In HBO’s “The Pacific,” which premiered last Sunday, Jon Seda plays Marine John Basilone.
When the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, John Basilone had just turned 25 and had already done three years of Army duty in the Philippines.
Seda will turn 40 later this year, but hardly anybody will look at him in the context of the epic 10-part World War II miniseries and think he looks older than any of his colleagues. It’s only when you start thinking of Seda’s work in movies like “Twelve Monkeys” and “The Sunchaser” from the mid-90s, or TV roles including “Homicide: Life on the Street” or “UC: Undercover” that you remember that he’s been acting steadily and often impressively for a decade-and-a-half.
Or, put a different way, Seda’s been a film and television star since he was Basilone’s age.
HitFix caught up with Seda a couple weeks back to talk about his acclaimed HBO production and about his almost eerie agelessness…
Click through for the full interview, edited slightly to remove a few major spoilers. Minor spoilers still remain, but with warning…
HitFix: So I was just chatting with Dale Dyle and he gave you a pretty big compliment…
Jon Seda: Oh yeah?
HitFix: He talked about how you can tell the actors who are committed to his boot process and getting the most out of it and he singled you out as one of the committed ones.
JS: Oh, I appreciate that. I love Captain Dale Dye. I really have such respect for him. He kinda became like a father figure while we were shooting. I can say, for me, that I can see how much he pours into doing what he does. He’s a Vietnam vet and he has such a passion to make sure that things get done the right way. I just wanted to make him proud. All of us wanted to make him proud. We had boot camp and boot camp for us was a foundation. For actors, when you first get the project and you see that it’s a Steven Spielberg, Tom Hanks and Gary Goetzman-produced project, right away, from an acting standpoint, you go, “Wow. That’d be great to be part of that. What a career move that’d be.” Right? And, of course, after seeing “Saving Private Ryan” and “Band of Brothers,” you know it’s gonna be special. And you know that visual, when it’s all said and done, it should look great, because they know what they’re doing.
That said, the actors have to do their part. We have to do our part and that is truly understanding what the nature of the project is and what we’re being asked to do, who we’re being asked to be the voices for. And we took it seriously. I know I gave everything I had and would give everything I had to try and get it done the right way. The boot came was the foundation for that. We all showed up at the boot camp and if we had our characters on our mind, they were quickly taken away that first day. I don’t think we all truly knew what we were getting ourselves into. But the beauty of Captain Dale Dye’s boot camp is that not only did it aim to each us the ins and outs of all of the weapons that were used during that time, but he put us through tactical formations that they would have gone through, combat scenarios in the jungle that simulated as close as they could to what they would have experienced, but the most important thing that I got out of it was the camaraderie that we developed with each other and how to depend on each other and trust each other.
One of the best times for me at boot camp was when, at the end of a hard day, we’d sit around a campfire and Captain Dale Dye would just tell us stories, stories he’s heard and stories he experienced, this own war stories. You truly got a sense of his passion and his dedication to it. So I really took notice of that and made it personal for me to continue to respect that and to carry that on, what learned in boot camp to carry it on through filming. I think the reality of what we were doing hit us all at different points, but it no longer became about doing something to better our career or doing something that was just another TV show or another film. We were asked to be the voices for all of these Marines who never got the chance to say what they were really going through, to get that message across. The vet, who have been passing one by one, never got a chance to really see their story told. So I think the responsibility was huge on this to get it done right and hopefully we did. Hopefully what we did falls in line with what “Band of Brothers” did, which was to continue to honor all the men who sacrificed in World War II.
HitFix: How much of John Basilone’s story did you know going in?
JS: You know, I grew up in New Jersey. There were a lot of similarities. He was born in New York. I was born in New York. We both grew up in New Jersey. We both had a passion for boxing. I fought amateur. I had heard of Basilone, but I honestly didn’t know too much. I knew he was a war hero, but I didn’t really know the extent. I sure do now. Clifton’s a small town, Raritan’s not much bigger. You hear so many stories about Basilone, about him being this incredible, this force of nature, this guy who’s just superhuman and carries machine guns on his back. There are so many books out there, like “I’m Staying with My Boys” by Jim Proser and “Red Blood, Black Sand” by Chuck Tatum, who also served with Basilone on Iwo Jima and whose character is also portrayed in the show. There are so many stories. But then there’s the whole other side. You talk to guys like John Pacifico from Rariton, New Jersey, who runs the parade for John in Rariton and he sent a booklet to HBO to get to whoever was playing Basilone and in that booklet there were things that went back to John’s childhood and his character as a child and as a teenager and it had stories from classmates of his. So I took all of that, stored it inside somewhere, took what I learned from Captain Dale Dye in boot camp.
