Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Coming to Know Emma by Katherine Nelson

I am so excited to share this beautiful post by Katherine Nelson for Emma Smith's Birthday Celebration. Katherine had the opportunity to portray Emma Smith in the LDS Church's production of "Joseph Smith, Prophet of the Restoration", which is shown in the Legacy Theater on Temple Square and in "Emma Smith: My Story." I saw "Emma Smith: My Story" for the first time about a year ago and I was deeply touched by Katherine's portrayal of Emma. As I watched her I had an overwhelming feeling that the she had a deep and abiding love for Emma and knew her heart in a special way. I contacted Katherine a few weeks ago to see if she'd write something for this celebration and I was thrilled when she said she would. I loved hearing hearing about her experiences coming to know and love Emma and I can't wait to go back and watch the movie again now that I've heard her experiences. Thank you Katherine!

To say that I felt worthy, prepared, or even adequate to portray the life of Emma Smith, no matter how large or small the production, was as far from the truth as possible. All I could say that I knew about her at the time of auditions is that she must have been very tired. The Lord would be kind to open my heart to know many more emotions, thoughts, and guiding insights than this over the course of filming both “Joseph Smith, Prophet of the Restoration” and “Emma Smith, My Story.”

I had a pretty good idea of what my life would entail just 6 months prior to receiving the call to audition for this role. Not to sound hokey, but I had had a few glimpses of what I would do in my life at an earlier age, and acting was NEVER one of them. I was at the time pursuing songwriting and had been a studio vocalist for quite some time leading up to that point, and thought that was a good road for me. When things suddenly started to feel wrong, when the dreams I had regarding music quickly started to plummet like I’d just lost all control of the motion I was in was when everything changed for me, eventually for the better. I found myself at the temple, a lot. On my knees praying to know what in the world the Lord wanted to use me for because I felt really strongly there was something I should be doing, but at that time music was not it. There were lots of tears, confusion, asking, and I’ll go so far as to say depression.

I’ll never forget the day it all started to happen. I was sitting on the sofa with my little girl watching a movie with her when the thought ran through my mind, “What if you were in the next Legacy Theater film?” I think I just laughed at the idea and pushed it as far from my mind as possible, not knowing where that crazy thought came from. The very idea of acting made me nervous. About an hour later the phone rang and one of my friends I knew through music who was coincidentally part of casting for the church’s new film asked me “Would you come audition for the role of Emma Smith in the next Legacy Theater film?”

It was as though the world stopped. Standing there at my kitchen sink, where almost everything happens in my day, I felt the strongest, total overwhelming rush of the sweetest, purest form of love from the top of my head to the tips of my toes, as if Heavenly Father was clearly saying, “I love you.” That moment alone, that vivid recollection of God’s love, was an answer to a longstanding prayer and would serve as a center-point of faith for me through every rigorous audition, every hour of worry over whether or not I could handle the role, and eventually carried me through to the very last phone call, months later, from a loving director who seemed just as confused as I was that he was giving me this role to play. I was to learn, amongst many things, that that was how God needed me to be, and that that’s where I would always want to be. Feeling like I fit in the palm of His hand, trusting and relying upon Him completely.

Why do I tell you this?

Because I want you to understand that there was so much more involved than people wanting to create a nice depiction of a Prophet’s life. Because I knew so little in acting I tried to compensate with hours and hours and books and notes of study, pondering, preparing, caring over every word and turn- It was not taken lightly. While I had the task to make calculated emotional equations from her timeline, the overwhelming blessing of serving under the direction of President Hinckley in bringing to pass this epic story fell heavily upon the shoulders of those who were responsible to tell it. The heavens were open. My heart throbbed with pains unrecognizable to my mind and limited life experience.

Sometimes the Lord teaches us a hundred lessons at once. This for me was one such time when there was a lot I had to learn about myself, faith, and my relationship with my Heavenly Father and Savior Jesus Christ. The knowledge of Emma’s whole life story, what she had endured, what she gave, and the closeness I felt to her would stay with me long after the filming; it would hold my hand during some very hard things I had ahead of me to endure. I was blessed to be taught so much spiritually and found myself coming to know Emma, her life story, and what a rock of faith she was. In just the smallest part I learned what it meant for Emma to lose everything she loved for love itself and for the kingdom of God.

Initially, as books lay open on my table and I was able to soak in Emma’s life, I was surprised at a few different things. First of all, she had no journal? I would have given anything to read entries from her hand. Where were they? In a time when so many kept personal records, she had none. This was upsetting. Everything written on her was written by someone else, and if I couldn’t get my hands on a first-hand account I had to sift through the second hand accounts (but often times 3rd hand, 4th hand, or more) to try to determine motive, reasoning, everything that shaped her decisions in her life story. Reading letters was as close as I could get to getting inside her head. There seemed to be a deep & wide canyon between what happened and what was recorded, between what she thought and felt and what the world saw. I often thought if ever there was a journal, she may have disposed of it. I want to believe someday some records of hers will be discovered and we’ll get a first-hand account where we have had almost none whatsoever.

Another surprising note I reflect on to-this-day is that in all of her letters she never played herself a victim of her life. For all of her losses and hardships, this is a woman who never seemed to dwell on them. The closest we get to it is when after Joseph is killed and the saints are in a state of upheaval, she says “I have no friend left but God and no place left to go but home.” Granted there are tones of discouragement and concern in her letters to Joseph and her children over the years, but never beyond that does she make herself out to be a victim.

