Interview dates: 03/10/2010, 03/12/2010
Run date: 03/19/2010
HBO’s new World War II miniseries, “The Pacific,” premiered this month to what will likely be looked back on as the best reviews for any television program in 2010…and with good reason. Having explored the 10 episodes in their entirety, I can assure you that it’s top-notch through and through. As such, I took the opportunity to participate in a conference call with James Badge Dale and Joe Mazzello a few days before the premiere, then followed up with a brief one-on-one phoner with Jon Seda a few days later. Due to time constraints, neither conversation was quite as all encompassing as I might’ve liked, but they were highly illuminating nonetheless. You may note that I didn’t follow up with Seda about a question that Dale and Mazzello assured me that he was better suited to ask (working with William Sadler), but, then, you’ll also see that, although I arguably could’ve asked it at the very end, it would’ve seemed utterly trivial at that point.
James Badge Dale and Joe Mazzello
Bullz-Eye: So how did both of you guys come on to this project in the first place? I’m just curious if you’d worked with Spielberg and Hanks before…Joe, I know you did…or if this was something that you came and auditioned for or?
Joe Mazzello: Well, yes, we both auditioned. Like you said, I had actually worked with Spielberg before when I was a kid, in “Jurassic Park,” but even still, you know, this was kind of an old fashioned kind of audition. You know, I went in front of the casting director, she seemed to like me, so then I went in front of the producer, and then another producer and another, and then finally the fifth audition was in front of Steven Spielberg and Tom Hanks and Gary Goetzman and HBO and Playtone and 1,000 people in a room. And so, you know, it was interesting because, yes, I had worked with him before, but…and I thought that maybe that gave me a little bit of a leg up, just because he knew who I was and knew I wasn’t insane and stuff like that, but it also put a little more pressure on me, I felt, because I felt like if I didn’t get it, then that would kind of be a hit, you know, because I would feel, like, “Well, what’s wrong? Am I no good anymore?” You know? Like, “He liked me then, but he doesn’t like me now.” So it was kind of a ball of emotions, but, I mean, the auditioning process lasted 6 months for me, and it was very intense, actually, I have to say. Badge?
James Badge Dale: Oh, yes.
Joe Mazzello: You fall asleep over there?
James Badge Dale: Yes. Yes, I’m sorry, Joe. I just heard that. No, the problem was…I mean, that was pretty much my experience also. It didn’t differ that much. It was a 6-month process. Actually, I didn’t really know I was on their radar, and then I kind of got a phone call out of the blue, and they asked me if I wanted to come to Australia, and then here I am 3 years later.
BE: I don’t know what order you guys filmed the episodes in, but I was just wondering if it was a nice change of pace in part 3 when you guys were in Melbourne.
James Badge Dale: Oh, that was beautiful. That could have been our great… (A clanging sound) sorry, I just dropped a knife. Earlier, I said there were boxes. You guys are probably really wondering where I am.
Joe Mazzello: You dropped a knife?
James Badge Dale: Yes, I know. There’s boxes, there’s a knife…
Joe Mazzello: All right. Drop the machete. (Laughs)
James Badge Dale: (Laughs) Yes. Excuse me; I’m back in Australia, actually. We shot for the first 3 months in far North Queensland. We were hiking through the jungle. You know, we blew up everything we could see up in far North Queensland and then we flew to Melbourne and we shot episode 3, and that was such a nice moment. That was such a nice moment to be down there, to actually…the truth was, I hadn’t seen a woman for so long, man, I mean, it was to sit at that table read, and you know what? Everyone sitting there…you saw all these actors, we just spent the last 3 months around these, you know, smelly guys, and then suddenly we’re surrounded by all these beautiful Australian actresses. You just had all these men acting like 12-year-old boys, you know? It was like this competition for affections going on, and it was beautiful. It was just beautiful to see.
Joe Mazzello: Yes, I mean, I really loved shooting that episode and acting with all of those…oh, wait a minute. I didn’t get any of that. Badge was lucky enough to have scenes with actual females.
James Badge Dale: Joe, I thought about you the whole time.
Joe Mazzello: Oh, that’s…
James Badge Dale: We all did.
Joe Mazzello: … special…
James Badge Dale: We were talking about you the whole time. We wish you could have been there.
Joe Mazzello: Yes, I missed that part of the war, the gallivanting on leave part, but I’m glad Badge had fun because somebody should enjoy it.
James Badge Dale: Well you know that’s funny, I still think it’s a joke within the Marine Corp. I think they – the guys really did have fun when they were there in ’43.
BE: So what was it like working with William Sadler as an authority figure?
James Badge Dale: Hey, man, William Sadler, man …
Joe Mazzello: We’re from the same hometown, me and Bill Sadler.
James Badge Dale: Are you really?
