Matt Dallas (Kyle XY), Charlie Bewley (The Twilight Saga) and actor/writer/director Steven Grayhm have been traveling across America interviewing Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans in preparation for their upcoming feature film, Thunder Road. The two-month research road trip, which is being documented in Into the Heart of America: A Soldier's Story, has given the actors unique opportunities to listen to and understand what American servicemen and women go through once their tours of duty are over.
In between interviewing veterans, Dallas, Bewley, and Grayhm graciously took the time to talk to me about the importance of making sure Thunder Road is as authentic as possible and that it accurately reflects - and respects - the experiences of war veterans.
Exclusive Charlie Bewley, Matt Dallas and Steven Grayhm Interview
How long have you been on the road?
Steven Grayhm: "We departed Los Angeles the 15th of July and our contract with Toyota of Santa Monica, who's donated a Prius for us, is until September 15th, so that's when we plan to be in LA."
Why did you decide to hit the road and do this research, because a script could have been done without actually embarking on a lengthy road trip?
Charlie Bewley: "We felt that it was time for - and I think this is representative of our production company as a whole - it was time to bring some reality to the screen. To do that - and, as you know, Steven has written the script - we still felt like we needed to go and talk to people and gather accounts to enrich the script and make it real, essentially."
How much is the script being altered by what you are learning on the road?
Steven Grayhm: "It's being altered every day. I mean, I got off the phone with a Staff Sergeant from Texas who I'm going to fly out to Connecticut here. I'm in the midst of shooting a film while we do this research road trip, and then Matt is doing the same thing. Charlie, the same thing back in the UK, so our schedules are all over the place, but one of the things while I'm here, I've already met the Staff Sergeant in person in Texas and built quite a rapport. And just in some of the conversations I've had with him, it has changed what I've written - and so much for the better. And this is exactly what I was hoping."
"All the research that I had done for the script was on the internet, was on watching videos, was on watching documentaries and so on, and that's great. But, the face-to-face time and the face-to-face accounts that we've got thus far, it's everything and it's essential to getting this right."
How open have veterans been in talking to you?
Matt Dallas: "That actually was one of my biggest fears going into this was that it was going to be difficult to get a lot of these veterans to speak, because it's difficult for them; it's difficult to ask somebody to relive such a difficult time in their lives. But we've been really fortunate in that we've had a lot of people that have just been so incredible in sharing such personal stories with us."
Steven Grayhm: "Just to add to that, too. I got off the phone with the wife of the Staff Sergeant who's coming up [to Connecticut] now. He's a veteran that during a firefight he lost four men, and he actually sent me videos and photos of that firefight last night. And I spoke to his wife because she joked in the background, saying, 'If he has any flashbacks, I'm going to kick your ass!' So I wanted to speak to her on the phone and just let her know how much I appreciate it, and that she's the boss. I mean, if anything, I'm not there living with him - she's the boss if she wants to pull the plug. They have a two year old and she's six months pregnant. I'm like, 'Your health is number one. I know you're joking, but I'm very aware and very grateful.'"
It sounds like you are all very respectful of these veterans you're talking to. I know it's emotionally very difficult for them, but what's it been like for you to be hearing these stories?
Steven Grayhm: "I've been having, just recently, nightmares where I woke up yesterday morning and I had the absolute sound belief that I was being deployed to Iraq. I had this dream that the three of us were doing basic training as research for the film, and we signed contracts allowing us to be able to do that. But in the contract we were actually to be deployed. So I woke up with this fear of, 'Oh my god, I'm going to die over there.'"
"Also, there's got to be a learning curve here. There's got to be an adjustment curve, if you will, here because I've witnessed traumatic things in my life, but there's nothing that's ever been this personal, you know?"
Charlie Bewley: "It's a very all-consuming project. I mean, we have careers outside of this. I was just in the UK for two months and that feels like a long, long time ago now. Now we're actually at the Veterans Wheelchair Games here in Pittsburgh and we've been here for four or five days, and it's all about this right now. It's all about the people that we are meeting. We've gained the trust over the course of the last two or three days of some really key veterans and people whose accounts will come in absolutely crucial to the final product. Like I said, it's an all-consuming and enriching endeavor."
What have you done to gain the trust of these individuals? I would imagine other people - not involved in a film - have asked them before about what they experienced, and they may not have necessarily always opened up. What have you done to convince them this is a good project to be involved with?
Matt Dallas: "I think a lot of it has been just, first of all, letting them have a clear understanding of what we're doing and what we're trying to achieve, and knowing that we have no agendas. All we want to do is help them and give them a voice, and give them a platform where they can tell their stories and be heard."
