Film

Interview: Ed Skrein and Luke Kleintank on the Weight—and Honor—of Portraying War Heroes in Midway

Just in time for Veteran’s Day next week is Midway, the latest action-heavy historical work from director Roland Emmerich (Independence Day, The Day After Tomorrow, White House Down), which begins with America’s entry into World War II after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor and moves through the machinations that led to the turning point in the Pacific Theater—the Battle of Midway. Emmerich seems committed to not only making the film mostly historically accurate in terms of the more familiar names involved—Vice Admiral Haley (Dennis Quaid), Admrial Nimitz (Woody Harrelson), and Navy intelligence expert Edwin Layton (Patrick Wilson), but also to including characters based on aviators involved, including Lt. Richard “Dick” Best (Ed Skrein) and his best friend Lt. Clarence Dickinson (Luke Kleintank), who were among the heroes of the conflict. The film also dives into the family lives of some of its players, and even gives us the perspective of the Japanese military throughout.

Midway

Dick Best (Ed Skrein, left) and Clarence Dickinson (Luke Kleintank, right) in MIDWAY. Image courtesy of Lionsgate.

The actions sequences are top notch, as you might expect from Emmerich, but the more intimate and personal stuff works as well, thanks to some of the solid acting on display. I had a chance to sit down recently with the British-born Skrein (who is also currently featured in Maleficent: Mistress of Evil, as well as Alita: Battle Angel, and Deadpool recently) and the U.S.-born Kleintank (The Goldfinch), to discuss the importance of telling this story accurately, the reaction to the film by military audiences, and the unique nature of their characters’ friendship. Enjoy…

How would you describe the nature of this friendship? There aren’t too many people on the planet who can do what these guys do [professionally], but I think their relationship goes beyond that.

Luke Kleintank: I’m actually wearing the [Academy] ring now. They both went to the Naval Academy together, so they were college buddies. It’s kind of like being in a fraternity, and they became friends there, and that’s where it started and that followed them onto the boat.

Ed Skrein: I think that’s a really interesting question and is actually the first time we’ve been asked that, so excellent work [laughs]. What’s beautiful about Dickinson and Best’s friendship—and in a way, me and Luke’s friendship—is that it’s so normal. It’s the same as your friendships with your best friends. The connection is the same connection we all have, which is trust, someone you can open up to and that you can show your more fragile side to. Me and Luke are not at war or leading men [into war], so we are able to show more fragility in our normal lives. But with these guys, I think you would need your friendships more than ever. They would mean the world to you. Obviously, Best has [wife] Anne Best and his daughter, but when he’s out there on the carrier, all you really have is each other, fighting against torpedo pilots and fighting against authority, so you need allies.

LK: It’s interesting too, because I feel like Clarence and Best are like yin and yang, they’re opposites in a way, but the through line is that they’re both really good pilots, they’re both brave as hell, but Dickinson is a little less serious than Best.

ES: He’s a little more tactile, more sensitive.

LK: Yeah, they’re both warriors but they do have this nice teeter-totter between them.

ES: Like all good friendships and partnerships. We fill in each other deficiencies, like a jigsaw puzzle.

LK: When he’s being too much of a dick, I have to check him [laughs] and vice versa.

The film isn’t afraid to step back for a minute and have those more intimate, quieter moments between the men, between the men and their wives, and you need that in a film like this. In war and in life, this was uncharted territory, this level of being the underdog.

ES: Definitely. And to say that the movie wasn’t afraid to show those moments, I think it’s more than that. It embraces them. The through line of the movie is those human moments. This is an important and extremely complicated battle, and as we were researching it, it took me so long to really get to grips with the logistics of all of it. So to unpack the events that happened and the battle itself and understand the importance of it historically is one thing; we had to get people on our side emotionally and get them invested in these characters, endeared to them. We had to do what Roland does best, which is make people feel like they’re a part of it, like you’re on the carrier, in the cockpit, in the intelligence room. That comes from these emotional moments. That’s certainly what attracted me to this script and this character.

LK: If you don’t have those quiet moments when you get to fall in love with the characters, the battle sequences don’t mean as much, so you have to have that. I think there’s a good balance because things settle, and then it picks right back up again. But you feel for Dick Best because of his relationship with his wife and kid, and even my character and Dick have their moments. You need those simple, quiet moments.

ES: Plus, even a character like Dick Best would be so much less endearing if you only saw his gung-ho, cocky alpha male side. We’ve seen that before, and that’s what made him such a beautiful proposition. It’s the same for a lot of these characters. There are some beautiful moments with Layton, when his wife says, “What are you doing?” And he says, “I’ve got to go to work.” And she says, “It’s Sunday,” and he puts the paper down and looks at her like “It’s Sunday?” These tender moments are the only way we can all actually related.

When you’re playing real people, do you feel an extra level of responsibility or pressure to honor them, especially these guys because they are legitimate heroes? And what sorts of things did you do to honor them the way they deserved to be?

