Clint Eastwood learned a valuable lesson when he saddled up for the role of Clint Eastwood in a 1962 episode of the equine sitcom “Mister Ed.”
“That’s when I first caught on that I didn’t want to overthink things — I was asking myself a lot of questions you shouldn’t pose, like, ‘What would the real me do in this situation?’” Mr. Eastwood recalled. “The hardest thing for a professional actor to do is to play themselves. Most actors are hiding behind roles and don’t know who they really are.”
So when the filmmaker cast Spencer Stone, Alek Skarlatos and Anthony Sadler as themselves in his new film, “The 15:17 to Paris,” which dramatizes how the three friends foiled a terrorist attack on a France-bound train in 2015, he wouldn’t allow the nonprofessionals to take acting lessons. “He said, ‘You don’t want to do that, because then you’ll look like you’re acting,’” Mr. Stone said. “He didn’t want to Hollywood it up.”
Mr. Stone, an airman in the Air Force at the time, and Mr. Skarlatos, an Oregon National Guard specialist returning from deployment in Afghanistan, were vacationing in Europe with their childhood friend Mr. Sadler, who was studying for a kinesiology degree. When a heavily armed gunman opened fire on their high-speed train, Mr. Stone and his friends subdued the assailant. The friends along with other passengers who pitched in all received the Legion of Honor, France’s highest award.
“The 15:17 to Paris” is the third film in a row Mr. Eastwood has made based on recent real-life events. He depicted the stories of the “Miracle on the Hudson” pilot Chesley B. Sullenberger III in “Sully” and the Navy SEAL Chris Kyle in “American Sniper.” But he’s not overthinking that trend, either. “I never plan anything,” he said in a recent phone interview. “You think about enough things in this life. When you make a movie, you let things fall where they may.”
Those films featured seasoned actors. “The 15:17 to Paris” is part of a long tradition of heroes playing themselves in movies. The baseball pioneer Jackie Robinson starred in “The Jackie Robinson Story” (1950) and the World War II veteran Audie Murphy re-created his exploits for “To Hell and Back” (1955).
The new film’s stars met the director when he presented them with Hero Awards at the Guys Choice ceremony on the cable channel Spike in 2016. “The three of us huddled and said, ‘We have to jokingly pitch him on making the movie,’ because we were working on a book at the time, and we didn’t want to waste the opportunity,” Mr. Sadler recalled. “He said, ‘You never know — send me the book.’”
After the director warmed to the inspirational story and the screenwriter Dorothy Blyskal turned it into a script, Mr. Eastwood began auditioning actors for the leads. Mr. Stone, Mr. Skarlatos and Mr. Sadler suggested in jest that they should be played by Chris Hemsworth, Zac Efron and Michael B. Jordan. “I got a crazy idea maybe these guys should play themselves,” Mr. Eastwood said. “They’re genuinely charismatic. I figured I’d roll the dice, what the hell? What can they do to me at this stage?”
Three weeks before shooting started, Mr. Eastwood asked the three to come in for a meeting, ostensibly to assess the screenplay’s accuracy, which they had discussed before. Only this time, he had a camera, and he asked them to re-enact the events. Then he offered them the chance to play themselves. “We hadn’t even joked about that — it wasn’t on our radar as a possibility,” said Mr. Skarlatos, who, like his two friends, hadn’t ever acted in so much as a school play. “When he asked us, we immediately said yes, because, I mean, you can’t tell Clint Eastwood no.”
Mr. Stone doubted that decision on his first day of filming last summer. “I looked over and there was Clint Eastwood, and I felt like I was in ‘The Twilight Zone,’” he said. “I bombed my first few takes, but then I got myself together and said, ‘Come on, you said yes to this, just suck it up and do it,’ and from there, it got easier and easier.”
The low-key atmosphere Mr. Eastwood’s sets are known for helped soothe the fledgling stars’ nerves. “I’ve become an anti-anxiety specialist,” the director said. “In the old days, when I started doing small parts in the ’50s, assistant directors would ring bells and yell, ‘Quiet!’ even if it was quiet already. But you don’t want to jar anybody’s nervous system. You just want them to have the most comfortable situation you can.”
The stars said Mr. Eastwood also kept it simple when guiding them. “He talked to us the same way he talked to the other actors, which was not very much in terms of direction,” said Mr. Skarlatos, whose experienced co-stars included Jenna Fischer (“The Office”) as his mother and Judy Greer (“Jurassic World”) as Mr. Stone’s mother. “All he said to us was, ‘Do it how you did it.’ He lets you do your job, which I thought was strange, since acting wasn’t our job.”
At least it wasn’t until now: All three men intend to pursue acting. (Mr. Stone and Mr. Skarlatos have since left the military.) “For sure, if I can make it a career, then why the heck not?” Mr. Stone said. “I’ve gone full Hollywood. I got a big agency, U.T.A., and hopefully things will take off.”
The novices even got some career advice from their director. “I told them after they were done shooting this movie, they could take acting lessons,” Mr. Eastwood said. “It’ll probably screw them up for a while, but they’ll be all right.”
As for his own future, Mr. Eastwood is keeping his options open. He first stepped behind the camera when he briefly filled in for the flu-stricken director Don Siegel on the set of “Dirty Harry” in 1971. “I thought, well, I’ll try this for a while, and at a certain time in life, I’ll probably look up at the screen and say, ‘Nuh-uh,’” Mr. Eastwood said. “I don’t know if that’s happened yet. But I’ve never gotten bored.”
At 87, he’s also not ruling out a return to acting, if the right part comes along. Although he chose not to appear in “The 15:17 to Paris,” a poster for another film Mr. Eastwood directed, “Letters From Iwo Jima,” can be seen in Mr. Stone’s childhood bedroom. “That’s better than having me do a cameo, like Alfred Hitchcock did,” Mr. Eastwood said. “I didn’t want to be distracting.”
In the end, as Dirty Harry said in “Magnum Force,” “A man’s got to know his limitations.” If only Mr. Eastwood had figured that out before his “Mister Ed” turn. “That wasn’t an example of great acting, I don’t think,” he said with a laugh. “But I haven’t seen it in many years.”
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