[Clint Eastwood] has this side to him that people don’t get to see because he has a reputation for being such a badass.
An account of the Iraq War as stared fixedly down the rifle sight of real-life Navy SEAL Chris Kyle (Bradley Cooper) whose four tours of duty cemented his standing as the most lethal marksman in U.S. military history, Clint Eastwood’s American Sniper offers blunt insights into the physical and psychological toll exacted on the front lines. Expertly hard-wiring viewers into a harrowing and intimate character study, we’re also witness to the reformed tearaway sharpshooter who’s relentlessly alone and intangibly unfulfilled at home. Kyle is convivial, profane, and funny with fellow SEALs in the field—including comrade Ryan “Biggles” Job (Jake McDorman)—while off-duty, he’s completely divorced from the direct sensory urgency of combat, growing increasingly withdrawn and dead-eyed, and enraptured by a war replaying in his own mind.
American Sniper is very much in the 84-year-old filmmaker’s wheelhouse, emerging as arguably his strongest, most sustained effort in years. And to take us behind-the-scenes of it all is 28-year-old television mainstay McDorman with our on-going series of food and talk, This Course. Our goal is to keep things as transparent as possible. It’s essentially an open dialogue, in this instance over lunch at The Smith in Manhattan’s East Village, where we discuss a myriad of things concerning but not limited to life experiences, defining career moments, and anecdotes about the entertainment industry. You might recognize him from TV shows like Greek, Shameless, and most recently, Manhattan Love Story. There are several films on the horizon for McDorman, including See You in Valhalla and Me Him Her. But first things first—American Sniper.
American Sniper opens in select theaters on December 25 and expands nationwide on January 16.
What was it like meeting Clint Eastwood for the first time?
I didn’t meet Clint until I was in the makeup trailer in Morocco. My character gets injured when he’s hit by enemy fire and I was doing makeup tests for that. And I couldn’t see because I had all this blood on my face. So I hear this guy shuffle in and I hear him go, “What happened to you? Did you get in a fight?” I’m like, “What the, who is that?” and he goes, “You’re using the workout equipment wrong!” He’s just going through a cycle of jokes, right? That was Clint Eastwood. I didn’t get to meet him during the auditioning process because I put myself on tape and that’s how he was casting the part. Man, it was one of those, “I need to do a good job and maybe he’ll think of me for a future role that I can realistically get. I’m never going to get this.” It was so competitive. You’re just sitting in the waiting room with 12 other guys that are up for the same role.
Do they all look like you, too?
[Laughs] They’re all different versions of you. You just give it your best shot, you know? I worked on it a lot. I hadn’t read the book, but I was familiar with Chris Kyle’s story. He’s from Texas, I’m from Texas. It was a serious audition for a competitive part I wanted, but could sort of put it out of my mind because then I was off to shoot Manhattan Love Story. I auditioned in January of this year and I got the phone call while we were shooting the pilot of the show. Apparently, my agents had known I was really close to getting the part for weeks, but didn’t tell me because they knew it would drive me crazy. When you hear news like that, you immediately go from, “I got the part!” to “Oh shit. I fooled them, again. I don’t know what I’m doing.” You still get to celebrate in that little window, but everything after that is just trying to put it out of your mind again.
The sheer amount of research and physical prep, not to mention mental preparation, going into a project like this must be colossal.
It was already an elevated level of work because you’re working with Clint and Bradley. Even if this weren’t a movie based on a true story, I feel like the work would’ve seemed important because you’re working with such high caliber artists. But since it’s based on a true story, it was that much more important to really think the movie through and show up prepared. We had Kevin “Dauber” Lacz on the film as our technical adviser. He had known Chris Kyle from SEAL Team 3 and he taught Bradley how to snipe. After a while, Bradley asked him, “Why don’t you play yourself in the movie?” because “Dauber” was already in the script. Clint made Kevin audition to play himself. [Laughs] He nailed it, obviously. Having him there was a great barometer for us. He put his reputation on the line by helping us tell the story of people he knew intimately, which gave all of us a vote of confidence moving forward. I think he was absolutely vital to us.
Clint’s “unusual” working methods have become somewhat legendary. He gets stuff done uncommonly fast, right?
It’s like he made a bet with somebody to have the fastest workdays. And I knew all the rumors and stories about Clint going into it. Kyle Gallner shot his scenes with Bradley first in Morocco, so he debriefed us: “It moves fucking fast. There was a scene where I tripped and fell and Clint just moved on.” [Laughs] But that kind of works for his character because he’s in a subservient position to Chris Kyle, a Navy SEAL. So it does move as fast as they say and you don’t get many cracks at it. You’re never in a position to be like, “I’m going to ask for one more.” What are you going to do? Ask Clint? When he’s done, we move on. You trust that he got what he’s looking for.
And he’s still so precise. It’s like a magician pulling off that impossible trick.