LK: You definitely feel that responsibility, 100 percent. It’s hard to know much about these guys because they aren’t with us anymore. You do have some kind of freedom in that, so you can make your own choices. At the same time, you still to respect these guys as much as possible. For both of us, we watched so many documentaries and interviews with these guys to gets a feel for how they felt about the war, how they carried themselves. My character wrote a book called The Flying Guns, which he wrote a year after Midway happened.

ES: It was published a year after, so he probably started writing it right after the battle.

LK: Right, so this was fresh in his mind, so for me, this was my number one thing. I can only look at photographs of him, and that’s not enough, so I got to hear his voice via his book. So that was my main thing.

ES: The responsibility is precedent in my career and in my life, the kind of weight. I’m not sure pressure is the word I would use, but responsibility, duty, and honor, more than anything. Last night, we were in the presence of the Montford Reserves, which is the first black Marines. In 1942, they were the first guys allowed in the Marines; they weren’t even allowed to train with the white Marines at the time, but they were so determined to give their all for their country, that they would train separately and had to prove that they were as strong and patriotic as the white Marines.

LK: They literally had to fight to fight. It’s crazy.

ES: We were with a 101-year-old man who was on the Yorktown in the Battle of Midway. And we met these men, and it’s impossible not to feel inferior to them or intimidated. I was literally speechless and bumbling to them. We gave some words before the screening, and I couldn’t speak. I was illiterate. Wasn’t I?

LK: [laughs] You were all right.

ES: No, I was illiterate. This is the greatness of the greatest generation—my grandfathers, your grandfathers before us. To be able to represent them in such an honor.

I was going to ask how military audiences have been responding to the film.

ES: It’s been heartwarming.

LK: I don’t there’s been one bad comment. Everybody is so thrilled about it.

ES: They’re so proud and happy that we’ve done this. This is the Navy’s story. We had some Marine’s there last night too, young men and women in their early 20s. We screened the World Premiere in Hawaii at Pearl Harbor, so the admiral of the Pacific Fleet gave the introduction and the Navy band played “The Star Spangled Banner.” The audience was all of these men and women in their uniforms, and it chokes you up. I was close to tears at the end of the screening when its says that the film is dedicated to the American and Japanese soldiers who lost their lives during the war. “The sea remembers its own.” The servicemen and -women stood up and clapped at that. You feel like you’re in Wayne’s World: “We are not worthy.” [laughs]

LK: He’s right. At times, it doesn’t feel like a film. It’s like this wild rollercoaster of an experience for me and you. It’s an emotional thing unlike anything I’ve ever experienced before, that we can create something that’s had such a beautiful response for so many people, I want to keep doing that.

ES: It was overwhelming. I was sitting there at the screening last night at the Department of Defense. In the morning, we’d gone to see Dick Best’s grave at Arlington; later we went to the Pentagon; and then we screened it for the Department of Defense in the evening. And I thought to myself, this is so overwhelming, and I’m so glad Luke was here with me. We’ve been on this tour together. I can’t quite quantify what we’ve experienced and seen, and even saying it to you, I can’t believe that all happened in one day. I think after this press tour is all said and done, I’m going to go back to London, and I don’t know how I’m going to feel.

From a filmmaking point of view, the scale is so massive and the effects are seamless. I can’t tell what’s real and what’s not. How do you fake dive bomb something?

LK: There are definitely some practical things. A lot of stuff that you see in Pearl Harbor we filmed in Pearl Harbor. All the VFX aren’t there, but the location is real. As far as the aircraft carrier, they built one-third of an aircraft carrier. Our team was amazing. We had planes on gimbals, so every time you see us in a plane, that’s a mock up. They remade the plane. Of course we’re not flying; we’re surrounded by green screens. They did an amazing job. When we’re in the planes, they had these little wind jets that would blast you with wind like they were huge wind fans, with cameras on cranes. It was wild.

How is Roland Emmerich unique compared to some of the other filmmakers you’ve worked with?

ES: He is very different from all of the other directors I’ve worked with. Although I’d say every director is as unique as every human being is unique, and you have such an intimate relationship on set, so you see even further into their uniqueness. Much like me and Luke, Roland is happiest when he’s on set. I’m my best self when I’m on set—I’m light and fun and focused and efficient and positive, and Roland is exactly like that. He is an enthusiastic filmmaker and loves making film. The pressure doesn’t get to him, even when we’re there with 300 extras and people behind the camera, crazy big sets with planes, cars, wheelchairs, everything you can think of. And he’s completely in control.

You can feel you’re in a safe, experienced pair of hands. He’s a master of the macro and the micro. He’ll come in and adjust one picture frame in a bedroom, but at the same time, he might stop what we’re doing and make everyone wait 20 minutes while he changes the lighting or composition. He’s an experienced filmmaker, and as an actor, you want to feel that your director has a clear vision, and that’s exactly what you get from Roland.

Thank you both so much. Great to meet you. Best of luck.

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