This past weekend I got the chance to sit down and talk with not only members of the cast of the upcoming WWII film Red Tails, but also its director and one of the famous Tuskegee airmen that the film is based on. Below you’ll see the conversation I had first with Cuba Good Jr. and the film’s director Anthony Hemingway. Later today we’ll be putting up the second interview with Terrance Howard, David Oyelowo and Tuskegee Airman Dr. Roscoe Brown.
The film, in case you’ve missed the media blitz it’s been under, has been in development by George Lucas for more than a decade and is jam packed full of dogfights, action and history. It’s story, however, is about the first black pilots to fight in WWII and is as true as an action movie based on real life events gets. Our full review will be up tomorrow.
I did learn two important facts during these interviews: WWII heroes aren’t just heroes they’re insanely nice people and Terrance Howard is James Bond in disguise.
Cuba, you’ve been in a lot of war films. What attracts you to these roles?
Cuba Gooding Jr.: When I first heard about the Tuskegee airmen in my early 20s, for the first movie, I was emotionally moved and equal parts frustrated and angry. It pissed me off to know that there were black fighter pilots that contributed in a major way to the war effort and I had never heard of them. There have been so many great movies about WWII, but to hear about them now and realize that they had not been part of my education was upsetting. I know how powerful the medium is and I know that lots of kids get their education from film so I made it a pact with myself that I would tell the story of a black solider any opportunity I got. But especially with this story it’s not just a black story it’s an American story, it’s a great American story.
What is it about the role that attracted you?
Gooding Jr.: Well, it wasn’t just the role it was the project itself. The first time we attempted to do this story [ed: Cuba was in a previous film about the airmen] it dealt with the racism and it dealt with the training process and it culminated with the first entrance into the war. This was George Lucas, told on a grand scale and showing the pilots as the warriors that they were. That’s the story I wanted to tell. That’s what I knew I had to be a part of.
This is a rare major release with an almost entirely black cast. George Lucas recently said that that was one of the reasons he had so much trouble getting it to the market, especially since the overseas sales were predicted to not do well. Did you feel any of that push back because of the race of most of the cast?
Anthony Hemingway: This isn’t the first time there’s been that struggle. I think everyone highlighting it is taking away from what we really should be talking about, which is the Tuskegee airmen. The good thing about it, I suppose, is that it relates back to the struggle of the Tuskegee airmen and how they persevered so that this could even be possible.
Gooding Jr.: You know this film was made with passion and that’s what you feel. You come see this movie and you’re learning about American warriors. Like Anthony said, we’re focusing on the struggle of getting this story told and the airmen’s struggle of being recognized as American heroes.
You got the rare experience of working with the actual people who took part in the story of your film. What did you look for from them as an actor and as a director?
Hemingway: Well, I wanted to have them open up and let them take that ride. You know even the little things like the songs they chanted or the mantra they had to motivate themselves. It was just really amazing to get the thumbs up on something or criticism so I could get it right.
Gooding Jr.: Everything he said. You just want to get them comfortable enough to start telling stories. The other thing that I like about these roles is that when you have that individual on the set it gives you a focus to telling the truth about that person and that permeates your performance.
There’s been talks about a prequel and a sequel… (at this point Cuba Gooding Jr. let out an academy award winning worthy whoop of excitement and laughed.) I guess that answers my question if you’d like to do it.
Hemingway: I think that was just a statement George was making. Of course we would like to do it, but I think what he was saying was that he hopes that this will open the door for more stories just like it.
Anthony, how was it going from TV to film and then Cuba how was it working with Anthony.
Gooding Jr.: [emphatically] Great. Anthony? [laughter]
Hemingway: Thankfully the body of work I’ve done prepared me for this. I think the only real difference is the time that you get to spend on getting it right. To be able to pay attention to the details that you get to see on the bigger screen is really the only difference. That’s where the pressure lies really.
How do you balance creating a character in a film when you’re playing a real person, Cuba? And how do you, as a director, balance fact and fiction when you’re making an action movie?
Gooding Jr.: When I’m dealing with real people, or in this case a character based on multiple real people, you’re always trying to find certain things that you can grasp. I remember the first day of rehearsal Anthony walks in and says, “I think you’re going to have a pipe.” [mugs confused]. It was like, somebody get me a pipe, and then two months later I couldn’t live without having that pipe. It became an appendage. It’s just one of those things that anything around you affects the emotion and reaction of the character and the more submersed you can be mentally and physically in that world the better. We shot on an abandoned Russian airfield one hour out of Prague and you felt like you were back in 1943 on this air base. It was surreal.
Hemingway: It’s always a challenge knowing what you set out to do and knowing that this is fact and it’s an amazing story that you want to get right. But also you have to entertain. There’s level in there where you have to take some creative license with it. You want to make it creative and exciting. It’s a challenge finding that balance.
You put the actors through a boot camp and it looked like and sounds like they really bonded.
Hemingway: Yea, that was the purpose of that. We live in a time when we’re walking around with our phones out and we don’t have conversations anymore. This was a time where they had to stand together. The boot camp was really a way to remind them and make them be as one. It made them really shoulder up. I think the boot camp help them create that sense of camaraderie.
The dogfights are pretty cool. How hard was that for you to put together? You’ve got digital effects, real effects and actors sitting in fake cockpits.
Hemingway: Well it was easy because I had George Lucas and ILM on my side. [laughs] But, it was a challenge. I don’t fly. Not knowing how to even speak that language and get all that right. It makes me happy when people in aviation have come up and said that we got it right. It’s really cool to see that all our efforts are received and appreciated. I also add that I had so much research. Watching all the dog fights from then was amazing. I was able to really have inspiration and something to go off of.