When Shari Rigby first received a phone call asking to her consider playing the role of Australian missionary Gladys Staines in a new film, The Least of These: The Graham Staines Story, she found it an exciting prospect.

“I was ready to sign on and then [the casting director] said, 'And by the way, you have to go to India’ and I said ‘I decided I’m not going to do it, I’m not going to go'.”

Having heard many stories about India, it wasn’t really a place that Rigby wanted to go. But within a couple of weeks – following further discussions with the likes of the film's executive producer Victor Abraham and actor Stephen Baldwin (who plays Gladys' husband Graham in the movie) about why they thought she was a good fit for the role, she'd changed her mind.

Rigby had been reminded of a prayer that she’d uttered some weeks earlier, asking God to lead her to her next movie project.

“God kindly reminded me that I had asked for what was my next story that He wanted me to tell and where did He want me to go,” she says. “So before long I was on a plane and headed to India to tell Gladys and Graham’s story.”

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Stephen Baldwin stars as Graham Staines and Shari Rigby as Gladys Staines in The Least Of These - seen here with their children Philip (played bvy Campbell Ellis), Timothy (Isaac Ellis) and Esther (Emily Ellis) .

The Least Of These: The Graham Staines Story, which is released in Australia on Thursday (16th May) tells the story of the Staines, missionaries from Australia who, along with their young family, were working in India’s Odisha state among the tribal poor and lepers. On 23rd January, 1999, Graham - who had been accused of breaching anti-conversion laws - was burnt to death along with his two sons Philip, aged 10, and Timothy, aged six, by a gang of Hindu Bajrang Dal extremists while sleeping in their station wagon at Manoharpur village in Kendujhar. A Bajrang Dal activist, Dara Singh, was later convicted of leading the gang that murdered Staines and his sons and was sentenced to life in prison. A number of other men were also convicted over the attack.

Following the death of her husband and sons, Gladys Staines publicly forgave those who had killed them and continued to live in India until she returned to Australia in 2004 where she now lives in Townsville with daughter Esther. She was awarded the fourth highest civilian honour in India – the Padma Shri – in recognition of her work with leprosy patients in 2005 and, in 2016, was awarded the Mother Teresa Memorial International Award for Social Justice. 

“They really represent the Anzac spirit…These are people going out there to give a fair go to people who are not getting a fair go in their own community; they’re outcasts of society, they’ve been rejected because …they were very unfortunate in contracted a disease which is horrible and they are giving these people a fair go and that sort of heroism is, to me, worth celebrating.”

- Writer Andrew Matthews, speaking about Graham and Gladys Staines.

Screenplay writer Andrew Matthews, who has also worked as an actor and in other roles in the film industry, is originally from South Africa but settled in Australia in 1994 and, based in Perth, is now head of performing arts at Swan Christian College. He wrote the screenplay for The Least Of These after, while in India on another job, he met the film’s director Aneesh Daniel and they subsequently worked on some shows for Indian television together.

“That was about a year after Graham and the boys had been murdered, so it was very fresh in everyone’s mind at that point and that was the beginning of this process,” says the 54-year-old.

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Movie poster for The Least Of These which opens in Australia on 16th May.

Returning to India in the early 2000s, Matthews visited various locations including the mission house where the Staines lived and started writing the script. 

“Eventually this was the story that evolved – we stumbled upon or came up with this idea of the investigative journalist and it’s through his eyes that we see the Staines family...”

While the character of journalist Manav Banerjee, played by Bollywood star Sharman Joshi, is fictional, the film is based on fact, drawing on the findings of the commission of inquiry held after the Staines’ murder which cleared the missionary of any wrong-doing. In the film, Banerjee goes undercover to investigate allegations Staines is illegally evangelising among leprosy patients.

Asked what attracted him to the story, Matthews says he sees the Staines’ as “true Aussie Christian heroes”.

“They really represent the Anzac spirit…These are people going out there to give a fair go to people who are not getting a fair go in their own community; they’re outcasts of society, they’ve been rejected because …they were very unfortunate in contracting a disease which is horrible," he says, referring to the people with leprosy the Staines' cared for. "[T]hey are giving these people a fair go and that sort of heroism is, to me, worth celebrating.”

He adds that while it’s a moving movie to watch given the tragedy it depicts, it's also “extremely redemptive and uplifting”. 

“People come out inspired rather than depressed and that’s what we obviously aimed to do because truly it is an amazing story, it is powerful and effective in terms of how these people responded, the resilience that they showed in the face of that adversity through love and forgiveness – not revenge,” he says.

