T.D. Jakes on Bringing God to Hollywood and Brushing Off Criticism From Cynics

The megachurch leader and producer is in a joint venture with Joe Roth to bring a best-seller about a boy and heaven to the big screen as he cashes in (critics say too much) on Christianity.

This story first appeared in the April 18 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.

A woman is crying. She's African-American, 40 years old and in anguish as she describes her son's death from exposure to the cold, the result of her own negligence when under the influence of alcohol. She's so distraught, it's painful to watch.

"I had been drinking, and I blacked out," she says, blinking back tears. "Then, next morning, my alarm went off. I went to look for Christian Micah to get him out of his bed, and he wasn't there, and in a panic [I was] just going around the house, yelling his name. He was in the car. And I was just like, 'Oh my God! Christian!' I grabbed him to get him out of the car, and he was kind of still, and I saw death in the eyes of my child! And I grabbed him, screaming, almost like a wailing. What kind of mother would have done this? I wanted to die. I wanted to die."

Her face fills a massive screen high above a vast, modern auditorium, where hundreds of men and women watch, rapt. Waves of emotion course through them and only increase when the woman, LaHeather Wilson, steps forward to cheers and applause, dressed in flowing green robes and a mortarboard, engulfed by 90 other men and women, also in green.

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These are the graduates of TORI (the Texas Offenders Reentry Initiative), a church-based program that helps former inmates adjust to the outside world, and they're here to receive their diplomas at The Potter's House, a 191,000-square-foot, evangelical megachurch in Dallas, on this last Sunday in March.

TORI is the creation of Bishop T.D. Jakes, the 56-year-old founder of Potter's House and a towering figure in the evangelical world who in 2001 was the subject of a Time cover that asked, "Is This Man the Next Billy Graham?" He's a 6-foot-3, 250-pound giant whose low, rumbling voice only adds to his gravitas.

Jakes has a handful of movies under his belt and a Grammy on the shelf. And today, 10 years after The Passion of the Christ resurrected the religious movie, he finds himself at the crossroads of faith and Hollywood. He's in the business of saving souls; why not save Hollywood while he's at it?

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It has been a decade since Jakes first dipped his toes into the film world as a producer of Woman Thou Art Loosed, then followed it with movies including 2011's Winnie Mandela, 2012's Sparkle and 2013's Black Nativity. Now he is increasing his presence in film and television, not the least through a joint venture with one of Hollywood's biggest names, Joe Roth.

Jakes and Roth, the former Fox and Disney executive who most recently produced Alice in Wonderland, teamed to bring the global best-seller Heaven Is for Real to the screen, and Sony will release it April 16 on 2,500 screens. The film is based on Todd Burpo's 2010 account of his 4-year-old son's near-death experience.

Jakes met Burpo, also a pastor, just after the book was published, when Burpo introduced himself at a conference where Jakes was speaking. "He came to the front and told me about his son and his story and the book, which I had not read," recalls Jakes. "He asked me to read it and be a part of it."

Roth had bought the rights to the book six weeks prior to its publication, before anyone imagined it would go on to sell more than 10 million copies. He then took it to Sony, which has a first-look deal with Jakes' production company. The studio agreed to greenlight the film if it could be made for less than $15 million, and introduced Roth to Jakes.

"I was impressed by what a humble, modest, yet charismatic guy he was," says Roth, who notes that the movie was shot in Canada last summer with Randall Wallace (Secretariat) directing. "There are no accidents. He didn't stumble into success."

Sony's decision to pair Roth with Jakes shows how much it values the pastor's ability to boost the bottom line of faith-based films. It also indicates the growing importance of such material: Paramount's Noah debuted better than expected with $43.7 million, while the low-cost Son of God has grossed an impressive $58.5 million since its Feb. 28 opening, and God's Not Dead has earned $32.6 million. (Jakes has not yet seen Noah, but says he is "excited" to do so.)

And more will be coming, if Jakes has his way. He already is moving forward with new TV and film projects, including directing vehicles for Angela Bassett and Regina King; a TV movie about Antoinette Tuff (the Georgia woman who talked down a school gunman by telling him she loved him) for Sony; and a BET celebration of the 35th anniversary of his ministry. Both he and Roth believe this is a huge untapped market -- one that can be reached by Jakes' 4 million social media followers, but that has to be given the right material. "I want to continue in the film space, independent as well as through Sony and others," Jakes says. "I want to find unique stories, smart stories that are impactful."

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The movies are just part of his burgeoning media empire. He's the author of three dozen books (from the early Woman Thou Art Loosed! to his upcoming Instinct: The Power to Unleash Your Inborn Drive), the host of a daily television show (The Potter's Touch on Trinity Broadcasting Network) and a Grammy winner (for the gospel album he produced, A Wing and a Prayer). He also is friends with an armada of celebrities, from Tyler Perry to Oprah Winfrey (who advised him: "Be careful of people who start out at your feet; they will end up at your throat"), and he has rubbed shoulders with presidents George W. Bush, Bill Clinton and Barack Obama, all of whom have visited him at the church.

His own tastes veer toward thought-provoking movies such as A Beautiful Mind, 12 Years a Slave and Lee Daniels' The Butler, and he regrets not having invested in the latter when he was asked: "At the time, our plate was full," he says. He also consumes comedies, which he watches before going to bed ("That detoxes my mind"). So far, his own feature films (which also include 2011's Jumping the Broom) have met with mixed success, and none has come close to capturing Passion of the Christ's $611.9 million box office, nor even the revenues of Perry's bigger hits. But Jakes doesn't seem perturbed.

