As our day wound to a close on the Baton Rouge, Louisiana set of Battle: Los Angeles, we were finally able to speak with some of the cast members, instead of watching them duck imaginary fire from the alien mother ship. The cast were split up into three roundtable sessions, and the first group that came to our table was Michelle Rodriguez, Adetokumboh M'Cormack, Gino Anthony Pesi, Lucas Till, Neil Brown Jr., and Jim Parrack. Here's what they had to say about their characters and the experience of shooting a high-concept action-thriller like this.
Roundtable 1: Michelle Rodriguez, Adetokumboh M'Cormack, Gino Anthony Pesi, Lucas Till, Neil Brown Jr., and Jim Parrack
Can each of you talk a bit about the characters you play?
Lucas Till: I play Corporal Grayston in the movie. I'm an NCO and that's all I can really say. Taylor Handley and I have a little surfing scene in the movie. I was going to call him Point Break. We all call ourselves our character nicknames. Mine is Sticks, because I'm a country boy.
Michelle Rodriguez: Dude, I never would've gotten that. I would've thought it was Boonies or something.
Jim Parrack: I play Lance Corporal P.J. Kearns. I'm a combat veteran who got back from Iraq with PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) and wasn't cleared for combat. Then this attack happens and I get into battle before I've been cleared by a doctor, so I try to manage that. It's a good part.
Gino Anthony Pesi: I play Corporal Nick Stavrou from New Jersey, and I have a mustache. That's what I do.
Michelle Rodriguez: I play Elena Santos, a tech sergeant. I came in about two weeks into production of the film. I wasn't actually a part of the original script, just to add onto elements of answering a little bit about where these bastards come from, what they're doing, what the process of our defense is. I come into the picture to try to answer some of the questions along the way. Along the way in busting caps in aliens, though, you kind of lose a little bit of that. But yeah, that's what I'm here for. Tech Sergeant, Air Force.
Neil Brown Jr.: I play Richard "Motown" Guerrero from Detroit, and I also have a mustache. I'm one of the two cats that do the music and other things for the squad. I'm just a sharpshooting saw-gunner who didn't get to do much, actually, besides get messed up. But I do it very well.
Adetokumboh M'Cormack: I play Jibril Adukwu, a Navy corpsman, so I take care of the injured kids, the ones who get messed up in battle. I'm called into the fight.
So, without telling us, who among the six of you, make it to the end of the movie?
Michelle Rodriguez: How do we answer without telling you? It's kind of a morbid ending (Laughs).
Can you talk about the training for these roles?
Lucas Till: Yeah, it was fun. We got to shoot guns and blow stuff up every day, pretty much. We had to wake up at 5 in the morning every day and sleep in this coffin-shaped thing at night, which was actually comfortable.
Michelle Rodriguez: Yeah. We'd wake up at 5 in the morning and do push-ups and sit-ups and run.
Neil Brown Jr.: It was not a typical Hollywood boot camp. When I did Tigerland, I did a Hollywood boot camp, and this was way more intense than that.
Jim Parrack: I mean, I don't want to disrespect real Marine's either. It was nothing like what they do. For me, I certainly have a lot of respect for the discipline they have. You have to make sure everything is in line under your bunk. They come in and yelling at us...
Michelle Rodriguez: 'Two centimeters away from the corner of your lip, is your mustache designation.' Some of you had to do watch overnight, right? Only getting about three hours of sleep? I didn't sleep over. What am I going to do, stare at you guys in your towels?
Jim Parrack: As bad as she wanted to be there, we threw her out. We just wanted to respect her.
Michelle Rodriguez: They really think I wanted to sleep on a cot and stare at their balls as they come out of the shower (Laughter). Not my thing, man, but thanks for the offer.
We met Jim Dever earlier. Can you talk about working with him and the kind of authenticity he brought to the set?
Michelle Rodriguez: He's amazing, dude. I love that guy. You don't want to get into a fight with that guy. He has something in his eyes that says, 'I'm really friendly and talking to you and I'm smiling right now, but I can kick your f*&%ing ass.'
Adetokumboh M'Cormack: We try to be as authentic as we can in this film and what the Sergeant-Major Dever brings to the film is that, if we're holding the gun a wrong way, or saying things the wrong way, he really brings the level of authenticity up in this film, makes it more accurate.
Michelle Rodriguez: Most of you guys are wearing the Marine patches, so you have to live up to that.
Jim Parrack: Sergeant-Major, too, is the highest non-commissioned officer in the Marine Corps.
Michelle Rodriguez: What does that mean, exactly?
