Act of Valor: Real-Life Stars

 As they got to know the men of the U.S. Navy SEAL platoon in San Diego, co-directors McCoy and Waugh considered a new and untried option for their film.

Instead of casting actors, they wanted to use real U.S. Navy SEALs in the lead roles. “It had become our mantra to make sure everything does service to who they are,” says McCoy. “We realized that actors could misrepresent the U.S. Navy SEALs, as they have before in film.”

A scan of recent cinema history revealed that the last three major films featuring U.S. Navy SEALs starred Charlie Sheen, Demi Moore and Bruce Willis, says Leitman. “They are all fine actors, but they’re not U.S. Navy SEALs. We really felt that going the star route wouldn’t do them justice.”

The more they talked about it, the more convinced McCoy and Waugh were that this was the only way to achieve the authenticity they needed to properly honor their subjects. “When you meet an active duty U.S. Navy SEAL, he has a look,” says Waugh. “He has an intensity and an aura that’s almost impossible to replicate. He may have been training and on active duty for 20 years. How can an actor recreate that?”

McCoy compares it to seeing a film about basketball in which the Los Angeles Lakers take to the court. “Would you rather see a bunch of actors who learned how to play ball a few months ago? It was the first time in our careers we were directing the actual characters, not actors playing the characters.”

The hardest part, say the directors, was convincing the U.S. Navy SEALs to be in the movie. “Once we committed to using the real guys, they all said no,” says McCoy. “Their attitude was that it’s not really what they do. It was cool to help us with our research, but they had to get back to work. But when they saw what we were all about, they really got involved. They felt that this was their time to set the record straight about who their community really is.”

The U.S. Navy SEALs’ history of quiet professionalism is an essential part of the fabric of their community, says Lieutenant Commander Rorke. “It was big leap to do something like this. But the small group of us that are the recognizable guys in the picture thought there was a unique opportunity there to tell our story in a way that hadn’t been done before.”

Although Special Warfare Operator First Class Ajay was recommended for the film by his commanding officer, he still balked at the idea. “At first, I didn’t want to be involved with the project,” says James. “I’m not interested in glamor or fame, but I would like to help shine a light on the different facets of the U.S. Navy SEALs. This is probably the most accurate depiction of how we operate that has been seen on film. The directors gave us a lot of room to create the story the way we wanted it told, which made a big difference to us all.”

After an agreement was reached to honor Naval Special Warfare members killed since September 11, 2011, in the film’s credits, a core group of men signed on to portray the film’s combat operators. Naval Special Warfare and the U.S. Navy SEAL community gave the project unqualified support, but required the filmmakers to work around their schedules. “Obviously we weren’t going to be pulling guys out of training or off missions,” says Waugh.

As in real life, the U.S. Navy SEAL team in Act of Valor is led by an officer, Lieutenant Commander Rorke, and a high-ranking enlisted man, Special Warfare Operator Chief Dave. “There is a relationship between the two leads that is really important,” says McCoy. “They happen to be extremely good friends in real life, but one is the boss of the other, and they respect each other. Exploring that dynamic was something we were interested in.”

The Lieutenant Commander serves as the liaison between the U.S. Navy SEAL team and the Navy higher-ups. “The Lieutenant is what I think of as a man’s man,” says Waugh. “He’s very smart, very well read and has a Master’s degree. He was in Ramadi in ’06 and received a Bronze Star. This guy is a born leader and as good a gun fighter as anybody, and he keeps a strong hand on his platoon.”

“Chief Dave is kind of his opposite number,” says McCoy. “Part surfer dude, part dad, and the epitome of a U.S. Navy SEAL, he’s the most loving guy with his family and truly funny with everyone else. But I would definitely not want to be on his bad side. He’s six foot six and ridiculously strong. Dave can flip tractor tires like they’re like bicycle tires. His job is to interact with the platoon and with the Lieutenant. That’s the chain of command.”

