It’s tough enough to perform in a film loaded with heart, military logistics, and action, but in Lone Survivor, Mark Wahlberg, Taylor Kitsch, Emile Hirsch and Eric Bana were also tasked with delivering an authentic and admirable representation of real Navy SEALs who lost their lives in the hills of Afghanistan during a devastating mid-mission attack.
With the film now playing in limited release and its January 10th nationwide expansion approaching, all four actors sat down for a press conference in New York City to talk about working with the sole survivor of the real-life ambush, Marcus Luttrell, the connections they built with members of the SEAL community, the pressure to honor their sacrifice, and more. Hit the jump for the full discussion.
EMILE HIRSCH: Danny’s mother, Cindy, she actually jokes to me and she calls me her adopted son now. Dan senior, Dan’s father, says the same thing. Getting to know them and getting to visit with them, hear their thoughts and prayers about their son has been a really special experience. I’m going to Denver on the 12th and we’re going to do a big family screening, and I’m really looking forward to that. I feel like getting to know the families has been a real privilege and an honor for all of us. Aside from being wonderful people, they’re also just really smart. They’re great people.
TAYLOR KITSCH: A week before we hit camera, I got to meet Dan Murphy, Mike’s father. It’s been an amazing relationship to today. We e-mail back and forth. He’s been an amazing supporter from that first dinner, from the first time I met him. I finally met the rest of Murph’s family at the premiere. Like Emile is doing now, I’m going to Long Island on Monday. It’s going to be an amazing night. The whole family, a lot of Murph’s longtime friends, the fire department, the police. It’s gonna be a special evening.
MARK WAHLBERG: Marcus doesn’t like me at all. No, for me, obviously, I had the good fortune of meeting the guy I was playing and spending time with him and having him kind of be there throughout the entire process and helping me with anything that I wanted or needed. He’s a very, very special individual. I’m honored to know him and to see the kind of man that he is. I’m certainly inspired to be a better man because of him.
How did you prepare physically for the scenes where you roll down the cliff? I heard some of you tried to do that stunt yourselves. Also, Mark, just to let you know, because she’s the bridesmaid, she would be at the wedding.
WAHLBERG: Well, thank you. I realize that, especially having been married myself now for quite some time. But we were trying to infuse some humor into moments, especially when they were about to get really serious. So that was just something that we improvised one day while playing around. It actually went on longer and longer. I told him I was singing a song, a Coldplay song, and then I started singing the song. Those guys wanted too much money for the song so we couldn’t use it in the movie. And the falls and all that stuff, originally this was going to be a big budget movie so you would have had cables and green screens, but we did the movie for a price and I think that’s why it feels so intimate and real and authentic. The first stuntman to go down the cliff, when we landed on the bottom of the cliff, he was right onto a stretcher and right to the hospital. But everybody was there. The SEALS were there so you had this immense pressure to stand up and be a man because everybody was overly pumped. But, you know, we just did what was required. There were bumps and bruises but we wanted it to feel real. It seems like it’s all been done before, but something so simplistic as that is having such an impact because it’s pretty damn real.
And because we had such a short amount of time we would have two units going at all times. If you were with second unit, our second unit director was the stunt coordinator, you’d be doing a lot of action stuff with the falls or certain parts of the gun battle, and then I would run back off to Pete and we’d be in the village doing that stuff. You were kind of always all over the place so a lot of the time we were together, but then sometimes it would be those three guys with my double, I’d be like, ‘Bye, guys! You gonna get your ass kicked!’ [Laughed] We knew it was gonna happen. Every day was rough, but we all got to go home at the end of the day and we knew we were doing something special, we were part of something special. It was never about one individual. It was really about telling those guys’ stories.
What is your emotional approach to playing a character that is real versus fictional?
HIRSCH: For me, playing Danny in some of those later scenes where he’s kind of on his last legs you could say, the fact that I had talked to his mother and his father and his brother and his sister and his friends and I heard so many great stories about him, I’d seen video of him. I knew how much people really loved him. When someone touches you in that way, there’s so much reality to that and you have so much empathy for a person. I feel like that really influences you in such a strong way to where you’re not trying to find an emotion or something like that because that’s already there. Your heart has already been filled up. You’re just doing a scene and it’s so real, because it is so real. You’ve learned about what this person is like and they’ve touched you in that way. It’s hard to describe, but you’re not trying to find some artificial way. You’re not thinking about the time your puppy got hit by a car or something like that.
