Here we go,” but I’m also hopefully older and wiser to know that even I could convince one guy or one woman who’s doing a film that’s really interesting that has a character that they’ve seen in Light from Light that they’re gonna go, “You know what? I bet he’d be great as this fascinating character.” That’s the whole thing from an acting standpoint.

Whereas stand-up, this will be my seventh special, and similar to the indie world it changes every year, you know with Amazon this year versus Netflix two years ago changing the dynamic, the stand-up special. It’s about new audiences and also partners with getting it out there. So we might look at a film with Amazon and think, “Well, how does that make sense?” But with a stand-up special that makes perfect sense. I always think of my stand-up comedy as… I was thinking if I was running Amazon, I don’t think Jeff Bezos is gonna let me, but that Amazon Prime’s brilliant. The problem is getting people to this terrific content. And so rather than Netflix, their plan of getting subscribers. Amazon has the subscribers, it’s getting people into their Amazon Prime community cause there’s great content there, and so I’m excited there’s packages that show up at my house from Amazon twice a day. So when people are ordering things they can say, “Watch this Jim Gaffigan special” and that’s simple as a click. That’s what I want. I want people to see my stuff and for me stand-up is motivated by self-assignment. With each special, I’m kinda evolving and constructed on self-assignment.

Follow our festival coverage here.


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