Almost the Son of Zeus, But Not Quite: ‘God’s Not Dead’ Star Kevin Sorbo Talks Art Imitating Life And Joining Dolores Umbridge as One of the Meanest Teachers in Film History
When we believe that actors and actresses actually are the characters they portray on screen, we engage in the necessary act of temporarily suspending our disbelief. Without this leap of faith, any high school drama (or English) teacher will tell you, our experience of fiction would not be the same.
Nevertheless, it’s easy for us, especially with regard to fictional characters we may have watched on screen as children, to make the mistake of thinking these actors and actresses are one and the same as the individuals they play — even when the movie or TV show we know them from comes to an end.
The life and career of actor Kevin Sorbo serves as one illustration. You may recall watching him play the mythical hero Hercules in Hercules: The Legendary Journeys between 1992 and 1997. In the show, Sorbo is the strongest, most battle-ready guy ever; yet he engages in violence reluctantly, and only when it promises to bring peace.
Curiously, in real life the 6-foot-3 Sorbo seems to project the same tough yet non-violent ethos. Since 1997, he has been the celebrity spokesperson for A World Fit For Kids, an inner-city mentoring program which teaches kids to be resilient and independent without resorting to the aggression and hostility of the urban gang and drug culture. Similarities like this one between Sorbo’s off-screen work and his early on-screen alter-ego add to the temptation to continue to suspend our disbelief, and to over-identify Sorbo the artist with Hercules the fictional hero.
Thankfully, the actor’s relentless work in television and film after The Legendary Journeys has provided the viewing public with a slew of diverse and often challenging roles (five seasons on Andromeda as Dylan Hunt, Gene Roddenberry’s first fictional space captain after Kirk; movie credits as priests, serial killers, cowboys, and college professors), allowing us to dismiss the fond notion of his oneness with the son of Zeus once and for all.
GALO recently spoke with Sorbo to learn how he managed to expand his skills as an actor after initially being typecast in Hercules-like roles early in his career. He also discussed at length the most recent instance of this growth, the surprising indie success God’s Not Dead, in which he plays an atheist professor, Jeffrey Radisson, who gives his students an ultimatum to sign a declaration that “God is Dead,” putting him in the same rank as Dolores Umbridge, Helen Mirren and Richard Vernon as one of the meanest teachers in film history.
GALO: You spent over a decade of your life playing the characters Hercules and Captain Dylan Hunt on the TV series Hercules: The Legendary Journeys (1992-99) and Andromeda (2000-05), respectively. Additionally, between 2006 and 2012 you starred in 50 movies, and your IMDB credits reveal that you’ve kept up this rapid pace in the last couple of years as well. For those fans that are not as familiar with your work since the conclusion of Hercules, what was it like moving on to new frontiers after the closing years of your first big project?
Kevin Sorbo: Well, I think I always kind of mixed things up. Obviously, Hercules was a big break for me, and no one knew at the time that five two-hour movies back in 1993 were going to turn into a one-hour series, and then become the most watched TV show in the world. It was amazing to be part of something like that. What happened was that Universal Studios actually wanted to go three more years on the series, but I was at a point where I felt I had been there and done that (and loved it, of course), [and I] really didn’t want to become the Gilligan of my series.
It’s funny, you work so hard to get a job in Hollywood, and then you get lucky enough and get a job and it becomes a big hit, and then people say, “Well, he’s just the action guy who played Hercules.” It’s a weird business, a weird town, but fortunately, Majel Roddenberry came along during the last year of Hercules and said, “Look, my husband wrote this show back in 1969 when the original Star Trek series finished, and I think he’d be honored to have you playing Captain Dylan Hunt,” which was the first captain Gene Roddenberry ever created after Captain Kirk. I said, “Are you kidding me?” because I was the biggest Star Trek fan, so naturally I jumped right on board.
Andromeda was a great five-year run, and we followed up the success of Hercules with Andromeda being the number one show in first-run syndication. We really should have had two more years in that series, too — seasons six and seven — but the Tribune company, because of whatever business issues the company was dealing with out there in Chicago, went into bankruptcy, and I think we were the only ones making money for them. The Cubs certainly weren’t [laughs]. So, we got cancelled early, which is too bad, because I would have had a seven year run on that show as well. Since then, it’s really just been a bunch of independent films, some good — I think most of them were good — some bad, but overall it’s been a good run, so I can’t complain. I’ve stayed employed for 21 years now in the industry, and I guess that’s a pretty good run in Hollywood.
