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In spring 2017, Clint Eastwood was grilling Spencer Stone, Alek Skarlatos and Anthony Sadler for details about their harrowing takedown of a heavily armed ISIS recruit on a crowded train heading from Amsterdam to Paris. At the time, Eastwood also was considering various 20-something actors to play the real-life trio whose story formed the basis of his new film The 15:17 to Paris when it hit him that he need look no further.
“I was going over and over it with them because I wanted to get as much accuracy as I could into the film, and one day it just crossed my mind as I was looking at him. I don’t want to sound Norma Desmond-ish, but the faces just fit,” Eastwood tells The Hollywood Reporter. “And I just thought, ‘I wonder if they could do it?’ I think there are some wonderful actors around that could’ve played this, but there’s something about this particular project and the heroism that was involved and the way they handled the thing that is just kind of unique, so I thought I’d try that here. And I just said, ‘I think I’ll take a shot at it.'”
The idea isn’t unprecedented, even if talent might not love being replaced by real people. After all, Steven Soderbergh has done it more than once, with the indies The Girlfriend Experience (led by real-life porn star Sasha Grey) and Haywire (toplined by MMA fighter Gina Carano). Gus Van Sant also took a similar route with his teen massacre drama Elephant as well as another adolescent angst pic, Paranoid Park, both costing $3 million. But with a $30 million budget, Warner Bros.’ 15:17 to Paris, which opens Feb. 9, marks the first time in decades that a major film studio has taken a risk on real-life protagonists leading a moderately budgeted film.
“Just total shock,” Stone says of his reaction when Eastwood suggested the three untrained actors might be best suited for the material. “It was something that I never thought about even in my head, even as family and friends were like, ‘Who’s going to play you in the movie. Are you going to play yourself?’ And I was like, ‘C’mon. Of course we’re not. That’s stupid.’ When Clint asked us, we were just so taken aback.”
Still, Eastwood has used nonprofessionals before, albeit in supporting roles in Gran Torino. And given that film’s box-office performance ($270 million worldwide on a $33 million budget), Warners wasn’t about to raise any objections.
“There might’ve been a little discussion as to whether they thought it was a good idea, but nobody expressed it to me,” says Eastwood. “I guess they felt I’d been doing this for 60-something-odd years, and I could maybe make a decision.”
Back in the early days of cinema, studios occasionally groomed real-life celebrities to play themselves, including figure skater Sonja Henie — once the highest-paid actress in Hollywood — in movies like 20th Century Fox’s 1938 comedy-musical My Lucky Star. More recently, Paramount has had mixed results when gambling on real-life characters, scoring a modest success with 1997’s Howard Stern-as-Howard Stern comedy Private Parts and its $41 million haul. Six years later, it endured a bomb with The Real Cancun — where 16 spring-breaking college students played themselves — which earned just $5 million.
Relativity’s 2012 thriller Act of Valor, which earned $81?million worldwide off a $12?million budget, starred Navy SEALs whose last names did not appear in the credits and were not?revealed in initial marketing of the film.
In the case of 15:17 to Paris, the entire cast is chock-full of the real-life people — from gunshot victim Mark Moogalian to Moogalian’s wife to extras — who reenacted the event that sparked international headlines. A few name actors like Judy Greer, Jenna Fischer and Tony Hale are sprinkled in with the newbies. Eastwood compensated for the lack of professional experience by doing “a massive amount of improvisation.” He adds, “A lot of times I start the camera when nobody knows it, and keep it running when nobody knows it. You have little tricks that you favor over the years.”
But the verite quality of the shoot left Stone unnerved in one particular sequence. It was the scene where he crawls over to Moogalian and presses his hand into his neck to stop the bleeding.
“I had a true flashback,” he says. “We’re wearing the same exact clothes. We’re on the same exact train moving toward Paris. Same amount of blood. They re-created our injuries. His wife is right there. And we’re saying the same exact words that we said to each other on the day of. We only did the scene once. And I remember forgetting that anyone else was in the room and feeling like I was back in time. Clint said, ‘That’s enough.’ And I just was like, ‘Wow. There are people in the room.’ I saw his face, and he was looking at the monitor, and I will never forget his facial expression. It was almost as if he was looking at the real thing. That was reality. That wasn’t fiction. That was us two years ago.”
As for whether Eastwood has started a studio trend remains to be seen. For his next film, which he hasn’t yet determined, he will likely return to using professional actors. “I’m not deserting my Screen Actors Guild,” he says. “The Screen Actors Guild just has three new members.”
And Stone, for one, is hanging on tight to his SAG card. In addition, he signed with UTA for all areas, with Jason Heyman representing him for acting. “I would love to make it a long career,” he says. “It’s such a cliché to say, ‘Do something you have fun with and it will never feel like work.’ But I feel like this is it. Clint blessed us with a new career. Any day after that terrorist attack is a blessing, and I feel like I’m living on borrowed time. So why not?”
A version of this story first appeared in the Feb. 7 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.
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