He’s very hands on. You know during the casting process that if your agent says, “You’re still in consideration for the role,” you’re waiting for Clint to see the takes of every actor. You know if you’ve been cast that Clint personally saw your take and handpicked you. That sort of thing adds to your level of confidence because you know you’re there for a reason. And he’s on set the whole time you’re shooting. A lot of directors will go to video village where the monitors are and sit with the producers and writers. Clint has a wireless monitor and stands right next to the camera in every scene. He was almost shot in the face a couple of times on this movie because he was so close to the action. It’s truly rare to see that kind of involvement in a director, especially when you’re shooting something like this. And he’s less intimidating than you think.
I’m sure it’s his on-screen persona, but he scares me a little bit. I have this scenario in my head where he doesn’t laugh at any of my dumb jokes and I shit my pants.
He’s not scary! He’s hilarious. He has this side to him that people don’t get to see because he has a reputation for being such a badass. Clint is fully aware of his reputation and makes light of it all the time. His ringtone is The Good, the Bad and the Ugly theme! I’m like, “You’re the only person in the world who can pull that off. That’s your song.” He turned 84 while we were shooting the movie and he’s not slowing down, man. And he just knows how to work with actors, him being one himself. He doesn’t get what he wants by intimidation or pressure. It’s the complete opposite.
So you’ve done quite a lot of television work. Do you find yourself making slight adjustments, jumping in and out of that world when you’re shooting movies?
Yeah, well, my new show got cancelled.
We don’t have to talk about that.
[Laughs] It’s different. I mean, to be honest, what’s usually different about television is the pace. Films can take a very long time to shoot. On TV, you have to move pretty fast because there’s always another episode to shoot. Interestingly enough, the speed on television is pretty comparable to the speed Clint likes to work. And, unless you have a full arc on television from the get-go, I guess film is nice because you always have a concrete beginning, middle and an end. TV is just ongoing and you’re learning about your character at the same time as the writers themselves. Hopefully, with TV work, you’re close enough with the writers that they write to your strengths and, in turn, you sell what they write really well. It feels like this never-ending search on TV.
Is it frustrating or is that part of the process that you enjoy—the uncertainty?
It really depends. I mean, it’s fine if you’re on a good show. Even though we struggled with ratings on Manhattan Love Story, it was a good show. We had really good rapport with the creative side of writing. In that case, there was trust and faith that it’s going in the right direction. When no one feels too precious about the material, you’re able to talk about the things that seem out of character or anything that doesn’t sit well with you to collaboratively think of an alternative. It really comes down to who you work with, and that’s true for both TV and film. As I’ve gotten older and the more I’ve been in the business, I’ve found that the easiest way to protect yourself as an artist is to work with people you respect because, at the end of the day, at least you know you’re in good hands. If I’m trying to figure out a character with a group of writers I don’t vibe with as we go along, that’s torture. It feels like, episode to episode, you’re starting at square one. If there’s no common ground, the limitations can become institutionalized.
How old were you when you started doing this professionally?
I was 20. I remember because that’s when I had my fake ID.
What was your time on Greek like? That was your longest-running series.
It’s funny because none of us auditioned for the roles we ended up getting. It was an ensemble of eight or nine regulars and we were all sort of mix-and-matched around. I’d done a few shows before that, so I went into it cautiously optimistic. We felt so lucky to get picked up, even though we already liked our pilot. Then we were lucky to get ten more, ten more after that, and then we were like, “Wait a minute. Is this actually working?” It was exciting. It was on ABC Family, so it was never this smash hit like Gossip Girl. It remained low profile, which actually allowed us to a) maintain our personal lives without us catapulting into fame and b) learn my boundaries as an actor by experimenting on the show. That was one of my favorite things about working on Greek: I had this consistent workplace where I could try things out and cut my teeth a little bit.
What did you discover were your boundaries doing that?
At that age, you’re figuring out the basics, like, how do I go about memorizing material? How do I prepare for the next day or do I prepare for the next day? There were times on Greek when I felt like maybe it was more risqué to not prepare and just show up and wing it. I think there are aspects of that where it’s okay to do it without being completely irresponsible. I don’t want to say that the show was my acting class, but it was definitely an opportunity for somebody going through their early 20s to figure out a method that works. As far as boundaries go when it comes to professional goals, I don’t really have any because I want to try everything. And, again, I was 20 when I started. We all went from being underage into our mid-20s on that show. We weren’t in college, but it was a parallel experience. We were at that age when we would’ve been in school.
Do you guys keep in touch?
Oh yeah. We’re all still friends. That was a huge chapter of our lives.
What was going on further back that led to all of this? I know this is so vague, but I guess I’m looking for that aha moment.
Well, I used to dress up as different characters all the time. Dick Tracy, the Ninja Turtles… I don’t exactly remember how old I was, but I do remember watching something on TV and wondering, “There are kids on this show my age. How are they in there and I’m out here?” I remember asking my mom, “Why is that? Why is that?”
Okay, that’s adorable.
They make you take an aptitude test in school and they tell you, or your parents at that age, that based on his likes and dislikes, your kid is going to be an astronaut or an FBI agent or whatever. That made my mom go, “They’re not as cool as they make it look in the movies. The movies make them look way better then they actually are. If you want to be an astronaut, you have to go through an intense amount of schooling.” Well, that didn’t sound fun at all! So, I don’t know… I started doing plays in school and I really, really enjoyed that. It was terrifying, sure, but honestly, it was liberating. It was a great feeling. And I was never really into sports. I was only into sports because my friends were into sports and I wanted to hang out with my friends.
