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Epic photo of Alberta dad mowing lawn near tornado lands in Oscar-nominated film

Cecilia Wessels snapped a photo so she could show her mom, but the image went viral — and now appears in Vice

Cecilia Wessels snapped a photo so she could show her mom, but the image went viral — and now appears in Vice

Theunis Wessels decided to keep mowing the lawn, even as a tornado approached. Now the photo appears in the Oscar-nominated Hollywood hit Vice. (Cecilia Wessels)

When Cecilia Wessels first looked outside, she couldn't believe her eyes. The competitive swim coach from Three Hills, Alberta had been woken up by her daughter, then nine years old, who told Cecilia that her husband Theunis was outside mowing the lawn — even though a tornado was approaching. 

Wessels got up, and sure enough, there was her husband doing yard work as a massive funnel cloud approached.

First, Wessels checked that Theunis was aware of the impending tornado (he was, and said he was "keeping an eye on it"), then she snapped a photo and posted it on Facebook so she could show her mom — but by the next day it had gone viral and spread around the world.

Now that image has reached a new level of fame: the Hollywood big time. The photo appears briefly in the movie Vice, about former U.S. vice president Dick Cheney, who is played by Christian Bale.

Cecilia Wessels' photo appears in Vice, during a scene in which Dick Cheney is trying to decide what to do after the 9/11 terrorist attacks. (Cecilia Wessels)

The film has been nominated for multiple awards including six Golden Globes (Christian Bale won for best actor) and eight Oscars, among them best picture, best actor, best supporting actor, best supporting actress, best director and best original screenplay.

Wessels says that after the image went viral, they were approached by many different groups wanting to use it because of its potent message of calm under pressure. Then last October, Hollywood came knocking.

"They contacted me on Twitter, where my picture is, and asked If I would be willing to talk to them," she recalls. "On the phone later they said, 'We want to use your picture in a movie that features Christian Bale and it's produced by Brad Pitt.'"

At first Wessels and her husband were cautious, but with a little online sleuthing, they realized the request was legit. Still, they had no idea what the film was until they were notified shortly before the film was released at Christmas.

Wessels was working through the holidays, so couldn't see the film until last weekend, when she and Theunis made the hour-long drive to Calgary to see it in a theatre.

In the film, the photograph appears when the Cheney character is figuring out how to respond to the 9/11 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center in New York.

"When they showed my picture I think my husband had to hold me down so I didn't jump out of my seat," says Wessels. "I really was speechless. And I loved how they used it. I really appreciate the connection they make between the lead character and my picture."

Wessels says she was especially touched by the way it was used because, since her photo went viral, she had been contacted by countless soldiers and veterans who said they identified with the image. They told her it perfectly captured what life was like life in war zones, and how they still led day-to-day lives in the face of remarkable adversity.

"Soldiers, firefighters, ambulance attendants, all those people have to just push through these storms and do their jobs. So it is used in a wonderful way," she says. "Honestly, I am super proud to be at that moment in the movie."

Online, Theunis Wessels became known as "Lawnmower Man" and sparked countless memes. Some online called him "The Beast."

The film has also spurred another round of interest in the photo, and Wessels is back to fielding interviews and requests — especially as awards season kicks into high gear, and Vice has become a top contender.

"We have a friend who works at the BAFTA Awards, and she contacted us and said, 'You do know the movie in which you were featured is up for eight nominations, right?' And I said, 'Well I didn't know, but thank you,'" she recounts with a laugh. "And ever since it's been snowballing, but in a good way."

She and her husband are declining to reveal how much they were paid for the photo's usage, but when asked if it was enough to buy a really nice dinner, she answered, "Oh yes. I will say they were very generous. And they were so professional about it."

But what they most appreciate about the experience has been the human side.

"My nephew has cerebral palsy, and we got him a t-shirt that says 'My Uncle is Cooler Than Yours.' And we're using that to fundraise to get him equipment that he needs," she says. "And these war veterans that are using it in post-traumatic therapy, that means so much to me. It's just being part of something greater than yourself."

The added bonus is that her cool-headed husband Theunis has been given online nicknames like The Beast. Now Wessels just wishes she had lined up a few tickets for awards season, too.

"I should contact Brad, since we're on a first-name basis now," jokes Wessels. "At least my husband can put on his resume that he's featured in a film with Christian Bale."

Wessels says the photo looks terrifying, but in reality, the tornado was heading in a different direction, so her husband felt safe to continue working in the yard. Coincidentally, their daughter had just watched The Wizard of Oz, so was especially concerned, but nobody was hurt by the funnel cloud, which did touch down.

About the Author

Jennifer Van Evra

Jennifer Van Evra is a Vancouver-based journalist and digital producer for q. She can be found on Twitter @jvanevra or email jennifer.vanevra@cbc.ca.

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