The upcoming film, Only the Brave, chronicles a group of men who fight wildfires. It’s a tale of man against nature, but more than anything, it’s a story about camaraderie between a group of men, and the difficulties the job is on the family these men create.
LRM had a chance to sit down with one of the stars of the film, James Badge Dale, in a roundtable conversation with a bunch of other journalists. In the film, Dale plays the character of Jesse Steed, the captain of the Granite Mountain Hotshots, and second in command to Josh Brolin’s Eric Marsh. In our conversations with him, he delved into the friendship and trust built between firefighters like the Granite Mountain Hotshots, and how they did their best to replicate that on the set of the film.
You play a lot of men in uniform. What do you think sort of separates this role from the other roles you’ve played in the past?
Dale: I’ve played a lot of bad guys too, man, I just want to point that out.
Dale: This film was very special to me. The week of the Yarnell hill fire — I’m a New York City kid, and I was riding the 6th train downtown, the subway. The New York Times did a two-page article on these guys. Fernando Santos is the writer, and she, the 1st half of the article was on what it takes to becomes a tier one hotshot crew. The difference between tier one and tier two. How hard these guys worked. What it meant to be the first crew to come from city, and not a federal agency, or state. Then it was about how they stuck together to the end. What those shelters are and what they do. What it is was like, or would be like. The science behind if you’re standing there, and forty foot wall of flames are coming at you at 3,000 degrees. I was struck by that story. I was sitting on the subway, I don’t know, man. Something seemed deeply important in this story thread. It deserves to be told. I think we can all learn something from this, take something from this. This movie is a celebration of life. It’s a celebration of love, because they gave and their family members gave. If you watch this film, and you watch Jennifer Connelly’s performance, what she gives. This job was special from the beginning, and we’ve all tried to treat it as such. I hope that answers your question.
I think when you’re watching the film you can feel the authenticity, and the tools, the way you guys move and operate the terminology. Can you maybe give an example how on the set on how the advisors helped? It felt like the kind of movie where the details seemed right. I just thought that as an actor, what you got input from and how that helped you create those characters.
Dale: Yeah, thank you. I’m glad you brought that up. We had four former Granite Mountain Hotshots train us. These guys they were all friends, with these guys. Yes, they trained us physically, technically. But also this other side of it was, “Look man we have fun a lot of fun while we’re at work. This is our attitude. This is the way we do it. We’d love you guys to have that same attitude,” so how do we create this culture. Our tech advisor was with us the whole time. We had a firefighter who was with us the entire time. So at every moment, on that set, there was someone who was there for you, supporting you, also telling you you’re doing it completely wrong [laughs]. You know. You start to get into it, man. These guys have a lot of pride in their work, and what they do. The fact that they’re marathon runners, they’re not sprinters. They come in and they last, and they will outlast the man next to them. There’s that little competition with them. The strength isn’t this outward thing that you look at. It’s not a bunch of big, large guys running around, those guys wash out. Strength comes from within, so by the end of it, we were, we’re the number one actor firefighting crew around. There’s no number two crew, and no one is ever going to call us to put out anything, but we took a lot of pride in our work, and it was a beautiful thing at the end of the day. Even as an actors, we’d sit there and be like hey man, look at that line. That’s a nice line.
How did you prepare for the days where you knew that it was going to be hard scene to film? You knew there were certain days where there were big scenes coming up. How did you mentally and emotionally prepare for that?
Dale: I don’t want to get too actory with you, and take to you about process. Everybody works a little bit differently. What I will say that is that we shot Yarnell last. We all knew that was, and what that meant. I’m proud to be apart of this film, and I’m also proud of all the actors that I worked with to be able to do that. We didn’t double people. We didn’t stunt double people. It takes a lot of trust to trust an actor with a chainsaw.
Especially with a beer bottle — opening that beer bottle with the chainsaw.
Dale: That was [firefigher advisor] Brandon Bunch, yes that’s totally true. What you see in the film is the firefighter Brandon Bunch, who was on the crew for a number of years. He was best friends with Garrett Subner, and on the last day of boot camp, we brought out a bunch of beers and we’re all sitting around watching the sunset. He says, “Guys check this out,” and fires up the chainsaw and opens a beer bottle with a chainsaw. Taylor Kitsch was like, “No f**king way, do it again.”
Did he try it?
Dale: No, no. Taylor was like, “Don’t even hand me a chainsaw, I don’t want anything to do with that.” I don’t know if you noticed, Taylor Kitsch had a rake in the movie, and we would anyways make fun of him. It’s his main tool. It’s an important part of the movie, to cut the line you’ve got to break down the mineral soil, and you got to make that thing clean. So Chris MacKenzie, Taylor Kitsch’s character, will come back from the back end after — he cut it himself — but he would come in with that rake and be like, “Yeah, what’s up man? Bad ass at the rake.” Taylor Kitsch filmed Brandon Bunch opening a beer bottle with a chainsaw, and brought it to [director] Joe Kosinsky, and was like you got to put this in the movie, and that’s why it’s on the film.
That’s so cool. This movie is obviously very personal, like emotional. There’s a lot of movies that when they talk about wars, fire, they sometime just don’t go beyond that. This movie touched very personal levels with their family. I’m a military wife, so I know, I’ve seen it, it’s crazy. I’ve seen those scenes in the movie, and I cried like a baby, in the whole movie, I think.
Dale: It’s a good cry.
It’s a good cry. When you think about the portrayal of the more personal moments — like the gym scene at the end [where Miles Teller’s character comes in at the end to a room full of grieving families]. What do you think about those more personal moments?