Joe Mazzello: Which is funny. Yes. He’s from Millbrook and I’m from Hyde Park both. We eat at the same diner.
James Badge Dale: Wow.
Joe Mazzello: But go ahead with that.
James Badge Dale: Bill Sadler is great. He’s just – you know he was kind of our mentor when we were down there you know?
Joe Mazzello: And he’s such a joker, too. You know he plays like a big tough Marine, but he was always good for a laugh. He was always good to tell stories about theater and stuff like that and you know I mean he’s so fantastic in this thing, like I can’t even explain it, like he’s so good. And so it was fun to have him down there as the elder statesman of the crew, I’d say.
James Badge Dale: He’s Chesty, man [Lt.Col. Lewis “Chesty” Puller].
Joe Mazzello: Yes.
BE: Were there any particular on set anecdotes that you recall that still stand out?
Joe Mazzello: Tons of them. You want to go, Badge? Go for it.
James Badge Dale: All right. Any of Bill’s stories or …
BE: Preferably, but not necessarily limited to.
Joe Mazzello: Oh, OK. He tells a great story about going on stage and having a cold and I probably shouldn’t even tell the story, I should let him do it. But no, I mean he always had funny things to tell us and stuff like that. But I mean I think that you know honestly me and Badge didn’t work with him as much as Jon Seda did and so I wish he was here to really talk about it.
BE: Actually, at the TCA panel, I know Dr. Phillips was on there with you guys.
Joe Mazzello: Yes.
James Badge Dale: Yes.
BE: Did any of the other real life counterparts either make it to the set or have you talked to any of them since? Neither of yours are still with us, but …
Joe Mazzello: Right.
James Badge Dale: Right. Well, you know, Chuck Tatum is still around. Joe, Burgin, man? [Charles Tatum’s character appears in Part 8 and R.V. Burgin character’s appears in Parts 5-10.]
Joe Mazzello: Yes, he’s still around. You know I mean you know we’re losing them you know. This is kind of that time period when the World War II vets are fewer and fewer and so, we’re just so honored to have some people who are really being depicted here show up at the screenings and the premiers, honoring them and maybe giving them some closure in the whole process. I remember on set, we had some vets come down. No vets that were depicted, but some others to come down on set and just show them the sets. It was an amazing thing and whenever we get to talk to the veterans, I mean, that’s when we’re happiest because they’re just like – we always find them just to be like such wonderful people, such humble people and they just have such good spirits. We just are so proud to be able to honor them the way they deserve.
James Badge Dale: Yes, those are the guys that we really did this for and those are the guys that we were thinking about every day while we were down there.
BE: Did you guys have any personal connection to the World War II era? I mean as far as grandparents who fought in it or?
Joe Mazzello: Yes. I did. My grandfather served in the Pacific, actually. Not as a Marine, but in the Army in the Philippines and he received a purple heart. I got to talk to him before this started and it was great to know that he knew I was going to be doing this, he knew that I was kind of going to be telling his story in a way. I think it, hopefully gave him some closure on the whole thing. Because he was one of those guys, as many of the veterans are, who talk about like the fun things -- you know -- the jokes with their buddies and don’t really talk about the tough stuff too much. I mean sadly, he passed away while we were shooting, so he won’t be able to see the finished product, but he knew I was doing it and that alone meant so much to me.
Bullz-Eye: Hey, John!
Jon Seda: Hi, Will!
BE: How’s it going?
BE: It’s good to talk to you. Now, I was at the TCA panel for the program a few months back, so I hope you’re prepared today, since you don’t have Tom Hanks to answer all of your questions for you.
JS: I know, right? (Laughs) Maybe I should get him on the other line!
BE: An obvious question to start: how did you find your way into “The Pacific”? I’d guess an audition like everyone else, but how did it first come onto your radar?
JS: Well, I received the script from my agent, and I just remember from the start hearing that it was Tom Hanks, Steven Spielberg, and Gary Goetzman. Right away, before you even read the script, it’s exciting to potentially have an opportunity to work those guys. Obviously, they have such a great track record. I mean, they’re legendary already. Having seen “Saving Private Ryan” and “Band of Brothers,” you kind of knew that this was going to be a special project, and you just…I mean, it was a no-brainer to want to be a part of it. And then my agent said they wanted me to take a look at John Basilone, and…you know, I kind of knew a little bit about Basilone, growing up in New Jersey, but, honestly, I didn’t know in as full a detail as I obviously do now. (Laughs) But growing up, I knew the name and I knew he was a war hero, but that was pretty much where it ended. So when I read the breakdown on him, I said, “Wow, it’s gotta be me who’s meant to play this guy.” I mean, we actually had stuff in common. I’m from New Jersey, I also did the whole Golden Gloves thing…and, then on top of that, I just felt the importance of what this project was about, the nature of what it’s about, and I felt like I just had to be a part of it in some way. So, of course, I went through the auditioning process and, lo and behold, it ended up coming my way!