"I think a lot of them, they see what we're trying to do and that speaks to them. They see us and they see three guys who are genuine and have nothing but their best interests at heart."
Charlie Bewley: "And I feel like we have a lot of people coming up to us - and we're about to interview a chaplain who was stationed in Iraq for two deployments. He's come up to us numerous times and said, 'Thank you, thank you, thank you so much for doing this, for being so thorough, for being both detail-oriented and respectful of the veterans.' And you've got to know that we're at these games and people don't know who we are because we're not here as the people we are, we're not here even doing a documentary. We're here just to experience the veteran community. There has been interest in us and that way people have now started, you know...we've gained their trust and they're much more comfortable around us. They're coming to us willingly with their accounts and willingly wanting to help us on this journey to make this film as true to life as possible, which has been such a wonderful process."
A lot of films dealing with war or military service and veterans are littered with clichés. What specifically have you learned through this that is going to help you not succumb to those same clichés?
Steven Grayhm: "We want to avoid the Hollywood take on it. With my script, this is more of a character study. This explores much more of the emotional and mental aspect of war, and a lot of films haven't done that. I don't think they've done that since the Vietnam era. I had the opportunity to work with Jon Voight on a film and he won the Academy Award for Coming Home and that was much more of a character study where you wouldn't consider it a 'war' picture in the modern sense of Black Hawk Down, where there's a lot of action and that's what they're selling the film on. We're absolutely not doing that. I mean, that aspect will definitely be seen in the film, but that isn't our marketing tool at this point."
"But I think for instance the guys right now - I'm in Connecticut, they're in Pittsburgh - and they're meeting with this chaplain. They told me this over the phone a few nights ago and I couldn't believe they were getting the interview, and that alone will now be a part of the script. I would never have known that this aspect was actually a part of war. There's no way I would have come across this. So something like that is extremely special. What does that do? That helps to authenticate the true experience. It's not just a bunch of soldiers standing around drinking beer, saying, 'Let's get some,' and going into a firefight and so on. What we have not seen in cinema is the aftereffects, like Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, veterans assimilating back into civilian life."
"I'm meeting with a guy on Sunday and he's only been back six months and he's broke from the money he had saved up while he was fighting. A lot of these guys come home and within a year, if they don't have a good family or a good friend support system, they're on the street. And there's little care for them. Basically, once you've fulfilled your contract, if you are not injured you are pretty much cut off, as far as from the VA and so on. So, we're exploring that, too. And, again, what differentiates our project from what is already out there is that there is nothing out there that explores it quite like this."
Charlie Bewley: "In the accounts we're gathering and the way that we harness that to the script, I think a very personal and visceral experience is what we're attempting to achieve. I'm sure a lot of the stuff that's been put in films before is true to life, except we're trying to find that story that has not been told - and from a first person's perspective. I think that's what's going to make this film very appealing to the broad audience."
Is there any one particular story you've heard that's really hit home and will stay with you?Matt Dallas: "There was one moment where everything became very real to me. Charlie and I were standing and watching what is called slalom, which is kind of an obstacle course that they go through on their wheelchairs. At one point, we were watching this one veteran on his chair and he was trying to go up this ramp. He was struggling and struggling and fighting so hard to get up there, and we're watching and cheering him on. It was like a great moment because you just see the camaraderie and everybody rooting for him. But then Charlie turned to me and said, 'Man, to think that just only months ago that guy was a machine, that he was a soldier out there fighting and now he's struggling to get up a ramp.' That moment was just like a blow in the guts to me. It became so real, and that's when I realized what they've been through."
Now that you've met these veterans, how much more of a weight is there on your shoulders to make sure when you're acting in the film that you get it right?
Matt Dallas: "I do think now there is a kind of responsibility I knew that I would gain from meeting with everybody and listening to their stories. But you kind of have these moments - and I was actually saying this to Steven last night - you have these moments of realization of the responsibility that you now have to these people that have shared their stories with you."
Charlie Bewley: "But just from an actor's perspective, this is what you want to do. This is what you want to go through. You want that six months of preparation before you go into any role, so therefore to be afforded this - to afford ourselves this opportunity - is going to actually take a lot of pressure off of our shoulders, simply because of the process we're going through right now. Through gathering accounts and spending time with these veterans, plus the camaraderie we have between the three of us as the main three actors in this film, we are going to have... I can't tell you from an actor's perspective how valuable that time is, in terms of building the relationship and the subsequent portrayal of these characters as a team, as a unit. And further on from that, on the big screen, it will translate so well. So, it's much more of a burden for an actor to pick up a script, have it for a week, and then meet up with his fellow actors like maybe a day or two before shooting, and then suddenly have to manufacture an artificial relationship between the three of them. When you have that going, honestly you can't buy that kind of experience."
