Bearded and talented, student gives all for his acting passion

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Rafe Gandola walked down the cobblestone streets of Jerusalem in his robe, flowing beard and sandals, finally reaching a pool in the middle of a courtyard, where just beyond stood Jesus of Nazareth.

“I just got chills,” Rafe said.

A crazy visionary? Though Rafe has been labeled a bum, a European tennis player, an Israeli soldier and a rebel, he certainly isn’t crazy — because what he saw was real. He is a 22-year-old actor and BYU student who has waded through misconceptions and changing roles to reach profoundly redeeming moments.

Rafe, a sparkly-eyed and poised individual, most recently acted as the servant in Cana during Christ’s first miracle of changing water to wine at the wedding feast, in a recently filmed LDS production. In January of this year, Rafe began the auditioning process to be in the videos, which are now being filmed on a recently constructed Jerusalem set the size of two football fields.  That’s where he saw and acted with the actor who played Jesus, a graduate student from Columbia University. Rafe was initially cast as Gabriel, then 14-year-old Jesus before the directors decided on the servant role.

And Rafe took his job seriously, studying with religion professors and making John 2 part of himself. He considered accurate acting essential in this particular role, since millions base their lives off stories from the Bible.

“To have studied that much about it, to have put that much research into it, then to suddenly be there in the moment, I feel like a lot of what I researched was kind of ingrained into the character that I made,” Rafe said.

His drive to perform and perform well despite the cost might be rooted in his parentage.  His mother, Renee Gandola, an actress at The Old Globe in San Diego with a part in an upcoming production of “The Odyssey,” was an early influence.

“I am trained, but he is a naturally gifted actor,” she said. “He is a consummate character, creator and performer.”

She said family photo books reveal acting as Rafe’s number one source of play as a child.

“When my parents were teaching me to read, they gave me the scriptures and Shakespeare,” Rafe said. “I had those texts to work with.”

His love of beautiful language is connected to his uncommon name:  His father is Argentine and his grandparents often spoke to him in Spanish growing up.  A few more generations back his blood is from Italy.

Rafe is majoring in American studies, minoring in theater arts studies. But his home wasn’t in Provo during the recent filming.

“Showing up on set was like coming home, because I am surrounded by other men with long hair, beards, all these dirty looking people,” Rafe said with a smile. “I have never felt a greater sense of just release. These people aren’t going to judge me because if anything, their beards are fuller than mine. I’ve got a weak beard compared to these guys.”

Growing a beard was one of his responsibilities, which turned out to be a type of cross to bear.

Rafe said he had to explain the beard every day, at the gym, walking to class or to wary professors.

“I really hope that kid is not in my class,” one professor admitted thinking when he saw a heavily bewhiskered Rafe holding the door for him.

On one occasion, someone came up to him and said they couldn’t decide if Rafe was a bum or a European tennis player. The actor, of slim stature and smiley countenance, quickly began entertaining himself during daily defenses.  Some of his favorite responses to beard questions?

“Oh it’s just commonplace in prison these days,” Rafe says, or, “Oh, are you not cool being friends with a predator?”

Those who know Rafe well admire him and see the great irony in such statements.

“[He is a] bundle of irrepressibly bearded optimism,” said David Cramer, a BYU Writing Fellow, a title Rafe also bears.

Rafe admitted that being seen as some kind of rebel against society was especially burdensome because his bushy beard was being used for something completely contrary to rebelliousness. But moments like he had as the servant at the wedding feast seem to make up for everything. He hopes to be part of other powerful moments in a new movie he is working on called “Change of Heart.”

In this film, about an Israeli soldier who must reconcile with anti-Muslim sentiment, Rafe plays the lead role.  Hebrew lessons and protein (for his string bean physique, he says) are just part of his preparations. Rafe got the part after the frustrated director couldn’t find anyone to fit the role, and the assistant director, who was in Rafe’s ward, suggested Rafe audition.  Rafe called, auditioned and got the part all in one day — a typical result for the skilled and zealous actor.

After seeing Jesus across the courtyard, Mary at the wedding feast and a European tennis bum in the mirror, the future is wide open.

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