Imagine having Clint Eastwood first tell you he was making a movie about you and your experience and then asking you to star as yourself. Welcome to the world of Alek Skarlatos, Anthony Sadler and Spencer Stone, the courageous real-life stars of Eastwood’s latest film, The 15:17 to Paris.
These three life-long friends, who in 2015 were having a fun vacation together in Europe together, found themselves taking center stage when they thwarted a terrorist attack on a train bound to Paris. The film follows their friendship, which started with the boys in middle school, through their struggles trying to find their footing in life.
At the time of the attack, Skarlatos was an Oregon National Guardsman, Stone was a U.S. Air Force Airman First Class, while Sadler was a college student, but their tremendous bond had never wavered. The world watched in stunned awe as the media reported that these three young men stopped a heavily armed gunman and saved the lives of over 500 train passengers.
Stone, Sadler and Skarlatos ended up writing a memoir about their experience, their friendship and the faith and values they hold dear, and Clint Eastwood came calling. The rest is history.
At the recent press day, We Live Entertainment joined in a great conversation with Sadler, Skarlatos and Stone, as they talked about the attack, playing themselves in a major motion picture – and of course, Clint Eastwood.
Was there ever a time when you guys thought, “I’m sort of reluctant to share this. I’m sort of reluctant to be labeled a hero”?
Alek Skarlatos: “Definitely reluctant to be labeled a hero because we feel like we were just doing what we had to do to survive. But as far as sharing it, we had no problem talking about it. It wasn’t really a negative experience for us and, Anthony said before, it kind of changes the narrative on terrorist attacks and I think it’s definitely a positive story and should be told, because it just goes to show that just because someone is willing to die doesn’t mean they’ll always win.”
Anthony Sadler: “I was reluctant to play ourselves because basically it was out of the realm of possibility for us. It just seemed so unheard of. So when Clint presented it to us, we said, ‘Yes, of course,” but then when we left the room I was like, “I don’t know. I don’t want to risk the success of our story, having not acted before.’ You know. Actors can do it. That’s normal. The normal way to do it. But then, it being hindsight, I’m glad he chose to do it that way because I think the picture needed that sense of authenticity. But I was definitely reluctant for sure.”
Was there a moment that was kind of difficult to revisit?
Sadler: “The situation, a lot of people think it’s traumatic for us, but it’s really not. It’s unique in the way that nobody died, so I think we have the advantage of that. It’s kind of snowballed and blossomed in the past two years into such a blessing in our lives. We just feel like, especially being cast in the roles to play ourselves, it’s kind of like our responsibility to tell the story so people can draw positive themes in their own lives out of it at this point.”
It’s still hard to believe no one was killed, not even the terrorist.
Skarlatos: “Well, we tried [to kill the terrorist]… I tried to shoot him with the handgun twice and the AK once, but the AK was on safety and the handgun was empty. So. That’s kind of the role of like, you know, fate or God watching out for it. Because that’s just kind of the way it played out. I mean, nobody died that day, not even the terrorist.”
Sadler: “I said it was actually a blessing for three of us that we didn’t have to watch or one of us had to kill him. You know what I mean? Because that would have been pretty … That was the moment that slowed down for me, like a movie scene when Alek went down to pick the gun up. They didn’t really depict that in the movie, but when he picked the gun up he basically charged it, and he was going to fire it. But Spencer was right there and it was kind of like, ‘Shoot him, but don’t, ’cause Spencer is right there.’”
Spencer Stone: “I mean, in the moment, obviously I was just seeing red. I was just going to kill him. He tried to kill me multiple times, and that’s what I’m going to do to you. I remember doing it and hearing things. I don’t remember any visuals because I’m pretty sure I closed my eyes or I blacked out or something, ’cause I just was fully expecting to get shot. But I do remember just feeling really slow when I was running at him and then hearing him work the gun. I heard him pull the trigger and then mess with it some more and then I made it to him. But looking back, and like Anthony said, it’s a blessing that we didn’t have to [kill him], and we honestly would have just been giving him what he wanted.”
What did you guys think when you first saw the movie?
Skarlatos: “I loved it. Because we wanted nothing more than it just to be accurate and to be exactly what happened and nothing else. And that’s what it is. So, I mean, we’re extremely happy with it.”
Stone: “Yeah, especially the fight sequence. I mean, that’s what we really wanted to get right. You know for a time, and our families in general, it’s just exactly to the tee what happened.”
Sadler: “The one thing we wanted was to be happy with the picture no matter how it was reviewed, or received or anything like that. So, when we finished it, we all looked at each other and we were like, ‘That was it.’ So at the very least, that was our story, so take it or leave it basically is how we feel.”
What was the most meaningful reaction you got from someone afterwards?
Skarlatos: “The French actor that was on the train wrote an article in People about how basically he felt like we saved the lives of his kids. That was the first like a real story because, before that, I had just thought, ‘Oh, you know. We saved a bunch of people, and we did what we did to survive. And that was that.’ But that was kind of the first actual like a human story that I heard of. ‘You didn’t just save people, you saved my sons.’ It was just a father, basically saying how we saved his children and that to me was very heavy and personal and it kind of put a face to when they say you saved hundreds of people or whatever. That really puts a face to it and makes it more human.”
Sadler: “For me, I spoke to a Boy Scout troop. They just invited me… and then they were probably no older than seven-years-old. I told the story and then it was time for them to ask me questions and for the first time, that’s how I realized what it means to children. They really think we’re superheroes. They made me a cape and everything. They thought I had powers or something. That’s when it hit me that this story is bigger than us. I thought it meant a lot to adults who understand the gravity of the situation, but we’re actually role models to a younger generation with this story. So that was the first time it really hit me about how far of a reach the story had, even to children like that.”
