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Exemplifying Emma: inexperienced actress experiences life of Prophet’s wife

Written by Sharon Haddock of Mormon TimesCreated: 20 October 2010

Katherine Nelson as Emma Smith

KAYSVILLE, Utah — A Mormon apostle walked up to Katherine Nelson after a movie screening and told her, “You are marked.”

Nelson knew what that meant. She would ever be Emma Smith in the minds and hearts of people who saw “Emma Smith: My Story.”

She would need to set a fitting example.

“At 5 a.m. in the grocery store, with my hair wild and my teeth unbrushed, people would recognize me,” said the 32-year-old wife and mother of four in an interview with The Deseret News. “I would need to set a good example. There comes a sense of responsibility with the role. My life is changed.”

Nelson didn’t seek the role of Emma Smith. She was actually a singer.

“Music is definitely written on my soul,” she said. “I had no intention of ever trying to be an actress.”

As it happened, Nelson was sitting on the sofa one day with her daughter when the question came to her mind: “What if you were in the next ‘Legacy’ film?”

An hour later, a friend involved in the casting for “Joseph Smith: Prophet of the Restoration” called and asked her to audition for the part of Emma.

“The impression I had was that it was an answer to a long-standing prayer, a chance to feel his love and to experience a little more of the love of Christ in my life,” Nelson said.

She started immersing herself in all things Emma.

She checked out and read every book she could find. She spent time with local author and actor Buddy Youngreen, who has devoted himself to researching Emma and her life.

“I was like inhaling the stories,” Nelson said. “At times I’d find myself reading 10 different books at once, taking notes on where she was at different points in her life. Sometimes I’d find myself bawling on the floor. Her sorrows were so deep.”

Katherine Nelson (Emma) Nathan Hale (Joseph Smith)

“People were not nice to her, and I kept thinking she must have been so very tired. That is all I had going in to the audition.”

When director Gary Cook called to offer Nelson the role, it was very intimidating, she said.

“As I was begging him for direction, all he said was ‘Just love her!'”

So that’s what Nelson did. She listened to her heart and the Spirit as day after day she was called upon to personify the wife of Joseph Smith, a mother who lost and buried her precious babies, a wife who lost her good husband to an angry mob and a woman pilloried for her decisions following her husband’s murder.

“I starting wearing no makeup, parting my hair in the middle,” Nelson said. She started focusing more on family prayers and daily scriptures.

Once she met Nathan Mitchell, who was cast as Joseph Smith, she felt better about her role.

“He is just an amazing person, on set and off,” Nelson said. “There’s a strong presence about him. It fit so perfectly. There was a marvelous feeling of completeness with him. We were greatly upheld by the Spirit. We were being carried.”

T.C. Christensen, who co-directed with Cook, said Nelson exemplifies what Emma was and what Emma is.

“I think she fills our expectations of what Emma would be like and when an actress can do that, it’s wonderful,” Christensen said.

Christensen said he and Cook were unsure about using an inexperienced actress in the role. But once they saw the footage of a test shoot in Nauvoo, there was no more question.

“She lit it up,” he said. “She just looked so great, walking in the woods with Joseph. She was Emma. She had a grace and dignity about her that spoke volumes … besides her obvious physical appearance.”

The actual shooting took about 18 months as “Joseph Smith: The Prophet of the Restoration” was being filmed in tandem with “Emma Smith: My Story.”

Nelson went on location to Palmyra, Nauvoo, Canada and to Provo to the LDS Motion Pictures Studio to film the various scenes.

She learned to really love acting.

“I learned more than the screen can tell,” Nelson said. “I stood with Emma and wanted to just take it for her.”

“Once you play a role like Emma Smith, you can’t go back to what life was before.”