Many movies in the past few years have depicted the tough conditions our military men have had to face both in Afghanistan and Iraq, but few of them are quite as effective and powerful as Peter Berg’s Lone Survivor, adapting Marcus Luttrell’s thrilling novel of the same name about Operation Redwing, which sent four Navy SEALs stationed in Afghanistan to take out a Taliban warlord. Luttrell was one of the few survivors after his men were surrounded by heavily-armed Taliban forces.
In the film, Luttrell is played by Mark Wahlberg who was hugely involved in getting the film financed and allowing Berg to make the movie the way he wanted to make it, remaining faithful and respectful to Luttrell’s story and the men who died on that fateful mission.
ComingSoon.net had a chance to speak with two of the actors who helped bring Luttrell’s story to life – Taylor Kitch, who plays Mike Murphy, one of the three Navy SEALs surrounded in the mountains of Afghanistan with Luttrell. We also spoke with Australia’s Eric Bana, who plays the mission field commander Eric Kristensen, another pivotal part of the story who also lost his life during the operation.
For Kitsch, it’s his third time working with Berg, having appeared on 68 episodes of the NBC football drama “Friday Night Lights” based on Berg’s earlier film, as well as playing a starring role in last year’s Battleship, a very different movie and a very different type of military man.
We also spoke with Kitsch about his possible return as Gambit, having played the role in X-Men Origins: Wolverine (and arguably having been one of the best parts of that movie) as well as his plans on directing his first feature film sometime in the New Year.
(And if you haven’t had a chance, you can also read our earlier interview with Peter Berg here.)
ComingSoon.net: I remember when we spoke for “John Carter”–which doesn’t seem that long ago–but I remember that we talked about “Lone Survivor,” because you knew you were already going to be involved with it. You and Peter have had a pretty good run together between “Friday Night Lights” and “Battleship.” At what point did Peter mention this project to you? Were you working on “Battleship” already?
Taylor Kitsch: No, it was well before. Yeah, we hang out, just as friends a lot, training together a bunch and all that kind of stuff, and I hadn’t seen him for a while and I was just catching up. We were in Texas and I just asked him what’s next, what is he thinking about? This is three plus years and he kind of just said there’s this book, “Lone Survivor.” It’s an incredible story and I want you playing Mike Murphy. And I was like, “Okay, who is Mike Murphy?” and then he went on another ten-minute tangent and said “Just read the book and have Murphy in mind, because I got you in there for it.” I read the book and I texted him, “When you’re ready, I’m ready.”
CS: He mentioned before that he had been developing and writing it before he started “Battleship” and was hoping to make it before that. I guess the real question is that when he decided to go off to do “Battleship,” was it just natural for you to come on board to do that instead.
Kitsch: I don’t know the whole process. Obviously, getting the money for this war film wasn’t easy, so I think it was a “one for them, one for me” kind of thing.
CS: It’s interesting that would be the case, because there have obviously been a lot of films set within Afghanistan and Iraq since 9/11, but this seems to becoming out very much on its own where we haven’t seen any movies set there in some time and this film telling a real story about soldiers. It’s a good time for a movie like this.
Kitsch: Yeah, I think it’s great timing.
CS: Since you couldn’t meet the real Mike Murphy obviously, once you were done with “Battleship” and you were getting back into this movie, how much research did you want to do and did you want to meet with his family and people that knew him?
Kitsch: Yeah, I think that’s the best way to go about it. If you want to learn a lot about me, you should talk to my best friend that I grew up with. You’d probably learn more about me through him than if I gave you a background story. I had the opportunity, and I was lucky that Marcus was his best friend and I talked to a bunch of guys that fought next to Murph and had the opportunity to talk to Dan Murphy roughly a week before we hit camera. It wasn’t like advice or anything. I just wanted to know Murph. I wanted to know through his eyes. Finding stories and him growing up, some of the things that stood out to Dan, and that’s where you really process and make those choices that you’re leaning towards or at least it helps solidify a lot that I had already made. I was lucky to have all these resources at my fingertips.
CS: I really enjoyed the fact this really is an ensemble piece between the four of you. I went in expecting it was going to be Mark Wahlberg’s movie and he’s going to be featured, but it’s really the four of you on that mountain for a good portion of the movie. What was that experience like? I know you were in New Mexico, as opposed to Afghanistan, but it was really about being outside for days and weeks at a time?
Kitsch: Right. I loved it. I think that helps with the bond, being segregated from everything and everyone else, shooting 10,000 feet up in Santa Fe in a ski mountain. It’s not like we’re going to our trailers for lunch. You’re up there from before sunlight until wrapping when you can’t shoot anymore because there’s no light, so you eat together, you drag equipment up together and you work together all day, so I think that’s what drives this movie, that brotherhood and that bond, and I definitely think it helped being up there.
CS: Considering you’ve worked with Peter before and have a good relationship with him, were you able to jump in with some ideas from your own research to help play the character as needed?
