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From combat-ready to ready on the set

'Elah' director Paul Haggis casts Iraq war veterans. 'They knew what they were talking about,' he says.

September 14, 2007|Gina Piccalo | Times Staff Writer

The film has an Oscar-winning writer-director and three Oscar-winning stars, but when it came to authenticity on the set of "In the Valley of Elah," Paul Haggis turned to a real Iraq war veteran who'd never acted a day in his life.

Twenty-four-year-old Jake McLaughlin was a U.S. Army infantryman whose battalion was the first on the ground for the invasion of Baghdad. His real dream was to be an actor, but without a nest egg and with a wife and two kids to support in Chico, Calif., that wasn't an option. So after he got home, he was pouring concrete and studying to be a truck driver.

Then his former neighbor told him that her bosses, Haggis' casting directors Sarah Finn and Randi Hiller, were looking for veterans. Down to his last $200, McLaughlin auditioned and landed the role of Specialist Gordon Bonner. Four months later he was leading a cast through combat scenes in Morocco.

"The other guys were asking me questions, 'Would a soldier do this? Would a soldier do that?' " McLaughlin said. "When we were in Morocco, [Haggis] just let us do our own thing. When we were going to clear a building, he just said, 'Everyone listen to Jake. He's going to show you how to clear a building. Listen to what he says and do what he says to do.' "

McLaughlin is one of three Iraq veterans Haggis cast in key roles in the Warner Independent crime drama which opens today. And while the Iraq war has inspired lots of feature films and documentaries, many of which take a clear antiwar stance, McLaughlin believes "Elah" offers an objective look at the Iraq veteran experience.

"A lot of people will say, 'Oh it's an antiwar film,' " McLaughlin said. "If anything, it's pro-soldier."

The film is inspired by the July 2003 killing of infantryman Spc. Richard Davis in Ft. Benning, Ga., by four fellow soldiers a day after he returned from the Mideast. It stars Tommy Lee Jones as an ex-Army MP looking for his missing soldier son, Susan Sarandon as the soldier's mother and a deliberately downbeat Charlize Theron as the local detective investigating the case.

McLaughlin plays the dead soldier's roommate, appearing in several flashbacks of the friends in combat. Former naval aviator Wes Chatham portrays Cpl. Steve Penning, who is chillingly ambivalent about his friend's death. Former Marine infantryman Sean Huze has one scene as Capt. Jim Osher, who delivers devastating news.

"I always like to look for people who have some sense of reality of where the characters are," Haggis said. "Early on we decided to look for vets, not knowing whether we could find any who could pull off these major roles. . . . These kids came in, they were the right age, and when they spoke these words, they knew what they were talking about."

McLaughlin said some of the dialogue in the film could have been lifted from his experience, particularly the feelings of guilt that followed him home from battle. He said a back injury he suffered in the field went untreated for more than a year while he waited for an appointment with a Veterans Affairs doctor. Then there was mild post-traumatic stress disorder. Shortly after McLaughlin returned, he heard a routine cannon blast from the base and panicked because he wasn't carrying a weapon.

"When you're over there, you're surrounded by a lot of bad stuff -- mostly death," McLaughlin said. "It just kind of gives you a different outlook on life. How quickly it can be taken away from you. It just puts things in perspective. How lucky we are just to be alive."

Hiller and Finn auditioned dozens of veterans, many of whom brought disturbing war photos to their readings and wept as they recounted their combat experiences, Hiller said. It was this "depth of knowledge," Hiller said, that set them apart from the actors who auditioned for the veteran roles. Their body language and their gaze projected something far beyond what an actor could imitate.

"Inevitably, out of the lineup, you can point to who is the vet," Hiller said.

Haggis recalled meeting with two Iraq war vets at his home recently. They talked extensively about filmmaking and the war. It wasn't until they left that he was told the two men were homeless. He said casting veterans in his film was the least he could do to show his appreciation for the sacrifices they make.

"These men and women are being treated so shamefully," he said. "Those who come back and seek help are being told they aren't eligible for help because they have preexisting behavioral problems. In an odd way, anything we could do to give them a decent job and help them achieve some of their dreams -- we owe it to these men and women."

Chatham, 28, was discharged from the Navy just months before the invasion of Baghdad. But his father was a Vietnam veteran and spent a lot of time as a child hanging out with him and his veteran friends. He got his first break as an extra in 2002's "The Antwone Fisher Story," and landed roles in 2003's "The Fighting Temptations" and the short-lived Showtime series based on the film "Barbershop."

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