Mother Mary and the Big Screen: An Interview with Director Leonardo Defilippis

I recently had the pleasure of speaking with famed Catholic actor, producer, and film director Leonardo Defilippis. We discussed everything from the wonders of the Rosary to the remarkable works of Shakespeare to the scourge of Communism, not to mention Leonardo’s numerous ministerial projects over the years. One such project is his new series Queen of Heaven: Mary’s Battle for You, which the Catholic News Agency has described as “a new, epic narrative about the life of Mary.”

How did you develop the Queen of Heaven series?

It was developed by TAN Books / Saint Benedict’s Press, who wanted me to be the host of the program, since I had done past work with Saint Luke’s Productions, Ignatius Press, and other outlets. So, that’s how I got involved in the program. We went back east – to Washington, DC, with the Basilica [of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception] and the Franciscan Monastery of the Holy Land in America. There is some footage in the different chapels of the Basilica. We also went to other places to film, such as the Shrine of Our Lady of Fatima in New Jersey. I’ve always had a great devotion to our Blessed Mother. I became involved in this program to bring attention to the Blessed Mother and her role in salvation history. The program is filled with extensive video footage, photographs, etc., which are all discussed in the context of history. There is homage to Our Lady of Guadalupe, Our Lady of Fatima, Our Lady of the Miraculous Medal, and other designations of Our Lady.

How does Mary accompany you in your own faith journey?

Going back to my childhood, we were taught to honor Mary, and to have devotions to her, such as the Rosary. Even when I wavered, she always brought me back. Given my background as a Shakespearean actor, sometimes in theater, you might wander from the faith, but she always brings you back. Mary is real. The Rosary is central in my personal faith and in the faith of my family.

As an actor, do you have a favorite theatrical production that you have done or seen?

When I perform the Gospels, or the lives of the Saints, you see the Christian personalities – Saint Louis Martin, Saint John Vianney, Saint Maximilian Kolbe, and others. There is a new production on [Servant of God] Fr. Augustus Tolton. Beyond the male roles, it has also been wonderful to highlight female saints such as Saint Thérèse of Lisieux, Saint Faustina, and others. Playing Maximilian Kolbe, since I have done it so much, has had a big influence on me, especially since he is one of the great Marian saints. This is the one hundredth anniversary of him establishing the Militia of the Immaculata in 1917 – the same year as the Fatima apparitions. Speaking of 1917, the rise of Communism in 1917 was a dark moment in history that Queen of Heaven addresses.

The last three popes – Saint John Paul II, Benedict XVI, and Francis – have been popes who have embraced the arts. How have they inspired you in your own artistry?

Around when John Paul II became pope in 1978, I was wondering if I should continue acting or pursue religious life. John Paul chose the ordained priesthood over acting full-time, but he issued a number of writings for artists and otherwise supported them. He inspired me in my own ministry. Later, after John Paul II passed, Benedict was very important to us. Saint Luke Productions’ “Benedictus Moments” [note: of which Leonardo is the voice on the recordings] are daily reflections on Benedict’s words, and they are broadcast on radio stations around the country. Francis, more recently, has called on artists to enter the culture, to not be afraid.

This is my favorite interview question – do you have a favorite scriptural passage?

Because I have read the Gospel of John so often, and it is such a beautiful piece of scripture and literature, too – “That they may all be one” (John 17:21) – from within Jesus’ prayer to the Father [see John 17:1-26]. I think about that one a lot, and that is what our new play Tolton alludes to – not simply because of race relations, but due to who Jesus is broadly. Speaking of the Gospel of John, we are all Mary’s children [see John 19:25-27]; how does she work to bring us together as one?

What takeaways from the Queen of Heaven do you hope viewers discover?

I hope that they see Mary’s importance in our Christian life, and how she accompanies us – that she is a real being. When we think of the Eucharist, of the presence of Jesus, we recall Mary’s alliance with Jesus. This program puts the historical perspective into place, without watering down everything. We deal with many complex points throughout history – over the course of nearly two millennia – in this piece, and you start to see those connections. We want to see Mary’s reality. How do people come to know Jesus? We want to look beyond those who are already “in the choir,” so to speak, to draw others to a deeper embrace of Christian principles. There is ecumenism and unity, and the intention of the Immaculate Heart of Mary is to bring people home to her Son. These realities are very deep and real, and many people forget, but this year in particular, we reflect on Our Lady of Fatima, and we likewise always look at Lourdes, and so many other locations, for inspiration.

Do you have any parting words to share?

Be faithful. Persevere. Run the race to the end. Don’t give up, even when you feel like nothing is happening. Even when things are not going well, remain faithful. Let Mary bring you closer to Jesus. When we surrender to God, he does everything.

To learn more about the Queen of Heaven series, see this YouTube preview. There are also official series products available from TAN Books / Saint Benedict’s Press. The series will air on EWTN from Friday, October 6, through Thursday, October 12, and you can see the full schedule at CatholicMom.com here. Our Lady, Queen of Heaven, pray for us!

Justin McClain

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Justin, his wife Bernadette, and their three children (John-Paul, Mary Christine, and Thérèse) live in Bowie, Maryland. Justin has taught theology and Spanish at Bishop McNamara High School in Forestville, Maryland, since 2006. He has degrees from the University of Maryland - College Park, the Universidad de Salamanca (Spain), and Staffordshire University (England), and he has studied philosophy and theology at Seton Hall University, the Franciscan University of Steubenville, and the University of Notre Dame's Satellite Theological Education Program. Justin has written for Ave Maria Press, Aleteia, EpicPew, Our Sunday Visitor, Catholic365, Church Life, and various other publications. He is on Twitter (@McClainJustin).

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