“It sits in contrast to The Avengers – that’s a fantasy but this is reality, how do you deal with adversity in life? We can’t all put on a suit and become superheroes but we can forgive and get through it like Gladys did and Esther did and that’s more powerful.”

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Bollywood star Sharman Joshi plays the fictional journalist Manav Banerjee in the film.

The film, which was released to a big response in India on 29th April, is partnering with online forgiveness movement iForgive.com where people can go to find further resources on forgiveness as well as share their own stories. 

Matthews says Gladys was an “amazing” person to work with. 

“I certainly wouldn’t want to go through what she’s gone through and have to revisit it in the way that she’s been prepared to do," he says. "It’s been very hard for her – and I’m sure she would say that as well – but she’s been prepared to do it because she can see that there is benefit for others.”

Rigby, who has never meet Gladys, says she prepared for the role by watching “as many videos of her as I possibly could”.

“I was just really taken with this incredible woman that God would send over there and just to think that she would leave the comforts of home in Australia and that she would go there to serve these people alongside her husband, raising her two boys and her daughter there, she’s just really an incredible lady.”

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A scene from the film, The Least Of These.

Rigby says not having any time with Gladys in her preparation for the role was challenging but that she just reminded herself that God had put her in this position to tell Gladys' story.

“The story that He was going to tell through me was what I just had to focus on and do the best that I could,” she says. “I think it was really hard for me to get my mind around the forgiveness factor – that she really did [forgive those who murdered her husband and sons] and when you hear Gladys Staines, you understand where she comes from, her perspective on forgiveness. And as a Christian woman and as a mother, it was really hard for me to think ‘How would I handle this in this particular situation?...It really was a testament to her, knowing that forgiveness really impacts us - when we forgive somebody, it’s really what releases us and gives us the freedom to go on and that’s I think why you can still see her today serving the people in India.”

Matthews says the cast were excellent to work with.

“[T]his woman just looked up at me [with a] beautiful smile on her face and as she looked up at me, God just spoke to my heart and He said ‘I love these feet’…It was just such a reminder that, 'Man, God loves these people’...and really just the strength that He gave me to encounter these beautiful people that He loves so much.”

- Shari Rigby

“They turned in great performances and not only that: they were prepared to go to places that most people would shy away from going to. They went into leprosy homes where you’ve got recovering lepers and worked there and they were prepared to do that and go to a very remote part of India and travel around to get this film made.”

Several of the cast members in the film actually have leprosy as do many of those seen in the background.

Rigby describes working with people with leprosy as a “beautiful experience” but also recalls a time when, as they were getting ready to film a scene, three women with leprosy were brought into a small, crowded, humid room and she was asked to work on one of the women’s feet.

“She actually had several toes that were in the process of falling off and as I was sitting there I could smell the rotting skin and it was just the smell of death,” she recalls. “I started feeling sick and I ran out of the room and was standing there, just telling my husband [Matthew], ‘I just don’t think I can do this’. And he started praying over me and then he said ‘No, you can do this’.”

“And I went back in and, as I went back in and I sat down, you know, this woman just looked up at me [with a] beautiful smile on her face and, as she looked up at me, God just spoke to my heart and He said ‘I love these feet’…It was just such a reminder that, 'Man, God loves these people’...and really just the strength that He gave me to encounter these beautiful people that He loves so much.”

Rigby, whose own life story – including how she gave her heart to the Lord when she was 25 at Calvary Chapel in Phoenix, Arizona, is told in her book Beautifully Flawed - is hoping to return overseas and share her story to encourage more women living in leprosy homes.

“I hope to be a part of it, for sure, for the rest of my life, however I can be," she says.

One of the challenges for both herself and Stephen Baldwin in the film – both being Americans – was to speak with an Australian accent, something Rigby says she found “really tough”.

“I think where it was very challenging for me was that Gladys…has such a different tone to her voice, she’s spent so much time in India; she was very quiet and very still….But I gave it my best and that’s all you can do, right?”

Rigby adds that despite her initial reservations about going to India, following her experience there it’s now a place she’d return to “in a heartbeat”.

“It really was life-changing for me – the story, the people, the culture. Just also being reminded that there are really people out there that are still dealing with leprosy, they’re still dealing with these things…And to be reminded of Christians that are going over and serving in the [mission] fields and really sharing the Gospel but doing it in such a way that it’s really about serving, being the hands and feet of Jesus. There were so many beautiful moments [in making the film] that were really life-changing for me.”

The Least Of These: The Graham Staines Story is released in cinemas in Australia on 16th May and on DVD and video-on-demand in the US on 14th May.