Elijah Chester spent Sunday afternoon driving the local countryside, immersed in the beauty, he said, of a warm fall day and the landscape that he is clearly recognizing now as purely Sampson.
Monday, he was in the barber chair at Simmons Barbershop on Indiantown Road, cameras rolling, as he transitioned from Elijah Chester into one of three leads in “Tarnished Notes,” a movie being filmed on location here. The film is based on a novel written by Sampson Independent publisher and editor Sherry Matthews and based on the murder of a local minister of music.
During breaks Monday, Chester basked in the morning sun, taking in the surroundings he said he is coming to love here in Clinton.
“This is a great small town,” Chester remarked. “Everyone here is friendly and welcoming. I am enjoying every single minute of my time here.”
Chester, along with several dozens other cast and crew are being housed in Clinton during the filming of Tarnished Notes, which won’t wrap until the end of October. So far, filming has taken place at the Sampson County courthouse, the Detention Center, the College Street Piggly Wiggly, a home on Johnson Street and, this week, at both Simmons and Perfect Touch Beauty Salon on Beamon Street.
Dozens of local extras, as well as some of the cast and crew, are Sampson County residents, people, Chester said, who have been great to work with since filming began. “This is such a unique experience. I am thrilled to be a part of something that was written locally, invested in locally and produced locally.”
Chester plays Jim Daniels, the minister of music in the fictional town of Tarrville, N.C. Playing alongside of him is lead actress Cari Moskow, who plays Judith Daniels, and newcomer Ryan Joyner who plays murderer Kyle Sampson.
“I grew up in a small town, Whiteville, so being here is a lot like being home,” Moskow noted. “It’s a great place and, just as Elijah said, everyone has been absolutely wonderful.”
Joyner said he felt much the same way and attested to his enjoyment of all things Sampson. “We’ve been over to the Wellness Center, and we’ve spent some time riding around and looking at the area. It’s a great place and I’m just thrilled to be here and to be a part of this great production.”
Chester and Moskow are veteran actors, with impressive credits on their resume. The Julliard-trained Chester, from Burlington, N.C., has won both a Grammy and a Dove award and has played alongside Daniel Day Lewis in Steven Speilberg’s “Lincoln.” Moskow, who is from Whiteville, had a recurring role on the hugely popular CW series “One Tree Hill,” which was filmed in Wilmington and worked with Richard Gere in the N.C.-based film “Nights in Rodanthe.”
Joyner, who now lives in Greenville but was raised in Martin County, has acted locally and has now been tagged by director Mitchell Maxwell as a “rising young star,” who will make his first mark in “Tarnished Notes.”
“He’s an amazing young man. We saw something in him immediately,” stressed Maxwell, who not only is directing the film but is executive producer.
Maxwell also praised Chester and Moskow. “They are consummate actors who are giving wonderful performances. This picture has gotten far bigger than we first envisioned, which is great, and it has a great deal to do with these actors and the performances they can and are delivering. Everyone in Sampson County and beyond is going to be proud of what we are making here. It’s truly movie magic.”
That magic began for Joyner when he came to Clinton in August to audition for a part in the movie.
“Everything was really working against me,” Joyner said during an interview last week. “I didn’t find out they were auditioning until late, and my girlfriend drove me up here on the second night. We got to the community college (Sampson Community College) and we were told by the guard that they were wrapping up. I figured I had lost any chance at that point.”
A disappointed Joyner went back to the car, told his girlfriend and prepared to leave. “But she told me to go back in and just see. She said ‘we’ve driven this far, it won’t hurt to try.’”
So Joyner went back in the auditorium and introduced himself to Maxwell and casting director Pam Hyatt.
“They gave me some lines to read and I did that,” Joyner said, noting that he tried to give it his all.
Maxwell said Joyner “blew them away.”
“As soon as he read, I knew this kid had something special,” Maxwell attested.
Joyner was so good, in fact, that Maxwell brought him back to audition for co-producers Matthews and Gloria Edwards. Both gave him a thumbs up.
But it wasn’t until a few weeks later that Joyner found out he had won what he calls “the role of a lifetime.”
“I left Mrs. Gloria’s that day and thought well, I don’t know if I got it or not, then I got this call from Mitchell.”
It was the call, he said, that has changed his life.
“Mitchell called and basically said there’s a plane ticket waiting for me at the airport in Raleigh. I needed to fly to New York and meet with him. I was overwhelmed to say the least.”
Chester got the call from line producer Monty Hobbs, who encouraged him to send in an audition reel for the part of Jim.
“So much of this story hits home to me,” Chester, who was raised Baptist, pointed out. “There’s so much of Jim I understand, and I wanted the chance to tell his story, to find the humanity in him, the innocent little boy inside a conflicted man. Every story deserves to be told, and this one deserves to be told in the best light possible.
“It doesn’t mean I condone what Jim has done, but it means I’m committed to telling his story. It’s so exciting to be in this moment and telling this story.”
While there is darkness to the story, and a focus on men and women of faith conflicted by their humanness, Chester points out that it isn’t all that different from stories of conflict you read in the Bible. “Many of the stories in the Bible are far more shocking than this film. Take the story of David and Bathsheba, for example. Now that’s a torrid story. So, I’m not afraid to tell this story, or other stories, because God isn’t afraid to tell them.”
Moskow isn’t afraid to tell the story of Judith, either. In “Tarnished Notes,” the story unfolding is Judith’s, and Moskow has immersed herself in being that character. “It’s a great role and I’m trying to give Judith the diversity that character deserves. She is a very complex human being.”
Like Joyner and Chester, Moskow sees this role as a challenge and an opportunity, much like all her other roles have been.
“I love acting and I love to take on roles that challenge me as a person. This one does that for sure. Judith is a very complex character and one I feel I have connected with on a very deep level. This role just spoke to me, and I cannot tell you how excited I am to bring her to life.”
Joyner feels much the same about his role as Kyle. “I’m trying to give my own twist to Kyle, to bring a certain swagger to the character. I don’t want to be exactly like he is in real life; I want him to be someone that an audience can like, hate, feel sorry for and want. If I can accomplish that, I think I will have done what I set out to do.”
As the newbie on the block, Joyner said he was a bit awe-struck by his opportunity to work with veterans Moskow and Chester as well as Maxwell, a Tony-award winning Broadway producer and Pulitzer Prize winner.
“I love working with them all. In fact, I just love being a part of this team. It’s amazing. I’m humbled and excited. This is an unbelievable experience and I’m having the time of my life.”
Reach publisher and editor Sherry Matthews at 910-249-4612. Follow her on Twitter @sieditor1960; follow the paper @SampsonInd and like us on Facebook.