Sometimes an actor lands a role that ends up defining his career. Such is arguably the case with Billy Zabka. Never heard of him, you say? Though you may not have Zabka's name entered into your smartphone right between Dwight Yoakam and Renée Zellweger, there's a good chance you'll recall the villain he once portrayed. In 1984, Zabka donned the black headband of one Johnny Lawrence, a wicked, over-the-top, love-to-hate-him bully who made Daniel LaRusso's life miserable in The Karate Kid.
It was a role Zabka would reprise repeatedly throughout the '80s in films ranging from The Karate Kid II to Just One of the Guys to National Lampoon's European Vacation to Back to School. Entertainment Weekly's Chris Nashawaty said of those roles, "[Zabka's] characters were all the same—they lived to torment the outcast hero we were supposed to identify with. But Zabka, bless him, always delivered the goods with a sneer and a wink. No one was better at being bad. With his feathered blonde hair that looked like he'd spent way too much time secretly looking in a mirror, his short-fused temper, and his sour, lemon-sucking facial expression, Zabka symbolized the privileged popular kids during the waning days of their hammer-lock on power." Zabka ended up on TV's The Equalizer, and he most recently reprised, once again, his infamous bully role in the '80s themed Hot Tub Time Machine.
Given Zabka's penchant for portraying bad guys, you might be surprised to learn that he cares deeply about his Christian faith … and expressing it in film. In 2003, he added directing to his résumé with the short film Most, which tells the story of a drawbridge operator whose young son comes to work with him one fateful day and accidentally ends up trapped in the bridge's gears with a locomotive approaching. The father must choose between saving the son he loves and allowing him to die so that a train full of unsuspecting passengers might have life. It's a powerful, gut-wrenching tale that delivers unmistakable echoes of the gospel. Most premiered at the 2003 Sundance Film Festival and went on to be nominated for an Academy Award for Best Live Action Short Film in 2004.
That's why we wanted to hear from Zabka about how his faith has intersected with the career he's had as an actor and filmmaker.
Holz: What's it like to be a Christian filmmaker in Hollywood these days?
Zabka: Well, I don't think of myself as a Christian filmmaker. I think of myself as a filmmaker who is a Christian. So being a Christian in Hollywood is not any different than being a Christian anywhere else, except that you are under a microscope, I think. I don't wear my faith on my sleeve, I don't walk around and bang people over the head, and I don't have a prayer time in front of everybody. I just live it. Generally, if I have a chance to talk to someone, it's because they notice something and ask, "What's different about you?" That opens up the door.
Holz: We get letters from people who are interested in careers in Hollywood, be it acting, writing or directing. What would you say to them about those aspirations if they were thinking about packing up and heading West?
Zabka: You have to be called to it. And there is a difference between what you want to do and what you are called to do. In my opinion, the only way I can do what I am doing is because I threw my stick in the fire by the river and gave my dreams to God when I was 17. I do that every day. You have to put that first. You can't say this is what I want to do for God. He may want you somewhere else. He may want you in Mexico building houses for poor kids, shooting it on your video camera but not being a superstar filmmaker.
Holz: How do you think someone would go about discerning that calling and then acting on it?
Zabka: In a nutshell, I think it's about keeping your priorities right and making sure a given path is what God wants you to do. It's real easy to let your dream run away with you. So you have to stay close to your Savior, to God, and you have to stay close to the question, "What does He want from me in this moment?" When I have my eyes on God first, everything else falls into place. But when I try to do it in my own strength, it's the most miserable time.
As you begin to pursue your calling, challenge yourself. There is a learning curve here that you have to go through. There are no shortcuts. You have to work, and you have to work hard. If you want to be a filmmaker, you need to be on the set and see how things work. And you need to know what everybody on that set does and how they function, because it's like a giant machine you are running. And you have to learn how to capture a moment—an event—and that event has to be honest. You can have all the expensive equipment, you can have cool soundtracks. But if you don't have an event that's alive and authentic, it doesn't matter. In short, you have to do your homework, and then you can go for it, man!
Adam R. Holz: You've said that your short film Most connects with your faith in a very specific way. Tell us how.
Billy Zabka: I was raised in a Christian home, and my mom and dad both sang in the choir. My personal relationship with Christ began when I was 14. I was at a youth camp for the first time, and a pastor was asking how many of us were Christians. I raised my hand. Then he said, "Let me rephrase the question: How many of you have asked Jesus to be Lord and Savior of your life?" I didn't know what he meant, so I didn't raise my hand. He kept talking, but I had drifted off to play some Frisbee. Then I realized he had started telling this story. I'm a visual person, an artist, and I wasn't paying much attention, but for some reason I started listening. All of a sudden, I was completely engaged as he told the story we filmed in Most, the story of the father at the drawbridge. That story helped me understand what it meant to have a personal Savior. So I received Christ that night and really was just overwhelmed with a powerful feeling of love.
Holz: So the story for Most had been percolating for a long time before you filmed it. What made you finally do it?
Zabka: It came after a season in which I'd begun to feel like there was more to me than the acting that I was doing. I just wasn't happy anymore. And I'd also been in a number of films where I'd be on the set and felt frustrated about how things were going, wondering why they put the camera there or why did they edit that scene like they did. More than ever, it made me want to be a filmmaker. Coming up on 9/11, my filmmaking partner Bobby Garabedian and I did a short film for our church. It was amazing. We always thought we'd do movies together, and on the way to do edits, Bobby said, "Man, I heard this story on the radio this morning. It blew my mind." He told me the story, and I said, "Oh, man, I know that story. I have told it to kids in camps for like 20 years." He said, "You're kidding! We should make that into a movie!"
Holz: What did you hope to accomplish with it?
Zabka: It really was like our call to action. It almost felt like being in the military, going to war. But we were going to spiritual war. And we wanted to make a movie that would put value on life, talk about redemption and sacrifice. We also wanted the movie to be an allegory of the gospel so that people could watch it and not feel that they'd been assaulted by some overt religious agenda. But we also wanted to make a move that at its core was something that could change lives and deliver the Christian message on a fresh, clean, artistic platter. A lot of Christian films tend to give you the answer, and what we wanted to do was to give you the question and lead you to make your own conclusion without telling you anything.
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