I can’t imagine a parallel universe where I haven’t done exactly what I’ve done to get here. School just felt like a waste of time. Not that education isn’t important because it is, but I already knew what I wanted to do. Growing up in Dallas, going to public school where the most important thing seemed to be football, it was then interesting to go to an acting class where people loved the same stuff I did. That was my ESPN. Those were my sports. I’d look up all these actors that I respected who dropped out of high school: “Al Pacino! Robert De Niro! Robin Williams! Russell Crowe! I’m already suspended from school, I might as well quit!” [Laughs] I felt unique then, but it’s funny when you move to L.A. because you realize how unoriginal that idea really is.
You’ve been in New York for some time now. Do you miss living in Los Angeles?
I didn’t when I had a job. [Laughs] I don’t know how to be unemployed here. I’m very good at it in L.A. because 80% of that city is unemployed. New York is so industrious that, if you’re not doing something, I don’t know how to be okay with it, especially in Manhattan. Not that places like Williamsburg aren’t industrious, but at least they’re outside of this island where everyone has a place to be and it’s a constant “go-go-go!” I go to the gym and I’m done at 10 a.m. What am I gonna do? I could go to a bar? There are tons of bars! So, I do miss L.A., but not because New York is treating me wrong and I want to move back home to lick my wounds. I’m really fortunate to have a strong support system there because L.A. can be a really isolating place, especially if you’re not in the industry. I can’t imagine living there without being in the entertainment industry.
Where do you position yourself these days in terms of the kinds of material you’re after?
About two years ago, I decided to change my trajectory and try to do more independent stuff. I want to continue on that journey. Working with Bradley was really, really great and he’s been an inspiration for an actor who’s kind of on my level. He’s only been at the height of being an Academy Award-nominated actor, showing everybody what he’s truly capable of doing, for the past five or six years now. He’s very much in tune with what it’s like to hustle in order to position himself to do the kind of work he’s doing. He didn’t have some sort of overnight success. He worked really hard for it. That guy has a lot of discipline.
I just remembered that clip of Bradley sitting in the Inside the Actors Studio audience as a student asking questions. Do you know about this?
Yeah! James Lipton was actually at the American Sniper premiere last night to support Bradley.
No way. So he came full circle? That’s a complete revolution.
I mean, I can’t even believe… Have you heard that one Louis C.K. bit? He’s like, “If you ever don’t want an acting career, go to Inside the Actors Studio and ask a question from the audience. You’ll never see those guys in anything!” [Laughs] Not only did Bradley Cooper become Bradley Cooper, he was in American Hustle with Louis C.K.
That’s too perfect. You can’t even buy that.
He’s the exception to the rule. He made smart decisions. And to go back to your question, I want to work with artists of really good caliber like that and Clint Eastwood. There’s some stuff that I’m in the running for now and what’s exciting about that is I’m abstaining from things that I wouldn’t want on my resume. I want stuff that’s different. I can honestly talk about everything now openly in interviews because I had damn good reasons for doing it. I feel like it’s good work.
I want to circle back to Manhattan Love Story because that’s how you met your girlfriend, Analeigh Tipton. Even though the show’s gone, something really great came out of it.
It was a very elaborate, expensive first date. [Laughs] We weren’t dating when we shot the pilot. When the show got picked up, she was off shooting a movie and I was doing American Sniper. Then we had this flurry of press to do together as co-leads on the show. It almost feels like we had this accidental dating phase. When you’re working on a love story with a co-star, it’s obviously important to get to know each other so you can work on the chemistry. You just want to know each other better before pretending to be falling for one another. I really don’t think it was until a couple episodes in that things changed and we were officially dating. What was really great about this was that we got to know each other through a creative process. She and I always had great communication, so we could disagree about certain things and attack it from a completely professional standpoint—or at least tried to. I’d never dated any of my co-stars before this.
What movies have you seen recently? What kind of stuff are you into?
I saw Nightcrawler and Birdman. I want to see Foxcatcher. Analeigh actually worked with Steve Carell on Crazy, Stupid, Love.
He’s really good in Foxcatcher.
I want to see that so badly. That’s the kind of stuff I love, the transformative performances, especially when it comes from an unexpected person like Steve Carell. You’re like, “Holy shit.” I also want to see Inherent Vice. Joaquin Phoenix is probably one of the best actors out there.
Do you have any desire to get behind the camera yourself?
I still remember making this one terrible stop motion movie with my Star Wars action figures.
And this was a full-length?
[Laughs] It was like 30 minutes long and so bad and it felt like a lifetime. I put on a premiere and forced everyone to watch it. It was Star Wars action figures reenacting Terminator 3. It was two of my childhood obsessions colliding. So based on the success of that movie, I definitely want to continue on that path. No, in all seriousness, I really want to focus on acting right now. I think trying to direct would really scatter me. But one day, of course. That would be awesome.