Another surprise during my studies came from learning what the women of the 1800’s were made of. These were hard working, God fearing, strong women whose days began long before sunrise and ended long after nightfall just to accomplish the very basics of everyday living. I remember how that seemed to fuel me, and still does. In studying the life of Emma I read the book written by Lucy Mack. What an absolute spitfire Lucy was. She had to be. I think we live in a time now where we have to be just as passionate about what we believe and muster the same kind of faith to make it through.

Gaining an understanding and testimony of Emma seemed to come quickly. After the first phone call about the audition I packed up my kids and headed to the library where I found several black and white photos (daguerreotypes) of Emma and her children as well as a few good books I could add upon over time to use as a reference. Photos meant a lot to me. I made copies and kept them in my binder with my script and notes. I looked into those eyes as much as possible to become acquainted with her and her family. You can learn a lot by a photo. And as I found myself pouring into good books on Emma my heart would swell with gratitude and love for her. Reading what she lived through would sometimes leave me on my floor in tears, trying to reconcile all the emotion and her experience. It always felt like more than anyone could bear. A quote that helped me thru our filming from Shakespeare I kept in with my portraits and script I’d read before shooting tough scenes says,

“The weight of this sad time we must obey. Speak what we feel. Not what we ought to say.”

The Director, Gary Cook, gave me solid advice the day he called to tell me I had the role. As I nervously asked how best to continue preparing to portray Emma he calmly said “Just love her.” That came easy. Loving Emma. And I think it’s that love that really spoke on screen. You’ll never hear me brag about my ability to act, but I can confidently say I love her.

Because Emma faced so many devastating losses throughout her life, and a film is only so long, we had to cut many of them out of the script. The ones we filmed we shot with absolute reverence. I found myself on my knees praying before I’d go out to set to portray the more difficult scenes. It was in these moments answers to questions I had would freely come, or emotion beyond my experience surged through my heart. All I wanted was to take these pains from her. I know it sounds silly, but I wanted so badly to be able to live some of those scenes for her so she wouldn’t have to; after all she had experienced. Like I said before, so many lessons to learn in coming to know Emma. One of the greatest of these was real compassion. I learned to mourn with those that mourned and comfort those that stood in need of it. My heart tore wide open so many times for her, with her. As I stood off set before we shot her last scene with Joseph I couldn’t help but whisper “I’m so sorry. I’m so sorry.” For me, it was a lesson on the love of my Savior. Putting a centuries’ worth of unkind, crude, and most times unfounded opinions of Emma aside, going deep into the heart of her life and what she experienced, and truly just allowing myself to love her; through it all that lesson was the greatest gift God gave to me. Learning that kind of love.

There is so much more to be shared on the topic of Emma. Just Emma. Books have been written. Now Movies have been made. We are better educated on her and who she was and what she contributed more than ever before. She was humble. She was moldable. She was willing. She went into the deep; time and time again. Her faith was seasoned. Her intentions were good. I am so grateful to be alive at a time when judgments are being thrown down and the love of Christ reigns. When we can recognize good and call it just that. But she was more than just good. She was great. There’s a reason she was appointed as the first Relief Society President in this dispensation. She knew, she absolutely knew and understood the pains and needs of the sisters she was called to serve. She knew loss, hunger, heartache. And the life she lived and faith she had still leads us today. It carries me when I want to give up. And some part of me wants to believe she stands by me when times get hard, and helps push me through. She is the kind of woman I strive to be. I love Emma Hale Smith.

There is a soul-stirring passion that rises in the human heart when Katherine Nelson sings or performs. An accomplished artist with more than a decade of professional accomplishments including albums, movie soundtracks and solo projects, Nelson is also known for her starring role as Emma in the film Emma Smith, My Story. Her melodic voice and instinctive big-screen acting are captivating audiences everywhere. 

Nelson’s musical story began as a toddler in Southern California, where she sang and performed with her family of 10 throughout the West traveling from city to city in a motor home. Raised on Dolly Parton and Kenny Rogers, Nelson boldly told her mother while in grade school she would record an album one day. With the launch of her new album, Born Brave, on the R Legacy Entertainment label, her singing and songwriting artistry is rocketing to new realms.

Throughout her career Nelson has performed with many accomplished artists and musicians and is a Pearl Award winner. She tours with the Nashville Tribute Band and has partnered with platinum award-winning NTB singer-songwriter Jason Deere in his Nashville studio to deliver songs with breathtaking freshness and insight.

Some of Nelson’s early music reflected deeply personal feelings about family, relationships, faith, redemption and love. And while those themes are still important to this gifted artist, in Born Brave, she delivers a tour de force about the power within a woman’s reach to heal, find great strength, and overcome hurt and hidden sorrows.

Please visit Katherine Nelson’s new website @ Listen to her new world-class album and learn what it means to be a Born Brave woman. Find inspiration, submit Born Brave stories, and follow her online as she releases this latest project for women.

“When we strengthen women, we strengthen the world.”™


  1. Brought me to tears. I really enjoyed the movie about Emma. I would like to watch it again too.

  2. I'm curious when the rest of the movies portraying Emma's life will be made? Anyone heard anymore of this?

  3. Lovely! I just love Emma {and your portrayal of her Katherine}. I often think of how faithful and strong she was with all the trials she had in her life. All of our lives are complicated with intricate emotions, circumstances, and personalities. As you said, we need to love. Love on another and help each other.

  4. Love this post!! Thank you! I felt like I Could really get to know Emma through your portrayal of her in these movies. Thank you for getting to know her so that we could also get to know her.

    Thanks, Heather for these posts this week. I am enjoying them!

  5. wow. just wow. i cried my way through this. so inspiring. and what an experience. thank you so much for sharing this, Katherine, and thank you once again, Heather, for having the most awesome blog.

  6. This moved me to tears. Thank you for writing this, Katherine.