Set Visit: We chat with 12 Strong stars Chris Hemsworth, Michael Pena, Trevante Rhodes and more
Warner Bros. Pictures‘ 12 Strong: The Declassified True Story of the Horse Soldiers (formerly named “Horse Soldiers”), starring Chris Hemsworth, Michael Shannon, Michael Peña, Trevante Rhodes and Navid Negahban will hit theaters on January 19, 2018 and last year we got a chance to visit the Albuquerque, New Mexico set for the film. ComingSoon.net talked with Hemsworth, Peña, Rhodes, Negahban, and producer Jerry Bruckheimer. We also saw some very talented stunt horses work.
12 Strong is set in the harrowing days following 9/11 when a U.S. Special Forces team, led by their new Captain, Mitch Nelson (Hemsworth), is chosen to be the first U.S. troops sent into Afghanistan for an extremely dangerous mission. There, in the rugged mountains, they must convince Northern Alliance General Dostum (Negahban) to join forces with them to fight their common adversary: the Taliban and their Al Qaeda allies. In addition to overcoming mutual distrust and a vast cultural divide, the Americans—accustomed to state-of-the-art warfare—must adopt the rudimentary tactics of the Afghani horse soldiers. But despite their uneasy bond, the new allies face overwhelming odds: outnumbered and outgunned by a ruthless enemy that does not take prisoners.
When we arrived at the set, we climbed up a steep mountainside to where they were filming. What we saw was a bunch of tanks and some very disturbingly real-looking dead horses. It actually made a lot of us jump, thinking they were real. Some action was taking place as we were hiking and we watched as men on horses galloped down a hill with explosions going off around them. When we got to the top, we got a chance to see it from a different perspective, but this time, we had to wear ear protection and face masks to deal with the smoke. We were told by one of the crew members that the smoke was made largely from burning cow bones, so it was non-toxic. The masks were more for the dirt that covered our faces despite protection. The explosions were huge! What was the most surprising was that these stunt horses didn’t jump or flinch unless they were being directed to. The members of the press weren’t quite so steady when the explosions went off!
Hemsworth spoke about the intense training the cast had to become a cohesive unit. He told us, “It’s been great. This guy called Harry Humphries, sort of a famous SEAL, one of the original SEALS, and does a lot of the training for actors in movies like this. We did a lot of weapons training and at the gun range and movement drills. We were sort of in formation and we would track through the terrain and set up particular situations of attack and so on. We learned as a group to sort of, as one tight unit. And so then we get out here and shoot a lot…this is a fast-paced shoot and we’re shooting a lot less days then typically you’d wanna shoot. The training was hugely beneficial, because you could be quite versatile with what the shot was, you know, ‘What if we did this particular attack and moved this way and this way?’ And we knew from the training we’ve had that we could set ourselves up those positions. There’s a lot of horse training as well, and the horse riding with guns and all this equipment and so on, and it’s a whole different beast.”
He talked about taking on the character of Mitch Nelson. He said, “It’s about taking the heart and soul of the guy that this was based on and his sort of drive and his diplomatic attitude with this mission, and what he achieved and being true to that. But then the physicality and the look and soul was based around me and what I thought how this guy would move. Any pre-anxiety coming into it was making sure we told the right story for the right reasons. And for me, we’ve seen a lot of Navy SEAL movies, which are very smash-and-grab approaches, which is what they do best, better than anyone. With Special Forces guys, they embed themselves in a community over a course of months or years, and it’s a diplomatic duty and relationship building within these communities to achieve their outcome. They can do the direct attack, obviously, and we do in this movie, but the bigger challenge and the talent of what these guys achieved was the relationship they formed with Dostum (Negahban), the warlord that were fighting with, and getting him to trust them and leveraging centuries-old blood feuds between these tribes and convince them to understand we’re all fighting the same enemy. We weren’t there to conquer the place or take over. We were there to fight a common enemy, otherwise the county was at risk of becoming a major terrorist training camp. They did it in three or four weeks. It was one of the most successful missions in history, because it was 12 guys across 3-4 weeks, embedded with the locals, and achieved what they set out to do, which was taking back the city of Mazar-i-Sharif.”
