‘The Pacific:’ How James Badge Dale Became Robert Leckie

by | March 18, 2010 at 7:31 AM | Interviews, The Pacific

James Badge Dale in The Pacific (HBO)

James Badge Dale in The Pacific (HBO)

The last time Steven Spielberg and Tom Hanks paired up with HBO, the result was 2001’s multiple Emmy-award winning WWII miniseries ‘Band of Brothers.’ The filmmakers returned to HBO and to the war in their latest epic, ‘The Pacific,’ which premiered to a reported four million viewers this past Sunday.

The Pacific,’ filmed over 10 months in Australia in 2007, follows three characters in one of the most little-known theaters of the second world war. Fancast sat down with all three actors, James Badge Dale, Jon Seda, and Joe Mazzello, as well as their boot camp trainer, Capt. Dale Dye, to get their thoughts on filming, how the process changed their lives, and the band of brothers they’ve become.

For his part, Badge Dale (‘The Black Donnellys’) has received rave reviews for his take on machine gunner Robert Leckie, with Barry Garron at The Hollywood Reporter saying: “It would be hard not to take special note of Dale’s work as Leckie, perhaps the most pivotal role because of the insight the character brings to so many situations. Not once does Dale falter.”

We spoke to Badge Dale  about playing author Leckie, whose book “Helmet for My Pillow” served as source material for the series. Leckie’s journey through the war was difficult, emotionally and physically. To honor that struggle Dale spoke to the people who knew him best, Leckie’s widow, Vera, and their children.

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You’d already worked with Paul Haggis and Martin Scorsese, so Spielberg and Hanks are no big, right?
[Laughs] That’s what went through my mind! No…actually, I was finishing a play in New York and I had no idea what I was going to do. It was one of those phone calls that couldn’t have been further off my radar. I didn’t even really know I was being seriously considered. I was finishing this play and I didn’t know where my next job was, I didn’t know what I was going to do. I got a phone a call asking if I would go to Australia and play around with Robert Leckie for the next three years of my life. I said, “Yes, absolutely. No questions asked, I’ll leave tomorrow.”

So what, you didn’t audition?
I did audition. I auditioned a number of times. I wasn’t put through the ringer like Joe Mazzello and some of those guys. They have fantastic audition stories. My audition stories are kind of boring, but I’m thrilled to be here.

Tell me about the part. What drew you to Leckie?
Robert Leckie is a very complex, complicated man. He’s a writer. He’s an artist in his soul, yet I think he struggles with manhood and asserting himself. Eh, I won’t say struggles with it, but he has no problem asserting himself and fighting for that. He’s a passionate man. He has very certain beliefs and he sticks to them. He will tell people they’re wrong if he doesn’t agree with them. He wrote a book, Helmet for My Pillow, which we used as kind of a tome for his part of the story in this. To have his own words kind of lead me through it, it was a unique process for me, because I’ve never worked in that manner before.

So you had his book. What else did you do to prepare?
Well, there were a number of other books he wrote. There was a book on his childhood that he wrote, a number of humorous vignettes. He was the youngest of eight. The two first ones were older brothers. One of them passed away and the other had moved out by the time he was born, so he grew up with five older sisters who dressed him up and beat him up. So he grew up fighting from the outset, fighting for his manhood, shall we say? [laughs] And I was fortunate enough that Vera Leckie and Joan Leckie let me into their house and talked to me about Robert and let me into their family and gave me their blessing.

James Badge Dale as Robert Leckie (L), Robert Leckie (R) (HBO)

James Badge Dale as Robert Leckie (L), Robert Leckie (R) (HBO)

When did you talk to them?
I talked to them the summer of 2007. Before I went to Australia.

What were those conversations like? What were they sharing with you?
I’d never been in a situation like that before. Robert Leckie passed in 2001. What I noticed was what I could learn from sitting back and just letting them talk to each other. It was more valuable than any question I could come up with. Just to be there to sit there to watch Vera talk to her daughter and her son and to watch them, at some point I just kind of drifted back and they just continued talking and telling stories and reminiscing as a family. I think that’s part of the grieving process also. I’m incredibly indebted to them for letting me in their home and to be a part of that.

What did you end up picking up in the conversation that you end up using in the part?
A few little stories hear and there. Robert was a wild one, man! At one point, Joan turned to Vera and said “Why did you marry my father?!” And Vera goes, “Well, there were better looking men. There were nicer men, but they were all boring after Robert.” I’m so happy that Vera has a part to play in this miniseries, because that’s a huge part of Robert Leckie’s story. I think that holding onto this image of Vera Leckie—his next door neighbor Vera Keller at the time—kind of kept him, and gave him hope. Gave him something to come home to. The fact that he went home and he said, “I’m going to marry you,” and he married her, I think is a beautiful, romantic story. But when you meet Vera Leckie, she is a fireball of a woman. She is a fierce, incredible, intelligent woman. Possibly, she is the only one who could handle Robert Leckie. In many ways, I think, she saved his life.

