Tom Berenger will receive this year's GI Choice award from the GI Film Festival, for good reason – when it comes to the actor's standout military efforts, there's plenty to choose from.
He's portrayed a sergeant in a star-studded Vietnam War epic, a Confederate general in a defining Civil War saga, a future president leading the "Rough Riders," and a sniper in … well, in the "Sniper" series. His latest role, as a U.S. Army officer in "Wunderland," takes him into another of history's defining moments – World War II's Battle of the Bulge.
Berenger spoke about "Wunderland" – which grew from a short film of the same name that screened at the 2013 GI Film Festival – and his many other projects in an April 25 interview with Military Times. He covered his preparation for "Platoon," how some movie projects do (and don't) get the military details right, whether Colin Powell is a history buff (spoiler alert: Yes) and why you might see the 67-year-old actor, someday, on the deck of a tall ship at a theater near you. Some highlights:
On his favorite military movies:
The original German of "Das Boot," which is what I saw, in Manhattan. I was just grabbing the sides of my chair when they kept diving. The air pressure building up, the bolts were flying out, and the engineer's just wigging out, losing his mind – as was I, as an audience member – but it was in German. Now mind you, Warner Brothers did a wonderful English translation of that. … The English version was brilliant, but the German was like, just incredible.
On the authenticity of "Wunderland":
I shot about an hour out west of Minneapolis. And it was plenty cold. Didn't have to act that. It was wild – I asked somebody, I don't remember who, "I mean, I can't believe the uniforms, everything. The weapons, helmets, etc., etc." And they said, "There's costume houses that make these for re-enactors." I go, "They have re-enactors for World War II?" He said, "Yep." … So I don't think it's the first kind of thing these guys have done. They had SS guys in camouflage, German armor, that kind of stuff. It's pretty neat.
On whether he's still most recognized by service members for his role in "Platoon":
Definitely "Platoon" and "Sniper." I did meet Gen. [Colin] Powell at a cocktail party once, and he goes, "Well, hello, General Longstreet [Berenger's character in 'Gettysburg']." And I go, "You saw that?" And he says, "Yeah, we see all that stuff." [Laughs] And I go, "Yeah, sure, why not?"
It's like how the baseball players all saw "Major League" – you forget that sometimes. But they're your best critics, too, people in that profession. They're fond of "Platoon" and "Sniper," although "Gettysburg" is a big one, too, particularly with officers and NCOs – that's all part of their life, too, the history of their profession.
On military advisers to Hollywood productions:
"Platoon," I believe, was the first [movie] where it was like, "All right, this guy is going to train you." This Marine captain [Dale Dye], he'd been a sergeant in Vietnam, done three combat tours. He's going to train us. I thought, that's pretty cool. So we went over there, we did three weeks, and Oliver [Stone, the director] said, "Don't kill them. Just wear their asses out – sleep deprivation, etc., etc., and teach them everything they need to know." Cleaning the weapons, the machine guns, the M16s, grenades, trip wires, booby traps, claymores, field medicine, Vietnam background, radio communication, first aid, tagging the dead, a bunch of other stuff that we went through. Ambushes. Counter-ambushes. Basic infantry tactics. All kinds of things. Every night, we'd have a sit-down and we'd do all that before we'd go to bed.
Then we'd have guys out on the perimeter all night, relieving them – one up, one down, that kind of thing. We were exhausted. Really cranky. But the thing was, that became the big story about "Platoon," and Dale Dye had a special section in the Time magazine article. … And he's been to the [GI Film] Festival, and why not? He's a good one for that.
On his work with Dye in the TNT miniseries "Rough Riders":
I was a producer on that. He played Col. Leonard Wood, and we had a lot of scenes together, because I was [Theodore] Roosevelt. And we did Spanish-American War stuff and cavalry drills. We actually did the old drills. And I grabbed a guy who was a former Marine sergeant, a re-enactor from Maryland, and I got him in there, and it was perfect, because he knew that stuff, all the drills. It was pretty impressive … once we got it. [Laughs]
Dale said, "You take half of them, over in that fenced-in field over there, and I'll take the other half, we'll work it through it." After the first thing, I went, "Oh, shit, OK, back here, back to one. Let's go." And then it was just, "Ready. Mount. Ready. Mount," until they were so bored with it that I said, "All right, we're moving on to the next thing." … They started getting it. It's hard running a big group of guys like that on horses. They were kind of sloppy. I said, "None of this cowboy shit, slouching in the saddle. When you get up on that saddle, sit up straight, as if you were at attention." … They got it. They got quiet, they got tired, they got pissed off, and then they got it."
On how military training can bring a cast together:
It's almost like you've been on a championship football team. … Pretty soon, everybody starts talking by rank and character name, using the vernacular, and they've got all the slang and the military shorthand. And they still do, like when I'll be talking to one of the guys from "Platoon." Particularly the radio guys. Those guys still remember the whole radio. Or I'll do it with a cop friend of mine who's a former Army Ranger, or a Marine general friend of mine. When we're texting with each other, we'll do that.
On what military eras he hasn't covered that he'd like to try:
I'd like to do World War I. And the Revolution. I'm also kind of fascinated by old sailing-ship navies. Americans in the War of 1812, the Napoleonic Wars, those guys. I'm always a sucker for those kinds of movies. And those books – the Horatio Hornblower stuff, you know?
On how portions of the "Sniper" series may not have been as military-authentic as he'd like:
When I did "Sniper 2" I hired a gunnery sergeant who was a sniper up at Quantico with the Marines, and thank God I did. And in our third one, I go, "You cheap bastards, why don't you hire somebody? I shouldn't have to be paying for this." And then they found a Marine officer who was with the Marine embassy in Thailand, and he was very helpful, and then he and his wife went on a vacation out of the country, and I said, "OK, I've got the blue pants, I've got the khaki blouse, and the ribbons are already set. You know what I don't know? What color's the T-shirt underneath?"
And the director said, "I think it would be black. And I go, "You think it would be black? I don't know, I think it was white. … Our boy's gone, who do we ask?" I said, "This is the kind of shit that I can't fake." You know, the ribbon's wrong, the patch is wrong, you've got the wrong unit, you know, everybody's eyes go right to it, especially if they're in the military. And they catch that stuff, and they go, "What the f--k? Look at that shit!" It throws their mind off the scene that they're watching.
So, what do we do? We go with the black T-shirt. And it was wrong.
On making 'Gettysburg':
I'm glad we did it because I always wanted to do the Civil War. And it's nigh impossible to do the Civil War. Nobody'd really done it. I thought "Glory" was good, but I don't think it captured the whole Civil War feeling, or aspect. I thought that did – I don't think you can come much closer than "Gettysburg." It's based on a Pulitzer Prize-winning novel. The guy was pretty accurate. It had one fictional character, I think. … The re-enactors all had their shit down. You didn't have to teach them how to do the drills, they knew all that stuff and thank God, because we had thousands of them out there.
Kevin Lilley is the features editor of Military Times.