Last Flag Flying: How Linklater Cast the Three Leads?

Richard Linklater’s Last Flag Flying world premiered at the 2017 New York Film Fest, and will be released by Amazon in November.

The film tells the story of three Vietnam War vets, who reunite after 30 years, embarking on a bittersweet road trip to bury a young Marine killed in the Iraq War.

Linklater’s gift for assembling perfectly calibrated ensemble casts has been a hallmark of his films since his 1993 teen classic Dazed and Confused and continued through the Before trilogy and the epic (12-years-in-the making) family drama, Boyhood, which is one of his two or three masterpieces.

Linklater’s instincts proved right when he he brought together Steve Carell, Bryan Cranston and Laurence Fishburne to play the once-close war buddies.

“Steve, Laurence and Bryan are three very funny guys, but each has his own sense of humor and a different vibe,” Linklater says. “Their characters were like brothers 30 years ago, so we wanted to explore what it feels like in middle age when you’re kind of thrust back in time.”

Steve Carell

Steve Carell, who transitioned from such enduring comedies as “The Office” and The 40 Year – Old Virgin to his Oscar®-nominated dramatic performance in Foxcatcher and the 2015 hit The Big Short , jumped at the chance to go deep in a project helmed by Linklater. “Richard’s a great director so that was the bait,” Carell says. “And then when I heard about Laurence Fishburne and Bryan Cranston, I thought it would be really cool to work with them. That’s heady company!”

Last Flag Flying ’s screenplay was also a major draw for the actor. “The script Richard wrote with Darryl was very moving and unique to the point where I don’t really think of this as a war movie per se,” Carell says. “I think of it as a relationship movie. It’s a road trip. In a way, it could be a college reunion movie, because it’s about these guys who haven’t seen each other in 30 years, and they get back together because of this tragic event. They have to re-examine their relationships, re-examine who they are now, how they connect or don’t connect as adults 30 years later. To me, the war is really a backdrop for the interdependencies between three guys, which I found fascinating.”

To prepare for the role, Carell consulted with his father, a World War II veteran. “I never served in the military so when I took the part of Doc, I talked to him a lot,” says the actor. “I remember stories he told me about being in the service and the demeanor of his fellow soldiers, and the sense of fear. When we were kids, my dad never talked to us about those details. He downplayed his experiences because he didn’t want it to affect us in any adverse way. He was incredibly humble about the things he did. I thought about that a lot as I read the script and got ready to portray my character. I wanted to understand what these guys went through, even if it was only to a cursory degree.”

Investing his character with low-key determination, Carell saw him as the “little brother” to Sal and Mueller. “I don’t have the same demeanor as these other two guys but they took me under their wing in Vietnam,” says the actor. As revealed over the course of Last Flag Flying , Doc took the fall for his friends and spent two years in a naval prison for a crime whose consequences still haunt all three of them. That was then. Now, Carell says, “Doc’s pretty mild-mannered, quiet, contemplative. He enjoys a simple life, he values his family and that’s really become the core of his existence.”

Although Linklater had never worked with Carell before, he followed the actor’s career closely and was confident he could embody Doc’s soft-spoken strength. “I’ve seen Steve in just about everything he’s done,” Linklater says. “In addition to being such a fine actor, Steve’s very sensitive, always thinking. And his interior life reads on camera really well. In Last Flag Flying , the camera really picked up on his big-hearted quality. From that very first scene, he’s got a cloud over him when Doc’s literally being rained on and we have the camera move down on him like the world’s slowly crushing the poor guy. Doc’s the ultimate put upon character, but Steve brings so much humanity to the character that we really get into his journey, which is just about the toughest one someone could be taking. As I told Steve early on when we were talking, this is really Doc’s story. It’s a tough, complex part, but Steve pulls it off beautifully.”

Laurence Fishburne

Veteran actor Laurence Fishburne appreciated the shared literary pedigree of Last Flag Flying and The Last Detail , a film he fondly remembers seeing a few years before landing his breakthrough role in Francis Ford Coppola’s 1979 Vietnam War classic Apocalypse Now . “One thing that attracted me to the project had to do with the history of the Last Flag Flying book and how it related to The Last D etail , which was one of those quirky little movies from the 1970s that I grew up on,” says Fishburne, who was Oscar®-nominated for his portrayal of Ike Turner in 1993’s What’s Love Got to Do With It .
“ Last Flag Flying is also really interesting in the way that it deals with veterans from two different conflicts. You have these three Vietnam veterans but then you also have Washington, a veteran of the Iraq war. They have so many things in common. For me, this movie was a really interesting opportunity to show what people who return from these conflicts have to deal with.”

In addition to the story’s timely insights, Fishburne looked forward to re-teaming with Bryan Cranston, whom he first met when they both worked on Steven Soderbergh’s feature Contagion a few years earlier. “Bryan and I got on really well then, so the opportunity to play a couple of characters who have a real history was something I just couldn’t pass up,” Fishburne says. “And then Steve Carell! He’s so smart and beautifully understated, particularly in drama. You never know what he’s going to say or how it’s going to come out but you’re always kind of like: ‘Why didn’t I think of that?’”

