Greg Kinnear was always director Randall Wallace’s first choice to portray Todd Burpo in Heaven Is for Real, adapted from the Nebraska pastor’s best-selling book. ”I wrote a long, impassioned letter to the studio and [producer] Joe Roth about how I believed that Greg was the perfect blend of strength and charisma and sensitivity,” he said. Eventually they complied with his choice, and Wallace (We Were Soldiers, Secretariat) couldn’t have been more pleased. ”When he was in scenes with that 5-year-old boy all of that magic came out.” Connor Corum was selected after an extensive national search to play Colton Burpo, the child who insisted he had visited heaven. ”I saw his audition and he was so natural and unaffected that I just thought we had to see him anyway to get a glimpse of what we were trying to find. Once he started speaking there was no doubt we had to find some way to make it work because he was the one,” said Wallace.
The relationship between Todd and his wife Sonja (Kelly Reilly, pictured with Connor Corum) is a crucial element to the story, as they deal with their son’s stories together — one of which involves meeting the child that they lost during pregnancy in heaven. ”Wives of ministers are often imagined, even in the church community, as being people who need to be kind of sexless and ethereal. And Kelly [Reilly] was the opposite. She was romantic and earthy and magical,” director Wallace said. ”I had seen some of her work and was amazed at how much she could say with a glance, or with a pause. Her silences were eloquent.”
When Colton first tells his parents about his experience in heaven, his stories ”seem to be fantasies woven from all of the images he’s been surrounded by since his birth — stories of heaven and angels and a beautiful place,” said Wallace. ”But he knows things that he could not possibly know through any rational or imaginative means.” One such instance is when Todd realizes that he’s met his great grandfather, who raised Todd but was not a religious man. ”That issue had always tormented Todd as a minister — whether or not you had to believe certain things to go to heaven.”
”Colton speaks of heaven in a childlike and honest way. Here he’s denying that Jesus looks anything like the pictures he’s been shown,” said Wallace. ”That is both mysterious and haunting for his father.”