New TV show Timeless will get audiences thinking about the butterfly effect, about what would happen if things had gone a little differently at key events in history. Change one thing in the past, and the ripples can make the present drastically different.

One Timeless star, Matt Lanter, has those “what if?” ripples especially on his mind when it comes to one historical event: The sinking of the USS Indianapolis during World War II. Of the 1,196 crewmen aboard on July 30, 1945 when the Japanese Navy torpedoed the American cruiser, only 317 survived.

Lanter’s grandfather was one of those 317. And now the 33-year-old actor is in upcoming movie USS Indianapolis: Men of Courage, based on the real story of the men who survived or died facing shark attacks, drowning, dehydration, and injuries from the explosion in the four and half days they waited in the Pacific before help arrived. It is widely considered the worst Naval disaster in U.S. history.

Matt Lanter in USS Indianapolis: Men of Courage. Image credit: Hannibal Pictures

Starring in the movie is Nicolas Cage, as Charles Butler McVay, captain of the Indianapolis when the Japanese Navy sunk the ship just a few days after its crew departed the U.S. air base on Tinian, where they delivered parts for the atomic bomb that would later be dropped on Hiroshima.

The film has yet to get an official U.S. release date. It was shot in during the summer last year in Mobile and Orange Beach, Alabama, where the battleship USS Alabama stood in for the Indianapolis.

There had been attempts to make a film about the USS Indianapolis before, and Lanter said he has always “kind of had my ear to that.” When Men of Courage came together, he made sure he got a part. His character is a fictional one, but the actor said he “kind of felt like he got to play” his grandfather, since the character is a signalman, like his grandfather was.

Matt Lanter's grandfather, Kenley LanterPhoto courtesy of Matt Lanter

I asked Lanter about Men of Courage while on the set of Timeless last week when they were shooting their Watergate episode. 

History told particularly well, whether through a film, a podcast, or a gifted teacher’s lecture, getting to vaguely experience world-altering events that happened to real people — there’s something about that that really moves me. So when I was chatting with Lanter, hearing him tell stories about his grandfather and how he got to recreate this man’s harrowing experience on a film shoot — oh, and while Lanter’s wearing bell bottoms and a broad-collared pink shirt as we’re surrounded by 1972 campaign posters for Nixon — I got goosebumps.

Lanter told me that he brought one memento from the past to wear on the Men of Courage set: his grandfather’s dog tags, for the scenes on land, that is. “I didn’t want to get them corroded,” Lanter noted.

He also brought with him stories that his grandfather, Kenley Lanter, told of those days when survival was uncertain in the Philippine Sea.

“He was one of those guys that did talk about it a lot. Some guys shut down. Other guys open up. It became family legacy,” the younger Lanter said. “I remember him talking about — there was a small fishing line and a hook in the little survival packet that he was lucky enough to have. He fortunately got into a raft, where a lot of guys didn’t even have a life vest. He said they caught several blue fish. He cut up the fish and rationed them out to the guys in his raft.”

The Navy veteran, who was 21 at the time of the USS Indianapolis’ sinking, told such stories as that one to his family members and at his grandchildren’s schools. But Lanter recognizes he didn’t get to hear other memories from his grandfather. “The gruesome, weird stuff, he didn’t really talk about that with me,” the actor said softly. Some men, in a state of delirium amid dehydration and the onset of starvation, stabbed their comrades believing them to be enemy Japanese.


@mattlanter shares his grandfather's #WWII medals and #USSIndianpolis artifacts on set during the filming of USS Indianapolis: Men of Courage.

A photo posted by USSIndianapolis MEN OF COURAGE (@uss_indi_movie) on

Filming off the coast of Alabama, Lanter got just a small taste of what his grandfather went through. 

“We were shooting in the ocean. We were in there for, like, eight, ten hours a day. I’m like, ‘My nipples hurt. I need bandaids,’” Lanter said, though he realized, “These guys endured so much. And I had craft service when I got back [out of the water].”

Sadly, Kenley Lanter won’t get to sit in the premiere of Men of Courage alongside his grandson. He died at age 88 in 2013. In his lifetime, Kenley Lanter had been decorated with the Purple Heart, Navy Unit Commendation, ribbons for Combat Action, and the Asiatic Pacific Badge with six stars. His funeral “was powerful,” Lanter recalls. “He had a military procession. I’m so proud of him, what he did, accomplished for all of us.”

An enthusiast of time travel stories, film scores, avocados and Charades, Emily Rome is an alumna of Loyola Marymount University and a native of beautiful Washington State. Emily’s writing has also appeared in the Los Angeles Times, Entertainment Weekly and The Hollywood Reporter. Follow her on Twitter @EmilyNRome.