Jim Parrack: It means he wasn't commissioned when he joined the Corps, to be an officer, he enlisted. He started off as a Private and worked his way up to the highest position you can, and that doesn't happen without being someone who is excellent at what they do. He strikes me as a great guy and he really seems to appreciate excellence and tries to instill that in everybody.
In the training that you received, does that build the kind of camaraderie, as actors, that they want to achieve in the Armed Forces?
Neil Brown Jr.: Yes, yes. That was the biggest thing in this movie, we all became very, very close and we don't do much without each other, especially in Shreveport when we started out.
Gino Anthony Pesi: It's really easy to care about each other when the cameras get going, because, on some level, we did out there it doesn't leave you. You don't have to try to care about the guy next to you because it's just right there.
Have you all been together since this all started?
Michelle Rodriguez: Yeah, I've been here this whole time, playing video games with Neil and Gino and Lucas.
Neil Brown Jr.: Yes, I got them all hooked on video games. Nobody played, and everybody started buying systems. And they play for hours.
Jim Parrack: Lucas is amazing. He's over here being all quiet about it, but he probably doesn't want you to know he's a video game dork.
Michelle Rodriguez: That video game (Modern Warfare) is very, very accurate, and if you have skills in that video game, you know exactly what you need to be doing when you clear a place. You know how you need to stand, you know what direction you need to point in, you know how to pie corners, you know how to infiltrate.
Gino Anthony Pesi: You should do a commercial for Modern Warfare.
Michelle Rodriguez: Screw commercials (Laughter).
Do you think this could lend itself to a video game?
Neil Brown Jr.: We're all hoping.
Michelle Rodriguez: Oh, I said that from Day One, but, you know what, I'm very f*%&ing picky about this s&%t. They should have Ubisoft do it or not have it done at all. I'm not asking for anything, but I just know quality when I see it and those guys know what they're doing. The biggest thing with movies is, they make a lot of crappy video games. These retards, who call themselves producers, think they can get into the video game world without knowing jack sh%t about that world. You need to respect that world. I get vulgar about it because it angers me that people think they can just get a brand name and the name will sell the game. You make a movie and the video game sucks, you try to rush it to come out at the same time the movie comes out, and then you sell yourself short. Nobody cares, because it's all about game play, and those guys are picky.
Can you talk about working with your director, Jonathan Liebesman?
Adetokumboh M'Cormack: It's been great because he really has a clear vision of what he wants to accomplish in this film. You just trust it and, when you fully trust what he wants to do, that's when you give your best performance. That's been the biggest learning experience for me, just trusting him and, when you do, it's fantastic. I think he's gotten some really amazing performances out of each and every one of us. At the end of the day, I think we're going to have a really good film.
Michelle Rodriguez: I love the guy. I think he's awesome, seriously. It's rare that you get a guy that's honest. If you do something that's corny, he'll take that into account and come straight up to your face and tell you, 'Hey, that sucks. Let's try something else.' I love that, because a lot of people, first off, don't have good taste and, second off, don't have the willingness to give you this wide array of a border to let people organically take the story to a place it needs to be. I think that just helps out a lot. You start to grow as a character.
Gino Anthony Pesi: He has a really refreshing, almost child-like enthusiasm. I've never met with a director who's as excited about what he's doing than Jonathan. It's really fun to watch because he still marvels at things that a lot of people take for granted in this business. If there's a big explosion, he's got twinkles in his eyes. He loves what he's doing and that's important. If somebody is heading up something they're bored with, it's contagious and him being excited is contagious too. It's cool to see that in him.
Lucas Till: Yeah. I've seen directors who will just show up, direct and do their job and get paid for it, but they don't really care. He's constantly thinking about it and, a lot of times other director's will say, 'Well it's scripted this way so I better leave it.' No, not at all. He gives us creative freedom and also, if something is not working, he'll have someone rewrite it or he'll do it himself.
Neil Brown Jr.: Yes, and that was one of the things he was talking about with Jonathan. He allows for that. The script almost becomes a guideline, in that we'll do what's in the script, but he'll go off and give us 15 minutes to ourselves to find something inside for the character. He'll let us act from that and it will go, most of the time.
Jim Parrack: He's really funny. He's got this subtle sense of humor and the great thing about working with him is he's open-minded. In any kind of storytelling, it's a collaborative effort and if you have a good idea, he'll put it in. There's freedom for you to put your creative input in there. I like that.
We saw a sizzle reel and this really seems unrelenting and it doesn't let up. Does that pace continue throughout the whole movie?
Adetokumboh M'Cormack: You're in for the ride of your life. It's non-stop.
Lucas Till: I mean, the character exposition is maybe, what, 15 or 20 minutes, and then when the action begins, it doesn't really stop. But yes, you're right. It doesn't really stop.
