Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Boy knows heaven is real, even on dark days

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It was one of those depressing days in the newsroom.

And across the city.

To put it gently, two little ones had gone to heaven and police said their mother had gone missing. Given the sadness that story would evoke in today's paper, city editor Shane Minkin wondered if I could write something upbeat. Off the top, and considering the circumstances, only one story came to mind.


-- -- --

It wasn't my idea.

It was one of Jacob's other grandfathers, his Grampa Roger, who saw the article in the Free Press last April and made the suggestion.

"Open casting call for part of young boy in Winnipeg-shot film," the headline read.

It turned out TriStar Pictures was preparing to shoot a movie here this summer called Heaven is for Real, and they were looking for a boy between five and eight to play the role of a child who emerges from life-threatening surgery to describe visions of heaven.

Jacob is six. And he believes in heaven. But he's never actually acted, except for time spent on stage with the rest of the darlings in his school Christmas pageant, or whatever they call it now.

Heaven is for Real is the real thing, of course, with real Hollywood actors like Greg Kinnear and Kelly Reilly, who play the parents of the boy who's real, too. The still-being-shot film's news release offers this by way of background: "Based on the No. 1 New York Times bestselling book of the same name, the film brings to the screen the true story of a small-town pastor who must find the courage and conviction to share his son's extraordinary life-changing experience."

Back last spring, casting director Jim Heber suggested the search for the starring role of the boy could extend across North America. No matter. On the last Saturday in April my daughter, Erin, accompanied Jacob to the Winnipeg Convention Centre, as would hordes of other proud parents with cute little boys. Beforehand, they were all supposed to memorize a few lines to recite, and learn to sing a hymn, Amazing Grace.

There was something Jacob wasn't prepared for, though: a question the casting team would ask all the boys.

What did heaven look like?

Jacob described it in colour, as blue and white.

Curiously, Jacob and I had discussed what heaven was like last fall when I took him to visit the resting places of three generations of Sinclairs in Elmwood Cemetery. His description of heaven back then was more personal and poignant.

Anyway, during that initial casting call, Jacob just did what he was asked. He sang Amazing Grace and recited his lines. And eventually he -- and 29 other boys -- got a callback.

I gather by that time, or soon after, the final choice was made for who would play the starring role.

It turned out to be a now-just-turned-six-year-old from Cleveland named Connor Corum. But Jacob and the other boys weren't out of the picture, or the movie for that matter. The film still needed at least a couple of local boys, a stand-in or a photo-double for Connor. For what seemed like weeks, Jacob waited, wondering anxiously if he would get another callback.

Eventually he and four others would.

"We all looked the same," Jacob told me later.

What he meant was they were all blond like Connor.

Jacob's measurements were taken, just like the other boys, and then they all waited hopefully again for another callback. It was about a month or so ago when I got the call.

"I'm in Jacob's dressing room," my daughter Erin said. "And he's waiting to get his hair done."

Later she would describe how Jacob was made up as pale as death for an operating room scene so they could get the lighting and camera angles just right for the star. And, how Connor and Jacob and the other boy who got to play the role of photo double would sit around together playing video games between setups and takes. The way cigar-puffing adult actors play cards in their trailers, I guess. I would also learn during the casting process, Jacob had his own question for the crew.

How much would he be paid?

"I'm going to put half the money in the bank," he told his mother, "and half in my piggy bank."

So that's what my little grandson did on his summer vacation. He learned the value of hard work. And made a piggy bank full of money doing it.


-- -- --

There's something else I should share with you. The way Jacob described heaven last fall as we left Elmwood Cemetery.

"You know the best thing about heaven?" he asked without prompting.

"What?" I asked.

"You get to meet all your friends."

I didn't know what to say. And I still don't.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition July 25, 2013 B1

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