Dale: That’s a big part of the true story. I’m glad you brought that up because I feel like there’s two heartbeats in this film, meaning there are the guys up there on there on the line. Then you look at Josh Brolin and Jennifer Connelly, and the work that they put into this film. Two people who are flawed, as we all are. We all have cracks and fissures in us, and we’re looking to fill them somehow. To see that those characters trying to navigate each other because they love each other, but they’re both sacrificing. They’re both giving. They’re both giving something up, and both trying to give to each other. That’s an important part of our story, and that’s the part of the story that’s relatable to everybody. You might not know everything about wild land firefighting. You might not have any relationship to a firefighter. I live in New York City, we have a completely different relationship to wild land firefights. It just doesn’t exist. We’re on the structure side. But everyone can relate the Marshes’ relationship in this film, and I mean Jennifer Connelly is so good in this movie. It’s so ridiculous. We all saw this, and Brolin, man — because we’d be out there out there cutting lines. We’re all working together as a crew, and then a day or two would come, where Brolin would go and work with Connelly. He’d come back and be like, “Badge I got to — she’s so good. I got to raise my game because she’s so good.” We’re proud of the movie and proud of everyone’s work in the film.
You think about the film you did last year, “13 Hours.” This is a journey of a different film, but it felt like there was a connection there, sort of selflessness, or heroism, what they’re willing to sacrifice. Did you see that connection in some capacity?
Dale: Yes, sure it is. This is a different story, but selflessness comes in a lot of forms in life. What’s interesting to me just on a personal level is as actors we spend a lot of time thinking about ourselves. Maybe we take, and maybe I’m guilty of taking. I’ve been lucky and fortunate enough to play a number of men who aren’t here anymore to tell their stories. I take something from that, but now I’m learning that I’m taking something different, taking something a little more positive. I didn’t know [the character I play in the film,] Jesse Steed. I didn’t know Tyrone Woods, but these guys have taught me something. I’ve learned from Jesse Steed, and I want to be a better person because of that, because he gave. There was things about him that made me nervous because I didn’t know if I had that within myself. It was something as simple as the fact that this man had the bravery and strength to walk up to people with a big smile and give them a hug, and say, “I love you man.” That scared me more than anything.
So you called this film a celebration of life, and I think that’s an important distinction to make. It’s not just a recreation of a tragedy that sits heavy on everyone. But it’s actually a celebration of these men as actual people. What was important for you that you brought to this character to make sure that Jesse Steed was not just someone who died tragically, but was a round and dynamic character?
Dale: He was a dynamic guy, just what we were talking about. He came to work with this kind of gregarious, positive attitude. He wasn’t involved in himself, he was involved in you, to a man. Everybody I know that I’ve talk to that worked with him would talk about how much he gave. He was that type of guy. He wanted to help you out no matter what, no matter what position you were in. If things weren’t possibly going right over here, he was the type of guy to come up and work right next to you. To show you the way they were suppose to be done. Not tell you you’re doing it wrong, tell you we’re going to do it together the right way, In my conversations with his wife — he left a wife and two children behind. What blew me away was this guy would go work 16 hours a day cutting line. He would spike out for two weeks, and come home and be present with his family. He gave to them, he had that ability. He didn’t struggle with that. He was larger than life guy.
What was training like for the film? Where there some times where you were, “Like holy s**t this is hard,” and then did you find yourself like competing with some of the other guys on set?
Dale: There wasn’t a day when someone wasn’t going like, “Holy shit this is hard,” and there wasn’t a day we weren’t competing with each other.
Were there weird tactics that you had to do, like Josh [Brolin] was mentioning, or Miles [Teller] was mentioning, there’s a 45 pound back on your back for sit-ups and push-ups. Were there some tactics where you were like I’ve never done this in a gym before, but it’s happening?
Dale: Oh you don’t go to a gym. If you worked on this film, there was no going to the gym. I’m a runner. I run a lot, so I get up in the morning and run. We would be out there or something, you start to really, you take pride in your work. You don’t want to take a break, I don’t want to sit down. I don’t want to take my pack off. I want to cut that line. I want to be in front line. I would watch Miles, what was so funny about Miles, is he was at first like, “God, what am I doing? I’m an actor, I’m a Hollywood actor,” and by the end he would be like, “F**king put me in front of the goddamn line.” He enjoyed being able to set that pace. I’ve never experienced anything like this. Come to work with 20 guys everyday. Work was everyday, all day, no matter what, and all of them came with the right right attitude and gave to the film. From Josh Brolin, Miles Teller to myself, and Taylor and all the way down to the guys doing their first movie. It was their first experience in filmmaking. We would grab them and I’d tell them, “Look, this isn’t normal. So soak up every moment of this because this is rare.” In filmmaking there’s a beginning, a middle, and an end. When we finish production, that’s it. You don’t get a second chance at it. There’s no second season. It’s done. So you give everything, everyday. Every moment you have, you be present. You soak that up.” On an actor level, I’m proud of those young guys that we worked that that was their 1st film. It was pretty cool.
Your parents were in show business in different capacities, how much did it influence you? Or did you want to rebel and not do that, or just sort of say I’m going to do what they’re doing in some capacity?
Dale: I tried to rebel as much as I could. I played hockey. I was like this is what I want to do. What’s strange to me is hockey got me back to New York City, and then I got injured, and all my energy went into the theater department because I thought that was the easiest thing to study while I was playing hockey. It’s funny where you end up. But they were — just a little shoutout to my parents, they were strong performers. What they did impart on me was this is a blue collar job. This is born and bred in work ethic. What you put in is what you get out. They weren’t Hollywood, they were New York theater actors. It’s a different mentality.
Were they nervous when you went into it? Were they proud of it, or was it?
Dale: Hated it. They’re like go be a doctor, go get a real job. Why do you want to do this for? My father is still around, and we have a close relationship. He’s really happy because we have something we share. We talk about it all the time.
Only the Brave hits theaters on October 20, 2017.