'Jackson's Run,' a film featuring St. Thomas More student Richie Berner in a major role, premieres locally in front of an audience of his peers
CHAMPAIGN — When Richie Berner's face appeared on the big screen at Carmike Cinemas on Friday, it was the biggest screen to be had — 78 feet wide and 35 feet tall, where a pimple looks a foot square.
And his schoolmates found him larger than life.
Berner, 19, played the moral voice in a Christian-themed movie titled "Jackson's Run" that had its local premiere at the theater just off North Prospect, and soon will be available in stores and online.
Students at St. Thomas More and Holy Cross filled the room to near capacity. They applauded and cheered when Berner's name appeared in the final credits.
"It was overwhelming," Berner said after the show.
The Danville resident is starting to climb the ladder. He's been a face of Abercrombie & Fitch in print ads, has acted in plays with Danville's Red Mask Players and now has a feature film under his belt.
Friday, his fellow students choked up as illness, family strife and homelessness played out in the troubled Stone family. Berner played Sam, a voice of calm and concern.
They laughed at a poker game played with cookies for chips, and at a reference to an alcoholic mother as Stifler's mom from the "American Pie" movies.
At 103 minutes, the film was long enough for many of the students to get up for restroom and popcorn runs, some more than once.
A group of high school freshmen near the front were in tune with the movie's message of redemption, and laughed when they were supposed to laugh.
"I thought it was really good," Andie Bolton said.
One seat over, Amarissa Garcia thought "Jackson's Run" was great, too, and was impressed with Berner's performance — especially since he is a schoolmate.
After the film, Teresa Curry-Boyd, director of global events and marketing from Archangel Global Media, called the young actor to the front to shout numbers for random prize-winners. The number of "whoo-hoos" suggested Berner is a popular classmate.
"Richie Berner in life and as his character (Sam) is a young man of exceptional character that leads others through his humble example," Curry-Boyd said.
Berner also won raves from the film's co-writer and producer, Chris Robinson, who played a suicidal veteran.
"I'd hire him again," Robinson said.
The young man was first spotted from a photo on the movie site imdb.com, said his mother, Madalyn Berner.
He originally auditioned for the title role of Jackson, "but he was a little too clean-cut" to play the HIV-infected, drug-using teen who eventually finds Jesus, his mother said.
That role went to Rusty Martin, who had earlier starred in 2011's "Courageous."
But Berner so impressed producers that a role was written expressly for him, Robinson said.
"We liked Richie so much we had to find a place for him," he added.
At this point, Berner has no film work in the pipeline. He'll graduate soon, and has applied to several colleges. Robinson is pushing for him to pick Butler University, not too far from where the film was shot in southern Indiana.
The young actor said he may study international business in college. But he'll also try to find some more acting work.
"Acting will always be in my life," he said. If classmates call him Sam, he said, he doesn't mind.
In case acting doesn't take him into the film world, Berner did pick up some technical skills working on the $500,000, 17-day shoot.
When he wasn't on camera, he learned to do lighting work, such as "peacocking" a light reflector, and said the work on set was enjoyable.
"Making an independent film, you play a lot of roles," he said.
Staff writer Paul Wood took in Friday's showing. A recap:
Faith trumps tragedy in "Jackson's Run," in which woes worthy of Job beset the Stone family. Among them: alcoholism, AIDS, PTSD, a missing father, a suicide attempt, drug abuse and criminal behavior. But the family finds strength in God, reconnects and survives in the tear-inducing finale. St. Thomas More's Richie Berner shines in a key supporting role.