Stop Loss: How Kimberly Peirce Cast Her Iraq War Movie

Casting

Casting was a key component for Peirce and the filmmakers in telling the story. For the key role of the heroic, conflicted Sgt. Brandon King, Peirce was looking for someone who could express the strength and masculinity to lead men into and through battle and also possess the warmth and humor that is necessary to be at the center of these mens lives. It required someone who could depict the patriotism and innocence required to go to war on behalf of his country, but who was also introspective enough to question what he had done when he needed to question it. Because its essentially a point-of-view movie (one guys journey) and hes in every scene, he had to be able to carry us through the entire story.

Ryan Phillippe

Peirce was excited when actor Ryan Phillippe agreed to take on the role. Ryan brought something unexpected to the part, she affirms. Not only could he act it, but he seemed like Brandon. He seemed like someone who would have signed up for this war, who would have been the leader, who would have killed in order to protect his men and been devastated when he lost them, who would have questioned, who would have gone on the run and who would have ultimately gone back to war for his family, his friends and his country.

Phillippe says that, as always, his main priorities in deciding whether to take on a film role are the talent of the filmmaker and the quality of the material. For him, Stop-Loss was the perfect melding of script and director. I truly believe Kim Peirce to be an artist, he attests. If you look at her first film, shes clearly talented. As for the script, I love reality-based material. This is not a true story, but many men have lived it and when a project is grounded by that kind of dramatic weight and truth, you feel convinced that youre telling a story that needs to be told.

To play an Iraq War-era soldier, Phillippe plunged into deep research. One of his primary sources was Peirces brother Brett and the specifics about his real-life experience that he shared with his sister, as well as the videotapes he brought back from the Middle East. I watched hours and hours of video camera footage that the soldiers shot of each other to get a sense of their camaraderie, he says. I also viewed many of the excellent documentaries that have been made about the Iraq conflict. Also, I got really into the military aspects, which I tend to do when I get involved in this kind of movie. You really want to make sure you know how to behave and appear like a soldier. I think youre doing these men a service if you do your best to appear legitimate. It was very important for me, and for all the other actors, to look like the real deal. We were fortunate to have Jim Dever as our technical advisor. Hes the best in the business and Id already worked with him on Flags of Our Fathers.

In speaking of his experience of working with Peirce, Phillippe says Ive had the opportunity to work with Altman, Eastwood and Ridley Scott, and I put her right up there with them. I think shes maybe tougher than any of them and shes a real artist. Shes got this drive and is determined to get what she wants, and thats what a director has to do – be decisive, authoritative and unrelenting.

Abbie Cornish

The character of Michele was inspired by real military wives Peirce interviewed, women she found fascinating for the challenges they face, the fears and hopes they feel while their men are at war and struggles they face upon their mens return, she says. Many spoke of feeling committed no matter what, but felt old before their time; many said they felt they lived two lives, one when he was home and one when he was away. Many spoke of how the other wives banded together to deal with the loneliness and the strangeness of their soldiers return: men meeting their newborns for the first time after being away for a year; the sudden bouts of anger and violence; how they couldnt go out to a bar without having a fight/brawl erupt; how going to Dunkin Donuts was a challenge when they were overwhelmed by the number of donut flavors, being forced to make a choice about what they ate for the first time in months.

I was immediately struck by Abbies deep understanding of and affinity for the character of Michele, says Peirce of actress Abbie Cornish, who plays Michele. Michele is the emotional touchstone of the film, and the difficult choices she faces ultimately change her and those she loves. We felt very fortunate that Abbie joined our ensemble, and she did an incredible job.

The film intrigued Cornish because it made contemporary issues personal. It was an interesting exploration of what is happening in the world as told through a mans desire to disengage from the war and how that affects his family, and the people around them. I also liked that it was very much an ensemble piece, Cornish says. Her character makes some life-altering decisions in the course of the movie. Cornish attributes Micheles bold choices and spirit to an innate core of honesty and fortitude, qualities that also appealed to Cornish.

When first exploring the character of Michele, I found her honesty and direct nature to be very strong. She has a big heart and is a pillar of strength many times throughout the film. Michele to me was a symbol of the realizations of war, its effects on both Iraq and its occupants and also the soldiers and their families. Michele embarks on a road trip with her friend but comes away a changed person. The idea of playing a Texan like Michele, a small town girl dealing with the effects of war in the same world we live in today, really appealed to me.

Of course, Peirce also was a huge influence on Cornish. Cornish particularly appreciated and admired Peirces passion for the project. Kim engaged herself very much in the story of the characters and held them very close to her heart. She really enjoyed watching the film come to life and seeing the actors bring the words off the page. It was great to work with a director who so clearly loved and adored the characters so much, Cornish notes.

