While comfortably ensconced in his home base of Los Angeles, Greg Kinnear says he still occasionally checked out news and weather from Winnipeg after living and working in southern Manitoba for three months, making Heaven Is for Real during the summer of 2013. Weather reports with figures such as -45 C raised his eyebrows.
"I've still got you plugged into my phone and I check periodically and I thought: Boy, that is cold.
"It's a beautiful city in the summer, I'll tell you that," Kinnear says during a phone interview. "The weather couldn't have behaved any nicer while we were up there."
Indeed, the film by Randall Wallace (Secretariat) makes Manitoba look positively heavenly, even if the province is doubling for Nebraska.
The movie must be considered something of a departure for Kinnear, who plays Todd Burpo, a small-town minister whose world is rocked when his four-year-old son Colton emerges from a life-threatening illness with unnervingly specific memories of visiting heaven while he was on the operating table.
While Kinnear's character endures a crisis of faith because of the challenges he faces, the film is unabashedly Christian in its philosophy. As a minister, Kinnear, 49, plays it arrow-straight after a career playing more dubious characters, including the spectre of a cheating husband (Ghost Town) or a sexually rapacious TV star (Auto Focus). Remember, too, that Kinnear established his film career in the role of a gay man trying to put his life together after being attacked in As Good As It Gets.
Director Wallace says it was not difficult to picture Kinnear in the role of Todd Burpo. Wallace had already cast Kinnear against type as a Medal of Honor-winning chopper pilot in the 2002 Vietnam war film We Were Soldiers.
"It's a casting approach that I first learned from Mel Gibson: Cast the actors who are in essence the character you want them to play," Wallace says, referring to the director-star of Braveheart, the film that won Wallace an Oscar for his screenplay.
"If they've got the acting ability, it's a matter of what will shine through in terms of their core," Wallace says. "I know Greg and I know how dedicated a father he is and that he's a man's man and he's a woman's man.
"He's a guy who appeals to a wide range, so the fact that he was seen and loved for one particular aspect didn't keep me from seeing the other aspects that he possesses."
For his part, Kinnear admits to feeling some nervousness in taking on a film that makes a strong statement of faith on its title page.
"The title is not a soft one," he says. "It declares itself in a pretty powerful way.
"So how you cook that up into a movie with conflict and reality and some element of crisis of faith, it's no small task," he says.
Kinnear says the script by Wallace and Chris Parker offered a compelling irony in its premise.
"Todd's son doesn't come to him and say: 'The world isn't the way you think it is.' He comes over and says: 'The world is the way you think it is.' And that's the starting-off point for him to feel kind of walloped with uncertainty and internal skepticism. I thought was really powerful."
Kinnear deflects the question of whether the film made him a believer himself.
"That question is there for everybody to chew on, of course, but strangely, I don't think that's the whole thrust of the movie," he says.
"The movie just chooses to tell you this story of this small town and the people in it and this family and what happened to them when this extraordinary news comes from the son after he's on his death bed," he says.
"There's a lot of different angles that it really examines," he says. "More than anything, it tries to be entertaining instead of getting too preachy."
Heaven Is for Real opens Wednesday, April 16, at Polo Park and St. Vital Silver City cinemas.