Clint Eastwood didn’t want a performance. He wanted reality.
In his new thriller 15:17 to Paris, the Oscar-winning director depicts the story of three American friends — Alek Skarlatos, Spencer Stone and Anthony Sadler — who stopped a terrorist attack on a high-speed train from Amsterdam to Paris in August 2015.
And in an Eastwood first, he skipped the casting calls and relied on the now-heroes to star as themselves in the film.
“He literally kept it that simple,” explains Sadler. “He threw out all the conventional stuff and said, ‘I don’t want you to act. I want you to be you. Do what you did and I’ll capture it.’ It took the weight off shooting a major motion picture. It was like, ‘I’m going to take you to Europe, we’re going to relive the trip and I’ll film it.’”
But they couldn’t go it alone. “We all know each other so well and this is the craziest thing we’ve done — well, besides stopping a terrorist attack,” says Skarlatos, who competed on Dancing With the Stars in 2015. “Being together made this more fun. We’ve been through so many experiences together that nothing can affect our friendship.”
Echoes Sadler, “It would mean 10 times less if we didn’t do it together.”
The childhood pals — who were awarded the highest French merit, the Legion of Honour — share their experience with Us.
Us Weekly: Why did you decide to tell your story so publicly — first with the 2016 book and now this movie?
Alek Skarlatos: It’s our duty. Attacks don’t usually work out this way. In a way, it’s a good story because it shows terrorists don’t always win. For that reason alone, it should be told. Then for us, it was like therapy. It helped us to work through a lot.
Spencer Stone: We’ve been able to completely dissect everything that happened. Like Alek said, this isn’t usually the result. It’s a chink in the armor of terrorism. At the end of the day, I hope people, instead of pulling out their phones when they see someone in distress, they offer a helping hand and be a better human.
Us: Was it hard recreating these intense scenes? Did old memories resurface?
Anthony Sadler: It was actually so cool. We wanted to get it right. Having been through the whole process of shooting and learning just how much people put in to make things right — like the same luggage, clothes, setting — there was a sense of, “This is what we came for.”
Skarlatos: We all knew how much it meant. It was surreal because we were wearing the exact same clothes, the exact same way. There was a lot of emphasis put on it for that reason.
Us: How did your family and friends react to the casting?
Sadler: They were just as shocked as we were. Everybody knows how big Clint Eastwood is. But they were confident it was going to be good. At least, we didn’t have to worry about the directing side. The acting side was in question. But our family and friends are brutally honest. After they saw it, they said it was good. Their approval meant more than anything.
Us: How was filming in Europe different than your first trip there in 2015?
Stone: We had air conditioning this time!
Sadler: Yeah, the house didn’t have air conditioning last time, so that was pretty tragic. To sum it up, it was priceless.
Skarlatos: Once in a lifetime, for sure. Even if we all become famous actors after this, we can look back and know this was the time of our lives.
Us: So, more acting on the horizon?
Skarlatos: I got out of the military in November and have been trying to break into acting. Working on the movie really gave me an appreciation for acting and showed me how good other actors are. I want to live up to that, so I’m taking acting classes.
Stone: This is definitely not like the normal course for someone who’s aspiring to be an actor. So it’s a weird scenario we have to juggle. At the end of the day, if it doesn’t work out, we’re cool with that too.
Sadler: Definitely doing the showbiz thing full time. I just finished college in May and we started shooting in June, so that was my summer. We got a hell of an opportunity from Clint. He did not have to give us this. He mentored us through the whole process and gave us a lot of gems to carry forward. He told us to chase our careers and always look back on this.
Us: Best piece of advice from Clint?
Stone: He didn’t necessarily give direct advice. It came from natural conversation. I was asking him what his plans were, like, “What are you going to do when you get home? Are you already thinking about another movie?” He was just like, “You know, I don’t really think about it until I get there. I let that be, and when I get to it, I get to it.” That’s a good way to live life.
Skarlatos: Every time he talks, you just listen. He’s a man of few words, but everything he says, whether it’s on acting or how to live your life, is very wise.
Sadler: He was talking about his own career and saying he plays characters who are an extension of himself because it’s an organic situation. It’s not something you have to think about so much. I hope to take that into another role and not overthink things, just go with my instincts.
Us: Most surprising thing you learned about him?
Stone: He can get down on anyone’s level. You would think we went into this intimidated, but he tailored this for us and made it as easy and comfortable as possible. He’s always joking and then everything he says is also a gem of wisdom. You just hold on to every single word.
Sadler: I never expected him to be so down-to-earth. He’s this icon!
Stone: We grew up on his movies!
Sadler: It was just like, “Man, he can be our fourth best friend.”
15:17: to Paris is in theaters Friday, February 9.
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