GALO: Let’s go back in time even further. Before working in Hollywood, you were an athlete, playing three sports in high school and four in college. Did your experiences in athletics help get you off to a good start when acting became your full-time profession? Did it prepare you for the physical demands of Hercules?
KS: I would say that, really, I look at acting as being similar to an athlete, especially in terms of the hours you’ve got to put in. Playing Hercules, the schedule was a lot like that of an athlete, because I put in 12-14 hours a day on set and then spent two more hours lifting heavy weights, and then after that I had to study my dialogue for the next day. So, for me, putting in an 18-hour day was pretty typical during the run of that series.
Obviously, doing the fight scenes was sort of a continuation of the athlete in me. And I loved doing the fights and the stunts — it was fun — and I’d still get the same butterflies before going on set and get excited just like I did when I was playing sports. So, really, it was not that big of a transition in terms of what I had to go through as an actor and what an athlete has to go through. I wouldn’t compare the two professions and say they’re completely similar, but certainly with an action show like Hercules, and in action movies and TV series in general, you are doing a lot of athletic moves. So I had to get in shape, and yeah, I think the athletic world that I grew up in definitely helped.
GALO: What about in terms of the mental preparation that goes into getting ready for a game, for instance? Did that translate to an ability to handle the pressures of being on set?
KS: For the stunts and stuff, certainly. I think you’ve got to be sort of athletic to pull off those fight scenes, with all the swords and staffs and all the dives and rolls you’ve got to do. You’ve got to really be willing to just get into the physical end of it, so sports were great — and it was great training for me in that regard, but obviously, just straight acting is not the same as playing sports.
GALO: I’ve heard that you regularly attend fan conventions like Comic-Con, and even smaller local ones like Dragon-Con in Atlanta, GA. It seems that, in addition to performing your own stunts, you also enjoy interacting with fans. What’s the strangest or most interesting thing a fan has ever said to you?
KS: Huh, that’s a good question. That’s interesting. I had a time where I’d go to like five or six cons a month around the world, because both series (Hercules and Andromeda) were and are still out there. I think I’ve had a number of questions come to me from fans, and they’ve really been so all over the place, so it’s hard to recall. I’m kind of stumped [laughs]. Just off the top of my head, though, there was one fan that came up to me and literally knew every single minute of Andromeda — he knew absolutely everything, and he started asking me these very detailed questions. And I didn’t glaze it over — when he was done, I said, “Blue! You asked me my favorite color, right?”
GALO: It must be strange encountering someone who knows more about your work than you do.
KS: Yeah, he just got so technical with it, and, quite frankly, once I finish a day on the set, I’m on to the next day, really. I sort of forget a lot of stuff about what happened on set the day before. You get really rabid fans, especially in the Andromeda world with Gene Roddenberry. I mean, those are really heavy-duty sci-fi fans. I think Hercules fans have tended to be a little less forgiving of me, just because they were there first and I moved on from that show to Andromeda. And you get fans that like both series, but then you also get those who only like one over the other, especially in the case of Hercules. And then you get fans who just know everything.
It’s weird though, because I’ve recently begun re-watching Hercules with my kids, who are into the show now just because they’re young and didn’t grow up with it and weren’t born yet when I was shooting it. It’s weird, because I remember every episode that they watch, but there are quite a few scenes which I see and think, ‘I know that’s me talking, but I have no recollection of shooting that particular scene.’
GALO: Besides propelling you into an acting career and international fame, your role in Hercules also introduced you to Sam Sorbo (née Jenkins), the actress and model who eventually became your wife.
KS: Yeah, we’ve been married for 17 years. And yeah, it was amazing. I was a single guy the first five seasons, and I always joked that Hercules was a great dating scene for me, because every two weeks they’d select a beautiful woman for me to work with [laughs].
GALO: Sam guest-starred for several seasons as Serena, a character who was actually Hercules’ romantic interest on the show for a while, right?
KS: Yeah, she was in about six or seven episodes down the road, too.