At the end of February, at a hotel in Beverly Hills, HitFix caught up with Bruce C. McKenna, showrunner on HBO’s “The Pacific,” series stars Jon Seda, James Badge Dale and Joe Mazzello, plus legendary military technical advisor Capt. Dale Dye.
We ran four of those interviews in the first two weeks of the “Pacific” run, but I held off on Mazzello because his character, Eugene B. Sledge, spent those early episodes Stateside with a heart condition.
On Sunday (April 11), Sledge finally joins the war and, not to get spoiler-y on you, he wastes no time becoming the pivotal character for the remainder of the miniseries.
“The Pacific” is a reintroduction of sorts for Mazzello, who got his start as a child star with key roles in movies including “Jurassic Park,” “The River Wild” and “Simon Birch.” Mazzello sat out most of the past decade, finishing high school and attending USC. After viewers see the second half of “The Pacific,” we suspect there will be no doubts about his ability to make a transition into adult roles.
Mazzello discusses the challenges of “The Pacific” and his own acting future after the break… [Note that the interview contains information about Sledge that could be considered a spoiler…]
HitFix: Having taken a long break from acting, why did you want to be involved in this project?
Joe Mazzello: Obviously, I went to college. I went to USC and tried to learn about the other side of the camera a little bit. But also that made me realize that I’m not quite done with this thing yet. I realized that acting was the thing I was still maybe the best at. Of the things I felt like I was good at, that was the thing that came the most naturally to me. So when “The Pacific” came around, I had to audition the old-fashioned way. It was the casting director and then the producer and then another producer and another producer and then Spielberg and Hanks. But my grandfather served in the Pacific. He was a sergeant in the army. When this came around, I was just like, “I’ve gotta do this. I’ve gotta find a way to get this role.” It felt like not only was I honoring Eugene Sledge and I was honoring the Marines and all of the veterans of World War II, I felt like I was honoring my grandfather specifically and that meant so much to me. That personal connection was what put it over the edge, although obviously the scripts were amazing and anything that’s produced by Spielberg and Hanks is going to be out of this world. All of those things, of course. Anybody would want to be a part of this. But the personal connection with my grandfather is probably what put it over the edge.
HitFix: Was there any advantage to have had a relationship with Steven Spielberg in the past?
JM: You know, I don’t know! Like I said, I didn’t get to Spielberg until the fifth audition and I don’t even think he knew I was auditioning until the fifth audition when I was standing right in front of him. I kinda felt like, “OK. Maybe I have a little bit of a leg up. He worked with me when I was nine years old and he knows I wasn’t crazy back then, so maybe that’s a start. He knows my name.” So those are good things, but then at the same time, I kinda felt like, “Hmmm… Maybe this actually puts extra pressure on me because he hired me once before. What if I don’t get it? Does that mean I stink now? Am I no good at acting anymore? What happens if I don’t get it?” So I really felt like I really had to get it. This was important. Look, he wasn’t going to do me a $200 million dollar favor, know what I mean? He wasn’t going to put that on the line. He wants to make sure that his shows are great. So yeah, I went in front of him and I hadn’t seen him in for like three years and he gave me a hug and that relaxed me a bit, but then I knew it was down to business. Then I ended up having to come back even one more time for Tom Hanks. The final room was Steven Spielberg, Tom Hanks, all of Playtone, all of HBO. Just another day in the park.
HitFix: I assume you read Sledge’s book?
JM: Of course.
HitFix: What did you take away from that? What did it give you in terms of the character you were playing?
JM: Everything. Everything. It gave me such a sense of the man that he was and his experience. It was the best piece of material that I could have possibly read, because it gave me everything I needed to know emotionally. And then beyond that, I got to speak to his two sons. I got to speak to his wife. I would say that was the thing that helped me the most, because when I was talking to his boys, I felt like I was really talking to him. I felt his energy through them. I felt the man who was written on those pages, the man that I’d seen in the interviews. So I felt like I really got to interact with him. Once I got to that moment, I knew. It was like, “Yeah. I can do this. These 10 months, I’ll be able to stay focused.”
HitFix: Was there anything specific that they told you that flicked the switch in your head? A word? A description?
JM: They always told me that he had a steel core. That was the kinda thing. Physically, maybe he wasn’t as big as the other guys, so maybe he was underestimated a bit, but mentally he was so tough and he was really prepared. And even though war is nothing that you can ever expect, he was so well trained and so mentally tough that he was one of the very few people who ended up being able to come out of the war and actually write about the experience. Not many guys could do that. And he couldn’t even do that for some 30 years. But it was just great to talk to them. I talked to them about who he was as a father and other things that went beyond that. All of those things, even the things that aren’t depicted in the show, help you understand who the person was. Talking to them, I felt like I knew Eugene.
HitFix: How well-prepared were you? What was your own steel core like when you started the process with Dale Dye?
JM: Not ready. I don’t know. They showed me the “Band of Brothers” video diary and I was like, “Oh. They’re in a barracks. They’ve got beds, a shower. You do a little running. Boo-hoo. What’s this gonna be like?” We though, “Oh, you have to get up before 11 every day?” Bunch of actors, right? But they kicked our butts. The moment we got to the jungle and put down our bags, we were just getting reamed out. We know, “This is real.” I lost 12 pounds in 10 days of boot camp. I can’t afford that. But they just sucked us dry. We were digging ditches. We were carrying 40 pounds of equipment on our backs and running through the jungle. We were sleeping three hours a night. We had no running water, no bathrooms, sleeping on the ground. It was 40 degrees at night and 110 during the day. We had to to learn about our weapons. We were getting yelled at. People were getting injured. It was unbelievable how serious it was. We forgot we were even making a movie, we were so involved in it and so beaten down. Maybe 10 days doesn’t seem like a lot, but boy… When you’re out there, it feels like an eternity. And then you think about the real guys. They have to do it for so much longer and then they have to, oh I dunno, go to war. But they made sure they didn’t go easy on us and I’m sure a lot of people will appreciate that.