BE: So did you have any personal connection to World War II, such any grandparents who may have fought?
JS: No, not that I know of. My uncle fought in the Korean War, and he passed away, actually, right before I went to go start shooting on “The Pacific.” But, yeah, that’s pretty much it. I have some cousins and other family members who are serving now, though.
BE: So what kind of research did you do to get prepared for the role?
JS: Well, you know, the Play-Tone group, they just had done so much research. I mean, they had tons of research that they gave us. Bruce McKenna and Hugh Ambrose, Tony Tope, Kirk Sandusky, they just had so much research. They had every detail that you basically needed to have to make it as right as they could, and they just bombarded all the actors with tons of paperwork and documentaries and books and stuff for us to get familiar with. Not just for our characters, but to get familiar with World War II and most every aspect of how the United States was involved. So it was a lot of research amongst the research that we did on our own. There was that, and then there was the boot camp, which I just really felt…and I think I can speak for the rest of the actors as well…we really didn’t know what we were getting ourselves into. (Laughs) We, uh, knew there was going to be a boot camp, because we knew the stories from “Band of Brothers,” and if you look at the DVDs and the behind-the-scenes stuff, knowing Captain Dale Dye…his boot camps are legendary in Hollywood. So you knew there was going to be a boot camp, but I don’t think any of us really knew what it was going to be about. So we showed up at boot camp, and I’ll tell you, that first day, Captain Dale Dye just really made it clear to us the importance of what we were being asked to do.
This wasn’t just about making another TV show or something for Hollywood. This had some substance to it, this had some heart to it, and if we didn’t understand the responsibility that was being asked of us, to be the voice for all these men that sacrificed, then we needed to leave. So he really embedded that in our heads, and throughout the boot camp…I mean, if he could’ve had us for six weeks, he would’ve had us for six weeks, you know? But with scheduling and all of that, he only had…I think it was nine or ten days. So in those nine or ten days, he used every minute to make sure that we were either physically learning something or going through some kind of physical pain… (Laughs) …or some kind of mental pain, or some kind of emotional pain. But when I say “pain,” I mean in the sense of a learning experience. It wasn’t just to beat us up and hurt us. It was to get us to try and get as close as we could to what these men through. And, of course, boot camp was…it was, like, World War II style boot camp. It was for us to understand the weapons and the ins and outs of all the weapons that were used in World War II. With John Basilone in particular, it was the water-cooled machine gun and the air-cooled machine gun. We had three different sections in the boot camp. We had the mortars, we had the machine gun platoon…I’m slipping on the other one right not, but, anyway, the weapons were there that we had to learn. We had combat scenarios where he would trek us out into the jungle and let us feel the elements and feel the fear that these men must’ve felt in that jungle, not knowing where the enemy was. There could be contact at any moment, but there might not be contact. There would be days where he would take us out there, and we would be out there for hours and hours, anticipating that there might be contact. And with me being the machine gun platoon leader, where was I going to set up my machine guns if we got in contact. You know, being the first line of defense. So there were days when we’d be out there and we’d never come in contact with anybody. He had a whole other Japanese army with their own boot camp a couple of miles away, and they were training there. We’d only see them if we came in contact with them.
You know, at the end of the day, it wasn’t real bullets…although I think if he could’ve had real bullets, he would’ve… (Laughs) …but, still, it gave us enough of an insight to be able to understand what they went through, and to me, the boot camp became the foundation that we needed to build our characters from. We were just a bunch of knuckleheads thrown together out there. We weren’t thinking about our characters. We just first had to learn the Marine jargon and just kind of understand how a Marine thinks and talks, and how they rely on each other, and the camaraderie between each other was so important. One man by himself doesn’t get the job done. What we learned at boot camp…I mean, there was so much more, too, man. I could go on and on about what we learned at boot camp. But without the boot camp, I think we would’ve taken the heart right out of this production. If we just went there and tried to shoot without truly coming as close to understanding what it was like…? I think we all just truly felt the responsibility, knew the responsibility, and were focused on trying to do the best we could to honor these men.
BE: What was the hardest part of Basilone’s story for you to play? Because, obviously, he had his ups and downs, as we see in the story.
