Arianna Sonnenburg says filming “The Man From Nowhere,” the first feature film produced by The Master’s University, was far less nerve-racking than actually watching the finished product for the first time.
“When the title screen came on, I felt like I was standing behind the curtain and getting ready to go on stage,” says Sonnenburg, a TMU junior with a prominent supporting role in the movie. “I was so nervous. My heart rate was up, and I was like, ‘Oh no, what’s going to happen? How’s it going to go?’”
Ultimately, Sonnenburg had no need to worry. By all accounts, she successfully navigated the jump from performing on-stage — where she regularly headlines TMU theater productions — to making her on-screen debut. Even if the transition came with multiple challenges and a rapid learning curve.
“Everybody who watched the movie thinks she’s super likable,” says director Matt Green, who oversees TMU’s Cinema & Digital Arts program. “They really liked her.”
Green co-wrote, co-produced and directed “The Man From Nowhere,” which will be released Tuesday on the movie’s website and on Amazon. The film traces the urgent attempt by a best-selling author who has been diagnosed with cancer to reconnect with his estranged son.
“The father in the story is reaching out to his son because he wants him to change his life and be saved,” Sonnenburg says. “Ultimately, that’s what we want people to walk away with is that a life with Christ is better than a life without Christ. Not necessarily because it’s easier, but because Christ is our everything and He’s given us everything.”
Sonnenburg plays Jenny, the estranged son’s administrative assistant and friend who candidly challenges his life choices and urges him to reconcile with his father. Sonnenburg was one of nearly 50 TMU students who worked alongside industry professionals and received hands-on experience in areas like wardrobe, production design and acting.
This, however, was not the kind of acting Sonnenburg was used to.
Growing up near TMU’s campus, she first appeared on-stage at Master’s when she was 14, playing the younger version of one of the characters in “Great Expectations,” an adaptation of Charles Dickens’ literary masterpiece. The experience left her wanting more. “The students were so kind to me,” she says. “I was blown away by all of their testimonies, and just the way they had so much fun. I was like, ‘Well, if this is what it’s like to be a Master’s student, why wouldn’t I want that?’”
Sonnenburg enrolled at TMU three years later. So far, she says reality has lived up to her expectations — both in terms of relationships within the Theatre Arts program (“Everybody’s so focused on helping each other that there’s no sense of jealousy. It’s just so fun,” she says) and with what she’s been able to help produce. She’s appeared in three productions, mostly recently as a lead in “Beau Jest.”
It would have been easier — and certainly more comfortable — to stick to what she knew. But as Sonnenburg’s third semester ended in 2019, she chose to try something new. She auditioned for “The Man From Nowhere.”
“I was really excited to do something different because I knew it would stretch me in ways I couldn’t anticipate,” says Sonnenburg, a music major. “I always want to know more about acting, and by doing it in a completely foreign format, I knew I’d learn so much more.”
After earning the part, Sonnenburg had roughly six weeks to study the script before filming began in January 2020. The process was vastly different than she was used to. In theater, she had numerous rehearsals to learn the story — and her character’s place in it — alongside other actors. For the movie, she needed to be ready from the get-go.
What’s more, when she arrived for her first day, she learned she’d be shooting a scene that fell sequentially near the end of the film.
“It was supposed to be the last scene I was in, which was where the characters complete the story arc and are like, ‘OK, this is what’s happening with Jenny. This is how she grew, and this is how she helped Jake,’” Sonnenburg says. “And I was like, ‘Whoa, whoa, whoa. We’re doing the last scene right now? I don’t know my character, I don’t know (the son’s) character.
“I said, ‘OK, I just have to pull myself together and do my absolute best.’”
Another obstacle came in the form of scene blocking — where to stand, where to go, what to do when she got there. Sonnenburg was accustomed to memorizing those elements long before she’d be expected to perform them. For the movie, she had to take directions and apply them two minutes later. That proved especially challenging in a scene that involved, of all things, opening a cardboard box.
“The box was already kind of opened, so I didn’t have to cut it for real. But I had to make it look like I was cutting it for real and say my lines at the same time and remember not to turn away so the camera couldn’t see me,” she says. “So that’s one reason I’d like to be in another movie is because I’d like to have the lines and the story more solidified in my mind so I have more freedom to remember the little things like where my head is and what my hands are doing.”
Each time Sonnenburg faced something new and daunting, she reminded herself that it was OK to learn as she went.
“I remember taking a lot of deep breaths before the takes and slowing down so I could remember what I was doing even if I really had no idea what was going to happen next,” she says.
Green says Sonnenburg’s talent helped her adapt quickly. It didn’t hurt that many of her scenes included Seth Bowling, who plays the estranged son. Bowling is a TMU graduate, the assistant director of the school’s Theatre Arts program and a friend of Sonnenburg’s. He’s also an experienced actor who gave his counterpart plenty to work with.
Sonnenburg said she received plenty of encouragement from Green, too.
“He would always be like, ‘You guys are doing such a great job. I really love this. Try this,’” Sonnenburg says. “So, I didn’t feel a lot of nerves going into it. He was so excited about the movie and excited about having me there that I didn’t feel like I was letting people down.”
When she finally watched the finished product last summer, Sonnenburg says she wasn’t concerned with grading her performance. She was content to know Green was pleased with it and that she had helped tell a story that emphasizes the need to make the most of the time God gives us.
“I did my absolute best with everything I had and all the experience I had,” she says. “But there are always things I know I can grow in and do better. And now that I’ve done a movie, I have more experience to be able to do better next time.”