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Rebecca St. James' life and family is depicted in the new feature film `Unsung Hero.` (Photo courtesy of Smallbone Management)
Rebecca St. James' life and family is depicted in the new feature film "Unsung Hero." (Photo courtesy of Smallbone Management)

Q&A: 'Unsung Hero' brings Rebecca St. James' origin story to the big screen

by jmaloni
Fri, Apr 26th 2024 05:30 pm

Feature film from Lionsgate, studio behind MercyMe’s ‘I Can Only Imagine,’ Jeremy Camp’s ‘I Still Believe’

Behind the Screens with Joshua Maloni


Rebecca St. James has lived a life destined for greatness and bound for the big screen.

As a teenager in the 1990s, she was, at first, rejected by the music industry, but, by decade’s end, would become one of the most celebrated Christian artists in the world.

In her 20s, St. James would add actor and author to her resume, while touring the globe and headlining events including Kingdom Bound. Her songs would dominate the faith-based pop-rock charts – most notably with “Wait for Me,” and its lyric in which St. James famously plants a flag in the ground saying she will not have sex before marriage.

When she entered her 30s, St. James – having yet to find a soulmate, but refusing to settle – found herself physically unable to perform. Mentally drained, but not giving up hope, she moved to the West Coast to continue exploring acting opportunities.

With her plans uncertain, it was then she met, fell in love with, and married musician Jacob “Cubbie” Fink. Earlier this week, the proud parents of three celebrated their 13th wedding anniversary.

While St. James was taking a break from the stage, her brothers, Luke and Joel, would make their debut as for KING & COUNTRY. Seemingly overnight (but not really, because these boys worked), fK&C became not just a mega act in Christian music, but across genres. They would string together a series of their own hit songs, and score with collaborators Tori Kelly, Jordin Sparks and Echosmith.

It was on a tour date toward the end of the last decade that Joel and Luke would bring Rebecca out on stage, and it was there, in that Alaskan concert venue, that she would begin her comeback. In 2022, St. James released “Kingdom Come,” her first full-length album in 11 years.

Hollywood endings are sort of St. James’ thing.

But as it turns out, miraculous and marvelous run in her family.

You see, St. James might not have any of the above if it hadn’t been for her parents, David and Helen.

Her origin story is just as fantastic as what happened in her 20s and 30s.

Rebecca’s family of nine, down on its luck, left Australia and moved to Tennessee in a last-ditch attempt to right the family business – music – and to make a mark on this world. With no car, little money, and only winter clothes to sleep on, the Smallbones staked the future on their teenage daughter and her powerful, anointed voice.

It’s a story fit for a feature – and that’s what Lionsgate banked on when it gave the greenlight to “Unsung Hero.”

The studio explains the “remarkable true story” “follows David Smallbone as he moves his family from Down Under to the states, searching for a brighter future after his successful music company collapses. With nothing more than their seven children, suitcases, and their love of music, David and his pregnant wife, Helen, set out to rebuild their lives. Helen’s faith stands against all odds and inspires her husband and children to hold onto theirs. With their own dreams on hold, David and Helen begin to realize the musical prowess in their children, who would go on to become two of the most successful acts in inspirational music history: five-time Grammy Award-winning artists for KING & COUNTRY and Rebecca St. James.”

“Unsung Hero” opens in theaters today.

The film was written and directed by Joel Smallbone and Richard L. Ramsey. It stars Smallbone as David, Daisy Betts as Helen, and Kirrilee Berger as Rebecca. Rounding out the cast is “Nashville” and “General Hospital” star Jonathan Jackson as Eddie Degarmo; “Full House” alum and Great American Family contributor Candace Cameron Bure as Kay Albright; “The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift” and “NCIS: New Orleans” lead Lucas Black as Jed Albright; and Terry O’Quinn, who played the mysterious and magnificent John Locke for six seasons on “Lost.” He plays Grandpa James.