It was said earlier that this is shot in more of a documentary style, like the documentary of this invasion. How does that effect what you do? Are the takes different? Are you aware of different things in the scene?
Gino Anthony Pesi: For me, it's been much easier. I started acting in plays, so there you don't have to worry about anything except the experience you're having, and it's kind of similar here, because there's not a place you need to be or a position you need to be in. We have some of the most talented camera people I've ever seen. They will find you and you don't have to concern your acting with technical details, they will take care of it. I wouldn't mind working this way for everything. You don't lose anything by not having precise camera movements and everything like that. I think it's an emotional way to make a movie. It's fun to act in something where you don't have to be right here, or right here, and having to think about that while you're trying to connect with somebody. You can just do your thing and these guys will get you.
Roundtable #2: Will Rothhaar, Ne-Yo, Taylor Handley, Noel Fisher, James Hiroyuki Liao, Cory Hardrict, and Ramon Rodriguez
We talked about the training at the previous table. Do you guys have any crazy training stories?
Ne-Yo: I had never gone camping, ever, in life. I've never had to sleep in a mosquito net, none of that stuff. So this was just about two stories above hell for me (Laughter). It was well worth it though.
When you get through it though...
Cory Hardrict: Yeah, you feel like you accomplished something. You know the people in this experience better than you'll probably ever want to, odors and whatnot.
Taylor Handley: Even on set, it's a large group of guys and the sergeants keep us in line. They have to. We worked as a team, on the set. all the time.
Did that create a new respect for the military for you guys?
Ne-Yo: Yeah. The vests that we wear, they said they weigh like 25 pounds, but the vests that the actual Marines wear are twice that.
James Hiroyuki Liao: Yeah, 45 pounds with metal plates, on the front and the back.
Ne-Yo: We're walking around complaining about how heavy the vests are and how hot we are, but then when you think about the actual Marines and what they have to wear and what they have to go through, it's like, 'Shut up.'
Noel Fisher: We don't have any excuse to complain about anything.
Can you talk about your work with the director, Jonathan?
Ne-Yo: Well, me, personally, I haven't worked with a lot of directors. This is my third film and, of the three, I have to say, this is the most fun, it's good work. He really has an appreciation for improv. He knows the script says this, so we'll shoot that, and then it will be, 'OK, what really happened? What's your actual reaction to this situation?' I like that he has an appreciation for it, because the others would say, 'This is what the script says, so this is what I need you to do,' even if it's not realistic. That's cool, for me, personally.
Ramon Rodriguez: I know you guys saw the demo reel and, knowing that he didn't have a lot of money and a lot of time, it still looked incredible. That's what sold me on actually doing the project.
Will Rothhaar: There are really hard days, but you do get to play a lot. They'll shoot out the script, so the studio will be happy, but he'll do what he wants to do also.
Taylor Handley: The great thing about Jonathan is he knows what he wants, he has the eye for it. I worked with him already on The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, so it was a really great opportunity because I know how he works. He makes it easy. There's no bullshit about it. You just work it out.
When we were on the set earlier, we heard The Magnificent Seven theme song playing, to get you guys pumped up. I've been on a few sets before and I've never really seen a tactic like that.
Will Rothhaar: Yeah, it's really funny. They'll say, 'They need you up there,' and you start hearing The Magnificent Seven. At that point in the film, there are only seven of us left. They'll announce everybody - 'Will Rothhaar as Imlay.' They're just keeping the morale high, because, the truth of the matter is, it's a very, very large movie and it's very serious. We have to get these many shots in and we have this much time to do it. It gets a little tense, so they do little things here and there to keep everybody from strangling each other.
Can you give some of your impressions about Louisiana, since you've been shooting here the whole time?
Cory Hardrict: The food is real good, yeah. You can taste the butter (Laughter). You know L.A. it's olive oil, here's it's butter, Crisco. It's delicious. I'd say that and the people are really nice. It's a college town, everything is go Saints or go LSU. I tried to go to the grocery store and a man came out and put a sign up that said, 'Closed. The Game.'
James Hiroyuki Liao: Unfortunately for me, I'm allergic to shellfish so I can't eat shrimp, crab, none of that stuff. For me, I've been cooking a lot, but I like Baton Rouge a whole lot. I got a chance to go to New Orleans for the first time. I have been in Southern towns before, but this was the first experience that I had where I felt like I was in the south. For me, that was really cool because I'm from New York and I live in L.A. There's an older feeling. There are plantations here in Louisiana.
Cory Hardrict: Why do you have to bring that up? (Laughter)
James Hiroyuki Liao: No, no. There is a history. You can see the past and that, I don't experience much.