HIRSCH: One thing I’d also add is that having the SEALS on set at all times, as well, and they all have had friends that have fallen. We would do scenes sometimes, Mark would do something, Taylor would do something, I would do something, and the SEALS themselves, you could just see it on their face, how real it was for them and how emotionally affected they were. It was such a reminder. It’s like, oh, this isn’t some action sequence to them. This is some of the hardest moments, emotionally, of these guys lives that they’re living out right now.
KITSCH: I think with Pete’s process, it’s a really enabling process for the actors. Every scene almost you’re so embedded in these characters that the trust is prevalent. Mark could improv something that could just pull something out of you right there that you weren’t ready for that will invoke something very, very real. That really helped us as well.
Mr. Luttrell just told us about how he treated you guys like Navy SEALS. Do you think that any of you could actually go through real SEAL training after your experience here?
ERIC BANA: Which sucker’s gonna go first?
WAHLBERG: I’m 42 years old so … As a man, I don’t want to sit on the bench; I want to be in the game. I always want the ball so you would think, but it’s not a question of a physical ability. It really comes down to that mental toughness that I think sets those guys apart from a lot of other guys that can’t get through the training and graduate. So I don’t know. I have no idea.
BANA: Marcus tells great stories of when he went through BUD/S (Basic Underwater Demolition/SEAL) how you’d look around the room and ID guys that you were completely convinced would get through just based on how they looked. They just looked like cage fighters or bodybuilders. And it was the guy in the corner who you just thought, ‘What the hell is he even doing? Has he come through the wrong door?’ But those guys would get through and the guys that looked like they could take on the world would wind up crying after one or two days. As Mark was saying, it really is so much of a mental thing. I think that’s what’s so fascinating about it, when you read about the BUD/S training and then the training that goes after that, they’re just made of something else. Marcus’ book did such a great job of making you realize how big that gap is between most of us and them.
HIRSCH: Marcus also made a really interesting point yesterday to us, which was if the government could find out what makes a Navy SEAL a Navy SEAL, there would be millions and millions and millions of dollars saved in this training. There’s no way, really, of knowing what exactly makes a SEAL. You’re bringing groups of the toughest of the tough guys together and they still don’t know. It’s a unique type of training that just filters the SEALS from the non-SEALS.
This movie is so unrelentingly brutal and tension-filled. Why did you want to do this and what was the story you wanted to tell?
HIRSCH: This is a film that struck a chord with me on a very personal level. These are guys that are willing to put themselves on the front line and fight for their country. To me, it wasn’t a political film. It wasn’t a film that was going into any kind of detail about the wars or, ‘Should we be here? Should we not be here?’ It wasn’t about that. This was about soldiers that were willing to give everything they had and the type of courage it takes to do that. No matter what your opinion is on any one conflict, there are conflicts that need to be settled. There are ones that need to be there and that need to happen. This is representative of the best guys that we have doing this for us and I think that guys like that deserve to be honored, to have their story told. We live in a world where there’s a 24/7 news cycle. It’s so easy to have these guys be just another news story. I think this is an example of really taking the time to appreciate the sacrifices that they’ve made.
BANA: I was a really big fan of Marcus’ book. I’d read it some years ago and when I heard that Pete was adapting it he called me and asked if I’d consider playing Commander Kristensen and I said yes right away because I’m not only a fan of Marcus book, but also I have a bit of a fascination with the Special Forces community in general. I just think they’re all amazing people and perform an amazing function. As Emile was saying, not every film has this experience. We all make different kinds of movies all the time and I knew going into this that this was one that would feel very different to make and feel very different five to ten years from now from the other films you make. That doesn’t come along every day and I think we all felt that there was that sense to this one.
WAHLBERG: When I first heard about the idea and Pete asked me to do it, I thought, selfishly as an actor, what a great opportunity to play a kind of showy part. And then, when I read it, I realized what it really entailed and what it was about, my perspective changed. It never was about me after that again. It was really about the guys that we were portraying and every single person both in front of and behind the camera who felt that same thing. It was a very special and unique set of circumstances that I’ve never experienced as an actor before on a film. Even when watching the film, I don’t think about what we did. I think about what happened to those guys and what Marcus was able to endure and to be able to survive to tell the story of his brothers. That was a very special thing and I think we’re all proud to be a part of it and we were embraced by the SEAL community and the military as a whole because of everybody’s intention going in; it was just to tell their story and make it a tribute to not only to them, but everybody who has every walked into a recruiting office and certainly to their loved ones and anyone who suffered loss.
