National Geographic’s global scripted event series “The Long Road Home” is based on the New York Times best-selling book of the same name by Martha Raddatz and has been adapted by screenwriter Mikko Alanne.
Over the eight-parts, “The Long Road Home” relives a heroic fight for survival during the Iraq War, when the 1st Cavalry Division from Fort Hood was ferociously ambushed on April 4, 2004, in Sadr City, Baghdad — a day that came to be known in military annals as “Black Sunday.” The event series will cut between the action on the ground in Iraq and that of the homefront back in Texas, where wives and families await news for 48 hellish hours, expecting the worst.
At a special press junket organized by National Geographic during MIPCOM TVBIZZ’s Alexandra Shutova talked to Martha Raddatz; two-time Emmy-nominated actor Michael Kelly (“House of Cards,” “Taboo”) who plays the role of Lt. Col. Gary Volesky; Emmy-nominated Jon Beavers (“NCIS,” “Gotham”) who has been cast as Sgt. Eric Bourquin as well as to US Army veteran Sgt. Eric Bourquin himself.
“The Long Road Home” premiered on National Geographic on Tuesday, Nov. 7th.
Martha Raddatz and Michael Kelly
Michael, you have played in numerous TV series and you are one of the most-seasoned actors in The Long Road Home. Tell us what makes this project different from all other series you have shot?
Michael: I think what made it so different for me is that I’m playing someone who is still alive, still in active duty in the military. You tell a story that is very sensitive to a lot of people, because of the loss of live and injuries that they had. You feel a real obligation to tell it as honestly and as best you can because of that.
Did you do any research of your character?
Michael: Martha had done so many on-camera interviews for ABC that I was able to watch. On top of that, I talked to other soldiers and Gary himself. Martha was like an open book - I could call her and talk about this.
Martha: the whole cast was so respectful of the roles and the people they were playing. A lot of them played people who were lost over there. They were all incredibly respectful of the families and the responsibility. They went to basic training camp so they could feel the role. They captured the whole thing so well in the life of just regular solders. Even though Michael plays Gary Volesky, iconic in the military, they are all regular guys.
It was very important for Michael to hear about Gary’s family, his wife and the son. To find out who this man is deeper than just a soldier. It can be any solder from around the world, from any of the countries and any of the families.
I think what we love about this is they are captured as regular guys. Not Navy Seals, not special operatives. It’s the hero thing in regular guys who rose to the moment and saved the lives of their brothers and went in and risked themselves.
Michael Kelly © National Geographic
Michael, is it easier to play a real or a fictional character?
Michael: It’s far more difficult to play a real person instead of a fictional one. You have a source material which makes it a little bit easier, but the obligation to do the real justice is far more difficult, it puts a lot more pressure. I’ve told the story party many times, how I met the guys who served under Gary. And they were all surprised to see that I was cast for the role, saying that it was a big shoe to fill. ‘No way this guy can do it’. Because they hold him so high. And now that I’ve met him, I hold him so high as well.
It’s tough, a big task to take on – to play someone who is thought of so highly.
Martha: He saw interviews with Gary, who was reflective about his life and his family. But Michael had to play him in battle, and none of us saw him in battle. So he had to take that character that he saw and put him on the streets of Sadr City.
Michael, you have been shooting in House of Cards in the past four years - you play the right hand of the President. In The Long Road Home you play Gary Volesky - who is he?
Michael: Gary is the guy who his men would say ‘I’d follow him to hell today’. Today. Everyone who had served under him said that if he called them today and said we’re going to rob a bank, they would say I’m in. Because they would know two things - that there is a reason and they would get out safe. It’s the that leadership. He promised to all the families to bring their husbands, sons, fathers back. He later said that that he has to believe it to do what he does.
Martha: He has a big sore heart and a big deep soul. Gary loves his guys, he cares about them. He used to be in charge of 700 guys. Now he is in charge of 40,000 soldiers.
Jon Beavers and Eric Bourquin
Jon, tells us what is filming like for The Long Road Home - where are you shooting the series and how many scenes you have already shot?
Jon: We’ve finished filming. We’ve shot for about 4 months, and pre-production lasted for another 4 months before that.
You are playing the role of Sgt. Eric Bourquin. What is your character like?Is it easier to play a real person?
Jon: I wouldn’t say that it’s easier but there are advantages to it. I felt that my level of commitment was exceptionally high because of the person who lived through these events.
As opposed to having the liberty of creating my own version of the story, I’m attempting to recreate actual events.On top of that, the guy I am playing weighs 200 lb and has an intimidatingly well-groomed beard. That means that I required more of myself. At the same time, he was an extremely generous resource as were all of the participants of the event who came to set. All of them were very generous with answers to any questions that we had. I could turn to Eric and ask: hey, I’m doing this and this, is it how it actually happened? And he would guide me. Who else has that much accessibility to the character they have to portray? I felt very empowered, very supported by him and by the rest of the soldiers there.
Did you have any special preparation for the role?
Jon: Training was intense. We shot on Fort Hood, a military base in Texas. That also happens to be where this platoon was stationed and where it deployed from. It’s a very personal story to that community because It happened to that community. We trained on a facility called Elijah – which is a munitions range. That happened to be exactly where they trained for this event.
We were given 3 weeks of rifle training, squad training, learnt everything from body bounding to fire squad maneuvers; how to clear a building. For example,clearing building with 2 guys vs clearing building with 8 guys. We were given a crash course in the training these guys received. In no way I feel trained to do what they do but I feel trained enough to say how difficult it is to do what they do.
I can make it look good for 15 seconds at a time. Then I have to stop, have a bottle of water and sometimes call my agent to complain. That’s the only difference between me and real soldiers.
Training facility was converted into this incredible theme-park-sized set, it was unbelievable. We lived in soldier housing on that facility for about 4 months. It was hot and sweaty, dirty. We stank and got to know each other very well. We were bored and exhausted together and It fused us, almost like a platoon might fuse. In what for them were obviously much more strenuous circumstances, it was enough to bring around that comradery. The way that we learnt to trust each other as a group of actors and the way that we learnt to rely on these guys as leaders. We were telling the story in the very place it began. A story of fellow soldiers who lost fellow soldiers, loved ones, who sacrificed and risked their lives. Doing it in the place where they trained was surreal and gave goosebumps.
Jon Beavers and Eric Bourquin © National Geographic
Eric, what was special for you in the Long Road Home?
Eric: The people that got to portray the soldiers, even my old roommate, surgeon Chin. Kinney Leu, the actor who played him, went to amazing lengths. There are numerous stories of the day he was killed on set. He laid on the ground to maintain the scene, to make sure everybody understands how it feels.
You don’t get that from normal every-day running the mill. The way he helped set the stage for everybody else. It speaks a lot about the caliber of people who were working on the show. Nothing short of what I could have expected – the highest echelon of professionals.
Jon: The day when we shot the death of surgeon Chin, Kinney Leu was put in full make up and covered in blood. He laid down in the spot where the scene was going to be shot. We blocked it once. Typically, when cameras and lights move in, actions can take a break, go to the bathroom, have some water. But he laid there for 4 uninterrupted hours, on the grovel. He was trying to breathe as slowly as he could. It was for him also because he was doing his own work, but it cast the spell on the rest of the actors. Watching a person lay lifeless for that long while we all got our waters, and did other things. All of the sudden, everything started to settle down.
We could feel the unearthliness of seeing a body without life with it. We could imagine it more clearly, because he was willing to go to that length. It’s unusual. Not unheard of but unusual for an actor to work off-camera for the sake of what was going to be put on-camera. I saw that level of commitment in every actor I got to work with.
Eric likes to describe this story as a love story, and I think that it is. It’s about comradery, brotherhood and sisterhood. About family back home and about family overseas. It’s a special story, we all fell in love with it and we all wanted to bleed or sweat or cry to make sure it was told as truly and powerfully as could be. ▪