JS: Yeah, you know, like I was saying, this is probably the most physically demanding thing I’ve worked on, but emotionally it’s probably even more. Because, y’know, this wasn’t something made up. Basilone and what he accomplished, it wasn’t made up. He actually did this. He received the Medal of Honor for his actions on Guadalacanal… (Sighs) When I think about what he and his men faced that night in October of 1942…you know, 3,000 Japanese coming right at them, and having to defend Henderson’s air field? That was a big turning point. It could’ve been a big turning point in the war. Had they not been able to hold them off in time for reinforcements to come, the Japanese might’ve taken that air field…and if they took that air field, they would’ve had an easier way to fly in and land and take off from. So when I think about what they faced that night, it’s just…emotionally, it was overwhelming to be sitting in that foxhole. I remember coming to set and seeing where they had the barbed wire where the Japanese were going to be cutting through and coming at them, and it just didn’t seem like it was that far away from the foxhole. And I remember saying to David Nutter, who was the director, “It couldn’t have been this close, right? I mean, this is just for shooting purposes, right? You’re gonna make it look like it was much, much farther away or something…?” And he said, “No, man, this is pretty darned close to scale.” And to sit there and think that they were in the dark, they’re waiting, and to see them coming at them...? How did they survive? How did they pull it off? And, of course, a lot of them didn’t survive. But Basilone and his boys were able to hold them off long enough and get the reinforcements, and the perimeter was breached, but they were able to seal it back off, and as history tells you, Basilone then received the Medal of Honor for his actions that night. And I’m sure Basilone would never say that he deserved the Medal of Honor, that he was a hero. I think he would say that all of those men who sacrificed, that all of his boys were equally heroic. But being as it’s a fact and it happened… (Trails off)
And then he goes on to be asked to be part of the war bonds tour while the war is still going on, and he reluctantly does it. The Marines are asking him to do it, so he does it, and when you look at the fact that he eventually demanded to go back…? I mean, I wrestled with that. What kind of guy does that? And they turned him down, and he asked again. So they granted his request, he goes to Camp Pendleton, where he meets Lena Mae Riggi, and they get married. But then very shortly after they’re married… (Trails off) I mean, he still could’ve stayed. He’s a Medal of Honor recipient. Anything he says goes. The President has to salute him. He could’ve said, “You know what? I was thinking about going back, but I’m married now, I have this family, and we can go and have a great life.” That’s another thing that struck me and was emotionally tough to get through: the fact that he still decided to go back. I think Lena really knew his heart. Being a Marine herself, I think she understood and knew that if he didn’t go back, there was going to be a void in his heart for the rest of his life that she wouldn’t be able to fill. And even though it sounded crazy, I think she understood. And it was okay with her. I’m sure they held onto the hope and belief that he was gonna make it through…again…and come back. But, of course, he didn’t. And she went on, never remarried, and died 55 years later.
So I think all of those accounts which were factual accounts just really spoke to the character, who John Basilone was and who Lena was. And that’s what I tried to take and work with. I just stored all of the research that I had in me, all the things I heard about him being this Rambo-type figure, this superhuman man who…I mean, there are stories of him running through the jungle, barefoot, carrying machine guns on his back. I really just tried to find the humanity of who he was and just work from the facts, you know? I don’t think he’d call himself a hero, and anyone who knew him…veterans that I met that knew him or knew of him all said the same thing: that he was just a guy who loved to be a Marine, and he was damned good with the machine guns, and just did what needed to be done to get the job done. Chuck Tatum…Charles Tatum, who served with John on Iwo Jima…I met with him and spoke with him, and… (Sighs) I mean, to be shaking the hand of Chuck Tatum, who once was with Basilone when he was only 18 himself. And now he’s shaking the hand of the actor who’s playing John Basilone…? What do you say? It’s like standing next to the ocean. That’s how small I felt. Actually, right when you called, I was just in the middle of typing an E-mail to Chuck. I wanted to see how he’s doing, and with the premiere of “The Pacific” finally happening this Sunday, it’s been kind of bittersweet. It’s, like, in one breath I’m happy and excited that the public is finally going to be able to see this… (Sighs)
BE: …but at the same time…
JS: …there’s this weird kind of separation anxiety.
BE: I can appreciate that. You did it a long time ago, and you’ve been talking about it ever since and for so long. But from my perspective, I think it’s really going to increase the public’s awareness of the war that went on in the Pacific, so in a very real way, it’s just the beginning.
JS: Yeah, I just really, really hope that…I mean, I know everyone’s gonna have their opinions, and everyone’s gonna think certain ways and stuff, but I just hope that what I did with my portrayal… (Trails off, his voice racked with emotion) I’m sorry, man. Just…just hold on a second.
(Writer’s note: I guess this could’ve been an awkward moment if the circumstances were different, but for my part, it only cemented the opinion of the film that I already had, which was that Seda and his fellow actors had absolutely given this project their all.)
JS: I just, uh, really hope that what I did with my portrayal of John really continues to honor his legacy and does him justice. I know I can never… I mean, I’m not him. I would never even try to say that I am equal to him or anything. I just feel fortunate and honored that I was chosen to portray him, and like I said, I hope what I did…I gave it everything I had, did the best I could physically and emotionally, and hopefully that’s what people see. And I hope that what I did continues to honor him.
BE: You did right by him. There’s no doubt in my mind.JS: Thanks, man. I appreciate it.