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Mazzello and Dale

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The Pacific’s Joe Mazzello and James Badge Dale: “The Running Joke on Set Was, ‘No, This Was the Worst Day’”

You’ve heard of actors losing themselves in a role, but perhaps not to the extent of two of the stars of HBO’s ten-part miniseries, The Pacific, James Badge Dale (24) and Joe Mazzello (all grown up from being the kid in Jurassic Park). The two men suffered their own form of PTSD after undergoing three brutal weeks of boot camp under Marine supervision, followed by ten grueling and mud-caked months of shooting in some of Australia’s most rugged terrain. Dale plays PFC Robert Leckie and Mazzello is PFC Eugene Sledge, two men whose subsequent books about the war were used as source material for The Pacific (which airs Sunday nights at 9). Though they filmed virtually no scenes together (the series follows three separate platoons within the First Division Marines in three historic Pacific theater battles), the actors became comrades in adversity.

Tom Hanks and Steven Spielberg, who produced this, did a hell of a job of making war look like hell on earth.
Joe Mazzello: And they did a hell of a job making us feel that way. The running joke on set was, "No, this was the worst day!" I can honestly say that we had not a single comfortable time on set. And I’m the kind of guy who never got his fingers dirty prior to this. But then most of the men who fought in World War II were not professional warriors — they were teachers, mechanics, and artists who were handed rifles and told to save the world.

So when you’re looking battle fatigued on the show, you actually were?
James Badge Dale: They did grind us down. We lost an enormous amount of weight, just like the real soldiers — they averaged 30 pounds, though I only made it to 19.
JM: We’d end up feeling incredibly silly for complaining, thinking about what the real guys went through.
JBD: We shot an episode in Melbourne after three months of shooting in the rain forest in Queensland. Seventy-five sweaty, smelly, angry, unshaven, and exhausted guys were set down in Melbourne at this table read with all these beautiful Australian actresses.
JM: They hit on every woman in sight.
JBD: [Laughs.] But I’m pretty sure that’s how soldiers behaved when the war was over.
JM: The worst days shooting were on the Higgins boats, the actual boats that were used to storm the beaches in Europe and the Pacific. The sun would be beating down on you; if the seas were rough, it was horrible. And some genius designed them so that the exhaust blew right into the faces of the soldiers. There was a reason we all look sick.

I was particularly impressed with the battle scenes, which are extraordinarily complex. Obviously they weren’t using real ammunition, but running through those explosions must have been nerve-wracking.
JBD: We took a lot of time to choreograph them properly, but yes, it was scary at times. The special-effects guys timed the explosions to our movements, and I found myself laying markers on the path I needed to run to be sure I stayed on course: Turn right at the M1 rifle, then left at the severed arm …
JM: My parents were dance teachers and Badge’s dad was a choreographer and dancer, so we were naturally graceful running through mortars. Beautiful, I think.
JBD: You were like Baryshnikov.

What kept you going?
JM: The responsibility to the families, the veterans, the Marines. And the budget!
JBD: Our first week on set, we’re looking around and thinking, Oh my God, they have spent so much money on this! They start rolling the camera for my first scene, and one of my buddies leans over and says, “$200 million. Don’t fuck up.” That was pretty good motivation.

Watching The Pacific makes the Western theater look like a comparative picnic.
JBD: The real soldiers got horrible diseases from the insects, and the rain caused their clothes to literally rot and fall off. We did a good job of re-creating that. The crew was constantly hosing us down — we were perpetually wet. I remember during the second week of filming, we’re all sitting around thinking, What is that smell? Oh my God, it’s us!
JM: If you had to live in that for 24 hours for ten months, you physically couldn’t do it. Or mentally.
JBD: I can vouch for that. I was certifiably insane when shooting was over. I slept for two weeks. I’ve never been so tired — a complete physical shutdown. I got massively depressed. I remember getting back to New York and going out to dinner with my girlfriend on July 4. When the fireworks went off, I couldn’t stop flinching. I was thinking, This is not right. I’m an actor. I shouldn’t be taking this home with me. Am I not professional enough? Have I gone overboard?
JM: And he was right. [Laughter.]

Photo: Jason LaVeris/FilmMagic