Kitsch: I don’t know. Pete knew him and he probably did the same amount of research as well. He was pretty embedded with a lot of Navy SEALs, and he went to Iraq, so he really does understand all these guys. I think he trusts me to make it my own as well, instead of being, “No, Murph would do this or this, this or that.” That’s why he cast me, to my thing as well and bring that energy and that spirit to it. That’s everything when you go to set, it’s that trust.
CS: You must have done some training for “Battleship” so was that anything that could carry over to this or was that something different where you had to train pretty much from scratch to play a Navy SEAL?
Kitsch: I didn’t do barely any for “Battleship,” to be honest. I just came off “John Carter” so I actually could give my body a break from JC, so “Battleship” I wasn’t getting as taxed as I was in “Carter” and especially “Lone,” so the training. With the weapons system, we have live fire on Day 1 of training with the SEALs and we’re up in the mountains training, simulating attacks, simulating decision-making, the whole process and breaking that down. Why do you engage and if you have to retreat? And that’s what Murphy’s position was. He was the guy making those decisions, so it was really incredible to be with these SEALs and learn how they fight. They fight differently than any other Special Ops and that was pretty intriguing and a huge learning curve that we all just loved to be a part of.
CS: Have you seen the movie with an audience yet?
Kitsch: Oh, yeah, I’ve seen it? the premiere was a special, incredible evening and I don’t think it could ever be topped. We had a couple days ago in New York at the Ziegfeld. It was just packed, you could hear a pin drop.
CS: One of the scenes that had the most effect on people, at least in my audience, and I’m sure you had the same reaction, is when the guys throw themselves over the side of a mountain and they’re hitting everything on the way down. I’ve never heard a reaction to that. You obviously had stunt people to do that, but how much did you have to do of that yourself?
Kitsch: I have to tip my hat to Kevin Scott, our stunt coordinator, second unit director and my stuntman. Obviously the close-ups and stuff are me. We’re literally doing as much as we’re allowed to do, so if you lose me on the mountain on Week 2 through a broken leg trying to do that, then it kind of f*cks everything up for the rest of the shoot. We literally did as much as we were allowed to do.
CS: I’m not sure if you spend much time on the internet but there’s a pretty sizable faction of fans who liked your version of Gambit in “X-Men Origins: Wolverine” and they hope you’ll come back for another X-Men movie. Do you think there’s a chance of that ever happening?
Kitsch: I have no idea. It’s very flattering. I don’t read press, so be back engaged with the press for these two movies coming out, this and “Normal Heart,” it’s just been really flattering. I don’t know where it stands or if they’re going to recast or even do anything with Gambit, but everyone knows how much of a blast I had in doing it the first time, and I think we could really do it right if we had another opportunity, so you never know.
CS: Not sure if you know but he’s a specially big fan favorite character among women.
Kitsch: Yeah, I know. Believe me, I know. F*ck, I’d love to play him again.
CS: What else do you have coming up? I don’t think I’ve heard about “The Normal Heart.”
Kitsch: I just wrapped last week. It’s an HBO film with Julia Roberts and Mark Ruffalo and Matt Boehmer and Jim Parsons. It’s about the AIDS epidemic in the early ?80s, a true story about the first guys who started the Gay Mens’ Health Crisis. I’m playing the President of the Gay Mens’ Health Crisis (Bruce Niles), who is gay but in the closet, leads a double life and it’s basically a love story about losing your loved ones through this disease that no one even f*cking knew what it was.
CS: Have you seen any of the docs about those early days in New York?
Kitsch: Oh, yeah, man, I’ve seen, obviously, “How to Survive a Plague”?a lot. I immersed myself with it. I’m now reading Larry Kramer’s “F*gg*t.”
CS: Anything else lined up?
Kitsch: Right now, I’m just doing press and then we’re just going over a couple options. I wrote and directed this short that’s like 30 minutes for which I have a full film outlined and we just got funding, a few million to make into a movie, a few weeks ago so I might just do that. I’m not sure yet.
CS: Having worked with Peter so many times and also worked with Oliver Stone, you have a lot of experience working with great directors, so is there anything you’re going to take away from them to use when you make your first feature?
Kitsch: Oh, man. I’ve been really lucky. You just try to sponge up all of it. Obviously, Pete’s been a huge influence from Day 1 with “Friday Night Lights” to “Battleship” to this, so hopefully I’ll work with him again. I just love the way how he tells stories and with “Lone” it’s just exemplified. I think this is his legacy and I think it’s just going to be an amazing thing for him. I’m so proud and pumped for him that I hope I can be a part of something else in his future.
CS: I’m still trying to convince him to do “The Rundown 2″ so if Seann William Scott isn’t available, maybe you can jump in there with The Rock.
Kitsch: (laughs) That’s hilarious. I hadn’t heard that. Another great movie. Yeah, bug him; see what he says.
