Countless movies could be told about the people who served in World War II, and that’s just starting with America. Roland Emmerich’s special effects epic “Midway” focuses on a considerable roster of American all-stars from the Pacific Theater, and celebrates them with action-packed screen-time structured around the true-life narrative of the pivotal title battle. Various military heroes are represented, like Edwin Layton (Patrick Wilson), Lieutenant Commander Wade McClusky (Luke Evans), Admiral Chester Nimitz (Woody Harrelson), Vice Admiral William ‘Bull’ Halsey (Dennis Quaid), and Lieutenant Colonel Jimmy Doolittle (Aaron Eckhart). With the code-breakers, strategists, and even the Japanese given their due, the American dive bombers are represented in the film by Ed Skrein’s Lieutenant Dick Best and Luke Kleintank’s Lieutenant Clarence Dickinson.
Skrein has recently appeared in movies like “Alita: Battle Angel,” “Maleficent: Mistress of Evil” and “If Beale Street Could Talk”; Kleintank was mostly recently seen in “Crown Vic,” “The Goldfinch,” and the last three seasons of Amazon’s alternate reality WWII series “The Man in the High Castle.”
RogerEbert.com sat down with Skrein and Kleintank to talk about the pressure and research that goes into portraying the Greatest Generation, the Navy's definition for the word "scuttlebutt," the DC Comics character Skrein wants to play in five years and more.
Is there more pressure playing a historical figure or a well-known fictional character?
ED SKREIN: 100% there’s more responsibility. I’ve never felt anything like this before in my life. I’ve played real life characters on occasions, but this was representing a man from the Greatest Generation. My grandfather’s generation, you know? Both of my grandfathers fought in the war and it was the same for Luke, so this is a part of our history. Yes, it’s America’s story, but it’s global history. The responsibility and the sense of duty that one feels when playing characters like this is unreal. But more than anything, it’s really an honor to play these guys.
Did you guys have any thoughts before your grandfather’s history when you were growing up?
ES: You know what’s really sad? I didn’t know that my granddad … I knew that my granddad had fought in the war, but I didn’t know what he had done.
LUKE KLEINTANK: It’s the same for me, too. It’s amazing to now know that my uncles … the thing is that these men didn’t talk about what they did. Maybe they did here and there, my uncles knew very little but they knew my granddad was in the war during this battle. But he was on a submarine.
ES: He helped to sink a destroyer.
LK: Yeah, he was on the USS Archerfish. He was the guy who shot the torpedo to sink the Shinano. It’s a transport-like carrier in the Pacific.
Did this movie make you guys very well versed in WWII history?
ES: The very specifics of the Pacific Theater, and specifically dive bombers on the USS Enterprise, so we’re very niche. Some of the Navy guys at the Pentagon were asking us Navy questions, and we were useless, because they were asking us what a scuttlebutt is.
LK: You know what scuttlebutt is?
Uh, no. A fracas?
LK: It’s a water fountain. That’s a Navy term for a water fountain.
ES: It sounds like a dance from the ‘40s! I’d like to do the scuttlebutt. Or an Outkast album. Or an insect in Malaysia or something—I’ve been bitten by a scuttlebutt. Or a children’s toy, perhaps. From the Victorian ages.
ES: But there were limits to our knowledge, but we’ve researched it as in-depth as we could. And I think all of the cast really were preoccupied with that. Patrick [Wilson] obviously went deep into the intelligence side of things, we didn’t. We were really focused on the events and the timelines and the realities of the aviators and the Navy at that time. And we were all preoccupied with the emotional state of beings of our character, and trying to understand what that would be like.
How do you find those emotions? And how do you not lose them when you’re in a cockpit and you’re pretending you’re being shot at?
LK: You have to check back to when you were a kid, and had that imagination. But you need the stamina to stay in the moment.
I imagine that’s exhausting.
LK: Yeah it can be. But you know what, look. That stuff is at the same time … you’re intense and you’re getting into it, but it’s fun. They’ve created this whole world around you, we’re on this massive set and they’ve built an entire aircraft carrier. We’re on a plane that’s on a gimbal, we’re dressed like these guys. Everything is kind of prepared for you, so it’s just like, go.
ES: I find with the idiosyncratic, subtle, nuanced things, they can only happen naturally. Therefore what you need to do, and what my time spent preparing in London doing is, finding out what it isn’t. It's working out what is not nuanced, what is not idiosyncratic, what is the obvious way to do it, what mistakes people have made before in the canon of war movies. Before you know it, you have these parameters that are kind of focused and small, and it becomes a process of elimination rather than saying, “I’m going to do this.” So, you decide what you’re not going to do, you inform yourself intellectually with everything that happened, and then you get on set and you’re physically informed by everything that Luke discussed. And then the most important thing is that you just let go.
LK: Yeah, you do it better than me. The thing is, you prepare as much as you can, but you get on set, and it all changes. All of that kind of goes out the window. You can do as much preparation as you like, but you just have to live in it. You can’t make anything perfect.
ES: And try things as well. And then you just hope that they edit it with the good stuff—and I must say that I’m extremely impressed with the editing. And I know there’s stuff they cut out and I think … it’s fair enough. I genuinely think they did a great job in the edit.
