Interview: James Badge Dale discusses HBO's 'The Pacific'
The '24' veteran talks basic training and the emotional weight of the World War II epic
Fans of FOX's "24" may not have vivid memories of anything that James Badge Dale's Chase did for the first 23 hours of Season 3, but they certainly remember the character's departure. Any time Jack Bauer uses an axe and chops off your hand to save the world? That's pretty memorable.
Since his season on "24," the 31-year-old actor has done theater in New York, had a recurring role on the short-lived "The Black Donnellys" and, if you were able to get past the A-listers around him, he had a pivotal part in the Oscar-winning thriller "The Departed."
Dale has probably his most formidable role to date as one of the three main stars of HBO's "The Pacific," the premium cable giant's follow-up to the epic "Band of Brothers" miniseries. Dale plays Robert Leckie, who served in the 1st Marine Division during World War II and whose memoir "Helmet for My Pillow" is considered one of the definitive first-hand accounts of the war on the Pacific Front.
HitFix caught up with James Badge Dale, nearly ready to start filming the AMC series "Rubicon," last month in Beverly Hills to discuss "The Pacific" and the weight of being one of the stars of such a major undertaking...
HitFix: Obviously this wasn't a project that flew under anybody's radar, but how did you become involved?
James Badge Dale: It was a six-month audition process. I was doing a play in New York and the play was coming to an end and I didn't know what I was gonna go on to. I was in that awful place that every actor gets into like, "Oh my goodness. When's the next job coming? How am I going to play my bills and then I got a phone call asking if I would come to Australia.
HitFix: No hesitation there, I assume?
JBD: I was like, "Hmmm... Lemme think about it." No. It was just a real privilege. All of the young actors had been talking about this show and auditioning for it and to be be apart of it was just a privilege.
HitFix: Not to spoil anything, but your character, Robert Leckie, has a tremendous body of work as a writer. Something like 40 books?
JBD: He wrote 40 books, but a lot of the books he wrote were about football. He was a big football fan. He grew up in a household with five older sisters and Robert grew up fighting fighting to be a man. It was that thing where his sisters were, you know, what he described as pushing their womanhood on him. So he was always fighting to figure out, "Well what does a man do?" He loved football, but his father wouldn't let him play football, so he became a reporter, a sports report. So at 16, he could go to all of the games, be a part of that process, be a part of the games. He started writing about football, loved football. He wrote 40 books, books about the history of football, but the most important book for me was obviously "Helmet for My Pillow," which we based part of "The Pacific" on. Then there was "Strong Men Armed" and he also wrote a book about his childhood, which was a series of short vignettes, which were really insightful.
HitFix: So those were the ones you concentrated on for research?
JBD: I read all of them. [Pause.] Well, not the history books on football. I'm sure they're fantastic.
HitFix: I'm also sure some of them are hard to find in print.
JBD: Well, I had the privilege of going into his home. Vera Leckie let me walk around his home and his study and they all, all of his books. It's a really amazing household.
HitFix: How much access did you have to Leckie's family?
JBD: I talked to Vera and his daughter Joan, before I left I talked to them on the phone a couple of times. They were really kind enough to let me in. I'll never forget the day I drove up. I was nervous. I brought a gift for them. My dog's sitting in my car, I drove cross-country to Jersey to see them. I'd never met them before. It's a different thing to play someone who's a real person and to tell a story that has such cultural relevance. Vera walked out of the house and she stopped and she looked at me and she looked at Joan. She hadn't said a word and I was like, "Oh gosh. What's going on?" And she finally says, "Yeah. I see it. I see it. You're alright." Vera's just, she's a doll. She's a wonderful, intelligent, energetic and strong woman.
HitFix: You hinted around it there, but what's the sense of responsibility you have when you do a project like this? How much pressure do you feel to do right by the people who were there?
JBD: There's a lot of weight. [Pause.] There's a lot of weight. There's a heavy responsibility to tell the story with honesty and integrity and as truthfully as we could tell it. I had a picture of Robert Leckie in my bathroom and I'd come home and look at it every day. And I swear to you, he would laugh at me sometimes and he'd be frowning at me other days. Robert and I have a very interesting relationship, at least in my own mind. At least in my own mind. He's probably looking down at me right now like, "What is this kid talking about?" I met Vera and Joan and I continued driving and I'm driving in my car and it just hit me. I said, "You know what? Robert doesn't want me playing this role. He wants to be playing it himself." That's the type of guy he was. Vera talked about how if Robert were still alive, he would given the rights to Tom Hanks and Steven Spielberg, but then he would have flown to Australia with a gun and told everybody how to do it.
HitFix: In lieu of Robert, who *was* on set making sure that you guys didn't screw this up? Who was the guardian?
JBD: The guardian? I think that to a level, we were entrusted ourselves to guard our characters and guard the material. I know Jon Seda and Joe Mazzello were extremely protective of their characters. They're both incredibly talented, smart actors and they know how to protect their characters. But I think everybody, to a man, we were all in the same boat. Captain Dale Dye was there protecting the Marine Corps. And Bruce McKenna was there protecting the story that he wrote. And the story he wrote was based on those books and on the truth. There was real effort to find the truth and to not stray from that. Everybody down there was very protective of the material and there was a certain amount of respect that we all had. The cast and the crew, we put in a lot of long, hard hours in some difficult circumstances and when you start wanting to complain, there was always this specter of, "Wait a minute. Men were here for real. They did this for real. So I'm going to keep my mouth shut and do my job."