HitFix: When I talked to Capt. Dye, he admitted that he likes to make actors cry. Did he get you?
JM: Oh, I think that everybody was ready. Everyone was ready to just at a moment’s notice totally break down. Maybe it’s sadistic, but he definitely wants to make sure that you’re as broken down as you can possibly be. But there are two sides to Dale Dye. There’s Dale Day the Marine and then there’s Dale Dye the Actor and the further we got along, the more we saw that side, so you just had to know, “He’s this guy, but he’s also this guy” and you figured out a way to maneuver yourself to give him what you need and give the director what he needs and give yourself what you need.
HitFix: Do you think you could have done the project without the boot camp?
JM: Ummm… Yeah. But. Look, you needed something. I had never fired a rifle before. I’d have looked like a fool. A mortar? I didn’t even know what that was. So we needed, absolutely, the weapons training. We needed to know the military formations and the lingo. We needed to know all of that stuff. And then there’s the mental component to it, where you actually get to see what it’s like to be a Marine, which is amazing. The thing you have to remember is that no matter how much training they give you, no matter how much boot camp you do, that still can’t prepare you for what it feels like to have to kill somebody or what it feels like to almost be killed. That’s something that you have to find within yourself and really figure out. Know what I mean? I think that the boot camp was definitely helpful and it had its place, but it wasn’t the be-all-and-end-all.
HitFix: Your character may have the clearest arc of any in the miniseries. How close were you able to come to shooting any of it in sequence?
JM: We had hoped we’d be able to, but it just doesn’t work out that way. The first thing I shot was the very last scene of Episode Seven. That was my first day. My second day was the beach landing in Episode Five. So we were all over the place. It was really baptism by fire with the beach landing. Boy. It was so real. I didn’t think they’d have to CGI anything. The explosions were going off all around us. The bullets were flying. The tanks were exploding. It was choreographed madness. Of course I wish we could have done it in sequence, but logistically that’s never possible, especially for something that’s 10 hours long. But having those conversations with Eugene’s sons, that’s when I really knew that every line I said could be authentic, because I knew who he was. Once I had that down, even though it’s difficult and challenging, you find a way to make sure you keep that arc tracking.
HitFix: Not to give anything away for readers who haven’t seen the movie, your character goes some dark places in those later episodes. Were there any days it was challenging to find that mental space?
JM: It was difficult, especially since we were working with different directors. I’d have days where I was working with three directors in one day. It’s always a different vibe on set, always a different atmosphere and they all have different styles and their own opinions. You had to make sure that wherever you guys met, whatever discussions you had or compromises you made, that you as the actor, since you were there for all 10 and not just one episode, you had to make sure that you knew what you were doing and if the choice you making as a unit would fit in with the arc for your character. It was a big challenge and I’d never done anything like that before. Coming from a movie background, you’re used to one guy or one woman. With a miniseries, it was definitely an adjustment.
HitFix: Your time as USC learning the production side of things, has it given you new insights as an actor?
JM: It’s just about knowing more thoroughly what everybody’s job is on-set and knowing what they’re all going through and what they have to work with and what they have to handle. I think you get more of an appreciation for the entire process. And then I just enjoyed watching the directors and watching the way they worked and learning from them, learning the way that you have to talk to different people. I learned so much and now, every day that I’m on-set I have a totally different perspective. As far as it helping acting-wise, I almost feel like it’s the other way around. Being an actor helps me direct a little bit, when I do that, which I haven’t been able to do that much, but I plan to in the future. There are a lot of reasons for that, but certainly because I feel like you know how to talk to actors and you know what they need from you if you’ve been one yourself.
HitFix: Having returned for this project, do you think of yourself as an actor again?
JM: Yes. I never really felt like I wasn’t, but other things just became the priority in my life. There was the high school stuff, like the prom and girls and SATs and getting into college and wanting to go to football games and wanting to learn about the other side of things. I always knew somewhere in the back of my mind that I wasn’t really done with it, I was going to come back to it at some point and give it all of my energy. And I’m at that point now. But I hope to also… Like I just wrote a script with my girlfriend which I’m going to try to get made. I want to be in it, but hey if that doesn’t happen I can just direct it, or if I can just be in it and not direct it, or just produce it… Whatever. I just want to make movies. But like I said, of those things that I enjoy, of the writing and directing and acting, it’s the acting that I felt like came the most natural. Because of that, that’s the thing that will always be my primary, I think, and I’ll work off of that.
HitFix: Do you ever accidentally find yourself watching one of your old movies on TV?
JM: People are always like “Oh, ‘Jurassic Park’ is on…” or “Oh, ‘The River Wild’ is on…” I actually haven’t seen any of my movies in a long time. Being more self-aware now and being an adult, I’m a little bit embarrassed to watch them.
HitFix: Some of them are just good movies, though…
JM: They are. And when I was a kid, I wouldn’t even see myself. I would just watch it and enjoy it. Now I think it’s a little bit different as an experience. But I watched the whole “Pacific” and that was great. I tried not to be too critical. You get into it. When something’s good, you get into it no matter what.
HitFix: And were you impressed with yourself?
JM: I was very proud. I wouldn’t say impressed. I was certainly proud the stuff I accomplished, even physically. I didn’t think I could do all of that stuff. It was such an intense shoot. It was the most physically and emotionally exhausting experience of my life. And I got through it. I think I did the family proud. I worked with a lot of great people and I’m just happy to be a part of it, really.
The fifth episode of HBO’s “The Pacific” airs Sunday, April 11 on HBO.