Interview with Eduardo Verástegui, Film Producer and Pro-Life Advocate
Not afraid to use the media to speak the truth
On 30 August at the 2009 Walsingham Prayer Festival, Mexican singer, actor, film producer, international speaker and much recognized pro-life advocate Eduardo Verástegui spoke to more than 1,200 British teenagers on the theme of "The Call to Holiness". After the festival, devout Catholic Verástegui graciously took the time to speak to "L'Osservatore Romano" on his grand conversion and his views on life which continue to inspire and enlighten.
What motivated you to speak at the Walsingham Prayer Festival?
It is eight years now that I am a changed man, filled with that inner peace which can only come from God and this is something that you naturally want to share, despite the nervousness which comes every time when speaking in front of such a large group. I was very happy to be invited. England is a special place for me because my great-grandmother was English. I never thought that a boy from a very small town in northern Mexico would ever come to England to share his testimony with the youth of her homeland. I am very grateful and blessed that God gave me the gift to come all the way here to do this because I believe that the youth are the future. It is good sometimes to remind young people that the Holy Father John Paul II told us not to be afraid to be the saints of the new millennium and that this world needs heroes, needs candles, because we are living in such an impure time and we need to be the light in the darkness.
Did you find inspiration at the festival?
Yes, I could see how these young lives were changed after spending three full days in front of the Blessed Sacrament. I witnessed the healing of the Lord. At the end of the day we are all broken, wounded, and we need healing. It was a great healing experience for all involved.
Much has been written about your transformation from soap opera actor to producer of films which promote human values such as true love, virtue and forgiveness. Can you relate the events that led up to your conversion experience?
I am the eldest son and I have three younger sisters. I grew up Catholic but my Catholic faith was not the centre of my life. It was not my priority — not because l intended it to be that way but I really didn't know my faith very well. I never went to Catholic schools, never received a solid foundation. I thought that I was a good Catholic because I was going to Mass once a year at Christmas; I was not a thief; I was not a killer; I was not a saint either but I was a good person. So I created my own God in a way, out of ignorance of course. That was my mentality: God loves me, I love him. I believe in him and I pray every night. But meanwhile I was living a life full of contradictions.
It was my father's dream for me to be a lawyer and a politician so I went to law school and after the second semester I realized that it was not my passion so I left. I was the black sheep of the family, a misbehaving troublemaker. I moved to Mexico City to pursue my dream of being an actor, a model and a singer. Imagine moving from a small town of 15,000 people to a city of 22 million! I thought I could achieve happiness by becoming rich and famous. I started modelling first. Then at the age of 19 I was singing in a boy band called Kairo, travelling all around Latin America for a few years, performing at huge stadiums for 50,000 people, becoming famous. Three and a half years later I was acting in Mexican soap operas and becoming very famous, and that's when I lost perspective on everything. I was seduced by the entertainment environment and I was living a totally hedonistic lifestyle — money, material success, women, fame — everything that I thought was going to bring me heaven on earth.
After nine years in Mexico City, I moved to Miami to take up my music career again, releasing an album in Spanish and touring in Latin America. Still wanting more, I dreamed of Hollywood even though I didn't speak any English! Then one day on a flight from Miami to Los Angeles my manager and I were sitting next to the casting manager for 20th Century Fox Studios. He was looking for a Spanish actor with a thick accent and invited me to read for the part. I got the part and moved to L.A. I started learning English from the beginning at the age of 28. It was the typical American dream — small town Mexican boy is discovered on a plane, lands in Hollywood and makes his first film! Then all of a sudden I had lawyers, managers and agents working for me — 15 people passionate about "making" the new Antonio Banderas in Hollywood.
But after so many years of working really hard I realized that something was missing in my life. I thought I had everything but in my heart I knew that I had nothing. I was very empty, lost and confused, unhappy and lonely. I was deeply disappointed that none of my hard work had brought me happiness and I had no one to blame. I was living in this bubble of vanity and ego. I thought I was in control of everything but inside my heart was bleeding, my soul was bleeding. I was wounded and weak, virtually in agony. And this was the turning point.
I understand that there was one woman in particular who provided you with the impetus to turn back to God.
Yes, I had a wonderful English teacher on the film set who was very strong in the faith and God used her as his instrument for healing me. She started asking me questions like, "Eduardo, what is the purpose of your life?", "How are you using your talents?", "How are you choosing your projects?", "What sort of message are you sending to society?", "Are you part of the problem or part of the solution?", "Do you treat your body as a temple to the Holy Spirit?", and "Your Latino community has been stereotyped in Hollywood in a very negative way. What are you doing to resolve that?".
Did you find it difficult to find peace after your English coach started asking these questions?
