Actor Peter Facinelli is best known for his role as Dr. Carlisle Cullen in the blockbuster Twilight Saga films, and as Dr. Fitch Cooper on the hit Showtime series, Nurse Jackie, which aired from 2009-2015. His latest film, The Unbreakable Boy (out later this year) is one which Facinelli championed in his role as producer. The multi-hyphenate actor-filmmaker also plays a cameo role in the feel-good film as the family’s pastor, Preacher Rick.
The Unbreakable Boy is based on the New York Times bestselling book of the same name, and tells the true story of Austin LeRette (played by Jacob Laval), a boy born with the rare genetic brittle bone disease, Osteogenesis Imperfecta, which causes even the smallest injury to result in bone fractures and frequent hospital visits.
Additionally, Austin is on the autism spectrum. With an unusually challenging set of circumstances, it is Austin’s unbreakable and infectious spirit that ultimately makes the people around him better. The film also stars Patricia Heaton (Everybody Loves Raymond), Meghann Fahy, Gavin Warren, Zachary Levi, and Drew Powell.
Throughout our conversation, Peter Facinelli shares why he had to get this film made, how 2020’s COVID-19 lockdown opened the door for Lionsgate to make the film, and what his own relationships have taught him about love, life, and setting healthy boundaries.
Allison Kugel: I want to start by saying The Unbreakable Boy was a beautiful film.
Peter Facinelli: You got a chance to see it?
AK: Oh yes. There is a lot to unpack and talk about. First of all, it was the book that came to you in an unexpected way.
PF: Yes, the story is very unusual. My brother-in-law owns a pharmacy in New York City. Scott LeRette went to my brother-in-law’s pharmacy and he got to talking with my bother-in-law.
He’s such an affable guy, both my brother-in-law, and Scott. He was telling my brother-in-law that he wrote this book about him and his son. It’s on the New York Times Bestsellers List, and he was just really excited about his story. My brother-in-law said, “You should make it into a movie. Maybe my brother-in-law can help you.” He said, “Who is your brother-in-law?” And Leon said, “Peter Facinelli.” And I get that a lot of that. If I had a nickel for every time someone said, “I’ve got a great story you should make into a movie.” Like it’s that easy, where I can just wave a magic wand (laughs).
It’s a lot of work to set up a movie. It’s like pushing boulders up a hill. My brother-in-law Leon was telling me a little bit about the story and he said, “Scott is coming to LA and I told him you would sit down with him.”
AK: (Laugh) Oh boy.
PF: I’m shaking my head thinking, “Now I have to read this book because this guy is going to come to LA and my brother-in-law told him I would meet with him.” I read it and thought, “This is actually a really good story.”
I sat down with Scott for lunch and I was just giving him supportive advice, because he didn’t know the business that well. We became friends over time and I liked him. I liked the story, and then he said, “Do you know anyone who would want to help me turn this into a movie?” I said, “Well, why don’t I give it a shot?”
AK: Did Scott introduce you to his son, Austin, the main character of the movie?
PF: Not at that time. I didn’t really meet Austin until we were getting the movie up and running. I spoke to him a few times on the phone, but they lived in Ohio.
AK: What’s more challenging, selling a studio on a film or getting a film made independently?
PF: They are both challenging, but to get a studio to say yes to a film is very challenging because they have their own projects, so it is difficult to go to a studio and say, “Will you make this book into a movie?” Especially a book that not a lot of people have heard of. It was on the New York Times Bestsellers list, but it wasn’t like Twilight, where everyone was talking about it.
I have to be honest, it was one of those projects that when I got on board, the universe just started steering it. I had a meeting with Kingdom Films and Kingdom really responded to the story. I think everything had to line up. There were so many things, like when Scott walked into my brother-in-law’s store, then I happened to have lunch with him, then this other production company fell off, it was just all timing.
All of the little obstacles along the way were happening because we had to get it into the hands of Kingdom Films at that specific time. When Covid hit, everyone was in lockdown and nobody was making anything, so there was a lot of down time. [Screenwriter] Jon Gunn was sitting around not working because of Covid. He read this [story] and he responded to it. Kingdom Films responded to it, and then because Jon Gunn wasn’t working at that time, he wrote the script in two months.