Rebecca also makes a cameo appearance in the film.

She shared more about her family, her “Unsung Hero,” and her go-to movie snack, in this edited Q&A.

Oh, and another chapter might be in the works, as Rebecca and Cubbie are penning a new book about their love story.

“Unsung Hero” (Photo courtesy of EPK. TV)


BTS: I think it was about 2005 the first time I interviewed you. We've talked about your music, your movies, your books, your podcasts. I have to ask you about what I think is probably the most challenging role that you've taken on over the years. And that, of course, is “Flight Attendant” (her character in "Unsung Hero."

Rebecca St. James: (Laughs) Ah, yes, so challenging!

BTS: What can you tell me about "Flight Attendant"?

Rebecca St. James: Yeah, that was fun. I mean, that was a pretty cool day, because my husband was very involved in this film. He was kind of a third director, really. He was speaking into every shot of the movie, so there was obviously a lot of trust there. And then Joel was playing my dad, and then speaking into every part of the movie, too, and also directing. So, there was a lot of safety going on that set.

I've always loved acting. I think, actually, prior to even doing music, acting was what I thought I might do as a small child. I wanted to be in “The Sound of Music.” That was my first little dream.

It was fun. I also enjoyed the voiceover work, because we captured that initial scene in the airplane, but then doing the voiceover work afterwards, too, where it's just my voice. And I’ve done quite a lot of that, with “VeggieTales” and other voice-only pieces for films or TV. It was great. It was a real special day. And I'd be on and off set, because of Cubbie’s involvement; but nice to be able to contribute something to it – and have that even for our kids to kind of look back at Mommy and Daddy were involved in that directly.

for KING & COUNTRY’s Joel and Luke Smallbone at one of the premiere events for “Unsung Hero.” (Photo courtesy of EPK. TV)


BTS: You've done quite a bit of press. You did a big fan event. It's obviously been, I'm sure, all-encompassing over the past few months. Now that we've arrived at the day, and you've got almost all of that behind you – now that the movie is in a place where it can be shared with the world – what are your thoughts, and what are your feelings?

Rebecca St. James: Well, I’ve seen it five times, I believe. Last night was the fifth time, and I was actually just bringing friends to our local theater. They're doing like 14 showings of it. The boys and Cubbie were introducing all the different screenings at our theater here; and so, I went with some friends.

It's wild. I cry every time. I probably will cry every time. And it's not just living through that time – and, I mean, it wasn't super traumatic, I don't think, for me; I think it definitely was for my parents. They both probably find it challenging to watch in their various ways. But I think it's also the themes of just family and marriage and pain. When you're going through these kinds of things in life, asking the questions of how's this all going to work out.

I think, for everyone who watches it, unless they're super, super stoic, there's some kind of emotional connect that's pretty powerful – and that's definitely the case for me.

So, I think last night, I was more just celebrating the movie as a whole, and more just kind of, like, I’ve probably been in wonder that it actually exists.

And being proud of Kirrilee, who played me; I think she did a really great job. I think she kind of embodied my essence in a lot of ways, and I just couldn't be more thrilled with what she did – and she's become a friend.

So, just a ton of emotion, Josh. Just so much. And then to even know that our kids are going to be able to see the most profound part of my family, of our origin story, and kind of grow up knowing that, watching it on the screen, it's just profound. How many people get to see, in their lifetime, a really kind of incredible part of their story played out on a big screen? Very few people.

I'm excited to see what it does this weekend, and where it goes, because it's already having really strong impact – like, pretty much standing ovations every time I've seen it being screened by audiences. Now, for it to probably be either the No. 2 or No. 1 film in the U.S. this weekend – which is what it's looking like – I think that says to Hollywood, too, that there needs to be more films like this, which is exciting.