Is it going to be difficult to not put any political point of view into the film, because I know you're trying to keep that out of it?
Steven Grayhm: "It's really hard. I mean, I can only tell you that the way that it's been written and the way that we've been moving forward is that the great thing is that for all of us personally, we have no political agenda. If we have an agenda, it's getting the truth out, whatever that entails. This isn't a film that's going to expose pharmaceutical companies and this and this and this. It's not like The Insider or something. This isn't a whistleblower film because that detracts from what we're trying to do, and what we're trying to do is make a film that explores the emotional and physical aspects of returning home, or that entails the entire scope of a soldier's life. I think that anything too controversial will completely overshadow that, and that would counter what we're trying to do."
"But I will tell you, some of the stories that are being told...it's pretty hard to keep that out. I think I was naive in the beginning. Going into it I kept saying, 'This is not a political film. This is not a political film,' and one of the soldiers I spoke to last night, he actually brought that up. He was like, 'You have to understand, it will become that. One, everyone's going to have an opinion on it, one way or another on both sides of the fence.' And then he said, 'Just think about all the stories that you're collecting. Think about what people are telling you about going into the VA.' You have serious back trauma, you have Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, you're not sleeping - a myriad of problems - and they're giving you a thousand Percocets for six months and sending you on your way. And that's the truth - I was actually told that."
"I think what's all so difficult about [hearing those stories] is that it doesn't seem like there's anyone policing that. What does a veteran know who's 24 years old, who's come back home and doesn't really have the greatest relationship with his parents, doesn't have a lot of friends because he's been gone for four years, isn't his former self so most of the qualities that would have helped him socially integrate are gone, and he's going into the VA to get care and that's what's happening. And so the guy ends up numbed-out completely just from the painkillers and not being rehabilitated in any sense, both mentally and physically. It's not a happy ending."
Do you find the veterans you're talking to have become a real support system for each other because of this?
Steven Grayhm: "I would say absolutely. The perfect example of that was in Texas where we were, in Mission, Texas. We met with four veterans - one female and three male - and they were closer with each other in certain aspects of their relationships than they were with their own spouse because they were able to relate to each other in a different way that they weren't with their loved one."
Charlie Bewley: "We found as well gathering accounts from the wheelchair games especially, and it's been sort of common feature throughout, that the moment when they have to leave their military family, if you like, the soldiers that they've been serving around for the last 18 months, they find that's a really hard severance process they have to go through. They are fairly numb for a long, long time after it. To know that they are not going to see these guys on a day-to-day basis, not going to have to watch their backs, not going to have to eat, sleep and shit with these guys - it breaks them. It really does break them. We've heard accounts very recently [of this] and people keep saying the same thing, that people coming home now are scared to come home. They are scared to leave what is now their lives."
Matt Dallas: "The anxiety of the fear of coming home is stronger than that of going out into the battlefield."
I bet that was something you didn't expect to learn through this, right?
Charlie Bewley: "Absolutely, and that's what I'm talking about when it comes to cliches. The cliches of 'people want to get home as soon as they can,' 'I want to see my wife, kids, and this and that,' you will not believe the mentality these guys have of coming home. It's like fear of their own family and absolute anxiety, like Matt says, of having to sever from their comrades, from their fellow soldiers, is something that they have severe issues dealing with. Their whole mentality has completely changed."
When are you expecting to actually shoot the movie?
Steven Grayhm: "Well, the process is, at this point, when we return from our trip, I think it will be about a month. I'm doing this while I'm working away at the script, just fine tuning and so on. The plan is to sit down with financiers probably in the fall. A perfect world, we'd love to start filming in December. It's going to be quite a process though because there's quite a transformation that none of us have actually mentioned yet in any interview, which is that essentially the film will have to be shot backwards. So, we'll shoot our civilian life in America first and then have to, later in the film, shoot the scenes overseas in Iraq and Afghanistan. And the reason for that is just the physical transformation of being healthy and strong as a soldier and then coming home and, for some of us, being broken and unhealthy. So, we're all taking on quite a massive physical transformation and so it would definitely have to be staggered over a period of time to shoot this."
This is going to be quite an emotional, mental and physical journey for all three of you when you start shooting. Are you ready for that?
Matt Dallas: "It already has been that for me. I think seeing it through will be an amazing feeling. I think for all of us to be just on the set together and knowing that we've earned the right to be there, that we had done the work, had put the time in and now it's just doing what we do best which is performing for the camera, I guess."
And for Charlie, what can we expect from The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn:
Charlie Bewley: "Expect less abs and real vampires."
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Visit the Into The Heart Of America: A Soldier's Story Facebook page for up-to-date information on the project.
Interview conducted on August 5, 2011