The ‘Pacific’: How Joe Mazzello Became Eugene Sledge

by | May 16, 2010 at 9:23 AM | HBO, Interviews, The Pacific

Joe Mazzello as Eugene Sledge in The Pacific. (HBo)

Joe Mazzello as Eugene Sledge 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 tenth and final installment of the filmmakers’ return to HBO, ‘The Pacific,’  airs Sunday May 16. ‘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, John 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.

In this final installment, Joe Mazzello, known to many movie-goers as the boy in Spielberg’s dinosaur odyssey ‘Jurassic Park,’ talks to Fancast about playing Eugene Sledge. A wealthy young man with a heart murmur, Sledge signed up to serve as a mortarman in 1942, joining generations of his family as a veteran. Portraying Sledge turned out to be a profound experience for Mazzello, in ways the young actor could never have foreseen.

Read: ‘The Pacific’: How Jon Seda Became John Basilone

You’re the Spielberg vet among the cast.
That’s me.

So what was it like working with the guy again—this time on the other side of puberty?
[Laughs] Exactly! It’s very strange, because, obviously, we had a relationship when I was a kid. But I had to audition for this the old-fashioned way.

I was going to ask, did he call you up?
No, I went to the casting director. I don’t even think he knew I was auditioning until the fifth audition, when I was going to come in for him. But I went in front of the casting director and she liked me. Then I went in front of the casting director and a producer, then another producer, then another producer. Finally, I got to the fifth audition and they said, “Hey, you’re going in front of Steven Spielberg.” Hoo! Okay.

Comcast HBO customers can catch up on ‘The Pacific’ here

Were you more nervous because you’d worked together?
It was like a ball of emotions. On one hand, I said, “Okay, I kind of have a leg up, here, because he at least knows who I am. He knows my name.” I’d seen him three years earlier, I think, and he liked me then. And he knew I wasn’t crazy, and he knew I had a good work ethic—at least as a nine-year-old. But at the same time, absolutely I started thinking, Wait a minute. This puts a little more pressure on me, because what if I don’t get it? Then what? Am I not good anymore? Do I stink now? What happened to me?

Did I peak at nine?
Exactly! So I kind of went in thinking, Man, I gotta get this now! So went in and he gave me a hug, so that relaxed me immediately. But then it was down to business. He was like, “Okay, first scene. Let’s go.” I knew he wasn’t going to do me a $200 million favor. I was going to get the part if I was the right man for the job. Hopefully, they got it right.

Let’s talk about the part. Sledge is a wealthy, sickly kid, but he desperately wants in on the war. Why?
It’s sense of duty, I think. His father served in World War I. His great-grandfather served—everyone in his family had served, probably, from the Revolutionary War on down. He wanted to be a part of that, he wanted to serve his country. Heart murmur or no heart murmur, he wanted to go. He and his friend, Sid, used to play war as kids. Eugene, he wasn’t naive. He was, maybe, idealistic, but not naive. He knew the horror of war. He knew how difficult it was.

Did he really?
He did as much as you can, because there’s no amount of books you can read, and no amount of boot camp you can go through that’ll prepare you for what you’re about to do. When I say he wasn’t naive, I mean he was a good Marine. He knew how to do his stuff. He knew how to use his weapon. He was trained well. And he had a steel core—his exterior didn’t quite match his interior. He was tough. He could get through anything. But obviously, you don’t really understand what it’s really like until you’re in it. I certainly felt like I got a sense of it, because it felt real while we were out there.

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

So what was it like, starting with boot camp?
That was only the beginning! I lost 12 lbs. in 10 days. I’m only, what, 140, maybe? They beat us up. They kicked our butts. We’re a bunch of actors. We get up before 11 every morning. We thought it was going to be, like, make your bed, do a little running…but we were in the middle of a jungle carrying 40 lbs. of equipment on our backs. We were digging ditches, getting screamed at. Somebody broke his collarbone in the close-combat exercises. A guy broke two of his ribs. It was nutso! We forgot we were making a movie! It was so real.

And Dale Dye, Capt. Dye, the first time I met him he said, “You’re Sledge, right? Stand up.” I stood up. He said, “That is the last time you will address me without calling me sir.” It was like, Okay, set the tone! But at the end of the day, though, Dale Dye? He’s a little bit of a teddy bear. Behind that, there’s a soft spot.