BTS: The end result, then, clearly is what you want, what you hope for; it has significant meaning to you, as it will to all the people who watch it. But I'm wondering about the beginning of this project. I believe your brothers said that they started working on this about 2020. So, if we go back – I mean, obviously, 2020 was 2020, for everyone – but for you, that was a time where you had just gotten back into performing; you were trying to think about what the next stage was going to be with your music. When they came to you and said, “Hey, we want to make this movie about the family,” and a story that obviously you're a very central part to, what’s your first reaction?

Rebecca St. James: I mean, it's been talked about forever, probably, like for decades – probably ever since all that happened, and we kind of got through it (laughs).

You know, that's such a wild, amazing, God story that it probably needs to be either a book or a movie, or both, at some point; and so, then, mom's book coming out a few years ago, and it really doing well and hitting home with a lot of people, I think that kind of proved this film needs to happen – and it needs to happen soon.

So, it wasn't a shock when the boys started. Because, again, they've been talking about it probably way earlier than that, than 2020. It wasn't a surprise.

I think the thing for me, that I felt about it, is I just needed to stay out of it; I needed to not be involved with it. It is so personal. You know, there’s parts of it that still feel raw. I just think it's so integral to my journey as a person (laughs), that I felt like I wasn't probably able to be super objective about what should and shouldn't be told in the story. So, I really entrusted it to Joel, and to Richard Ramsey, and Cubbie, as they were speaking into that script, that I would be represented well, and I just didn't need to worry about it.

That was kind of my feeling, was just kind of stay out of it, and let it be what it needs to be outside of me getting in there and speaking into it.

BTS: You've obviously had some amazing life experiences. There are some amazing things that you've overcome, that your family has overcome. In the movie, to about what age do we see you get to?

Rebecca St. James: You’re seeing kind of a condensed version of me from 14 to 16. It probably feels like you're watching six months, maybe, happen; and then it skips forward a year. It was about a two-year period for me.

Kirrilee Berger as Rebecca St. James in “Unsung Hero.” (Photo courtesy of EPK. TV)


BTS: I wonder if you could tell me a little bit more about working with Kirrilee. Certainly, you have acting experience. As you said, acting is something that was probably your first love, as it pertains to entertainment. You are the source material for her character. What was the relationship like with you and with her? Like you said, you wanted to stay out of it, for the most part; but, just in terms of helping her to craft this character – which is you – can you tell me about what that relationship was like?

Rebecca St. James: I just met her on set when the kids and I came to really visit Cubbie on set, and it was very surreal. It was probably instant connection and respect and joy at meeting each other. And then throughout the filming, I think we spoke maybe a couple of times just on the phone, too, where she wanted to kind of get in my head when it came to my performance; like, what was I thinking at that age performing? How did it feel? What was the vulnerability level? What do I focus on when I sing? Questions like this that she had. So, that was really special.

Cubbie was really speaking into her performance a lot, too, because he’s heard all these stories. But then to see it come to life, and then kind of help her craft what she was bringing to the table, performance wise, that was incredibly profound for him – and, I think, really increased kind of empathy for me. You know, seeing this younger version of myself (laughs) enact this role was, like, super surreal for him.

But I think the most profound moment was when they were filming the final scene of the movie, Creation Festival, and I was there that day – every single member of the family was there that day. But I was standing on one side of the stage behind camera, watching her perform on the stage, but then, kind of have this moment with my mom, which kind of finishes out the movie where I say, “I want to be like you mom.” I’m implying I want to be a wife and a mom – the dreams that you've lived out is what I want to live out, and you're my hero; so, I'm kind of saying that to her. And I didn't know what they were saying. I just knew that it was the key moment of the film – it was kind of the peak moment of the film.

But I just literally lost it because she looks – I'm sure you've seen the trailer – she looks exactly like me at that point. Like, I mean, just spitting image. My dad even thought it was me that day, when he saw her all dressed up in a very period-appropriate outfit. Her outfit was like so right on, and had been crafted by wardrobe to be almost identical to something that I wore then; makeup and hair was perfect. Like, she just embodied me – even the way she holds her mouth is like me, which is just wild. So, how many people on the planet actually get to see a younger version of themselves kind of do what they do?