AK: The script was incredible.
PF: Incredible. I was actually jealous. I thought, “Damn you, Jon Gunn.”
AK: (Laughs) Is Kingdom Films a faith-based production company?
PF: Yes, it is a faith-based production company. This wasn’t super faith-based, but it had a good message. They were at a place where they were also branching out to do more good stories with a good message. It was a little out of the wheelhouse of what they were doing, but again, all of those obstacles led to this timing. It really gave me a perspective on things. When things don’t work out, instead of getting frustrated, I now think it’s for a reason, because I’m supposed to do something else.
AK: Along those same lines of surrendering to the universe, when I watched this movie The Unbreakable Boy, what really spoke to me was that whether you call it God or the universe, something is happening that is beyond your control, because it is supposed to get you from one place to another. When you look at this story, the main character walks into a clothing store and he kind of falls in love at first sight with this woman’s blue eyes, and it was almost like a force that was beyond his control. Then she becomes pregnant, and it’s beyond his control. Then they have their son Austin who is born with Brittle Bone [Disease] and Autism, and it’s beyond his control. All of these things were beyond his control, but all of it made him a better man. I loved that.
PF: That is what was so appealing and so interesting, and the way it all happened with making this film was so near to that. A lot of things were happening beyond our control. At one moment Scott asked, “Do you think we are going to make this [film]?” He was frustrated that the original [deal] fell apart. I said, “Scott, the one thing I have is a strong tenacity.”
When I became an actor, I knew nobody in the business. I had never taken an acting class, and I was super shy, but I had it in my head that I was going to be an actor. I took an acting class when I was around 18 or 19, late in life. I thought to myself, “You know, I’m going to do this and even if it takes me to 70 years old, I’m going to do this until I get a paycheck.” Getting a paycheck was my only goal. A year or two later I started working.
AK: And now you have quite a resumé. What was your moment of, “I can’t believe I’m actually here?” Would you say it was the Twilight films?
PF: I have those moments still. I’m on set and I still have those moments. At almost 30 years I still have those moments. On almost every job I have those moments. I’ve never sat there and said, “Wow, I made it!” I never thought that, because I’m always trying to reach the bar and move it. I don’t know if there is ever a destination for me, because my goals are just…. my first goal was to get a paycheck. At that point, I could have been like, “I made it. I’m good now.” But then I thought, “What’s the next goal? And the next goal?” I just focus on the journey.
I do have that tenacity, and I told Scott, “I’m going to tell you the same thing I told myself. If this takes me to the end of my life, I will go down on my last breath still trying to make this film, because I know it is an important movie.” I felt like it could help heal people, and we are in a place right now where there is so much anger, frustration, wars, and hurt. You have a story like this, which is so inspirational and beautiful, and to look through the eyes of Austin and see how he responds to everything with love. When he is getting bullied at school and doesn’t know he’s being bullied, then the bully doesn’t win because you’re not responding to it. You can’t control when someone says something to you or does something to you, but you have control over your response.
The fact that Austin doesn’t understand that someone is bullying him, because he comes from such a place of love. If they are making fun of his shirt or something, he thinks, “Oh, they like my shirt.” The bully then automatically loses, because he’s not getting the response. Then [Austin’s] love is infectious, and all of a sudden the bully becomes infected by that love and he changes. There are just little stories like that when I was reading the book that got me, and I thought, “The world really needs this. Everybody needs to be a little more like Austin.”
AK: I think that is interesting, because when you think of Autistic children or children that are on the spectrum, people tend to look at it as a tragic diagnosis. That would be any parent’s worst nightmare, to get that Autism diagnosis. But what is so interesting is that many of these kids come into this world as a vessel of purity, because they don’t have the awareness to see the ugliness in the world. It’s, like, why we love animals and why we love babies.
PF: There is a purity about that. I totally understand what you are saying.
AK: Then you throw in Austin’s Brittle Bone Disease. Having a baby or a toddler young child is nerve wracking as it is. You have the gates up, the outlets covered. And with this kid, every time he falls it’s a potential catastrophe; a broken bone.