Noel Fisher: I'm going to go with the people. I think the whole mentality here is different. I've been back and forth to L.A. a few times and people in L.A., if you're at a restaurant or something, and they ask how you are, they're not really looking for a response. I've found here that people are really, genuinely asking. They're really asking to see how you're doing. That's kind of refreshing and nice.
Ne-Yo, what's it been like for you getting into movies?
Ne-Yo: Well, for starters, nothing will ever take the place of music for me. Music runs through my veins so that will always be at the forefront. You see artists go from music into movies and then just kind of find a home there. If I can do both together, I absolutely will, but if I had to choose one, it would be music. I have a respect and an appreciation for movies. I have actually grown to love it, but there are elements of it that guarantee it will never take the place of music. The whole 'hurry up and wait,' aspect of movie making kills me. I'm the type of person that, if I'm constantly moving, I can stay awake for 48 hours straight, without even the slightest inkling that I might be tired. With this it's like, 'Come on, come on, we need you on set. Are you ready?' Then you'll sit for an hour and do nothing. Ask anybody, between takes I'm snoring, because
I just can't get used to it. Other than that, I love movies.
Roundtable #3: Aaron Eckhart, Jonathan Liebesman, and Jim Dever
Jonathan, you were saying earlier on the set about how this is more of a documentary about this alien invasion of Earth. Can you talk about that style? Did it come with the script or did it come with your vision?
Jonathan Liebesman: I think the movies I'm most drawn to are movies like Bloody Sunday, stuff like that, Paul Greengrass, that's his style. I think everybody wants science-fiction to feel real and, right now, with special effects, you can do much more handheld stuff and still be able to track the shots and put stuff in. It's allowing a more documentary-like film. For me, I much more prefer a Paul Greengrass-type film than something super-stylized. I think it's great to bring that to the science-fiction genre. When you look at a film like District 9 that's a success, that's a great style to bring to this kind of movie. Another thing is, this is a war film that happens to have aliens, as opposed to an alien film that happens to have Marines. You want to make this feel like a war film. With technology advancing, you can do a great science fiction movie within that genre, in the same style that the great movies in that genre are shot.
Aaron, you've done action films before, but you haven't been the primary guy in the action. Was that something you were looking for?
Aaron Eckhart: Oh, God yeah, I was looking for it. I'm athletic and I felt like I've never done that before. To do a war movie, it's kind of like a kid's dream. We have actual Marines, we went through boot camp and the way Jonathan is shooting it, everybody is on board in this war film. I couldn't be happier. Hopefully it works, and I think it will. I think it will be a great movie.
Can you talk a bit about the camaraderie that forms here?
Aaron Eckhart: Well, it's an interesting group of people here. We went through boot camp, so we all ate together, in the Marine hierarchy, with me being the big asshole that has to tell them what to do, which is sometimes uncomfortable and sometimes fun. Then, everybody found out what their rank was and we ate together, showered together, slept together, lived together, we learned our weapons together. Honestly, to this day, I don't know their real names (Laughter). I'm not kidding you. It's probably rude, but if there's a person over there, and it's one of my guys, I don't even think about their real name. I go, 'Lenihan, get over here.' I don't even think about that and it's so great. I yell at these guys and when they see me in the morning, they go, 'Good morning, Staff Sergeant.' I don't think they know my real name, or they think that if they call me by my real name, I'm going to get mad at them. It really helps the movie. We have the Sergeant-Major here (Jim Dever), and he's always watching us and telling us what to do, to act like Marines and think like Marines. I think we've done a pretty damn good job, and we're always meticulous with that. I think we think within the Marines and we've been to war. We know how to handle our weapons, we know how to create a formation, we know how to clear a room. If you said, 'You four over there, clear that room,' these guys would fall right into formation and clear that damn room. That's beautiful because everyone is taking their part so seriously. The great thing about boot camp is, they're better friends than I am with them, but they know each other so well. They're best friends. They know what kinds of girls they like and they can bring that into the movie. For example, I know that Simmons surfs and, because we improv a lot in this movie, if I need to say something, I can say, 'How's the surf, Simmons?' He knows how to react to that, because he's a surfer. Those guys are really into the parts. It's interesting because people might say that I am too into my part, but I enjoy that and I think this is a good vehicle to do that and I think we're getting good results with that.