I took it all and put it in me and I said, “You know what? I think I’m gonna just find the humanity and play him as a regular guy from Jersey who loved his family, loved his country, found his niche with the Marines and just loved it and would do whatever it took to get the job done. He loved his men and his men loved him. He was a good leader.” But the facts of what happen in his life also spoke to his character. He would never call himself a hero. He would say that everyone else was just equally heroic, all of the men. [NOTE: The rest of Seda’s answer isn’t a spoiler if you know your World War II Marine history. It *is* a spoiler if you do not. Skip to the next question if you don’t want to be spoiled.] His receiving the Medal of Honor and not having to go back to that Hell and deciding to go back? I wrestled with that thought when we were shooting, the reality that this isn’t a scene that was just made up, that this actually happened, that this decision was made… Would I have been able to make that decision? How many others would have made that decision to go back when he didn’t have to? And then on top of that, he found love. Why didn’t that change his decision? Or maybe it did. Maybe he wrestled with it. Maybe since Lena was a Marine as well and since the fight was still going on and even she knew she wasn’t going to be able to fill the void that he had in him. To think that they went through this… All that just basically made him a human being, somebody that you’d love to have on your side and not somebody you’d want to go against.
HitFix: Basilone had already served even before World War II. He was the veteran of this group. Did you play a similar role on set, given that you’re more experienced than many or most of your co-stars?
JS: I didn’t think of that, because, like Basilone, I guess, I would never do that. I’ve never been one to think of myself as being any higher than anybody else. But, that said, I think that my experience was able to help me with knowing what was going to be needed to get through filming. It was about just showing up every time. So I think that the maturity level was able to play a big role for me. Actually, the way it was shot, we shot it where I was in Guadalcanal first, so I had my group of guys — Josh Biton and Jon Bernthal as Morgan and Rodriguez — and then all of a sudden, they’re gone and I’m on this War Bonds tour and it felt like I was literally on this War Bonds tour, because I wasn’t in the fight and I was no longer shooting the scenes where the battle was going on and I wanted to get back to that. It was amazing how they pieced it together and I had so much stuff to play on. I think definitely the experience helped me out in the sense of being able to be patient and just trust my instincts and the things I’ve learned over the years.
HitFix: Did you have to sell anybody on the idea that you could still play a 20-something Marine? And are you to some degree amazed that you can still fill roles like this?
JS: Well, when we shot this, I was 36. I’m 39 now. That was three years ago already. Fortunately, they call my dad The Latin Dick Clark so hopefully that helped me out. I think that if they’d seen that I wasn’t going to be able to do it, it wouldn’t have happened. But what also helped in my favor — I don’t know if I’m complimenting myself here or not… That might be bad… I might not be complimenting myself… — is that these guys went through so much crap that they looked older, some of them, than what they really were. That’s not really complimenting me, is it? Some of them went through so much stuff that they looked older than the were.
HitFix: I was just finding it funny as I thought back to things like “Homicide” and “Third Watch” and your earlier movie roles that here you are still playing this young Marine.
JS: You know what, though? That said, back then when I was working on those projects, the truth is that I wasn’t watching what I did, being healthy. I was into the party life and that can effect the way you look, too. But I’m just living a clean and healthy life now and I’ve got my wife and kids, so I think that’s been something that’s helped me out as well. I’m not gonna be able to play this age forever!
HitFix: But there isn’t a portrait of you in a closet somewhere that’s aging at an accelerated rate?
JS: Right, right! Thank God, it was able to work out and I was able to do this role. I’m just so proud to be a part of it. I gave everything I had. You always second guess yourself, but I just truly hope that what I did helps to keep honoring his legacy.
The second episode of HBO’s “The Pacific” airs Sunday, March 21 on HBO.