PF: Yes, I mean you’re worried enough as a parent. Now it’s like worrying about your kid bumping into something is a hospital trip. I can’t imagine the level of anxiety that produces in a parent, to have to worry all the time like that. I give Scott and his wife a lot of credit, but then the reward is Austin. He’s “Aus Man.” He’s awesome. Then just to see how all of those events kind of unfolded in the book, like you said, and it becomes kismet. It all lines up the way it is supposed to be.
AK: Just to kind of fill in the blanks for people. Austin is born with Osteogenesis Imperfecta or Brittle Bone Disease, so his bones break very easily. He has a lot of bone breaks throughout his childhood. He is also diagnosed with Autism. His parents, Scott and Teresa (who also suffers from Brittle Bone Disease) LeRette, have their hands full and then they have a second child. Austin now has a younger brother. You often hear stories about siblings of special needs children feeling resentful, because so much attention is put on the child with special needs. I love the line in the film where Austin’s younger brother Logan says to Austin, “I’m honored to be your brother.”
PF: It’s really beautiful. His brother Logan is such a great guy. You can see the bond they have with each other to this day. I love the idea of the title “The Unbreakable Boy.” Scott realizes he’s always trying to fix his son, because he wants him to fit in. He feels like he is always failing, and he learns so much from his son and realizes that he was the one that was broken. His son was there to heal him. As a parent, that is so beautiful.
AK: As a father of three daughters, was there ever a point where you felt that you were out of your depth?
PF: Every day (laugh). One of my daughters is 23, and she was asking me for advice the other day and I told her, “You have to go with your gut, because I think that is what I would do, but you are you. You really have to decide for yourself, because me giving you that advice and having you just do what I would do, I don’t know if I’m right.”
I’m having an adult conversation and wanting to help her, but also wanting her to go with her gut, because at the end of the day if she took my advice and was miserable, I gave her bad advice. You have search inside, and really, you have the answer. [Parenting is] tough at all ages. I remember when my daughter was eight and I lost her.
We were up in these mountains in Italy, and I went to throw something out. I turned around and thought she went into this restaurant with my parents. We were out in front of the restaurant and I went inside and sat down with the rest of my family.
We were about ten of us, and I just thought she was with one of her sisters. When everyone started sitting down, I said, “Where’s Fiona?” They said, “I don’t know.” I hadn’t seen her in like fifteen minutes. I’m searching the restaurant, and she was eight. It was terrifying.
AK: You know that is a mother’s worst nightmare, when we leave the kids with the dad. Dads tend to overlook some of the fine details (laugh).
PF: (Laughs) It was one of those things where I turned my back and when I turned around again, she was gone. My family was standing nearby. I thought she probably wondered off with them. There was a guy with a flannel shirt, and she thought it was my dad and so she started following him and realized it wasn’t him and got lost in the crowd.
AK: What is the best advice you have ever been given in your life?
PF: When you’re having a bad day, or even a good day, its very cliché, but the moments will pass. Knowing that no matter what it is, good or bad, it’s going to pass. So just enjoy that moment, whatever it is; whether it’s frustration, or whatever. This movie taught me that the frustration needed to happen in order to get the script into the right hands of the right people at the right time.
This movie was actually made because we were in quarantine. Lionsgate, one of the reasons why they took this movie is because it was a small enough cast where they could shoot this movie during the lockdown. No other movies were being shot when we shot this movie. Lionsgate had zero movies on their slate.
AK: Why did they let you do this production during a time when no other production was filming?
PF: It was November 2020 and things were just starting to open up. I don’t even think they had the vaccine yet. [Lionsgate] had a small window and thought this movie could be doable if we all test every day and we follow protocol. It was almost like a test experiment to see how it goes with this movie. There were no other movies being shot in the U.S. They were being shot overseas. This was one of the first movies they were experimenting with to see if they could do it in a bubble and start filming again.
AK: Did you get through it without anyone coming down with COVID?