Jim Dever: It's lonely at the top when you have to give the orders and, I'll tell you, Aaron does it very well because it is lonely being at the top, what his job is. They're all the young Corporals and Lance Corporals and PFC's. In the Marines corps, staff NCO does not associate with them in real life. He doesn't go out drinking with them at night. You go out with your own rank. He has to keep himself away from that, because if he goes out with them at night, then all of the sudden you give an order the next day, they'll look at you like, 'Wait a minute. We were just out there drinking and now I have to do something for you?' That's why we keep it divided up. He has to live with it that way, because everybody has a lower rank than the Staff Sergeant does. It's very lonely being at the top.
A lot of science-fiction movies have this metaphor behind them. Is there a metaphor in this film? Do the aliens stand for something?
Jonathan Liebesman: To me, it's an invasion film, simply. Is there a sub-text there? Yeah. I'm sure it will tap certain things with people, fear of your home being invaded, things you felt during 9/11. But I think for this movie to pretend to have any pretense or symbolism underneath, is going to undermine the film. If you read something into it because the film was good enough to have that, that's awesome. To me, what was amazing when I read the script, is that 19, 20, and 21-year-old people who have a Marine uniform on will lay their life down for someone who doesn't, who's the same age. I don't know if there's any symbolism to that, but that was one of the most powerful things, how people lay their lives down for us every day, around the world, and they're just like us. You could do that too if you had the balls or the disposition. I know what you mean, though. I believe it was Philip K. Dick who once said that the most powerful science-fiction is when you take just one thing and you twist it. What that is here is, why don't you make a real war film and a real invasion, although it just happens to be aliens. There's no political stuff, like were we right or wrong to be invading, you get to just see guys in uniform laying down their lives and being brave for civilians. It doesn't matter that it's America or that they're Marines. It just shows that people in uniform make sacrifices and I think that comes across in the reality that we've tried to create, I hope. Good luck summing that one up.
Can you tell us a bit more about your character, Aaron?
Aaron Eckhart: I play Staff Sergeant Nantz, a staff sergeant for 20 years. I'm married to the Marines, a hard-ass. I have a reputation, not a good one. I feel like people are talking behind my back, that sort of thing. I'm just about out. I was going to buy a boat and go fishing and then these damn aliens invade, and they pull me back in. I have to go guide a new, young group of Marine's through this. I'm actually not the Number 1 guy in charge. I'm Number 2 and something happens to the Number 1 and I reluctantly have to take control of the group and try to survive what's going on. My character, hopefully, he's the reluctant, can-do man. You don't love him, but you respect him, and maybe you do love him if you survive. That's what it is and we have civilians in the movie. Bridget (Moynahan) is in the movie, so hopefully there's a little bit of spark there, a little bit of fire that could have been, and all that kind of stuff. There are hard parts and there are soft parts. There are tender, sensitive moments and then there are moments of complete, out-of-control fog and haze. Everybody has a very distinct personality on this movie. I think everybody out there in the demographic can relate to somebody in this film. It has sense of humor, sensitivity, vulnerability, hardcore action, the aliens. The aliens have somewhat of a personality that holds up a mirror to us. I think the aliens are going to be understandable, which is good. I was never good at thematics and that sort of stuff, but I think it's camaraderie, how a group can come together and become one, the most unlikely of bedfellows.
This is a much bigger project than your previous films. Is it all still filmmaking either way? How does it feel to be getting into the bigger scale of things?
Jonathan Liebesman: OK, so, for example, that freeway scene that we shot in the first 10 days, was twice as expensive as the last movie I made, just that sequence. At the end of the day, I feel that, as a director, no matter what the budget is, if you know what you're trying to do, it is filmmaking. Yeah, instead of moving props on a table in one room, like the last film I did, you're moving Humvees and having an explosion there and there, it's different elements but it's still the same frame. You're still trying to get what you have in your head, you just have more people. Also, I have really talented people helping me organize that.
Aaron Eckhart: It's also incredible the amount of work that goes into the sets you guys saw today.
Jonathan Liebesman: Yeah, it is incredible, because I don't really think about all the work. Sometimes it's just like, 'Hey, this looks like it did in my head. Good.' The thing is, you have guys behind the scenes pushing each other. Again, the production designer, I don't know how he pulls off the stuff he pulls off, because I feel that we give him a lot of restrictions because we have to. My set on my little movie cost $150,000 and there were three rooms. They were taking just twice that and making an entire block that gets destroyed by a chopper crash. There is amazing stuff happening.
Aaron Eckhart: Yeah, but you still have to find the reality. With no reality on that set, it's a waste. Everything is helping us create a reality, and that's the most important thing.
After our three roundtable sessions, we were treated to a fantastic catered dinner, Cajun style with the cast, which was the perfect way to cap off an incredible visit. That about wraps it up for my visit to the set of Battle: Los Angeles, which hits theaters nationwide on March 11.