Gaius Charles put aside a successful acting career to attend Drew’s Theo School.
By Christopher Hann
The storyline seems too implausible, even for Hollywood: Promising young actor, his star on the rise after three seasons on a hit TV show, puts his career on hold to enroll in a seminary in Madison, N.J. Yeah, right.
Yet that’s precisely the route that Gaius Charles T’11 took to Drew’s Theological School. Charles played the talented but troubled running back Brian “Smash” Williams on Friday Night Lights, the Emmy Award–winning NBC drama about a high-school football team in small-town Texas. Afterward, in rapid succession, he appeared in films with Angelina Jolie, Woody Harrelson and Matt Dillon, and in a New York stage production of Othello with Philip Seymour Hoffman.
Yet there he was in September 2009, sitting in an introductory chapel session with his new classmates. Did his friends in the entertainment world think he was, well, nuts?
“Sure they did,” Charles says with a big laugh. “Some of them were thinking, ‘Isn’t … that … nice.’ I would talk to pastors—even they were very cautious.”
The decision was actually years in the making. Having caught the acting bug in the seventh grade in Teaneck, N.J., Charles took to the craft with a single-minded passion, earning a scholarship to Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh and ascending to Friday Night Lights just two years after graduating. But all that time he harbored another, sometimes conflicting, passion—“like a stone unturned in my heart,” he calls it.
“I’ve always known there was some kind of spiritual call, a ministerial call, in my life,” he says.
Charles says he looked at Drew because of the Theo School’s reputation for a culturally diverse faculty and a curriculum that emphasized social justice and sociological
scholarship. True to form, Charles completeda three-year program in two and a half years and graduated in December with a master of divinity degree. “It’s been intense, to say the least,” he says.
Last year Charles received the John Patterson Award for Excellence in Hebrew Scholarship. “He was one of the outstanding students in class, in terms of his critical engagement with the material, his ability to do research and to incorporate what we were learning in class with what he was experiencing on his field trips,” says Kenneth Ngwa, an assistant professor of Hebrew Bible.
Although Charles lived on campus as a seminarian, he was especially moved by his travels—to India, Los Angeles and Uganda—which gave him
a greater understanding of how Christianity is practiced, and perceived, around the world. That lesson took hold in India, where eight in 10 people are Hindu. “In America,” Charles says, “I think we take for granted that Christianity is the way it is.”
In Los Angeles, during a four-week internship with Communities of Shalom, a Drew-based group focused on community development, Charles led a discussion on racism in which he played clips from Friday Night Lights. “He filled the church up with fans from his show,” says Michael Christensen, the national director of the Shalom initiative. “Very cool, and effective.”
Charles says he’s still trying to figure out his life’s path post-Drew, but he’s determined to invoke both his passions. In November he made a guest appearance on Pan Am, the ABC period drama, in which he played a soldier at the center of, in his words, “a very important storyline about interracial community life, tolerance and romance in the United States in the 1960s.” Yet he was also mulling a January return to Uganda, where he was invited to be the keynote speaker at a youth conference.
Wherever his path leads, Charles says, he wants to use his celebrity to advance his church-based work, citing the humanitarian efforts of Jolie and the rock star Bono as a model. “I would like to be able to use that platform to communicate some of my values, my faith values, to the world,” Charles says. “I don’t see myself as someone who is just in the non-secular world or the secular world. I see myself as somebody who can transition very effortlessly from the pulpit to the red carpet.”