Have you ever heard someone say, “You were born to do this.” This simple phrase has been uttered countless times over the years whenever someone, due to a natural gifting or possessing a unique set of skills, seems ideally suited for the task at hand.
Award-winning actor Max McLean was born to portray C.S. Lewis. Possessing the look, the voice, and even the mannerisms of the legendary literary icon, McLean is brilliant in The Most Reluctant Convert, an independently produced film that was recently released on home video. In it, the seasoned veteran of many theatrical productions domestically and abroad, plays an elder C.S. Lewis as he looks back on his remarkable journey from hard-boiled atheist to the most renowned Christian writer of the 20th Century.
I recently sat down with McLean to discuss why people are still drawn to the writing of C.S. Lewis nearly 60 years after his death, the significance of filming the movie in Oxford, England, and whether he views The Most Reluctant Convert as Lewis’s greatest literary work.
C.S. Lewis was and is a literary icon. He is someone who is widely respected for his writing, even among secular audiences. From your perspective, why do you think people are so drawn to his writing?
Well, it’s so good. You read something and you go wow. I remember my very first experience reading him was The Screwtape Letters. And do you remember the very first letter from that book? It’s about the man of the British museum. Lewis was kind of recounting his accolades. And he was talking about this man from the British museum who was reading something that was disturbing to Screwtape, and he saw 20 years of work just kind of go up in flames. Screwtape kind of won the day by reminding the man who’s in this moment. Isn’t it about time for lunch?
And I thought, oh my goodness, what insight? So, I’ve been reading Lewis, studying him, and of course, if you’re doing theater and film, you really have to get inside it. He read everything. He was so literate and so learned. He read everything from the Greeks to the Moderns. He had a steel trap mind that could remember everything he read and then he could translate it into magnificent prose and speech. He did it all. And I think this is the big thing; he did so under the headship of Jesus.
The movie actually derives from a theatrical play that you adapted from the book. With that said, what is the same and what is different about the movie version of The Most Reluctant Convert?
The experience of theater and the experience of film are two wildly different experiences. A theater is an actor’s medium. Film is a director’s medium. Theater has to overcome space and so it’s much bigger emotionally. Film is very tight. It’s very nuanced. So, you have to kind of scale it down for film or you just wipe people out. But more technically, a stage play is one set, one actor, for 75 minutes. The film is in 18 different locations in and around Oxford, with 15 different actors. Three actors playing Lewis. One is a boy. One is a young man and one is an older man retelling his story. We have (J.R.R.)Tolkien and (Owen) Barfield, Lewis’s mom and dad. So, we have 15 actors, 190 extras, and 240 costumes. It was a pretty big production. We had a fabulous design team, people that really knew how to make films. All that creativity was applied to this subject.
You portray the adult C.S. Lewis in the film. Do you believe that you were the perfect person to play this role? And if not, why do you say that?
I don’t think it would’ve taken another actor quite a long time to get up to speed. I think other actors could’ve done it very, very well. I have no doubt about that. I don’t know if I’m the perfect one, but I do feel like I understand his character. We had a fabulous makeup designer that made me look very much like him. I had a vocal coach that helped me to sound more like him too. If you listen to his radio talks, he sounds a little bit like Alfred Hitchcock. So, I did enjoy it very, very much. And I felt like because I could get to the bottom of him or get close to the bottom of him that the result, particularly with all those monologues, was right on. Those monologues would’ve been very, very hard to learn on such short notice. So, I think that for the timing of the piece, I was probably the right choice.
Personally, I thought you were brilliant in the film. I thought you were great. You were C.S. Lewis as far as I was concerned. You mentioned earlier that the film was shot in and around Oxford, England. How important was it to film it there?
I think the feel of the film is really part of the story. Those iconic buildings, the period, the time. Lewis is associated with an earlier period, the Britishness of it. I personally think that the film is a bit of a postcard for Oxford. Many people have told me that it makes them want to go visit there.
Do you see The Most Reluctant Convert as Lewis’s greatest work?
No. I think it was pivotal to him because The Most Reluctant Convert is personal to him. But the thing about that is in The Screwtape Letters and in The Great Divorce, Lewis is telling aspects of his own personal conversion experience. In fantasy literature, he’s being very transparent about his battles with temptation that prevented him from going forward. In The Great Divorce, he talks about his resistance to Christianity, and the resistance to the Holy Ghost in terms of calling him to repent. And so both of those deal with spiritual warfare on both sides, one from the devil’s point of view, and one from the Holy Spirit’s point of view. That made me want to learn about his own conversion experience because like everything else, it all begins there and Lewis goes back to it in his writing regularly.
After spending so much time studying C.S. Lewis’s life and his writing do you feel like you have a personal connection with him?
Yes. He’s become my spiritual guy. We’re called to work out our salvation with fear and trembling because he is God who works in us, too willing to act according to His good purposes. C.S. Lewis helps me to work out my salvation and he helps me to see God’s grace in a way that I wouldn’t ordinarily have seen.
What do you think C.S. Lewis would think about being portrayed on screen in such a vulnerable way as he was in The Most Reluctant Convert?
In general, I don’t think he would appreciate it. What would he think about my performance specifically? I don’t know. I’m of two minds on this. There’s some research being done where Clare Boothe (Luce), with whom he had a correspondence with, indicated that maybe he felt like if you’re going to do it, do it right. But I don’t think he would have initiated it himself.
After people have seen The Most Reluctant Convert, what’s your greatest hope for the film?
C.S. Lewis was such a literary evangelist that he touches people in a way that a lot of other people don’t. As he said, the direct evangelical appeal to Jesus is still remarkably effective. I’ve seen it done. I can’t do it for those who can’t do it with all their might. Well, a lot of people can do that and should, and other people can’t. But through Lewis, they have other means of articulating the faith of Jesus Christ, and their faith in Jesus Christ. Lewis gives us more roadmaps for those kinds of people. That’s my hope for the film that it’ll touch our generation in a new way. It seems to me and at least in some parts that faith is falling away. I do hope that our film brings them forward.
Watch a Trailer for The Most Reluctant Convert: