R. Lee Ermey Talks Lock 'n' Load

The legendary actor talks about his new History Channel reality show

R. Lee Ermey made his big break with his towering performance in Stanley Kubrick's Full Metal Jacket and he's made a career of portraying colorful characters since then. These days, Ermey is venturing into the world of reality TV with his new show, Lock N' Load, which is currently airing on Friday nights at 9 PM ET on the History Channel. Ermey recently participated on a conference call to promote his new series, and here's what he had to say.

You know, the show obviously it's fun to watch you use these weapons and blow stuff up, but beyond that I mean it's genuinely interesting. Can you sort of talk about the historic values that come along with the show?

R. Lee Ermey: Well, that's the objective is to give a history of different type of weapons, like we go to great pains to find - when we did the tank episode for instance, we found the old Renault tank, which is one of the very first tanks ever and it was given to us by the French. But we went up to Montana, we went up to Montana and we talked about it, we rode in it, we drove it. And one of the things is if we do any - we start with the oldest vehicle of its kind or the oldest gun of its kind, talk about the origin of the particular weapon in question, and we work our way up through the show up to the modern technology aspect of the show. And so it gives everybody a good sense of the history of each of these weapons. I mean with the rifles for instance, we start with the old match locks. Well we start actually with the hand cannons and how black powder came into existence. The Chinese invented it years ago. And we work our way up to the newest, latest and greatest. So that's basically history, isn't it?

Now of all the instruments, all the devices that you've used so far, what do you enjoy the most? What did you have the most fun using?

R. Lee Ermey: We had a thing on the show the other day called the hwacha. And this is a very primitive weapon that they load 200 arrows into this big box and they light one fuse and each one of these arrows has a black powder charge on it that ignites and sends these arrows about 500 yards. I mean they go way out there, and I was - we stood behind this thing, we lit the fuse, we stood behind it. We're out on a dry lake bed out in California out in the desert and we backed up about 50 yards behind this thing and when it started going off, man it took about 20 seconds for all 200 rockets or arrows to launch, but you were watching this thing and you were absolutely transfixed. I mean this thing was going off, shooting rockets and you had no idea which direction. We tried to point it in a general direction away from us, but you just never can tell. We had arrows going straight up in the air and coming down all around us. But once we lit this thing off, it was like you were so centered on this box of arrows going off that nothing else entered your mind. Not your payments to your credit card or the money you owed on your car or nothing. Nothing interfered, you were totally centered on this hwacha going off. That was one of the most amazing ones that we've done. I thought that was just spectacular.

I realize you're going through the history of each weapon like I watched the episode with guns how you went from like a one gun I think it shot like two, I'm not even sure how many bullets at the same time, but from two or three different barrels at the same time. And then there was the tank episode that you just mentioned. My question to you is this; as a veteran yourself, are you impressed by the latest technology that's being used in defense, in American defense and offense, for lack of a better expression? And also has the nature of actually, whether you're in the Marines, Army, Navy or Air Force, has it changed a great deal in maybe the last 20 or 30 years from when you were a Marine to the point to when you were actually serving as a Marine, for lack of a better expression, I apologize, and in the present, if you don't mind.

R. Lee Ermey: Absolutely. And huge changes, it's just the people are the same. The motivation, morale second to none, no question about it. Our military is man, they're top notch. And we've got robots, UAVs, the communication systems now that we work with in the military are - the stuff that we worked with in Viet Nam is just like ancient history. The communications, for instance, we could be in the field, Marines be in the field and have a downed, have a wounded Marine. We could have an Army helicopter hovering above us and we couldn't communicate with that Army helicopter. We could only communicate with Marine helicopters. So we would have to bring a medivac all the way from Da Nang to come out and pick up our wounded comrade. And nowadays, we can talk to everybody. If we can see them in the air above us, we can talk to them. So they can come in and assist us. And survival rate is just phenomenal. I go to Walter Reed in Bethesda. Every time I go to Washington, DC, I go up to see the guys and I see wounds up there that in Vietnam we wouldn't even have bothered to put this guy up in the helicopter. We would have put him on blast, because his survival rate would have been - we would have just figured he's out of here, he's gone, you know. But nowadays we're saving people's lives that have been wounded in combat that years ago Vietnam, we wouldn't have had a chance. And last time I was at Bethesda I seen a young man that had been shot with a 50 caliber round. My goodness, it was right through his chest and he survived. It was just amazing. But technology is actually the only changes in the military, the troops are still the same, the motivation is there, the morale, the honor. The difference in today's military and the military that I dealt with back in the '60s is technology at its finest. I mean we don't go knock down doors any more to clear a house or a building suspected to hold terrorists. We now have robots that can do that. We have robots that we can mount guns on, we can mount cameras on these robots, they can go knock the door down, they can go in the building and clear the building. Not saying that we don't still have troops that go clear buildings, but we have these robots at our fingertips. We don't have to send a pilot into harm's way to find the bad guys. We now have UAVs, unmanned aerial vehicles, that mount cameras, we put cameras on them and they fly them over the suspected bad guys' lairs and find out where the bad guys are. We have also helicopters that are unmanned helicopters that we can do the same thing with and not only can we mount cameras on them, we can also put weapons on these UAVs. It's pretty amazing stuff. Technology rules right now.

Following up on technology as it relates to Lock N' Load and History. Do you find, for lack of a better expression, what you were talking about before about the use of robots and that sort of thing, I couldn't help but think of the Terminator films because obviously that's sci-fi, but do you find that's sometimes amazing to the point of where what once would be considered the realm of science fiction like a helicopter that's being operated by a robot controlled from a central site. Or I forget what they call them, but sometimes you see them in television commercials, the like robot planes that can fly and do all sorts of things.

R. Lee Ermey: UAVs.

UAVs, okay. Do you ever say to yourself, my God, I mean this is - I read this in Starship Troopers or something like that, do you know what I mean?

R. Lee Ermey: Yes, I think, I honestly believe that's where a lot of these weapons developers get their doggone ideas is out of science fiction movies, you know? Because who would have ever thought that we would use a robot in combat. Who would have ever thought that we would have unmanned aerial vehicles that could fly missions? It is very science fiction. Not to say we don't need grunts on the ground, because we certainly do and they're the ones that do the hard work. But sure, but still and yes, that sure is a nice thought that they have all of these different innovations at their fingertips where they can use these. And so it's like DOD, or excuse me, EOD, explosive ordinance disposal. Now, we've had a problem, as you know, and everybody else knows, we've had a problem with IEDs. That's the explosion, the roadside explosions that blow up our vehicles as they go on convoy. We hear all the time, well we hear on TV all the time about IED killed one or two of our troops today, you know? And we have now got, we find - well let's start this way, you never hear about the 18 IEDs that, explosive ordinance disposal finds and disarms. Sure, all we ever hear about is the one that gets through the system and somehow explodes and injures our guys. But they have EOD has at their fingertips robots that go disarm these IEDs. And it's amazing stuff to see this at work. It used to be we would have to send some PFC out there with a shovel and dig that thing up and disarm it by hand. Nowadays, we have robots that do that, so we don't have to - can you imagine you're in this big, thick suit and you can't hardly move for Christ sakes and you're leaning over a damn 500-pound bomb that might go off any second. That's got to be pretty damn nerve wracking. But we have machines, we have robots now that can actually do that job. So I would much rather see . . .

A robot blow up.

R. Lee Ermey: You bet. Any day of the week rather than sacrifice one of our very patriotic and hard charging devil dogs. So that's what we've come to and I think it's just getting better. I've seen that we have a lot of great technology in the works right now that I'm not at liberty to talk about. But I mean to tell you, I've seen some of the really coolest stuff that's going to save lives. War has changed. War is not the same as it was. We were extremely primitive back in Vietnam, which was only 40 years ago. We've come a long ways in 40 years.

I just wanted to ask you, you served 11 years in the Marine corps. What made you want to go to the University to study drama of all things?

R. Lee Ermey: Kind of unusual, huh? Well, I needed to have a job and it just seems to me that like I didn't want a job where you had to work real hard. Work is something you do with a shovel, right? That just did not appeal to me, so anyway I thought this would be fun, I thought I could do it and I wanted to take advantage of my GI Bill of Rights, so that was where I ended up. And it just paid off. I never did get to finish school. I went to school for about a year and all of the sudden they started bringing over films like Apocalypse Now, Boys in Company C, Purple Hearts and so I just got so caught up I never ever did get to finish school.

Also, did you intend, I mean you played numerous drill instructor and sergeant roles throughout the years. Did you intend to fall into that kind of stereotype role?

R. Lee Ermey: Well, I've actually played I think nine military films. I've done 75, so there was a time when I, very early on in my career, when I stopped and thought, wait a minute, I'm getting awfully stereotyped here. I better kind of do something about it, and I started turning down every, you know it was to the point 25 years ago where if there was a military guy in a movie, I got the script. And so I just basically started turning those down and held out for the different types of roles. So I've done 75 movies and 9 of them or 8 of them have been military, but the ones that are extremely memorable, I guess, would be the military roles.

You have done a very wide range of work so far. Obviously, the authoritarian military role has been one of them. You also seem to be unafraid of parodying that same role in things like Children's ... and certain movies - The Frighteners, for instance. If you think it's essential for an actor to be able to look inwards and have a laugh at their previous roles, if you understand what I mean. Not to be too serious at times.

R. Lee Ermey: Well, when you were a kid, you played cowboys and sometimes you were the Indian, too, right? And we used to play cops and robbers, too. I mean you have to have a little variety in life. It would be extremely boring if you had to do the same thing all the time, but I love the challenge. I did a show they sent me a script of and the character was out of a homicidal high school football coach. And that was Saving Silverman, and it was a comedy. And I prefer comedy, I enjoy comedy. And so I saw that as a challenge. I hadn't ever played that of a homicidal high school football coach before, so I thought I'd give that a whirl. And I think I pulled it off with a lot of class, but I just love the challenge. It's fun for me and for me it's no problem to put myself in the right frame of mind. I mean you just have to put yourself in that situation and respond accordingly. That's all there is to it. And as far as I'm concerned, anybody should be able to step in front of a camera and do that, because it's just ...

I was actually reading about your involvement in the MWR and I thought it was absolutely fantastic. I read about where you visited the USS Iwo Jima in 2008.

R. Lee Ermey: MWR is a group of really caring people that really do care about the troops. They really are and they're not there for the pay check. Unlike some, like Okinawa, they it seems like MCCS has kind of gone awry a little bit, but in Okinawa. There's some that really are dedicated and some that really do care about the troops, and then there's others that as far as I'm concerned that they're there for the pay check. And those are the people that I go to war with. And MWR, my hat goes off to those folks. Matter of fact, they brought me over for Christmas last year. They brought me over in December last year in Iraq and I was able to pass out 10,000 Christmas gifts to the troops. We traveled all over Iraq, and we just had a great time. And this year MWR has reached out to us again, and they have asked if I would like to go to Afghanistan for them. So you bet I am, and so we're going to do the same deal over in Afghanistan this year with MWR. And they also, MWR reached out to me and asked me if I would go to Gitmo. And at that stage of the game, MWR you know is a Navy organization. They take care of the Navy, but MWR in Gitmo brought me over and shared me with the Marines that are stationed over there. So they are not there for the pay check. Those guys are there to make sure that the troops are looked after and they do everything they can to make the troops' job a little bit easier, a little bit more enjoyable.

It's a definite credit to souls that open them is helping the troops as well.

R. Lee Ermey: Well, if I'm not obligated by contract to be busy doing something else, I'm with the troops. I spend a lot of time, I give the Marine Corps 100 days a year. If they think they need more, I give them all they need. So with me, when we first got into Iraq, Afghanistan and the Middle East over there, my first thoughts were I'm a bit old to charge up the hill at high port and kill the bad guys, but there's got to be some other way that I can pull my share of the load. And this is the way I go about it. Now don't get me wrong, I still get up the hill and I can still kill the bad guys. Once I get up the hill, I need to take a bit of a breather before I kill any bad guys, that's all.

Have you guys had any dangerous mishaps or encounters with using some of the machinery, particularly probably the older equipment?

R. Lee Ermey: You know, I had one blow up in my face just the other day, as a matter of fact. It was called the potato digger, and it's a machine gun. We're doing a second machine gun show right now, and you know these old weapons are very unstable. You have to be a little bit careful about them and this one did a nasty thing right in my face the other day. But no one got hurt. You know, it's just part of the hazards of what we do. When you mess around with these old guns and old ammunition, things of that nature, there's a certain element of danger about it. But you just, we try to be as safe as we possibly can. We'll put the guns out and test fire them first and stay back away from them. But sometimes they're a bit temperamental and they want to spit back on us a little bit. And it's not the first time I've had it happen, so and I'm sure it won't be the last. When you mess with these old antique weapons, things happen.

I was wondering when you shoot on the set of Lock N' Load, do you shoot more than - well how long does it take to do it, to actually record an episode and do you shoot more than one episode a day when you're doing this, or does it take so much preparation that for lack of a better expression, you don't dare shoot more than one episode because you said something could blow up in your face and that sort of thing?

R. Lee Ermey: Well, we're right now, in March the History Channel asked us for 13 one-hour episodes. When I was doing Mail Call, I would work approximately two days per episode. On Lock N' Load I'm working 10 to 11 days per episode. And we have been shooting now for five months, we're almost finished with episode number 12 and we have shot - I've been home 9 times in 5 months, and my idea of a day off is they fly me in to LAX, I usually arrive 10 or 11:00 at night, I get the car's there to take me home, I get into the desert, my home in the desert by about midnight or 1:00 in the morning. Then the car is there at home to pick me up at 4:00 the next day and take me back to the airport. But we have shot in, last count it was 30 different states and four and a half months now. We've got about 7 or 8 days left and we'll have the 13th episode in the can. But it's been day on stay on. I've got a crew of, there's seven of us, and we travel around and we're on the air playing several times a week. We go wherever we need to go. We find like the Renault tank that we had on to open the tank episode. It was like this tank we found the oldest tank that we could find, this tank was like 91 or 92 years old. It was given to us by the French, and it was one of the very, very first tanks. And we traveled up to Montana and this old boy had this tank, and we drove it, we shot it, we did, we loaded the gun, we did everything that we could and it went four and a half miles an hour. I could have sworn we were going at least 5 miles an hour, but it was fun to do. I mean it was a great way to start the show off. And then we evolved through the show and we go to the next tank, the next tank and we follow evolution. The evolution of tanks right on up to the M1 Abrams main battle tank, which is the one we end the show with. But we have to go where the vehicles, where the guns are, where the tanks are, where the bombs are, where the rockets are. So we travel a lot. We were up at Aberdeen Testing Center. We did the MRAPs up there and the Bradley fighting vehicle. I got to shoot a TOW missile, I got to drive the MRAP over the testing fields where they test them. And man, you've got to drive it through water and ditches and it's really a very rough terrain. So the show is tremendously fun to shoot. There's no question about that. I'm having a great time, but we do have to travel a lot and we do spend a lot of time on the road and away from our families, but another 7 days and we're going to go home. And as soon as I finish up, I'm going to Africa to shoot some wild game out in the plains of South Africa.

I was wondering based on your experiences with these old weapons and what you've done to watermelons over the years. Would you say that technology has made war a less bloody affair?

R. Lee Ermey: Oh, absolutely. And you know, troops when I was in Vietnam 40 years ago, the troops that would have died in the jungle now are being saved. I go to Walter Reed in Bethesda every time I go to Washington, DC, which is several times a year. And I see young troops there that would have never have survived combat in Vietnam. They would have never been saved. Modern technology we have right now, it's like we've got robots that can break down doors and go into buildings and clear buildings. We mount guns on robots, we mount cameras on them. So that eliminates the need to put a human being in harm's way. We have UAVs, which is the unmanned aerial vehicles, we've got helicopters, we've got fixed wings and they can - we don't have to have a pilot to fly this. The pilot sits 100 miles back in the rear with the gear and looks at a screen and pilots that UAV. It's got a camera mounted on it, it's got - we've got to the point where we can put weapons on the UAVs, we can drop bombs with them, we can shoot guns from them. And communications, my God, evolution has taken us to the inventions and technology has just gone totally in the past 40 years has just, evolution as far as technology has just taken us to a different world. But the difference between the military that we have today and the military of my era is simply the fact that motivation, morale is still there, the human element is still there, but they have such fantastic toys to play with. And that's our objective on Lock N' Load is we want to show everybody some of this really neat, cool stuff that the brilliant minds have come up with in the past 40 years as far as technology goes. But it's, I see this stuff and I just stand there in awe. I can't believe how brilliant people are that they can come up with some of this stuff. And I do believe that a lot of these guys have been watching a lot of science fiction shows, you know, because they get these ideas from science fiction movies. So it's the brilliant minds in Hollyweird that actually have stimulated and motivated some of these technologies that we enjoy today.

In regards to Lock N' Load, how much of your, what you say is actually scripted and how much of it is ad libs?

R. Lee Ermey: Well, you know, we basically come, we have just a very basic scenario that we want to stick with and maybe a few talking points and we just put the camera on me and I just go to town. I read the book, I pretty much know the weapon. I talk to the individuals, the operators of the weapons such as the tanks, the M1 Abrams main battle tanks and such. I hang out with those guys and I pick their minds and I find out what the interesting points are about this particular vehicle or this particular weapon. And my objective is to ask the questions that you would ask, would want to know the answers to. So I try to play as ignorant as I possibly can and just when we're in front of the camera, I pick the minds of the individuals that are there that have the knowledge that I don't. And so we don't really script a lot. It's not really a lot of scripted stuff. It's basically me finding out about the vehicle or the weapon and then me getting the expert in front of the camera and getting him to explain everything about the vehicle or weapon. So it's really simple stuff, it's easy. There's nothing to it. The beautiful part about my job is I get to shoot the guns, I get to drive the tanks, and I get to fly the airplanes. And if I can't shoot it, drive it, or fly it, well then hell, we just blow it up. So we're just out there having a great time and when I'm having, my thoughts are, if I'm having this much fun doing the show, then people are going to have fun watching the show. And so that's my attitude. And I am certainly having fun, there's no question about it. What a great way to make a living.

Is there anything in mind that you're looking forward to you're getting your hands on specifically?

R. Lee Ermey: I want to do the robot show. I want to do the UAVs and the robots and we did do one UAV and it was a helicopter. But there are fixed-wing UAVs out there, those are unmanned aerial vehicles. And they're saving lives every day because we don't have to put a pilot's life on the line just to go up and take pictures of the terrorist strongholds up in the mountains in Afghanistan. We don't have to take the chance of this pilot being shot down and losing his life. We now have UAVs that we can operate out of a conex box 100 miles away. And we can get all the information, we can drop bombs on them, we can mount weapons and rockets and guns on these UAVs and I see in the future I see a day when it's all UAVs and robots and I really want to do a show on that. Like I say, we had the helicopter and the helicopter is a Navy thing. They're testing it right now and they're thinking that it will be really great about the, you know we've had a pirate problem - the pirates. And so we're thinking that these helicopters can operate 100 miles from the vessel. They've got a great range. And they can be up in the air taking pictures of these pirates and the pirates don't even know the helicopter's there. So then the captain of the ship can dispatch the helicopter, it's out there in front looking the oceans over and the Somali pirates don't know it's there and they with the pictures that the helicopter relays back to the vessel, the captain can decide, determine whether or not that's a pirate vessel. And if it is, he can steam toward that vessel, go up and investigate the situation. But it gives the captain of this vessel out on patrol 100 miles of range that he wouldn't necessarily have had before. And we're not putting a human being's life at stake or in danger. But I'm looking forward to that show. I want to do the robots, the UAVs and that's my objective. I think it's going to, we've already done 12 shows, we're on our last show right now and I think the next season we're going to get into the robots and UAVs and it will be a great show.

Well with the show, are there any plans to broaden the scope of like traveling to other countries to experience foreign weaponry in comparison to the American technology?

R. Lee Ermey: Oh absolutely. We're not shy about traveling. We travel constantly. It's that the first 13 episodes we're seeing how it plays out and if it's successful, which it really has been, we've I think the History Channel has experienced something like double the numbers that it had originally expected for the show. So it is a successful show and when they order the next 13 episodes, then we can start traveling. You know, on Mail Call, the little half-hour show that we had, we did a one-hour show on Viet Nam. We went back to Viet Nam and we traveled from Hanoi. We had a week or two weeks. We traveled from Hanoi down to Saigon City and we stopped at every fire base that we could find on the way down that the old fire bases that we manned when we were in Vietnam. Then we went to Normandy, we did the 60th anniversary of Normandy. We went to Iwo Jima, we did the 60th anniversary of Iwo Jima. We traveled over to Iraq and Afghanistan both and we did one-hour specials on those. So absolutely, we go where the action is. That's one of the great things that I like about it. I get to go over there and hang out with the troops for a while and enjoy going on patrols with them. I went on foot patrol with them, and I went on roaming patrol with them. So it's just, I consider that a great honor to be able to hang with those guys. They're honorable people, they're respectable and our military guys are second to none. There's no question about it. And Australia has been involved, too. You know Australia pitches in, you guys are great about it.

Do you have any closing remarks?

R. Lee Ermey: Well, you know, I just want everybody to know that our military today is second to none, and they deserve the respect that our military has always deserved. Back in World War I and World War II, Viet Nam, Korea, these men have fought and their objective is to keep this country free so that we enjoy the rights and freedoms that we do enjoy. And people need to wake up and understand that that's what it's all about. We cannot allow these terrorists to gain a big stronghold and once, if we did allow it, they would start taking over countries and the next thing you know, we would not just be able to go over and take care of this business on a small scale like we are right now. It would be another world war. And we can't allow that to happen. So folks need to wake up, pull their heads out of their posteriors and start supporting our military a little bit better. And understand that that is the reason why we enjoy the freedom that we enjoy today is because of our beloved military. Give them some respect, honor, courtesy. Hoorah.

You can see the legendary R. Lee Ermey in his new reality series Lock N' Load, which you can see on Friday nights at 9 PM ET on the History Channel.