The Leckies, that was the nice way to prepare. But they also put you through boot camp, I understand.
Boot camp? There was no boot camp!

‘The Pacific’: Captain Dale Dye Shapes New Recruits

Capt. Dale Dye said he would feed you twice a day if you didn’t piss him off. I know there was boot camp.
You talked to Capt. Dye, huh? The food on boot camp was something else. You know what I learned on boot camp? Don’t cook your food. Because you get 20 minutes twice a day. When I tried to cook the food, you end up having five minutes to eat. So I just ate everything cold, raw. You get a packet of top ramen, you open it up, you got those crunchy noodles that come, like, in a bar. Then you take the spice pack and just dip it on that. Then you get 15 minutes to lay under a tree and have a smoke. We were all smoking so many cigarettes.

So 10 days of being run around, starved, attacked by japanese soldiers.
Yeah, 10 days of Capt. Dye yelling. It’s all a blur. It’s all a blur.

Did you fantasize about killing him in his sleep?
There were points. [Laughs] We plotted. We plotted at one point. The problem was it was too dark at night. I couldn’t see where I was going. Boot camp was uh—there was one point on the seventh day, where I thought I couldn’t go on any longer. I’m walking, and at this point I had a pair of extra socks and an extra t-shirt, and I kind of made pads out of them to put underneath my dungarees, because everything in my body wasn’t working anymore. I was kind of broken down. I couldn’t curl my fingers anymore. I had chunks of my hand missing. Somebody, somewhere, some genius decided that the way to cover up chunks of hand missing is to use duct tape. So you had all these guys walking around the machine gun platoon with duct tape around their hands. I’d kind of make hooks with my hands, and that was how I’d work. So I was walking and I was like, I’m done. Physically, mentally, I’m done. Broken. So I’ve got this air-cool machine gun on my back, and I’m looking at this guy in front of me. I don’t even know who it was. I still had too much pride and ego to be the first one to fall. And I said to myself, “If the guy in front of me falls, I’m falling. If he lays down, if he quits right now, I’m quitting. I’m quitting. So I’m going to do whatever he does.” And I just watched his feet. He kept putting one foot in front of the other, so I kept putting one foot in front of the other. And we got through it.

They wanted to break us down. These men in the Pacific were broken down. They were broken physically, mentally, and spiritually. The idea of that boot camp was to give us a taste of that. How much can you break a human being down in 10 days? You’d be surprised at how much they can do.

Was that the most surprising thing you learned, how quickly you went from you to almost sub-human?
Absolutely. It happens quickly. We’re actors, we’re sensitive people. It doesn’t take much for us to kind of break down.

But that kind of experience must lead to some sort of bond. The Band of Brothers guys are having their 10th anniversary reunion. Is there the same spirit with you guys?
These guys are unbelievable. I got down there, I was like, This is never going to work. You kidding me? Twenty-five actors? Male, young actors, the egos! We’re going to be fighting all the time. They couldn’t have cast a better group of guys, more talented actors. I’m so proud to be a part of this. When I watch this show and I see the performances that these men put in, and they work—and I know the work first-hand, the amount of research and the amount of dedication everybody had toward this product, I’m so proud of all of them. I was hanging with about 10 of them last night when we got off the plane. We’re all happy to be here. This is a big week for us, because everyone worked really hard. They deserve to have a good time and to see this project finally come to fruition. And I think everyone did it for the right reasons. Nobody was doing it from a business standpoint. They wanted to be able to tell these stories of these men, as actors to be able to tell a story of cultural relevance. It’s a privilege. It doesn’t happen often. It’s not often that I can sit here and talk to you about a project that I’m actually truly proud to be a part of.

But it doesn’t hurt to have guys like Spielberg and Hanks involved.
No. That was a beautiful feeling, while you’re down there shooting, of knowing you have this safety net of Hanks and Spielberg. That this is going to be done right. That this is going to look right. This is going to be told with respect and class, with a certain standard of production value.

What do you know now about WWII that you didn’t know before?
The Pacific theater I don’t think gets talked about very much, and it’s either because people don’t know anything about it, or they do know something about it, and they choose not to talk about it.

Steven Spielberg, Jon Seda, James Badge Dale, Joe Mazzello, Tom Hanks (HBO)

Steven Spielberg, Jon Seda, James Badge Dale, Joe Mazzello, Tom Hanks (HBO)

PART TWO OF ‘THE PACIFIC’ AIRS SUNDAY MARCH 21 AT 10 PM ON HBO