Michael Peña plays Sam Diller, and joked about Marvel with Hemsworth. “We were in [training] class, and we were both in Marvel movies and he’s like, I forgot what he said, but he was like, [in Australian accent] ‘We’re like Marvel brothers… from Marvel… the universe. Me and you, mate. Thought you were really funny.’ Yeah so that was it. But it’s cool, it’s a Marvel family.” He spoke about his character, saying that he was “third in command after Nelson, who’s played by Thor [laughs] and then the second one [Cal Spencer] who is played my Michael Shannon. So I’m like one of the old timers who’s been through this. You know when 9/11 happened, all these guys want to do is go in right away and help eradicate the enemy or contain the enemy. They just want to contribute the way they’ve been trained to, and they haven’t gone to war in a long time so, they’re kind of itching to as well.”
Trevante Rhodes plays Ben Milo and said that he is “in my eyes the heart of the film, the more earnest one of the film. He has the most beautiful, paternal relationship with this Afghanistan kid and it becomes something great. He’s the fourth in line, he’s the weapons guy. So yeah, he’s a wonderful person.” He was asked about the relationship between the special forces unit and the Afghani locals. “Everything you would suspect to be happening in a functioning relationship, initially meeting someone that you have no idea about. I mean, you don’t even share a language. You understand bits and pieces, because you learn it, but you don’t understand anything about anything so there’s that awkward meeting phase where everybody is trying to suss each other out. And then the brotherhood forms, and then you’re all saddled, and then it’s the typical progression of family.”
Rhodes laughed about meeting Hemsworth, calling him “just the most beautiful person I’ve ever seen. I mean just physically, all over, man. But then he’s just got, like, the biggest heart.” When asked about how intense his co-star Michael Shannon (who was not on the set that day) was on a scale of 1-10, he said, “It’s a unique thing, because at the same time it’s a 29,000 it’s also a zero, ‘cause once you get to him he’s just a child, like he’s just the most beautiful, honest child. I promise you he’s a kid, but at the same time when it’s in the work, he’s a monster.”
Negahban plays General Dostum. He told us about his character: “Dostum grew up very poor. He’s an Uzbek. He’s been in war since he was 16-years old. He fought with Russians, for Russians. When the Russians took over he was part of the Afghan army. Crazy journey. He joined the Mujahideen, then Northern Alliance, and he was working with Ahmad Shah Massoud. Then something happened where Ahmad Shah gave territory to Hekmatyar, and then Dostum left. He went to Turkey for a while, he went to exile. Then he came back and joined Ahmad Shah again, and he created his own territory, the Uzbek territory in the Northern part.
“You hear lots of things about him in the news about how brutal he has been, but this man was the first to have a territory in Afghanistan to have schools for women, for girls. He was trying to Westernize his territory. The guys who were there during this time [who consulted on the movie] said he was the General Patton of Afghanistan.” Negahban told us that, while he didn’t speak to the real Dostum, he was given a note from him, and some of his things, including a horse blanket, that were used in the film. “I talked to his ambassador, Mr. Ayoob Erfani, who flew in from Kabul to Istanbul, then to New York, Phoenix and here. He handed over a suitcase filled with wardrobe that Dostum wore during this incident. It was fascinating. They sent me a couple of the Uzbek hats, three different sizes. They’ve been very generous.”
We spoke to producer Jerry Bruckheimer about why director Nicolai Fuglsig was the right one for the job. He told us, “Well, he’s an adventurer. But he went into Haiti right after the earthquake, and he had a friend who was stranded on a rooftop, and he rented a helicopter and rescued him, because no one else was going to. And he was a tank commander too, and a war photographer. If you see his commercial reel, you’ll understand how talented he is. He’s got pathos, he’s a terrific shooter, he knows how to tell a story in a very short period of time, he’s very passionate, and he’s got a visual style I think is unique, which is always something I look for when we hire these directors.”
He also spoke about the power of this story. “These guys were dropped in here without protection, no support. There were 12 of them, there were a few CIA guys who came in two days before they did, and there were $100,000 bounties on their heads, $50,000 on their bloody uniforms. They weren’t sure Dostum was going to turn them into the Taliban, because he supported the Russians. So they had no idea what they were getting into, and it was a secret mission, so something happened no one would’ve known what would happen to them. And yet by November, they came in October, they had driven the Taliban out of Masar-i-Sharif. So it’s a pretty historic thing, and fortunately none of our guys got hurt.”
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