Interview : Jesse Bradford


Starring in Eastwood’s “Flags of our Fathers”

Jesse Bradford is one of today’s most versatile actors. He’s seemingly played it all – as evidenced by his diverse back catalogue (“Swimfan”, “Get Over It”, “Far From Home”, “Eulogy”, TVs “The West Wing”). His latest film is “Flags of our Fathers”.

Do you ever get used to Eastwood’s quick shooting style?

Yeah. It’s definitely different than most, but you quickly fall into his system. It’s not that hard to get used to it. Before I went into the movie, I heard that he doesn’t call ‘Action’ or ‘Cut,’ and I found that hard to believe, but it’s absolutely true. He says things like, ‘Okay, go,’ or ‘Whenever you’re ready,’ and then, instead of ‘Cut,’ he says, ‘Stop.’ He sets a very mellow, low-key pace, and there isn’t that whole, ‘Okay, we’re rolling’ and everything. It’s kept somehow much more subdued than that. And it’s nice. It sets a great tone.

How does that serve you as the actor?

I thought it was great. It just feels right. The only thing that was ever a little daunting is that he literally does one take per shot, whenever possible. Maybe two. On some of the big-scale war stuff, maybe we’d hit five or six just because there was a lot going on, and how do you get that in one? So, it forces you to be on your game, to be very, very specific about the beats that you know you want to make sure don’t get passed up.

Did you research to find people who knew your character?

I spoke to his son quite a few times – Rene Gagnon, Jr. He lives in New Hampshire. He’s 50-ish. I just wanted to get a sense of what the guy was like from somebody who really knew him and knew him well, and I also wanted to hear a close approximation of what Rene may have sounded like.

Did you have a sense of responsibility to the real person?

Yeah. My main feelings of responsibility were tangled up in the idea of that if you read the book, Flags of Our Fathers, and if you see the movie, and if you had read the script before making the movie, there was a degree to which Rene could be construed as the one who takes the brunt of some things because he does get sucked in to the glitz and the glamour, if you will, whereas the other guys are just wishing they were still defending their buddies. Rene’s going, ‘Woo! I’m glad I’m not on that island anymore.’ I can’t blame him for that. Maybe that’s why I got the job, but I can’t blame him. I completely understand that this sense of loyalty would develop, of course. And I’ll never really understand it because I’ve never been in that situation. I’ve seen why that would be the case. But at the same time, I don’t think Rene should be held too accountable for being a 20-year-old kid who gets plucked out of one of the bloodiest battles in history, and sent home to be a celebrity and see his mom and his girlfriend. I mean, that’s a dream come true. ‘Thank God I didn’t die on the island because now I’m here enjoying the fruits of my efforts or labor.’ So, my responsibility, I think, came in the sense of trying to make him more complicated than a guy who gets fleeced by celebrity and has big stars in his eyes. I hope that you come out of the movie and go, ‘Well, he made some mistakes, but you can’t hate him for it. Anybody could have made those mistakes.’

How has this movie influenced your perspective on Iraq?

Well, the main way in which it influences my perspective is just a far more deepened profound appreciation for anybody who makes that sacrifice, so that I can be here doing this. From any war or from any era, if you’ve ever been an American soldier, then you’ve already done more than I’ve done in my life. And you’ve got to respect that. You know you’re supposed to respect it, but when you actually try to get inside the head of these people and you try to imagine what that might have been like, you don’t even come close to knowing. At the same time, a new shiver goes down your spine when you see somebody who you know really is going through it or did go through it.

Will the experience of making this movie live with you forever?
Yeah. Every movie is that way. But with this one, on a scale from one to 10, it’s a 37. I think everybody feels that way, all the guys who worked on this movie together. I have a feeling that if we all stay in this business, we could see each other 20 years from now, and it will be this weird like, ‘Think about what we did 20 years ago’ thing, because it’s a pretty unique experience. Every movie is that way to some degree, but this one more so.

What was it like to shoot the actual flag-raising scene?
We had to practice the positioning of the flag-raising quite a few times. We worked on it; we got notes; we had people stand in the place where the picture would have been taken and adjust us. We stopped at specific places to make little adjustments. It did not have to be perfect. There is no way we ever would have gotten it perfect. But we all agreed that we should come as close as possible, and just remember certain things. This hand position is really important, whereas, just how much of the corner of my face you actually see is a little less important. If it’s a little more, a little less, so be it. But certain things, like Ira reaching up with his hand in the back were obviously extremely important. So, we practiced.

What goes into your decision to go after or take a film role?

If you’re going to be lucky enough to make a living as an artist, hopefully you can continue to challenge yourself and pick roles that are going to help you grow as an artist and a human being. About eight years ago, I remember telling an agent that I worked with at the time that I wanted to play Jimi Hendrix in a movie. I’m not that stupid anymore. I’ve learned something since then. When I read a script, I look at the role I’m supposed to do and I go, ‘I don’t know if I got this in me.’ And it’s not because of emotional depth. Sometimes it’s just about type. And by the same token I really want to try to stretch the limits of my range. So, it’s a weird line. Someday down the line, if I try to play a gangster or something, hopefully people will forgive me if it’s not quite right, but you’ve got to try.

Was there a time when you thought you were going to be playing high school students for the rest of your life?

About four years ago, I started making the joke that if I have to slam a locker door in a movie, I want no part of it. Or if I’m worried about passing the SATs and losing my virginity, it’s no longer what I’m interested in. So, I guess I drew a line in the sand and I think I’ve walked over that line. There came a point when I just had to go, ‘This is no longer remotely applicable to my life. And, I can’t keep living in the past.’ But I don’t think I reached that point anyway. I think I was the right age at the right time to be in a couple of those kinds of movies when there happened to be a boom in that kind of movie. So I’d like to think I’m on the other side of it now.

For the speech you give in the film, was it an emotional experience to prepare for that monologue?

I had it memorized before we even showed up for work. I had it memorized before the movie even started filming. It was one of those things that I kept running over in my mind. That being said, I remember a couple images that came to mind. I thought about my grandfather, who really fought in World War II. He was in the Air Force. He was a bomber pilot who flew many successful missions over Europe. I also thought about a lot of different clips and images from documentaries that I watched about Iwo Jima and about World War II, but especially about this one vet who is in the middle of a story, and he just breaks down crying. It’s just a very touching, real kind of moment, and it was easy to think about. It was easy to put something behind the idea that we’re doing this for the guys that are still there. I didn’t want that to come off as a hollow statement from him, because someone like Ira’s character would have questioned that about Rene at that point in the story, in their arc together. So, I wanted to make sure that there was something real attached to it, and I hope it came off that way.