Generation Kill, over coffeeby Daniel Scheffler / 22.09.2010
Daniel Fox is a South African actor (and singer) based in New York City who started out in the mid 2000s. He’s done pretty well. Appearing recently in the Emmy award winning HBO series Generation Kill’ (written by David Simon and Ed Burns from The Wire). Our own Daniel Scheffler almost survives coffee and a chat with him.
Mahala: Tell me about Generation Kill.
Daniel Fox: The show follows a platoon of US Marines as they invade Iraq in 2003. The concept of the show was developed in conjunction with Evan Wright, a writer for Rolling Stone, who was “embedded” with the First Recon Battalion that invaded Iraq. He was sitting in the back seat of one of the first Humvee’s to enter the country!
As far as I’m aware, no writer had ever done anything like that before. The article was so well received that he developed the story into a book. Generation Kill is the TV show based on Wright’s book of the same title. David Simon and Ed Burns are well known and hugely respected for the detail and specificity of their writing. They were the perfect team to deal with a subject as technical and specific as modern warfare. What makes this show stand out is their ability to capture reality on the page and screen.
The only production on the same level as Generation Kill would be Kathryn Bigelow’s Oscar winning film, The Hurt Locker. She did an astonishing job. But as far as TV goes, nobody has come close. Generation Kill joins HBO’s amazing record of no holds barred TV. Coupling this creative freedom with a subject as brutal and conflicted as the Iraq War makes for an incredible series.
How did you prepare for the role?
The research was extensive. It’s all very well to say, watching movies and TV, you know about being a soldier. Ever since we’re little boys, we play cops and robbers. We dress up and stand at attention.
This counts for very little. Because in truth, you don’t know shit. You don’t know what it’s really like to be shot at or to shoot someone. You don’t know what it means to drive through the night with your best friend’s lives on the line – with Tabasco Sauce in your eyes to stay awake after no sleep for 72 hours.
To recreate that in front of a camera takes a lot of work.
We were trained by two Recon Marines, Eric and Rudy, who had seen and done it all. They were there – not just in the Iraq War, but in the very team that Evan Wright lived with and wrote about. They’re in the show too.
Once we got to Namibia, where we started the 7 month shoot, we met Rudy and Eric, and started our basic training. We soon realized we weren’t in Kansas anymore!
In the very large cast that worked on Generation Kill, most of us took the training seriously which was fantastic. Everybody was so dedicated. With Rudy and Eric watching over our us, you just didn’t want to let them down. One more mile. One more pushup. One less complaint.
On a project like this, everybody’s working at their creative peak. Bringing their best work everyday and we wanted do the same. We became like a family. The military is all about team work and film making is similar that way – especially on a project as big as Generation Kill.
We watched and read a huge amount of war material. If we weren’t on set, we were in the gym, running, doing yoga or talking about all things military.
Especially in the beginning, you’re trying to get this foreign information to settle in your body. But once hair and makeup shaved your head that was it. You were a marine for 7 months.
As far as character research goes, it all depends on the resources you have at your disposal and your particular style of working. I had to get as much information as possible about my character, Pfc. John Christenson, from Evan Wright himself, and from Rudy and Eric.
Playing a real person is a double edged sword. You want to bring that person to the screen but your own personality needs to shine through too. You have to take the few specific details you know, make a creative decision and stick to it. It’s hugely detrimental to an actor’s process to worry whether or not the actual person is going to like the way you’re playing them. But that anxiety comes with the territory. Make a choice, be true to that and just stick to your guns. So to speak!
What was it like to learn specialist weapon training?
Specialist training was probably my favorite part of the role. The best thing about being an actor is that you get to take on someone else’s life and experience for a little while. Each job brings a new profession, a new life. It’s just so interesting to walk in someone else’s shoes for a while and then give them back.
With Generation Kill, we got to play cops and robbers for real. Pounding through the desert in a full military spec Humvee, carrying automatic weapons, dressed in full desert camouflage with sweat in your eyes and a pounding heart. It will go down as one of the all time greatest experiences of my life.
The training makes you feel a bit special in a way. I may be answering these questions in a coffee shop somewhere but if I needed to – thanks to that show and those guys – and all my friends and family from Generation Kill and HBO – I could take you down, choke you out, call it in, drive my Humvee to a safe spot, and dig a ranger grave in time for a beautiful dinner. It makes you feel educated. It’s pretty great.
You filmed in the desert. Were there any women around?
We were mostly in small remote places and stayed away for 7 months. There wasn’t much of a social scene! That desperation to make contact with other Earthlings often led to us being removed from clubs or bars when we did venture out. Mostly due to the gallons of testosterone that surged around that set.
Other than a few small parts, there are no women in the show, and when you’re talking about a group of about thirty weight-training, protein drinking, over-worked and under-slept actors, in a desert with no women for 7 months…yeah, you get the idea.
God bless all the women on the crew. I take my hat off to you for dealing with us! You had to show nerves of steel. There were a few respites though.
We spent some time in Mozambique which is full of beautiful beaches, bars and clubs. That was a welcome change. We used to joke about all this but the truth is that when you’re working that hard, with no distractions, you build friendships nothing can ever replace. My cast mates are like family now.
I love those guys.