Joe Mazzello and Eugene Sledge. (HBO)

Joe Mazzello (L), Eugene Sledge(R) (HBO)

Yeah, right. I will say, though, that he’s incredibly knowledgeable. Speaking of which, how much did you know beforehand about the Pacific theater?
Um, some. Not as much as I knew coming out of it. My grandfather served in the Pacific, so maybe I had a little bit more knowledge than the average person. So from my grandfather, even though he never really talked about it that much, I at least knew more about the Pacific theater than a lot of people. I certainly didn’t know what Peleliu was. I never even knew that battle existed. Obviously, going through this, you learn a lot. I almost feel like a history buff now.

I can’t imagine then that anyone had more of a desire to honor these men, then, than those of you whose relatives fought.
Definitely. From my first audition I said, “I have to get this. It’s the way it has to be.” My grandfather was getting up there and I wanted him to have the closure. I wanted him to know that I was going to be a part of honoring men like him and wanting him to know what I was doing. And he passed away while we were shooting.

I’m so sorry.
Yeah, but you know what? It was great because he knew I was doing it. I was there already for six months. I came back over the holidays and talked to him about it, and I got to him before and he opened up more than he ever had before. So he got closure from it. That makes me feel great. It meant a lot to me.

Don’t you make me cry, Mazzello. Don’t you do it!
Let’s talk about the fun things, then!

All right, let’s talk about food. How were the rations in boot camp?
Um, boy, when we were doing that boot camp, they showed us. Like, “Okay, here’s what you do: You dig this little pit. Here’s this thing, you put that down. You set it on fire. You put the water on, it’ll boil. Then you put the soup in. You get it all out, stir it up. It’ll be like a nice broth. Oh, one more thing, I almost forgot—you have five minutes to eat it.” That was on purpose. So, was any of that done? Never. It was, Tear the bag open and eat it like paste. The chicken noodle soup? Pasta brick. Crunch! Just eat it like that. You’re just trying to get everything down that you could. I lived on little fruit bars and chocolate. Chocolate sticks. I had them through the entire 10 months, because I didn’t finish them all. People knew I loved them, so they would give me some. I ate the last one on the final day of shooting, just as a little remembrance of everything we had been through.

Joe_Mazzello in The Pacific. (HBO)

Joe_Mazzello in The Pacific. (HBO)

It sounds like you guys got close. Those Band of Brothers guys, they’re having their 10th anniversary. Do you feel like you guys have that same sort of camaraderie?
Definitely. I mean, I don’t know if I can compare it to their experience because they were all one unit, and we’re kinda three separate ones. But, boy, we feel it, for sure. And I wasn’t sure, you know. I was like, That’s so cliched, and maybe it’s just the story they tell and really it’s not like that. We’re a bunch of actors with type A personalities, and there’s going to be fights and conflict. But there honestly wasn’t. We got each other through it. The shoot was so hard, and it was so long, and we were so far away from everyone we knew and loved that it was our camaraderie that got us through. We kept each other laughing, we kept each other relaxed. We kept each other sane. Because if we had to live in that mindset that the characters have to go through every day, we wouldn’t be able to get through it. It would just be too difficult. So having that atmosphere, with people that you really loved, and feeling relaxed–that is the thing that made every day bearable.

We’re so spread out across the world. There’s Australians and people from England and Ireland and Canada. I wish we could be in one location. But the guys that are here, I see them all the time. When I go to New York, I see those guys all the time. We try to keep in touch as much as we can.

It sounds pretty awesome.
It is.

What was the most surprising thing you learned—about training, the war, yourself, your grandfather?
I learned something about each of those things. I was the kind of guy, I don’t like to get my nails dirty. My girlfriend always made fun of me because they were always clean. I had to push myself harder than I’ve ever had to push myself before. That boot camp, I never thought I was going to get through that. After Day One, I said, “There’s no way I’m getting through another nine days of this. It’s not happening.” But I found a way to do it. The war—I never realized how brutal that theater of war was. You’re not only fighting an enemy that fought by rules that they had never seen before, but the environment was also your enemy. They were getting sick from diseases that they’d never seen. I had no idea. I should’ve from my grandfather’s pictures—boy, he was skin and bones. But I learned how tough he was. These weren’t professional warriors. These were kids. These were painters.These were electricians. My grandfather owned a deli for his whole life. There was so much asked of them. It was like, “Hey, you guys. Here’s a rifle. Go save the world. See you in four years.” It’s unbelievable to think that, and they’re so humble about it. They come back and they just live their lives so humbly. So I just realized, you know, don’t underestimate anybody. Because the guy working at the deli has seen more things than you can ever imagine.

PART 10 OF ‘THE PACIFIC’ AIRS SUNDAY, MAY 16 AT 9 PM ON HBO