Channing Tatum

Steve Shriver is another complex, multi-faceted young man, someone whom Peirce refers to as a true believer and was inspired by a number of real soldiers Peirce interviewed – guys who loved their wives, who loved America, but after fighting never really came back and ultimately needed to go back to war to feel complete. Though I came to understand and love these guys and saw the heartbreak they faced in acknowledging and allowing themselves to live out this truth about themselves, the challenge in writing Steve was in depicting him honestly, with dignity and passion, so that we bring the audience all the way inside this guy, why he feels and acts as he does, why he must go back.

Peirce auditioned rising young star Channing Tatum for the role and says she was impressed by his emotional depth and maturity, his range and his ability to take direction. She immediately championed him for the role and never regretted her choice. Channing was sheer energy on the set, willing to try anything, go anywhere emotionally and bare that side of himself his vulnerability, his sense of dignity, his feelings of brotherhood for the other men, that was so necessary in becoming that character.

Tatum was both flattered and intrigued by the offer to play Steve. Stop-Loss was honestly one of the most raw, heartfelt scripts I had ever read. Since I was a kid Ive been fascinated by soldiers – about their morality and their ideals – so to have the chance to play one was very exciting, says Tatum. And that was just at the start. It only got more interesting as we got deeper into the role.

Returning to civilian life proves to be arduous for Steve, and Tatum says its because in Steves head, he fell in love with the military. He found his place in life and his journey in the film is to figure out that its the military hes really married to, and thats very hard for him.

But none of his insights into his character could have taken full form without the guiding hand of his director, he claims. Kimberly is an absolute genius. No one, in that short amount of time, has ever been able to open my eyes to a character the way she did. Steve is a sniper at heart and what they teach you in the military is to be laser specific. Well, thats what Kimberly taught me to be laser specific in every single thing I did and said in the film.

The dynamic among the characters of Brandon, Steve and Michele is equal parts personal and political. The two old friends and comrades in arms, Brandon and Steve, come to distinctly different conclusions about the war in Iraq and their roles there, and their reactions change their relationship forever. Steve and Micheles relationship also disintegrates, all against the backdrop of Brandons stop-loss orders.

Steves involvement in the war begins to take its toll on their engagement and their wedding is pushed further and further back until Michele has had enough. I spent some time (on location) in Austin (Texas) talking with women who have had boyfriends and husbands at war, most of them expressing feelings of fear, anxiety, loneliness and a separation between themselves and their partner when they returned. Throughout the film, Michele says its a sense of freedom in her life, that she cant be (just) a military wife and thats the only life Steve can provide, assuming he ever commits to her, Cornish says.

I think that anyone who has had a family member who has gone to war has struggled with the changes in their loved one when he or she returns home, says Peirce. Who is this person nowwhat has the war done to himand to us That is one of the key situations we wanted to address in this film.

Joseph Gordon-Levitt

Of course, Brandon, Steve and Michele are not the only ones having trouble adjusting to civilian life. The character of Tommy, while able to channel his smoldering rage and violent temperament to good effect during battle, cannot contain it easily in peacetime with devastating consequences. Peirce set her sights on the prominent young actor Joseph Gordon-Levitt for the pivotal role. And I did not want to compromise. I had to have Joe. Hes one of the best actors of his generation, she says. Again, her instincts proved correct. He was phenomenal to work with a true method actor.

Gordon-Levitt had a unique take on the character. I think Tommy left home and joined the Army partially to escape demons at home and found a real family, found more connection and love in the Army than he had at home. I think that when he comes back, he first has the same problems a lot of guys have when they come back but, for him, the old demons rear their heads again alongside new ones he has brought back from Iraq, says Gordon-Levitt.

It was the script coupled with an opportunity to play a soldier that attracted him to Stop-Loss, he continues. There are very few really good scripts so whenever I read one, it stands out. It was well written and a page-turner and seemed like an honest and heartfelt statement about what was going on today. Its brave enough to assert that nothing is simple, especially when it comes to war and being a soldier and what happens when soldiers come back. To play a soldier appealed to me, I had never played a soldier and that life fascinates me. I have a lot of respect for what a soldier does, and having gone through this experience Ive gained even more.

I dont come from a military family. My grandfather fought in WWII, but my dad and my mom were peace activists in the 60s. I wasnt allowed to play with G.I. Joes when I was a kid. Part of what I love about acting is to learn and explore facets of humanity that are different from me. A soldier is just about as different from me as I can possibly imagine, Gordon-Levitt says. Some of that respect, he says, came from meeting with real soldiers as part of his research prior to principal photography and, he adds, another appealing aspect of the film was the opportunity to work opposite Mamie Gummer, who plays his on-screen wife, Jeanie.