Shortly afterwards, we got on the phone with Australia’s Eric Bana, who already has appeared in one military movie, the far more epic and bombastic Blackhawk Down directed by Ridley Scott. He has a smaller role but still a pivotal one in Lone Survivor, playing field commander Eric Kristensen who oversees the entire Operation Redwing that sends Marcus Luttrell and three other Navy SEALs to take out the Taliban warlord.
ComingSoon.net: I still remember you being in “Black Hawk Down” which was a different type of soldier, very different type of role, and I was curious why you wanted to play another soldier. I feel these are roles that tend to appeal to actors where they can do the training to become soldiers.
Eric Bana: I don’t know if it was so much that. I mean, it had been a long time. I hadn’t had the opportunity to do that in between. In my case I had by chance read Marcus’ book many years ago and absolutely loved it. Pete (Berg) and I nearly worked together many, many years ago before anyone knew who I was and we stayed in contact and I followed his career and when he called me and told me he was making the film and would like me to play the mission commander Kristensen, I just jumped at the chance. I love the story. I thought it could potentially make a compelling movie and I knew that Pete was the right person for the job so I immediately said “Yes.”
CS: I haven’t read the book myself but when you read it, did Kristensen stand out at all? Was the description of him as a leader very vivid from the book of what he was like?
Bana: I had some recollection but no, he’s not a prominent character in the book. He does appear in the book, but Marcus’ book is weighted in different areas?it’s basically three movies in one book potentially in terms of the first act is totally dealing with field training and the selection process and Marcus’ background, the second act is dealing with this film and the third act is the incredible story of what happened from the moment his three friends were killed up until he was captured and rescued. That final act is a movie of its own, so yeah there wasn’t a lot of references to Eric Kristensen in the book, but obviously he plays a prominent part.
CS: As far as playing a real person who has a family out there and people know the man, how much research did you want to do in terms of looking into his life. Did you mostly rely on what Peter wrote about him and create your own version of him or did you want talk to people who knew him?
Bana: It was interesting. I had to do my research from afar. I was back in Australia and came to the film well and truly towards the end of the shoot, so I was able to gather enough information to get a real sense of his character. There were a lot of consistent threads of information and that really helped enlighten me as to what his personality was like to those he’d worked with. I really latched onto that. I’ve of the notion that he was this high-ranking guy who didn’t take himself too seriously, had a great sense of humor, was really one of the guys and duly loved his team members. I felt that was a consistent thing among Special Forces, there were a few characteristics to Eric that I really identified strongly with that I thought would be great to incorporate. The only way that we can honor this people is by making a great film really at the end of the day. It becomes that point where you have to fill in the blanks and make up the rest and understand enough to be able to deliver something that is worthy of that character.
CS: Did you have to go through any sort of training for this or have you already done all of that you might need to do? Was it even necessary for this role since you’re not in the field?
Bana: No, exactly. My responsibility was really to understand the role of the mission commander and the relevant information with respect with the chain of command and what it means to go in the QRF and the processes involved. It was far more important to be the person that was responsible for that part of the story and understand that completely. There’s no purpose in me going out and firing an M4 in this case (chuckles).
CS: I have to imagine that as an actor you end up learning of skills and information which probably no one else would ever have to deal with unless they actually had a job in that field. You must have a lot of knowledge about different occupations over the course of movies you’ve done.
Bana: It’s the best part of the job and it’s one of the reasons why I don’t enjoy doing movies back to back to back because I really enjoy that process. I really enjoy the research and putting yourself in someone else’s shoes and turning up on set and learning more again. It’s a very unique position, the access to people is incredible, the level of enthusiasm of people helping you is incredible and it’s just a great job for that reason. It is little bursts of learning periods and it’s a privilege.
CS: I think I mentioned this to you when we spoke for “Time Traveler’s Wife,” but you had just done Judd Apatow’s “Funny People” and I really feel that you probably could do more comedies, but you seem to shy away from them. Are you at all looking to do more of that kind of thing?
Bana: Never say never. If the right thing came along I would jump at the chance. I mean, if Judd Apatow would throw me another script that there was a character that I thought I could sink my teeth into and add something to, I would most definitely do it. I tend not to look at most broad comedies and go “You missed out, you should have done that,” cause my style of comedy was never that general, so it’s a pretty narrow band of things that would be suitable for me I think. I don’t lose sleep over it but it would be a hell of a lot of fun to get a chance to do it.
CS: I’m not sure if we ever spoke about this before but I really enjoyed the doc you had at Tribeca a few years back, “Love the Beast.”
Bana: Oh, thank you.
CS: Is “The Beast” still alive?
Bana: Yeah. (laughs) Yeah, it was fully resurrected. I finished rebuilding it about two years ago. It’s back on the road and being enjoyed and driven and I’ve retired that particular vehicle from competition so it’s just being driven for fun. She’s beautiful once again.
CS: Do you still compete in races?
Bana: Yes. I just do it when I have the time and energy for it, and it’s something I’ve always done and enjoyed doing and it’s a big part of my life and love it.
Lone Survivor opens nationwide on January 10, following its limited release in select cities.