And then Daisy and Kirrilee are having this moment on the other side of stage, and then I'm standing there with my mom in real life – you know, now in her 60s, me in my 40s – and I just lost it, crying, and I turned to her and I just said, “Mom, how many times did that happen? Like, just hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of times, where we were praying before I would go out on stage, and you're kind of encouraging me and being that safe place for me before I go out in front of a large group of people.”

It's just really profound. So, I think that was probably the most special moment for me.



BTS: Amongst the things we've talked about over the years is the fact that, as much as you appreciate your platform, and you appreciate the connection you get to have with your audiences, you've never loved being in the spotlight; you've never loved being a celebrity. And it seems like, in the past couple of years, you kind of got to a good spot where you could do the things you wanted to do with your ministry, your music, but you sort of had passed that point where you were going to be as much of a celebrity as you were when you first started out. So now that we're getting into the movie, and knowing that it's going to be successful, and knowing that you're going to be put back into that limelight again, how do you feel about that? How are you preparing for that next chapter in your career?

Rebecca St. James: It's a really, really good question – and you're sweet to even say the word “celebrity” (laughs). It doesn't really feel like (it). I don’t, probably, align myself with that word with my own life. But you're sweet to say that, Josh.

But it is an interesting moment in time. I think, when I was younger, I think there was a lot of fear around, you know, just not wanting this whole platform, life, to ruin my heart, or my own self. And I think I'd been around Christian music, even as a young child, enough to kind of see it take a toll on people, and especially women, probably. Dad had always said, like, “Just don't believe your own publicity”; you really can't buy into that; you've got to just really kind of believe the people that love you for you – like family and friends. Take them seriously, but don't believe what’s said about you in the media, really, because it can kind of inflate your head, and make you become selfish or proud and kind of ruin you. I think I always had that fear.

I think now, honestly, and now in my 40s, having children, having a husband that loves me, I think there's an anchoring that I feel, and probably in my relationship with Jesus, too, where it's like I can almost enjoy the ride of some of this.

The premiere was crazy, right? There was like 1,700 people, and just people from all parts of music and film and TV, and Joel Osteen, and all these different people that were coming from the ministry world to support the film in that moment in time. It was crazy. And lots of personal friends of mine; my best friend was there that knew me and met me like right after all this had just happened. People that were in the film, like Jed and Kay (Albright), that are embodied in the film, they were there. So, it was just insane – it was almost like a wedding, but more crazy and a red carpet at the wedding (laughs).

I think I feel like there is a trust, maybe, in my own solidness, and the security of the family that I have around me, with my husband and kids, and those dreams coming through, where I can just kind of roll into it a little bit more, and not feel threatened by it; like, not feel like I'm going to all of a sudden buy into what all this is, and my soul is going to be taken away. I don't know; I think I can kind of ride the adventure of it with joy, rather than feeling like it's a threat.

So, it feels good. It's a lot right now; our schedule’s kind of insane. But it's almost kind of a beautiful moment, and a redemptive moment for me, too. And to not have slaved over something, but then still people to kind of say, “Hey, thank you for living out this journey,” and how this movie has impacted my life, like, it's kind of a grace moment.

BTS: You mentioned you've seen this film a few times. What, for you, is the go-to movie snack?

Rebecca St. James: What I did last night, it was a Frozen Coke. That's it. I had a bit of my husband's popcorn; but it was a Frozen Coke for me.

No Skittles or any of that stuff. I’m just keeping it simple with the Frozen Coke.

“Unsung Hero” is now playing in theaters.

The Smallbone family is depicted in the new Lionsgate film “Unsung Hero.” (Photo courtesy of EPK. TV)



See also >> Rebecca St. James embraces the 'Dawn'

See also >> Rebecca St. James proves good triumphs over bad with release of 'Kingdom Come'

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