Mamie Gummer

The couple endures a tumultuous, anguished relationship but, at first, perhaps having to do with Tommys taciturn nature, much of their connection is unspoken.

The second day I worked, there is a little moment in the script, its literally two lines of stage directions. Kim trained the cameras on us they werent recording sound but while this whole other scene was going on, Kim had us improvise this. It was really early in production so, for me, it was a great opportunity to get into the skin of Tommy and his relationship with Jeanie. Mamie was perfect. Its a really different thing to do a two minute, improvised take rather than a scene on a page. Mamie was so genuine, Gordon-Levitt says.

He adds that this was a good example of Peirces directing style, which he describes as very actor-oriented. Kim really knows how to talk to actors, to communicate in a way so that you instantly get it. She doesnt even have to say very much shes been living with these characters for so long and is so passionate about the work, she knows exactly how to get to the truth of their story and how to bring us there too, adds Mamie Gummer.

This quality was especially helpful because, as Gummer points out, the fraught dynamics of Tommy and Jeanies relationship are never overtly stated but rather revealed through the story.

In these big group scenes, Joe and I had to do a lot of improvising to create a relationship without having written dialogue. Occasionally, Kim would just whisper something in my ear, a small note that would be so right on. It helped that Joe was a great actor and a great guy, Gummer says.

Gummer auditioned for the movie a year before cameras rolled, and the part of Jeanie appealed to her in particular. Her character was not featured in every scene but instead of returning home during her downtime, Gummer elected to remain in Texas.

I just loved, loved the story, this script, this girl, this part. It was so far removed from my little New York City self, to come down to Texas and live in this world. I came across and interview with an Army wife talking about adjusting to him being back and the challenges that she faced. That was very helpful. Jeanie grew up in Texas, Michele is her best friend, they all went to high school together. The guys came back to Brazos after basic training and it seems like it must have been a whirlwind relationship and courtship, they got married right out of high school. Living in Texas, spending time here, watching these girls was really something, she says.

Retired Sgt. Major Jim Dever, the films military advisor, was consistently on set. With his ramrod posture, his high and tight haircut, and matter-of-fact but positive attitude, he was a conspicuous and welcome presence. Whether it was corralling extras into military formation during parade scenes or teaching Channing Tatum how to fold a flag at a funeral, he was always ready and available. The male cast members got to know him better than they may have wanted at boot camp, where they slept in cots trimmed with mosquito netting, endured classes on and drills with weapons, firing 6,000 rounds during the course of their training. They began their day at 5:30 am with reveille and by 6:30 am, they were well into their rigorous military style PT, all courtesy of Sgt. Major Dever.

It was like a total immersion system for the actors, recalls Peirce of boot camp and the extensive research material she provided to them before filming began. I shared with them hours and hours of interviews Id done with soldiers as well as live footage from Iraq shot by soldiers who were there.

Timothy Olyphant

Olyphant joined the cast as Brandons CO Boot Miller and he consulted with Sgt. Major Jim Dever about his character. I asked him a few questions, but he was running around all day commanding the extras. So I thought, you know what, Ill do what hes doing, Olyphant laughs.

Victor Rasuk

Rasuk was cast in the role of Rico Rodriguez, a role that required the application of special make-up and extensive prosthetics, including contact lenses that blinded Rasuk, to convey the horrible injuries Rico suffers in battle. Rasuk elected to keep the contact lenses in during his scenes and the constricting prosthetics caused him to limp; often, Peirce or Phillippe would guide him to his mark on set or towards a chair in between takes, much as they would have done to his severely wounded character.

For me, the prosthetics helped me with the character. My arm was bound behind my back and it hurt like hell, so I incorporated that into my character, as part of his literal and emotional pain. I wanted to keep the contacts in because I honestly felt like I was in the dark, as Rico would. I couldnt see anything. When the cast and crew walked around me, I didnt know where anyone was or who they were, I saw only shadows. It was very helpful, Rasuk says.

Rasuk adds that Peirce understood his desire to use the prosthetics but her guidance helped him navigate not just his temporary blindness but also his acting. At first, the contacts were making me really cerebral, I spent too much time inside my head, so my acting was too forced. Kim stopped everything; she took me aside and gave me a heart-to-heart, not just like a director to an actor, but like an actor to an actor, she really understood the process. She takes such good care of her actors and I really appreciated that, Rasuk says.

Rico recuperates at an Army Medical Center, for which the production used the Austin State School, home to about 436 people with developmental disabilities. Several of the schools buildings had fallen into disrepair, including the ones chosen for Ricos scenes. The art and set decoration departments revamped several interiors, which included the painstaking and costly business of removing asbestos. The production donated the freshly painted, restored facilities to the State School, which intended to turn them into art rooms for the residents.