Stone: “That just reminded me of something I almost completely forgot about. It was right after the terrorist attack. I was in Germany recovering from my injuries and stuff, and we met this really nice family that took us offbase to this nice German restaurant. They had like three younger kids, and I guess they were all fighting in the car, like who gets to sit next to me at the table. The girl, the oldest one, won I guess. So she’s sitting next to me and she’s just asking me, legitimately asking me, ‘Can you fly?’ It just broke my heart. The same thing – made me realize what it means to kids.”
What do you believe has kept you grounded in all of this success?
Stone: “Friends and family.”
Skarlatos: “Our friendship, because we all keep each other humble. And then, our families for sure love keeping us humble. It’s like their favorite pastime.”
Sadler: “It’s like, we did that for sure, 100 percent, but we were there and we know how we should not be here today. Just from the list of circumstances that put us there. Things that tried to prevent us from being successful, or the gun not going off. Whatever you want to list. It’s just like, we can’t even get big heads about it, ’cause we know it wasn’t just us. It wasn’t just within our own power. It was really God. That’s really what it was, and we identify that so it kind of prevents us from getting too big-headed, because we know it wasn’t just in our own abilities that we did it.”
How do you feel that faith and military service works hand in hand?
Skarlatos: “I’m not entirely sure that they are that related just because I know a lot of people in the service that aren’t religious at all. But at least for us, it was kind of more of like, more just like faith that we were on the right path because I know Spencer said this, that a lot of times we didn’t feel like we had direction, and so a lot of times we turned to God for direction. We definitely joined the military hoping that it could kind of give our lives some structure and direction. And I think in our personal story, that’s kind of why it all played out the way it did. The military definitely helped give us the skills that we needed in the aftermath of the train attack, so I don’t think that it was an accident that we just happened to be in the military.”
How was it working with Clint Eastwood?
Skarlatos: “It took us a little bit to get used to it in the beginning, for sure. But I think, by honestly the second or third week we were just only getting maybe like three or four takes per scene, per camera angle, or whatever. But, yeah. It definitely sped the process up a lot.”
Sadler: “You have to learn his style ’cause he doesn’t say action or cut.”
Skarlatos: “He’ll just say, like, ‘That’s enough’ or ‘Go ahead.’”
Sadler: “We’d finish a scene and you’d look over at him, and he has a very neutral face, so it’s like, does he hate it? Does he love it? I can’t tell. It could be either. We learned that if he’s moving on that means he got it.”
Stone: “I felt like we picked up on it pretty quick. I mean, a quarter of the way through the thing we were pretty much getting as many takes as seasoned actors. A couple of times, he said, in his Clint Eastwood voice, ‘I’m proud of you, old boy.’ And I said, ‘Thanks.’”
When you met Clint Eastwood for the first time, what were your thoughts?
Stone: “Man. It was weird. I was just sitting on my mom’s front porch, and he called me. I mean, obviously there were things before, like meeting him at the award show, sending him the book, but that was like when things were getting real. When he told me he was going to put one of the projects he was currently working on down to do ours, I was like, you don’t get to do that. Dang, you know. That’s serious.”
Skarlatos: “I mean, honestly every time when we are around him, we’re just trying to listen to everything he says, ’cause he doesn’t talk a lot on his own. When he’s being asked a question, or whenever he does talk to you, you really want to pay attention. He’s a man of few words, but everything he says is just horribly relevant, and just so much wisdom… I mean he’s had a long, very productive life, and he has lived a lot of experiences, so we’re just trying to gain as much wisdom as we can by listening to him and, you know, learning from him, especially as a director and hopefully as actors.”
Sadler: “It’s just like, you know, our lives have been such a whirlwind the past two years that a lot of stuff flies by us and we forget we even did some things, but if there is one time I tried to be attentive and in the moment, it was during the set, like shooting. Because, I was like, our time is limited with him, I just need to soak everything I can. So I just found myself just watching him do nothing, even if he was doing nothing.
And to hear the backstories. A lot of his crew has been working with him for 20, 30 years. They would just come up and encourage us or they’d give us a tip about how we operate. Or a tip about previous movies and big actors, like they tell us about how Morgan Freeman gets directed by Clint Eastwood or whoever it may be. Angelina Jolie. So it was like good to hear that information having no exposure to the world before that. You know?”
What’s your favorite Clint Eastwood movie?
Skarlatos: “I got Bridges of Madison County and High Plains Drifter.”
Really? Bridges of Madison County? I would think Unforgiven…
Skarlatos: “That’s what I like about [Bridges of Madison County], though. Because it’s not a stereotypical Clint Eastwood role. I watched it after we did the movie and I was like, ‘Damn, I didn’t know he could do that.’ You know. It was almost like a surprise because you always see him in these typical Western-type roles, like a hero, and then he does that.”
What do you hope audiences walk away from this with?
Sadler: “I think the movie just does a good job of showing how ordinary we are. Often times, like in the headline, people hear about off-duty servicemen stopping a terrorist act, they’re like, ‘Of course they would.’ The movie does a good job at showing the three of us, that none of us have seen anything like that before. We’re just three young ordinary guys, and it shows the dynamic of our friendship. It shows also that it’s just not extraordinary. It’s not something that’s just in the three of us because a lot of people think it’s some trait that we have why we acted. I think the movie does a good job at showing, depicting that anybody is capable of the extraordinary. You just don’t know until you find yourself in that situation. So hopefully that inspires people to overcome obstacles in their own life.”
The 15:17 to Paris is now playing in theaters.