Being raised by missionaries offered opportunities to Emily Dunlop not many of her friends — or many other kids in general, for that matter — had the chance to experience.
‘Small Group The Movie’
When: Premiers Oct. 19
Where: Regal Hollywood 15 Cinemas, 120 Green Hill Circle, Gainesville
But she credits her world travel, and her faith, with her landing the role of Mary Cooper in “Small Group The Movie,” a film exploring Christian life in America — and it’s a role Dunlop initially resisted in her acting career.
The film, based on a man hired to create an undercover documentary about the dwindling influence of Christianity in America, a task that has him deceiving a group of people who slowly become his friends, is set to release Oct. 19 and will be on screen at the Regal Hollywood 15 Cinemas in Gainesville.
Although she’s a Christian, Dunlop never had her sights set on a Christian movie. Many of the Christian movies she had seen weren’t her type. With hopes for Hollywood, she said she was worried about getting typecast early in her career.
But something about “Small Group” was different.
“I never marketed myself like that,” Dunlop said. “I never sought out those types of projects. So to me it was divine — ‘Small Group’ coming to me and me booking the part.”
Now that her first big movie is on its way to her hometown, Dunlop reflected on what got her started down the path of acting.
“Being able to have a life outside of theater, my perspective on the world was a little bit bigger than my tiny slice of home,” said Dunlop, 30, a Gainesville native who grew up taking trips around the world. “I think that really contributed to my worldview. And my approach to acting is influenced by my worldview, of course, so certainly it contributes to the way I approach a character or script.”
Her father, Seth Barnes, is the founder and president of Adventures in Missions, a Gainesville-based Christian missions organization sending people on trips across the world. From a young age, Dunlop was taken to foreign countries like Peru and Swaziland, as well as states across the U.S.
She spent summers with her family at one of Adventures’ locations in Matamoros, Mexico. At 16, she moved to Africa to join a drama ministry evangelizing to people there.
“I was having all those experiences, but I‘ve only recently been able to put words to how significant they were,” Dunlop said. “Seeing poverty in a third-world country, it helped me empathize. And what we do as actors is empathize. And if you can’t empathize, then you’re coming at your character from a judgemental state, and we always need to be on the side of our character.”
That experience has culminated in her first significant role as Mary Cooper in “Small Group,” something she’s had her eyes on since she was just a girl trying to convince her mom, Karen Barnes, to take her and her siblings to Dairy Queen by dressing up and singing a made-up song about ice cream in a French accent.
Being homeschooled and then attending a school like Heritage Academy helped Dunlop have the experiences in her early years that would help propel her acting career.
“To have success as a young person in this area is an accomplishment,” said Gay Hammond, director of WonderQuest, Gainesville Theatre Alliance’s theater for young audiences, who gave Dunlop her first part on a stage. “To be in this kind of role, it’s wonderful. And I’m proud of her. She’s just a good person.”
One day, around the time she dressed up and sang in that French accent, Dunlop was walking down her mile-long driveway on the 10-acre land her family lived on. She said she was thinking to herself and realized she wanted to pursue acting.
“‘This is my call in life,’” Dunlop remembered thinking.
So she auditioned for a WonderQuest play with the Gainesville Theatre Alliance and continued doing more plays as the years passed. She gained even more experience by joining a speech and debate team to perform monologues.
But she always made sure to have a life outside of theater so she never grew tired of it. That life was anchored by travel to states and countries.
“She definitely has a global outlook on people,” Hammond said. “I don’t think she takes people as they are. She really tries to see who they are … she knows there are a lot of different kinds people in the world and she appreciates that.”
Plays and monologues through her youth led her to Brenau University, where she eventually graduated with a degree in theater.
“Then I started working in the Atlanta market in film and “Small Group” just came across my desk one day, and I knew I’d love to get the part,” Dunlop said.
The movie has a little bit of everything, she said. It’s funny, exciting and sad, but, more than anything else, she said it’s honest.
“I never like it when films are gratuitous or manipulate the audience,” Dunlop said. “I want to make up my mind about how I feel. And if it’s a good story, I’ll be moved. And that’s what this film does.”
She said she’ll be watching it with her family, who she still eats dinner with once a week despite living in Atlanta. And the fact that it’s playing in Gainesville, the city she said she’ll always love no matter where she lives, is icing on the cake.
“I’m so excited,” Dunlop said. “When I leave a project, of course I want the project to succeed. I want people to appreciate it for what it has to offer, but my goal is to leave feeling happy with my work ... This role was my first chance to really sink my teeth into something and I was ready for it — ready as I could be.”