“Excuse me, are you someone I can share a testimony with? I feel I really need to,” a woman’s voice behind me quietly said.
I was standing among a group of extras near a set used for the Book of Mormon Videos. The woman who approached me wouldn’t have had a hard time picking me out from the crowd: my blue blouse and sneakers contrasted sharply with the brown tunics and leather sandals that surrounded me.
Turning toward the voice, I saw a woman with long brown hair whose eyes were full of tears. I eagerly nodded at her request, and we stepped away from the group to where we could quietly talk without risk of interrupting the filming that was going on a few yards away from us.
Her name was Carina Coria Zapata. She grew up in Buenos Aries, Argentina, and now lives in Utah with her family. Unlike me, this wasn’t her first time on the set of the Book of Mormon Videos. Zapata was also an extra in season three during the depiction of King Lamoni’s story.
“But I always wanted to do this [scene]. This is really special for me,” Zapata tells me.
The scene Zapata is referring to is the crowning event of the Book of Mormon: the resurrected Christ’s visit to the Americas. Filming for season four of the Book of Mormon videos has been underway for the past three weeks and will cover the events of Christ’s appearance as described in 3 Nephi. The videos will be available to watch in fall in 2022.
For Zapata, as well as many of the extras I spoke to, playing what may seem to be even a small part in bringing this sacred event to the screen has been a transformative experience.
The extras don’t have speaking lines and will likely have limited screen time even after long days of filming in the hot, Utah summer sun. So what brings hundreds of them back every day? Burning testimonies of the Savior and the reality of His ministry on the American continent. And even if their parts may seem small, film director Blair Treu has seen how their honest testimonies are bringing 3 Nephi to life.
“By and large, everybody we cast in this [are] not professional actors, and so they really had to draw on their own personal feelings about the Savior—and it [hasn’t] been a reach for them. Because they have a testimony they want to be here, [even if] they’re standing [or] sitting in the heat in many instances for hours,” Treu says. “We’ve had countless times were the extras, who are not trained, have had these special moments where their feeling[s] about the Savior have just taken over and it puts them in a perfect position to be captured on film.”
The extras are helping to create more than just beautiful shots; they also bring an atmosphere of love to the set.
“The feeling here on set is different,” costume designer Jacqui Newell says. “It’s really special to be involved in [something] where you don’t hear people . . . lash out. People are really patient and kind, especially those on set sitting there in the heat, the background [extras]—they really want to be here. They really want the Spirit to be here.”
So what exactly do these extras experience during filming that has them so eager to share their stories? Here are a few special behind-the-scenes glimpses of life as an extra on the Book of Mormon set.
Christ Descends to the People
The testimony Zapata wanted so much to share with me comes from the scene when Jesus, played by New Zealander Anthony Butters, first appears to the Nephites and introduces himself as the Savior.
“We were all supposed to get closer to him, and he [would] let us touch his hands and feet. At the beginning we weren’t doing it very well. We were going all at the same time and pushing each other a little bit,” Zapata says. “So we got more directions, and tried several times, [but] it wasn’t working.”
At this point, Zapata began to pray for guidance to know how she could better perform this crucial scene. The Spirit prompted her to remember that while she was looking at an actor, she needed to focus on who he represented.
“In my mind, I started to remember all the names and titles of the Savior: the Son of God, the Messiah, the King of Israel. Every time I was naming one, the Spirit grew stronger and stronger. When we shot that scene [again], it was the best one. We finished and I looked around and everybody around me was crying. Everyone was super quiet for a couple minutes until we processed the moment,” Zapata says.
She continues, “I know that this is acting, but for me the feelings are real. My testimony is that we can feel the presence of the Lord any time and any moment that we need it. He can be there for us. For me, this was a little experience that I’m going to remember for the rest of my life.”
One by One
Several behind-the-scenes factors went into making Zapata’s experience so special, including Treu’s vision for the videos.
“The overarching thought of this whole series is that each of them did go ‘forth one by one until they had all gone forth,’” he says, quoting 3 Nephi 11:3. “So that has special meaning for everybody involved in these scenes. They all got a chance to go forward.”
In the following scenes as Butters delivers the doctrine Christ taught in the Book of Mormon, Treu has Butters move closer to the people, rather than standing still apart from them.
“Not everybody could be right next to him, so [Butters] comes down the steps and he works his way through the crowd. He’s trying to reach out to the one, even the one in the very back,” he says. “There are certain times where he can’t, just by the virtue of what’s going on, move through the crowd. . . but we’ve tried to articulate it visually that he’s on the move and he’s working; he’s trying to make eye contact with every single person who’s there.”
Butters draws on at least two sources of inspiration while he performs: the energy of the people on set with him and his personal relationship with the Savior.
“For me and my performance, essentially all it is, is responding to what I’m being given. So if I’m on my own there’s nothing really there, but when I’m looking at people and they’re giving me something then I can work with that,” Butters says. “All I can do is portray the Savior that I know [and] the Savior I know is full of love, is not intimidating, is probably formal in the right circumstances, but when [He] is with you, [He] is not formal, [He] is personal. The Savior I know gets it, has a sense of humor, has been through what you’ve been through, is not scary to talk to.”
Efforts to portray a Savior who knows us one by one begin even before cameras start rolling. Becky Swasey, head of the hair and makeup department, recalls Elder Gerrit W. Gong asking them to keep the phrase “one by one” in mind as they do their work. Consequently, as Swasey and her team meet with extras, they ask each of them where their ancestors lived. Generally, they are from Central and South America.
“After finding out where they are [from], we [draw from] research that goes back to over 150 tribes all over the world. We are trying to take a piece of their history and put it in their character so they can feel that connection to them. It’s been a really incredible experience to do that.”
The hair and makeup crew are the first ones to arrive on set and the last ones to leave. Swasey spends about two and half hours getting Butters ready to perform as Jesus, which includes 10 pieces of prosthetic makeup that create lifelike scars on his body. And while doing this day after day is a daunting commitment, Swasey loves what she does.
“It’s a beautiful experience. We have the best job on the whole show because we get to meet all of the people here one by one; it is the best gig ever,” she says.
Suzi Brown and Gracie Wilcox didn’t know each other before meeting as extras on set, but after spending three weeks together on such a special project, they say they are the best of friends.
Each of them has had sacred experiences on set that have helped them understand the Savior’s teachings as well as feel a connection to the ancient people who were really there that day.
“We have scripture [study] in the morning, and last week one of the key words was to testify,” Brown says. “It just feels like those original [people] are here saying, ‘You’ve got to tell our story; you’ve got to testify.’ The love, share, invite has become a lot more meaningful now than it did before . . . it’s almost like we have a sacred obligation.”
Wilcox recalls through tears a moment when the Savior’s teachings and love became more personal to her.
“When he talks about drinking from the bitter cup, Anthony turns around [and] he smiles,” she says. “I had never thought of it that way—how happy [Christ] was to suffer for you, but He was. . . It’s an overwhelming, humbling feeling to think that [He] would want to do that for you.”
Both Brown and Wilcox describe their experience on set so far as “very real,” and something that has truly made the scriptures come to life.
“You can’t keep a dry eye because the Spirit is just so strong. The idea now is to hold on to that from this time forward,” Wilcox says. “[I] have a whole different outlook [and] appreciation for what Christ did for me and for who I am—I am His child and He knows me. It’s been a great experience. Even if I had to quit my job to come here, I would have done it.”
Lead image: Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News