Fishburne, probably best known to audiences worldwide for his role as Morpheus in The Matrix , had a rich backstory to work with in developing his portrayal of Richard Mueller. Haunted by the violence he witnessed during his extended tour of duty in Vietnam, Mueller sought refuge in alcohol after the war before turning his life around and becoming the pastor of a small, predominantly African-American church. “The transition from civilian life to military life changes you,” Fishburne says. “And if you survive the war and try to transition back into civilian life, that also requires you to change. It’s a really complex journey.”

Fishburne was the only actor Linklater had in mind for Mueller when he sent him the Last Flag Flying script. “We got to talking and he says, ‘I was never a Marine in real life, but for three years, making Apocalypse Now in the Philippines, I was around a bunch of them.’ ‘Oorah! Semper Fi!’ Fish has been in a few other military movies like Garden s of Stone , and has a history of playing soldiers,” Linklater adds. “The way he plays him, you never doubt for a second that Mueller is a vet.”

Fishburne gradually unmasks surprising facets of Mueller’s personality as his measured pastor persona slips away after a few hours in the company of his former comrades. “When these old buddies get back together, they fall back into the roles they had during the war,” says Linklater. “It takes a while, but Sal brings out the devil in the Reverend Mueller a little bit. When Sal almost gets them killed by taking on an 18-wheeler, Mueller cuts loose and unloads on him. At that point, it’s like the genie’s out of the bottle. And for the rest of the movie, it’s as though the Marine’s on one shoulder and the reverend is on the other. Fishburne does a fantastic job of letting those conflicts play out within his own psyche.”

Bryan Cranston

Before Last Flag Flying came to his attention, six-time Emmy® winner Bryan Cranston was planning to take a break from a packed schedule that included a Broadway play (“All the Way”), TV series (“Sneaky Pete”), movies ( The Infiltrator , The Disaster Artist ) and a book tour for his memoir, A Life in Parts. But the combined appeal of director, story and co-stars proved too compelling to resist for the “Breaking Bad” star.

“ Last Flag Flying didn’t fit into the best time period because I was looking forward to not doing anything for a while,” Cranston says. “I know Richard makes courageous, daring films, but I wanted to look at the material because the thing that always wins me over is the story itself. From there I go to the character. Last Flag Flying checked all the boxes. I was also a big fan of Darryl Ponicsan and The Last D etail so when I heard Steve Carell and Laurence Fishburne were already attached, I was like ‘Yeah, this is great, let’s do it.’”

Cranston worked with Linklater to flesh out the character of Sal Nealon, an ex-Marine who has become a womanizing tavern owner in the years following the war. “Sal’s an interesting dude because he covers up a lot of his emotional baggage with all this energy, some of which is natural and some of which comes from various substances,” Cranston explains. “He has an oral fixation. He needs to either be talking or smoking or eating or drinking or chewing — he’s constantly doing something. He’s an irritant to Mueller, who might call him the piece of sand in the oyster. But out of that, Sal would say, comes a pearl.”

Sal was originally written as an Italian-American with a heavy Queens accent, but with Linklater’s blessing, Cranston suggested toning down that aspect of the character. “I asked Rick, ‘Can he be half Irish?’ Because my mother’s maiden name is Nealon, we put that into the story where he’s mostly Irish but also his mother’s half Italian, so that’s where ‘Salvatore’ comes from. He’s a little bit of a mixed-bag kind of old-school guy, which was really fun to play.”

Rough-and-tumble male camaraderie fuels much of
Last Flag Flying ’s dramatic friction — and humor. “These are not men who are going to tell each other ‘I love you’ — they just don’t do that,” Cranston points out. “But simply by being with each other, we don’t need to say it. We don’t need to hug and stuff like that. It’s like, ‘Come on, let’s have a drink!’ Sal self-medicates because he’s covering a lot of pain and guilt from his Vietnam War experience. He’s not comfortable revealing his feelings so he tamps it down primarily with alcohol. He considers himself the life of the party kind of guy, but on this journey he opens up and discovers that what’s really important is friendship.”

Linklater encouraged Cranston to give a big, loud performance that contrasts with Carell’s muted persona. “People might assume Steve would be the funny guy and Cranston would be more dramatic,” observes the director. “But in Flag , Bryan’s the funny crazy alpha male while Steve’s like the beta. Bryan’s a chameleontype actor who really goes all in and loses himself in his character to become somebody else entirely. Anybody who can go from ‘Malcolm in the Middle’ to ‘Breaking Bad’ to playing LBJ — that’s really all you need to know. With Flag , Bryan brought so much energy and invention to Sal, it was really fun to watch him rock and roll in the part.”