HitFix: Does that sort of pressure keep you from having some fun while you're doing it? You're still playing young guys out in the world, together.
JBD: That's part of the job, to have that camaraderie and to laugh and have fun. Listen, man, when you're shooting in those circumstances and telling a story that's as dark as this and it can be brutal, both physically and emotionally, you've gotta laugh. You gotta. We had fun, man. We joked around. It wasn't a normal acting job. You're not going to your trailer between set-ups. You find a ditch and you sit in it. You smoke too many cigarettes and you play cards and you laugh and make fun of each other. Those were some beautiful moments and those guys are some of my best friends still today.
HitFix: How much training did you guys do beforehand?
JBD: There was the boot camp. I thought it'd be an actor boot camp. I figured we go do some jumping jacks and a few catered lunches. It wasn't really like that. At all. Dale Dye loves making actors cry. He wanted a 21-day boot camp. He got nine days. Thank God for that. It was an intense time, because he had to do in nine days what he wanted to do in 21 days and and in The Pacific, these men were broken down. They were broken physically and mentally and spiritually and he wanted us to experience that. The boot camp was really geared toward that. The entire purpose of those nine days was to break us down as much as possible. There was a day I thought I was gonna quit, seventh day. I remember walking and we're hiking down and my fingers were hooks. I'd lost chunks of my hands and I couldn't close my fingers anymore, so I put everything on with like these two hooks and I'm marching down and I'm thinking, "I'm done." I'm not a weak guy, per se. Or maybe I am. I'm a puppy dog, dude. But I'm walking and thinking, "I can't be the first one to quit." I was so ready and I remember the man marching in front of me and I don't even remember who he was, but I saw his feet and I was like, "I'm just going to watch his feet. If he stops and lays down, I'm gonna stop and lay down." Unfortunately, he kept going, so we got through. But there were some dark moments in boot camp. But some beautiful moments also.
HitFix: And did that actually prepare you for the shoot? Were you just locked-in from there?
JBD: Absolutely. We started shooting the next day. We had a 5 a.m. call the next day after nine days of boot camp. To be honest with you, I couldn't really tell the difference between the boot camp and the actual shooting. It all just blended together.
HitFix: How close were you able to come to shooting in any kind of sequence?
JBD: We tried to do as best as we could. Unfortunately in film production, it just doesn't work out that way. But we did start with Episode One, which I think was a big help for me and the other guys.
HitFix: Your character, he's a journalist and a writer. As such, I was stuck by the idea that even though he's in the middle of this horrible war, he's also constantly observing and taking mental notes. How important was it for you to remember him as an observer at all times?
JBD: That's an excellent point. That's a big part of Robert Leckie. He watches. He can see the irony and he can see the pain and those little moments of human nature where people are questioning themselves. And he's questioning himself. He deals with the fear of death versus the fear of insanity, which is worse?
HitFix: In the same way, the battle episodes seem important, but it seems like the Australia shore-leave hour may be equally important in terms of emphasizing the humanity of the characters. Were there different challenges to those scenes?
JBD: You know the pressure of Episode Three? It was working with women again. We'd been doing that for three months, marching around the jungle and none of us had really worked with a woman or seen a woman for a while. We got down to Melbourne and that's when we shot Episode Three. We were like kids in a candy store. We were all over the place. The table read was one of the funniest things I've ever seen. You've never seen so many nervous men in your life. Suddenly you had Claire Van Der Boom and Isabel Lucas, all of these beautiful women around the table and guys are just sweating and moving funny. That was the difficulty in Episode Three, just sitting down and breaking down scene-work and working with beautiful women. That's not to say that I don't mind working with all of these dirty guys. That's easy, too. But Episode Three was an absolute pleasure to shoot.
HitFix: Give me a moment on set where you were particularly astounded by the scale of the production...
JBD: That happened every day. Every day. You'd show up to work every day and just be like, "What's goin' on here, man?" The scale of it was just immense. There was one day where, Tony To was directing and there was a joke going around the set, everyone was saying, "Tony To's gonna blow you up." Tony To. My buddy Scott Gibson, who plays Captain Haldane, was like, "Tony To's gonna blow you up." I was like, "Yeah, yeah. What are you talking about?" He goes, "No. I'm serious. Tony To's gonna blow you up." And sure enough, Tony To blew me up. They spent all day setting up this one explosion and we're doing this one stunt where I'm gonna blow up and I'm gonna hit a tree. I've got me on this crane and the whole thing. We practiced it about 15 times and I've got it down. They set up to shoot and I ran up and this explosion went off and it was the biggest explosion I've ever seen in my life. I forgot we were shooting. I just stood there looking at this explosion. I was like, "Wow, man. That's f***ing huge." And suddenly the crane yanks me up and I went head-first into this tree, ruined the entire shot. It's an all-day set-up on this explosion. The explosion guys come up to me and they're like, "Badge, what's the matter? What happened?" So the next day, they had to set the whole thing up all over again. I got it right the next day. The head of explosives comes up to me and he's like, "Thank you. Thank you." So that was big.
HitFix: Nobody came over and hinted at how much that day of set-up cost?
JBD: I don't know. I don't know how much that cost. I have no idea. I don't want to know. I still feel like I might get an invoice for it.
HitFix: I figure if the movie does OK, they might let it slide...
JBD: It depends on how many DVDs we sell.
"The Pacific" premieres on HBO on Sunday, March 14. Keep an eye on HitFix for more exclusive interviews with the "Pacific" cast and crew.