Mark, you said the film weighed heavily on you because it was so intense. Did it help to have your family close by on set?
WAHLBERG: Yeah, it does. It’s really interesting to hear Marcus and other SEAL guys talk about when they go home to their families and they can’t discuss what they do. It’s just like trying to shut off what they just came from on some sort of mission, a special op, and then all of a sudden they’re at home and they’re taking their kids to school and they’re helping their wives make dinner. But it’s always comforting to have your family there, absolutely. They’re here now, which is nice. I asked them if they wanted to come to work and they said, ‘Daddy, your job is so boring. Absolutely not.’
What was the most difficult part of portraying these characters and bringing this story to life again?
KITSCH: I don’t know if there’s one specific part. I don’t know. When you meet the father and you really get so deep within the community. Maybe it’s the pressure you put on yourself to make it what it deserves to be. It’s really hard to pinpoint what it is.
HIRSCH: I think that one of the elements that was a challenge for us was in the very beginning when we all first got there to the training with SEALS. We were at the SWAT range in Albuquerque. It was when we first started working with the M4 rifle and the way the SEALS had it organized was that we were training with live fire rounds with these M4 rifles. We were all blowing through about over a thousand rounds a day of real bullets. I think that was kind of us just jumping into the deep end and working with targets. It was a lot of fun and it really quickly ramped up in intensity because it was about a week and a half at this SWAT range. We all learned to trust each other really quickly because we had to. Everybody had to be really on point because they’re obviously just incredibly dangerous weapons. When Mark Semos, one of the SEALS who was instructing us, he said, ‘These weapons don’t just kill, they destroy things.’ And they used the word ‘destroy.’ They don’t use that word lightly. That was something that was challenging and also a bonding experience for all of us though because we learned quickly that we could trust each other and that meant a lot to us.
WAHLBERG: I didn’t read the book before I made the movie only because I had read the screenplay first and I’ve been in situations many times where you adapt a piece of material and you always feel like something’s been left out, and I thought Pete did a really good job writing the screenplay. I was completely immersed in the world and felt it and so I didn’t want to then go back and read the book and start complaining about, ‘Well, why isn’t this or that in there?’ You can debate that for hours. But I read the book after and I did feel like, ‘Well, why wasn’t this in there? Why wasn’t that in there?’ [Laughs] I don’t like war, but I love soldiers. They’re not the guys who decide whether or not they’re going in and they don’t really care. They have a job to do and they go and they do it. Would it be nice to live in world without it? Absolutely. I don’t want any of these guys going over there and risking their lives, but that’s what they do and that’s why we made this tribute to all of them.
KITSCH: It’s a heavy appreciation and on such a different level, too. Becoming close with Marcus and the whole community and still being close with a lot of SEALs now, you’re more connected and so yeah, it’s definitely changed.
Can you talk about working with Peter as an actor’s director? I read that he was communicating to you through a bullhorn at times so I imagine that might not give him the opportunity to give you notes.
HIRSCH: I think the fact that Pete comes from an actor’s background – and I had a similar type of experience with this working with Sean Penn – they’re sometimes a lot more badass in a sense with the way that they can communicate with their actors. I think because they were actors, there’s not this, ‘Oh, I gotta talk to this actor and be really sensitive with this actor.’ It really cuts through a lot of the bullsh*t. There’s times where if I was doing something that Pete wasn’t happy with, he would let me know very directly and very quickly. That’s something for me, as an actor, I really appreciated that, and knowing that he was also an actor, it makes that type of really direct communication safe and I’m okay with that. But he also knew when to leave us alone and to push us to improvise and to be in the moment and all those things that you always hope to be able to do as an actor and you hope a director will understand. He has all that understanding already.
KITSCH: There’s no room for sensitivity up on the hill at 2,000 feet. You can cry like a baby if you want out of relief on the way down the mountain at the end of the day. [Laughs] No, everybody loved that. Everybody was there for the same purpose so whatever we had to do to get it done, whether it was Pete barking at you or the SEALs, it didn’t matter. Everybody was there for the same reason. There were no egos. We were all a team. We were all trying to do something unique.
Lone Survivor is now playing in New York and Los Angeles and will get a nationwide expansion on January 10th.