From Jehovah's Witness to Hollywood actress

St. Louis Post-Dispatch/September 11, 2006
By Tim Townsend

On a sunny summer day, film director Matthew Van Vlack sits in the lush courtyard of an uberhip teahouse talking about "Art Imitating Life," a movie he'll begin filming in the fall. All around the Buddhist-influenced courtyard, young beautiful people read scripts and talk to agents on cell phones as they sip their Echinacea Royale Tonic Herbal.

One of the stars of "Art Imitating Life," Juliana Dever - a pretty, freckle-faced St. Charles native wearing a "Put Me Out of My Missouri" T-shirt - sits next to Van Vlack as he talks about Callie, the character Dever will play in his new film.

"Callie's an ex-stripper, trying to become a singer, and she's in an abusive relationship with a Mafiosa-type boyfriend," Van Vlack says. "She has this girl-next-door cuteness, but she's also extremely damaged."

Dever, who is blond, curvy and tiny - barely over 5 feet tall and nowhere near 100 pounds - is perfect for the part, he says.

"Juliana's cute and bubbly, but she also has this mysterious, sultry quality," Van Vlack says.

And then there's Dever's upbringing in the Jehovah's Witness church. That, Van Vlack says, is where the damage comes in.

The actress has created a new life outside the church's strict system of beliefs, "and she's making it work for her," he said. Dever has transformed herself from a sheltered St. Charles teenager forbidden from celebrating her birthday or attending prom into the celluloid star of horror flicks such as "Sasquatch Hunters" and "Mangler Reborn."

She also has written a screenplay that merges her two worlds - Jehovah's Witnesses and Hollywood. They are dramatically diverging worlds, and Dever's experience and screenplay reveal the challenges young Witnesses sometimes face as they try to reconcile their faith and the sometimes chaotic society outside its protective walls.

Conflicting feelingsas a youth

The Jehovah's Witnesses, which began as a small Bible study group near Pittsburgh in 1872, has more than 6.5 million Witnesses around the world. Witnesses are premillennialists: They believe Armageddon is imminent and that the second coming of Jesus Christ will precede the 1,000 years of peace mentioned in the New Testament book of Revelation. Witnessess consider holidays such as Christmas and Easter pagan-influenced corruptions of biblical Christianity, and the Pledge of Allegiance idolatry.

At Willie M. Harris Elementary School in St. Charles, Dever often felt like the strangest kid in her class. Witness doctrine did not allow her to recite the pledge with her classmates or celebrate birthdays and other holidays with friends. She also couldn't participate in many after-school activities, such as plays or sports.

"School was weird for me," she said. "Whenever it was someone's birthday, I had to sit in a room by myself while everyone else had cake. I couldn't draw Christmas trees or turkeys for Thanksgiving."

David L. Weddle, chairman of the religion department at Colorado College, said Witnesses base their rigid patriarchal authoritarian rule on the Bible, "and part of the strategy they use to keep the next generation loyal is strict social control."

Bill Kissell, a Jehovah's Witness spokesman in Missouri, said Witness parents are simply concerned with whom their kids associate.

"Certain parts of school activities are not appropriate," he said. "Young people could be accidentally involved in something immoral or unacceptable."

Dever's conflicting feelings about the church started at an early age. When she was 15, her parents approved chaperoned visits from an 18-year-old member of their congregation. He would come to the family home to watch movies and eat pizza. But the encounters still drew fire from a church senior elder who humiliated the family in front of their congregation, said Dever, who asked that her maiden name not be used to protect her parents. The elder accused Dever's parents of being lax caretakers with little concern for their daughter's blatant promiscuity.

"It was sickening," Dever said. "My skin felt like it was on fire. I sat there frozen and trying not to breathe, trying not to look at my mom. It was tantamount to some kind of sentence, like being up there in stocks for everyone to spit on. My parents were devastated."

Soon Dever found herself questioning the church's strict beliefs and yearning for a different lifestyle.

The church discourages Witness parents from sending their children to college, Kissell said.

"Obviously among Jehovah's Witnesses, there are people with a good education," he said. "But in view of the atmosphere at many universities and colleges today ... many families decided to do something else with their children's education, to help them have a skill that will allow them to provide for themselves but also keep them away from an atmosphere that is not helpful morally."

Dever was not allowed to attend college, so she went to work for TWA after high school. A year or two later, in 1998 (since Dever set up shop as a Hollywood actress she has shed her Midwestern, devil-may-care attitude about revealing her age), a former TWA boss offered her a job in Orange County, Calif., licensing feature films to airlines. She jumped at the chance. She relished a change of scenery, and the job would put her a step closer to her dream: acting in the movies.

But Dever's wish for stardom was in direct conflict with church teaching, which, according to Church literature, says that Witnesses "avoid being excessive in the pursuit of wealth, pleasure or prominence."

As soon as she arrived in California, Dever acted on instinct and sought out a local Witness congregation. After two decades, the church had become a part of her, and she wouldn't leave it easily. Also, she knew that when she did leave, some members of her family and her Witness friends would cut off communication.

She was only 40 miles from Hollywood, but fear kept her from seizing the life she yearned for less than an hour up Highway 5. It would take her three more years to leave the church for good.

Walking away from the Witnesses

Dever had no friends outside the church and so nowhere to turn for support or advice about her decision. Instead, she devoured books about acting, hoping for a career in film.

In October 2001, she finally made the leap to Los Angeles, leaving the church and everything she once knew behind.

New friends helped Dever through months of depression and doubt about life outside the Witnesses, especially in a place as ethereal as Hollywood.

"I kept thinking, 'If everything I was told up to this point in my life was a lie, what's true now?'" she said.

The following year, she met Seamus Dever, a fellow actor who appears with Adrien Brody and Ben Affleck in the new movie "Hollywoodland," ) and she married him earlier this summer. Her parents attended the California wedding.

Today, Dever studies acting with the hunger of someone deprived of food for weeks. Last year, she studied at Russia's famous Moscow Art Theater. In 2002, she made her first movie, "Sasquatch Hunters," a B-level horror flick released last year. Other damsel-in distress-roles followed.

Two nonhorror indie performances are on the art-house and festival circuits, and her life is full of auditions, readings and more auditions. Though Dever's getting more acting work, she still works part-time at her day job in Orange County.

But Dever's major project is a screenplay about people she knows best: those too afraid to leave the church, the people she loved and ultimately lost when she walked away from the Witnesses. The screenplay follows several Witness friends as they struggle with the tensions between their lives in the church and in the outside world. Dever is finishing a final draft and hopes to meet with producers in coming months.

"I don't want to come across as angry in the screenplay, because I'm truly not," Dever said. "And I don't want to be exploitative or condemn anyone."

For now, Dever expresses no doubt about leaving the church. She is focused on her fledgling Hollywood career - though she admits that being estranged from some family and friends has been difficult.

"When you leave, you lose people you love, and you have no say in it," she said. "I have no regrets about leaving, but I have many about the life I lost."

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