Yes. In the beginning I didn't like her. It was so uncomfortable for me not having the answers to these questions. I tried to avoid answering them but for six months she patiently and lovingly persisted and eventually she asked me directly, "Do you really love God Eduardo? Then why do you offend him in the way you live your life?". After this I broke down and I cried like a baby for hours. I went to Confession and I promised God that I would commit my life to him and I would never again accept roles which would compromise my Catholic faith or offend my family or my Latino culture.
I realized that a real man is someone who identifies his life with the life of Jesus Christ and is therefore someone who respects the dignity of women and recognizes that sex is a gift from God. It is sacred and that gift is to be protected and shared with the most important person in my life one day — apart from God — and that is going to be the mother of my children, if that is my vocation. When I discovered the value of chastity I made a promise to God that I would never again be with a woman until I marry.
People talk about the economic crisis but there is also a major crisis of values and we need to do something to change this culture. The power of the media is so great today and Pope John Paul II said in his last Apostolic Letter to not be afraid to use the media to speak the truth. So I want to follow his call.
My whole conversion took place in the capital of temptation, not somewhere like Lourdes or Fatima. It was here that the Lord made a new man of me.
And something a friend once told me changed all my priorities. Blessed Mother Teresa said we are not called to be successful. We are called to be faithful to God. These words remain with me always.
Your mother must be as happy as St Monica was about the conversion of her son St Augustine!
Yes, but for a long time my mother was very worried about me. She supported me — as always in my life — even though she didn't like the idea of me going to Hollywood. Then she saw the sinful life that I was leading, full of arrogance and pride and she said to her priest, "What can I do? He will not listen to my words. Well if my words don't touch his heart, my prayers will". So she prayed a lot for me — especially the Rosary — and for the protection of all her children. I believe that there is nothing more powerful than the prayers of a mother for her children. My English teacher was the answer to her prayers.
I read that you considered becoming a missionary in the Amazon in Brazil?
Yes, when I discovered that I was not born to be a Hollywood movie star or director, but rather I was born to know and to love and to serve Jesus Christ, everything changed in my life. I experienced such joy to know that I was created — as Mother Teresa said we all are — to become a saint. Then I realized there was no way I could continue to live in Hollywood. How could I be a practising Catholic in a place which, in my opinion, is poisoning society? After my conversion I thought that I was meant to go and serve the poor in the Amazon jungle for two years so that I could discern what God wanted from me and cleanse my soul of all the sins of my past. But when I told a priest what I intended to do he said, "Absolutely not, you're not going anywhere. Hollywood will be your jungle. It belongs to God, not to the studios and we need to take it back. You need to be the light in the darkness. This little place called Hollywood has such a large impact around the world and Our Lord touched your heart here for a reason". I said, "Father, you are sending me into the ocean full of sharks with a little knife!".
He gave me a book called Rome Sweet Home: Our Journey to Catholicism by Scott and Kimberly Hahn that changed my life. It helped me to understand that there is nothing greater on earth than the Holy Eucharist. I started going daily to Holy Mass and praying the Rosary from then on. I went to Confession once a week, started having regular spiritual direction and doing three spiritual retreats a year.
At my first retreat at a beautiful monastery called St Michael's Abbey in Silverado, California, the Norbertine Fathers gave me the tools to survive in Hollywood. If I keep to the program I developed there, I can be at peace with God and be sure that I am not being led off my path because we are not capable of doing anything good by ourselves without the grace of God. The only thing that we can do without God is sin. So I wake up every morning at 6 o'clock. I go to Mass at 6:30 a.m. and I pray the Rosary in front of the Blessed Sacrament then I pray Lauds and meditate for about half an hour. Then I go to the gym or play tennis or swim at the ocean and by 9 o'clock I am at the office at the production company. I pray the Angelus at 12:00 p.m., the Divine Mercy at 3:00 p.m., then Vespers at 6:00 p.m. Usually there is a business dinner and scripts to read or maybe I watch a documentary. Then I pray Compline followed by the Salva Regina and then I sleep! It sounds like a monastery but it is the only way to survive in such a secular environment with so many temptations. I do it, not because I am a good person, but because I know I am weak. Otherwise I would focus too much on myself.
How did the formation of your film company "Metanoia Film? (Greek for conversion) come about?
With the promise I made to God about all the things I wouldn't do again, I couldn't work for nearly four years and I used up all my savings. So I decided I wanted to start my own production company and I met someone at Mass who had also had a massive conversion. He read C.S. Lewis' The Problem of Pain and that changed him. He went on to become a theologian and taught theology and philosophy and apologetics. So I asked him if he wanted to join me on this adventure of making movies that matter. He said "yes" and then the brother of one of my best friends also underwent a similar conversion experience and he joined us too. Our mission is to make movies that entertain, uplift, heal and above all, respect human dignity — the essence of Pope Benedict's Encyclical.
