A lot of young Australian actors pop up in the new mini-series “The Pacific” (a semi-sequel to ”Band of Brothers” with Tom Hanks and Steven Spielberg retained as executive producers) but young Ben Esler might just be one of the few who’ll go on to bigger and better things. CLINT MORRIS caught up with the young actor on the line from Los Angeles.
How did you get the gig, mate?
Initially I couldn’t even get an audition. Fortunately a friend of mine who had already gone in for the project gave me a copy of his audition scenes and I was able to put something down on tape. I got together with two director buddies of mine and we did this elaborate audition, with authentic World War 2 props and costumes and proper lighting and everything. I sent it in, and then basically called every day until they agreed to watch it. Fortunately my persistence paid off. After that it was a process of auditioning repeatedly for different roles in the series over the span of maybe a month and a half in Melbourne with the casting directors and producers. Finally they flew me up to Sydney where I auditioned for the role of Chuck Tatum, and I got it.
Tell us a little bit about Chuck?
Chuck was a machine gunner who served with the 5th Marine Division on Iwo Jima. He was only seventeen when he joined the marines and the war was already well underway. He had the good fortune to train under John Basilone, who had earlier won the medal of honor for his efforts on Guadalcanal, and John’s instruction and example made a big impression on him. On Iwo Jima Chuck’s bravery earned him the bronze star. Two of his best friends had just been shot, and in his anger he single handedly decimated the cave full of Japanese responsible, running out into the open and firing his machine gun (normally mounted on a tripod) from the hip, killing them all.
He would later write a book about his experiences, which was used as source material for the series.
I spent time with him before filming at his home in Northern California, and talked for hours about his time in the marines. I’ve seen him repeatedly since. He made it down to LA for the premiere with much of his family which was really nice. We walked the red carpet together, which is something I’ll remember for a very long time.
Which actors did you work with the most?
The actors I worked with the most were Jon Seda (who plays Basilone) and Dwight Braswell (who plays Steve Evanson).
Get star struck by any of them?
Ha ha. No, not really. Most of the cast, while working actors, were not what you’d call celebrities. I think that may be about to change for some of them though.
Including yourself! What did you do in your off-time up there?
By up there I take it you mean Port Douglas? Never made it as all my sequences were shot in Victoria. They built massive, near exact replicas of Iwo Jima and Camp Pendleton (which is near San Diego) in the You Yangs, along with the sets for the islands of Peleliu and Okinawa. I had a couple of days off where I was able to take a few of the American cast down the Great Ocean Road, which was pretty cool. It was fun to play tour guide.
How much did you know about the war before you signed onto the series?
Before I did The Pacific my knowledge of the Pacific Theatre of operations was minimal, and mostly confined to the Australian perspective. I’d previously had a small role in a tv movie for the ABC called ‘Curtin’, about the pressures being placed on Australia by the threat of invasion, and that had inspired me to do some research. While auditioning for The Pacific however I became fascinated and quickly began to learn what I could about the subject. Since then I’ve continued to learn, and am still doing so.
I think one of the things that attracted the producers to telling this story is that people’s knowledge of World War II has largely emphasized the European side of the conflict. The Pacific is the follow up to Band of Brothers, and that series has done a lot to educate people who would otherwise not known a lot about the experiences of soldiers in that conflict. They wanted to do the same for the guys in the Pacific, and show the way in which the two wars differed.
Did you ever get to meet Mr Hanks or Mr Spielberg?
I’ve met Tom Hanks who is a very nice guy. Haven’t met Steven Spielberg.
Did you go to boot camp?
I’m both semi relieved and somewhat disappointed to have missed out on boot camp. The whole production really had an emphasis on authenticity, in whatever we were doing, and boot camp was both incredibly tough and very rewarding for the guys who went. It was intended to give them something to refer to when portraying the anguish and exhaustion these marines endured during their combat experiences, and as such it was uncompromising. They put them in battle scenarios with Japanese troops for hours on end, and they barely allowed them to sleep. Some of them lost quite a bit of weight and had to do some soul searching, at least to hear them tell it, but they got a lot out of it.
Yeah, my brother was one of the chaps who got to attend Boot Camp (with Capt Dale Dye) – he said it was quite the experience. But as you said, you didn’t really need that to play your character.
Chuck, on the other hand, is very green and new to the experience of being a marine when he shows up, and it was important to show that contrast. He’s still innocent. As such my training, as well Dwight’s, consisted of doing only the things one would learn prior to going into combat. A real priority was mastering the machine gun. Setting up, cleaning and using our weapon had to become second nature to us. We did it over and over, running up and down hills with Jon Seda barking orders, carrying this enormous weapon with us. It was very physical and demanding work, but I got to sleep in my own bed at night.
You’re trying your luck in the U.S? How’s it been going?
It’s going great. The Pacific has opened a lot of doors thankfully. It’s exciting to be able to enjoy new opportunities and is just one of the ways in which doing this series has changed my life.
Photo credit : Jason LaVeris/Filmmagic