I can imagine it’s nerve-racking as an actor, with editing creating the performance.
LK: You just never know what you’re going to get.
ES: And there’s an acceptance in the process—you have to let go. So, when you see the movie, it’s a relief, first and foremost, rather than a celebration when you see they’ve done a great job. This is a piece I’m really proud of, and as Luke said at the beginning, this is what we want to do, movies like this. Movies with this emotion, not just the World War.
Ed, when you were finding the emotions for this take on World War II, were you watching old movies or more recent ones?
Do you feel like your performance was more informed by older ideas of masculinity than the newer text?
ES: It wasn’t based on any particular character from the canon of war movies that we have. But you have to research everything, and I’m a bit of a film nerd. This was a good excuse to watch “Flags of Our Fathers,” “Letters from Iwo Jima,” “The Pacific” and “Band of Brothers” again, it was just a dream come true. One of the things that I love about when I get new roles, it’s like, “Yes, now I’m going to buy ten movies. Sorry babe, I’ve gotta watch a movie tonight, it’s work!”
LK: I have my research and I do have my preparation. My preparation wasn’t movies so much as documentaries, I think I watched John Ford’s documentary about 40 times, just to feel and just to understand the war. I just wanted to get a good understanding of it. But for me, it really was the book. My character wrote a book, it was called The Flying Guns. He wrote it like six months after the war, so it recounted everything that he did. So for me, that was like, “I’m going to focus on this, this is his voice, this is how he felt, and I’m going to take that and use that, and then that’s it.” And then I’ll show up on set and I’ll learn everything about the military and the Navy, how they hold and carry themselves, talk to the people, talk to the old-timers. And just let it be, man. And just play with it. And try new things. Trust the director, and trust everyone around you. You can come in with your ideas, and sometimes your ideas are pretty shitty so it’s like, OK, we’re going to change that.
ES: That book was a Bible for me as well. Dick Best didn’t write a biography on his time in Midway, but he’s spoken so much in Clarence Dickinson’s book and Dusty Kleiss’ book. [Luke] lent me the book, a beautiful 1940s edition. And when we finished in Hawaii I took it back to London with me, and I was shitting myself that I was going to ruin it or break the cover. I was treating it like the Holy Grail. It was so informative, and it was also so special to have it. It was signed by the owner in 1941. I got it back to him in one piece.
LK: It was really hard to find. I got it online but there were only a few copies.
ES: I couldn’t find one, I wanted to get one. I should have kept it in London. Oh, I forgot it! Sorry! I’ll send it to you. Oops, the kids have eaten it!
LK: If you’re a huge history buff, you should read it. It’s amazing. You know, the thing is that the movie doesn’t capture his whole story. His whole story starts at Pearl Harbor and it’s incredible.
ES: You could make "Clarence Dickinson: The Movie." But then you’ve got people like Gallagher, as well, you could have made a movie about him. Dusty Kleiss, you could have made a movie about him. All of these men, so many of these men, this is just on the Enterprise. There’s also the Yorktown, the Lexington, and all of this. There’s so much. So many heroes. That’s kind of where our responsibility got even bigger in a sense, where we’re not only representing Clarence Dickinson and Richard Halsey Best, this is representing all of them.
LK: It broke my heart last night—there was a veteran there who was 101. He thought the movie was about the Yorktown, and he was giving us the names of the guys, like, “Where’s this person, and this person?" in the movie. But we’re like, “It’s not the Yorktown, it’s the Enterprise!”
ES: But you know, I hope that he appreciates our efforts. And this is why they call it the Greatest Generation, because there are so many stories of heroics. This is just in the one battle of Midway, in the same way with Iwo Jima. Imagine all of the movies that you could make about that. And the War in the Pacific Theater didn’t stop in the Battle of Midway.
LK: There was the story of Japan invading Alaska—I think that was the first or only land battle that the Japanese had on the U.S.
Who is someone, not from this project, that you’d like to play?
ES: I’d like to play Spider Jerusalem, who is a character from the [DC Comics] comic book Transmetropolitan. I think I need to be a little bit older to play it. I’m 36 right now, but if they haven’t made it in like five or ten years, then I want to play Spider Jerusalem. And the more I look around at Brexit Britain and Trump’s America, the more I feel that Transmetropolitan needs to be made.
Are you going to make that happen?
ES: Hmm … I’m patient. I actually spoke to Jackie Earle Haley about that one, on the set of “Alita.” I told him he’d be amazing. Actually, he’d be better than me. Even as I’m answering this question, I’m very objective and philosophical about it, I want the best person to play it. If that’s me one day, great. If not, I just hope they make it and Jackie Earle Haley would be amazing.
What about you, Luke?
LK: I think at one point in my life—Shia LaBeouf did it recently with “Honey Boy,” he played his father—I think at one point in my life I’d like to make a movie about my family, and play my father. That would be amazing.
What would the story be?
LK: Ah, you know. We’ll wait for the movie to come out.
ES: Do I get a role in it?
LK: Yeah, you can play my brother Jake.
ES: Then we’re going to be the same age. That means you’ll be my dad.
LK: You can play his uncle Jim, or Jerry.
ES: I’ll be Jim or Jerry. See you at the junket!