We want people to leave the movie theatres wanting to love more, forgive more and complain less; we want them to leave with a candle in their hearts, full of hope and faith. I want my mother and my grandmother to be able to watch my films without having to cover their eyes. I want to have our Blessed Mother and Our Lord Jesus Christ on the set and not have to cover their eyes. And I don't want any actors to have to compromise their values.
The first fruit of that mission is the feature film "Bella", about a woman considering having an abortion! One of my partners wrote it in two months, with me in mind to play the lead actor. But we didn't have any money to produce the film.
Then you met Pope John Paul II in Rome?
Yes, my priest friend who convinced me to stay in Hollywood organized for me to meet the Holy Father in Rome. When I was holding the Pope's hand I explained my mission to him and asked him to please pray for us. It was one of the most special moments of my life when he gave me his blessing, two blessings actually!
How did this lead to funding "Bella" in which you play a soccer star whose life is transformed by tragedy?
Literally 10 days after receiving his blessing I met a family who gave us the money without reading the script or signing a contract. We went to New York City. We shot the entire film in 23 days and sent it to the Toronto International Film Festival. We were accepted into the festival so we flew back to Mexico City and we visited the Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe. We dedicated the film to Our Lady of Guadalupe because she is known as the "Patroness of the Unborn". Several months later we attended the nine day festival. We used these nine days to do a novena to St Maximilian Kolbe and at the end of the festival, our film won! So it was really a miracle but the best part is not the awards or the box-office success. It is all the letters and emails and phone calls we received from young pregnant women who were scheduled to have an abortion and after seeing the film — by the grace of God — changed their minds and decided to keep their babies.
How did your campaign go for the release of "Bella" in Hong Kong where the abortion rate is astronomical?
I could never have imagined the great response that we received in Hong Kong where one in three babies are aborted. We talked to so many young people, spreading the message that there is no sanctity without chastity and purity. Our Lord said "Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God" (Mt 5:8). That's the goal of the Christian life!
You are called to speak at ceremonies and festivals (such as the 20,000-strong Marian Congress in Phoenix last month) and rallies on issues including the right to life and the importance of the family. Your intervention outside an abortion clinic in Los Angeles last year saved at least five babies that day. That's a good day's work!
Actually we go as a group to abortion clinics every Saturday. Last Saturday we saved six babies for sure. It's always two or three, sometimes five babies, but last week six was very special. Many of the women are Latino so they recognize me which opens them up a little to listening to my message. I learned so much about abortion when I was making the film "Bella". People always talk about the number of people killed in the Holocaust and they are able to see looking back what a horror it was. The reality of abortion, however, is that 42 million babies are killed every year. My hope and expectation is that in time — whether it is 10, 20 or 30 years — that people will be able to look back and say in horror "what were we thinking?".
Do you find it difficult to remain true to Catholic values while being surrounded by the excesses of the film industry?
It is always a question of being rooted in prayer. I have led a chaste life, as we are all called to do, for eight years now which as you can imagine is very difficult with all the trappings of Hollywood. Hence my belief in constant prayer. I am not sure if I am called to marry or to consecrate my life to God. We will see!
You really have to be careful what you read and what you see and who your friends are. These things either elevate your spirit or bring you down. Prayer life is the most important thing in reminding ourselves of our call to holiness. I try to keep to my spiritual programme every day and pray that the environment in which I live will not be able to steer me from my path. Humiliation hurts — it's uncomfortable, but you need humiliation to remain grounded in the faith. My mission is to always walk with the spirit of gratitude and humility.
One final question: Your upcoming projects?
This is a very exciting time for Metanoia Films. We are growing our film fund for upcoming projects that will include 5-7 films of different genres. The mission for all of these films is to encompass the same heart and soul as "Bella" with investors who also truly believe that we can change this culture of death most effectively through the media. More information on our mission to promote what is good, beautiful and truthful can be found on www.metanoiafilmsmission.com.
My other main focus is on raising the necessary funds to open a pro-life medical centre in the middle of all the abortion clinics in Los Angeles. Along with the pro-life centre we are eager to be organizing our next missionary trip in Latin America. Our goal is to take a team of people and build homes for communities in extreme poverty. For more information and to donate please Visit www.mantodeguadalupe.com.
Weekly Edition in English
23 September 2009, page 10
L'Osservatore Romano is the newspaper of the Holy See.
The Weekly Edition in English is published for the US by:
The Cathedral Foundation
L'Osservatore Romano English Edition
320 Cathedral St.
Baltimore, MD 21201
Subscriptions: (410) 547-5315
Fax: (410) 332-1069