"I'm having fun," he says, with a great belly laugh. "I don't live in that space [Hollywood], and I'm not totally defined by that space. It is enjoyable to me because I can visit it without moving my furniture."

In person, as I discover when we sit in Jakes' windowless office suite the day after the ceremony, he is a gentle man whose style is more considerate than commanding. He has the faintest hint of a lisp, which softens his powerful appearance. It is easy to understand why Hollywood veterans like producer Debra Martin Chase (Sparkle) are so taken with him. "He's the real deal," she says. "He is full of wisdom and compassion and has a great vision about humanity."

In his role as pastor, Jakes supervises a staff of nearly 300; he has been married for 32 years to the former Serita Jamison, with five grown children; is a self-proclaimed centrist politically who won't divulge how he votes; reads such books as Stephen M.R. Covey's The Speed of Trust: The One Thing That Changes Everything and Seth Godin's Tribes: We Need You to Lead Us; and loves music -- everything from Mozart to R&B.

His heroes largely are figures of the past, like Martin Luther King Jr. (he shows me a prized gift from King's widow, Coretta -- a glass Christ figure with the inscription, "May the spirit of the cross continue to guide and inspire you"). But he equally is drawn to businessmen like Ted Turner, and he notes that he is a businessman himself as well as a pastor. "Turner changed the way the world received news and information in a way that was brilliant, and he continues to build all of his life," says Jakes. "And I relate to that in some way."

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Born in Charleston, W. Va., in 1957, Thomas Dexter Jakes learned the value of education from his mother and the value of business from his dad, who went from being a janitor to running a 52-man janitorial service, though money never was ample in the Jakes' household. "It was in the day when immigrants and minorities had to be multivocational to make ends meet," says Jakes, "and so the idea of not being confined to one thing [took root]."

Jakes discovered his calling as a preacher following his father's death from kidney disease when he was 16. "God became much more meaningful because I needed that void filled," he says. "The whole notion of some guidance was a strong catalyst. I wanted to discover the mystery of me because I had been neglected my whole life."

Soon he became known as "the kid with the Bible," and he began preaching in his late teens. He kept that up while majoring in psychology at West Virginia State College. He married when he was 24, opened a small church in Charleston and watched as attendance grew from dozens to hundreds and finally to more than 1,000. Then he took a giant leap and decided to move to Dallas.

That shift in 1996 had a profound impact on his work and also his family. "All of a sudden, we're in a big city taking on tough issues, not really realizing that we were exposing our children to a world that they were not at all groomed or prepared for -- and we weren't groomed or prepared for it either," he says. "You can't move into an urban area and not deal with kids that are molested and abused, and drug-related issues, and crime and prison ministries, and unwed mothers and homeless people. I was excited to take on all of these issues. But I didn't really realize [how much] I was exposing my children."

He learned when his daughter Sarah got pregnant at age 13, which Jakes acknowledges was a terrible time, "though not for the reasons you might think. It wasn't about anybody but her and what was best for her and our family. It wasn't my image or my brand that was threatened. It was my child. And given a choice between my child and my career, I choose my child every day."

Sarah's pregnancy (which she describes with candor in her new book, Lost and Found) wasn't the only child-related incident that shook him. In 2009, he discovered his son Jermaine had been arrested for allegedly exposing himself to an undercover male officer. Back then, Jakes was circumspect in his comments about his son's possible homosexuality; today he is bolder. "In a world where we all have to live together, I think everybody has a right to pursue their own life and their own beliefs and their own passions," he says, "and that's what makes this country great."

Jakes may have legions of fans, but he also has his critics. The Internet is teeming with them, slinging arrows from the left and the right: One calls him a tool of the Illuminati, another rants about his considerable wealth. He has been accused of hostility to homosexuals, of failing to adequately address racism and poverty and, above all, of preaching the "prosperity gospel," a theology that argues worldly riches are a sign of God's blessing, which has been bestowed amply on Jakes, who owns a multimillion-dollar mansion and a Bentley that was given to him by some fellow preachers.

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It is in this realm that he seems most open to attack in the era of Pope Francis, a man Jakes says he very much admires. But he swats away questions about it. "The whole conversation is almost idiotic," he says. "If all I did was minister, that would be relevant. [With] anybody else in your business that had done as many films as I have and had as many best-sellers, you wouldn't even bring up their house."

His ability to combine the secular and the religious is just one aspect of his complexity; he is a man of God who admits he has wrestled with doubt, a thinker who exists in action, a bear of a man whose most salient characteristic is his sensitivity. Unlike so many of his peers, he admits he's in flux.

"Age makes you change your worldview," he says. "Our ideas about marriage, our ideas about contraception, our ideas about retirement ages, our ideas about everything [are] going to keep evolving. And not only is the country evolving, I'm evolving in my thinking and process. And I refuse to allow somebody, for the sake of their comfort, [to] define me with any particular idea when we are still evolving."

He takes a deep breath, bothered that questions about his personal life and views might obscure his central message of inclusion and tolerance -- precisely the message he wants to convey in his movies.

"Film is a vehicle to communicate to a broader audience something important," he says. "And to use it to say nothing is an injustice."

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