PF: Nobody got sick. We followed very strict COVID protocol. We were kind of in a bubble in a hotel. Everyone was really careful, and nobody got sick. We didn’t have to shut down. It was great.
AK: You chose to take a small role as a preacher. How come you didn’t choose to take the lead role as the father?
PF: I didn’t feel like I was really right for the lead role. I was really functioning on this movie as the producer. I come on to movies where I produce, I write, I act, and I direct. I don’t want to have a vanity project where every movie that I produce I’m starring in, and I’m also directing and writing. I look at a project and say, “How can I service this film the best?” It’s whatever I feel is best for the project, not what is best for me. With this movie, I thought it’s a great role, but I feel like Zach [Levi] was a better fit for that role.
AK: He did a great job.
PF: He did a great job, and when Zach came on board there was some discussion about me playing the imaginary friend, but then Drew [Powell] was just a perfect fit when you put those two guys together. There was this small role for the priest, and I jumped in and played that role for fun. I did it more for a cameo. I don’t even think I took a credit on the film, because it was only like four scenes.
AK: The film shows how the father processes his emotions and thoughts by talking with an imaginary friend. Do you ever think out loud or talk out loud to yourself when you are alone?
PF: It’s embarrassing, but yes, all the time. To the point where my daughter came to me once and said, “My friend’s parents said they saw you at the airport and they said you must have been running lines or something because you were talking to yourself.” (Laugh) I thought, “I wasn’t writing lines. I was actually, really talking to myself.”
AK: I get it. No judgement (laugh). Let’s talk relationships. Relationships, especially romantic relationships, have ups and downs. What is your biggest takeaway from your previous relationships?
PF: Every relationship is different. When you are with one person, you are going to respond differently than you would with another person. I think in relationships, in the beginning, they are wonderful. You have this honeymoon period and it’s fantastic. Slowly, over time, somebody might say something that is kind of hurtful. The other person might permit it and then they get into a habit, so bad things can become habitual, the way you start to treat each other; giving the other person permission or an allowance to talk to you in a certain way.
Everyone has a bad day, but if that person talks to you in a certain way or does something and you don’t speak up, all of a sudden they feel like they have permission to do that because you didn’t say, “That hurt my feelings.” When Lily (Peter’s fiancée) and I got together it was so wonderful, and I said to her, “I really want to hold onto this. I want to be really careful with each other, and let’s really work hard every day to not get into bad habits.”
AK: I like that. What did you come into this life as Peter Facinelli to learn and what do you think you came here to teach?
PF: I think to learn to speak up for myself, for sure. I’m a guy who is very laid back. I think what I’m still working on is boundaries with people, because I’m such a giver and I give too much. Then when I give too much it gives them permission, or they feel like they have a right to take. When I say I can’t give that amount anymore of whatever that is, I’m not saying just money, but with whatever I’m giving, if I say, “I can’t give that right now,” I usually get attacked for it.
When somebody is getting something all the time and then you say, “No” and set the boundaries too late, they get upset. If you set the boundaries in the beginning, they won’t get upset. But if you give, give, give something and then say, “I can’t give that anymore, because it’s just exhausting,” all of a sudden they are angry because you have always given. Learning boundaries is something I’m still working on.
AK: And to teach?
PF: I feel like I’m an empath, so I feel a lot of things. I feel people’s energies. I try to use stories to entertain and to heal. With movies, you could have a movie that is very inspirational, like Scott’s story and the inspiration it gave me. Watching this movie, The Unbreakable Boy, for example, will improve your life if you take from it and apply things in this movie, you will grow as a person.
There are also movies that are just pure entertainment, and those movies allow people to shut out their life for a minute, and that is healing too. If it’s a good movie, it allows that person to just escape their life for a minute and go through a ride of emotions, and that is also healing. What I’m trying to give the world is moments of entertainment to heal them in some way.
Look for The Unbreakable Boy in theatres later this year. Follow Peter Facinelli @peterfacinelli. Listen to and watch the entire interview on the Allison Interviews podcast at Apple Podcasts, Spotify, and YouTube. Follow Allison Kugel @theallisonkugel and AllisonInterviews.com.