McCoy and Waugh were surprised to see that when the uniforms were off, Chief Dave and Lieutenant Commander Rorke were friends and equals. “They were talking like Mouse and I do,” says Waugh. “In the other military branches, enlisted men and officers don’t mix much. But the minute the uniforms go on, Dave’s very respectful. ‘Yes, sir. No, sir.’ That dynamic was really fascinating to see.”

The other ranking U.S. Navy SEAL is Senior Chief Van O. “We nicknamed him ‘Dennis Hopper,’” says Waugh. “He is one of the original wild men and a thinker at a level that we’re not accustomed to. It was sometimes difficult communicating with him, because he was breaking you down all the time, dissecting everything you said, even your body language.”

The Senior Chief’s instincts made him the focus of one of the movie’s most compelling scenes. “I knew if we could unleash him in the right environment, he would be magnificent,” says McCoy. “And that is what we did in the interrogation scene.”

In that scene, in which a prisoner has information that will save lives if the Senior Chief can ferret it out, the directors gave Van O and actor Alex Veadov their plot points. “And we left getting there up to them,” says Waugh. “We wrapped our cameras around them and let them go at it. The Senior Chief got inside the actor’s brain and you could see him unraveling.”

The filmmakers were able to put together a complete team that reflects the true diversity of the U.S. Navy SEALs. The differences between the men are what allow the U.S. Navy SEALs to build extraordinarily effective teams, they say, with each member contributing his singular talents in ways that complement the others.

“Each of them is unique in his own way,” says McCoy. “There are some five-foot-eight, 155 pound guys that can bring it and there are some that are six-foot-six and 245 pounds. That little guy is the one who can get through the window, while the big guy’s breaching the door and kicking it in. There is no one stereotypical U.S. Navy SEAL.”

To underscore the point, Waugh points to Special Warfare Operator First Class Ajay. Before he enlisted in 2001, Ajay, who was born in Trinidad, had to get letters of recommendation from Senators and Congressmen and needed an age waiver. “Ajay has more appreciation for America than most natural-born Americans,” says Waugh. “He was a Muay Thai boxer and he’s the funniest, most charismatic guy you’ll ever meet, but you wouldn’t want to tangle with him.”

According to Ajay, failing to become a U.S. Navy SEAL was not an option. “There was no Plan B. Being a U.S. Navy SEAL requires honor, courage, commitment and brotherhood. There’s no dynamic in any other activity I’ve ever done that equates to what I’ve been able to have here.”

Weimy, the team’s sniper: “His patience makes it possible for him to sit on rooftops day after day waiting for that two seconds when he can get his shot,” observes Waugh. “The guy just sees the world tactically. It’s like he was born to be a U.S. Navy SEAL. And he has such grace about him.”

Responsible for the team’s communication is Ray, called “a walking oxymoron” by Waugh because he is a man of so few words. “Ray is unbelievably good at everything he does,” says McCoy. “He’s so well-rounded and a man of tremendous capability, but completely humble.”

The team “enforcer” is Sonny. “And he is truly one of the baddest dudes I’ve ever met,” says Waugh. “He’s a really large guy who stands behind everything he does. Sonny is down to earth and always ready for a good time. Right before it’s going to get gnarly, he’s loose and free and smiling and joking.”

There’s also Mikey, who McCoy says is the last person you’d ever expect to meet in the U.S. Navy SEALs. “He’s an unassuming person who should be very assuming,” says the director. “The guy is a world-class mountain bike racer. He’s a surfer. He’s a sailor. He’s just a true outdoorsman and you wouldn’t think this guy was ever at war. He also has a collection of random toys in his garage, like a boat that doesn’t work and a Harley that’s missing both tires. He’s been a U.S. Navy SEAL for 21 years.”

Working with these first-time actors was surprisingly easy, according to the directors. “I sometimes get in these long conversations with an actor about the character,” says Waugh. “On this film, we weren’t directing an actor playing the character. We were directing the character. Am I going to argue with the character?”

The U.S. Navy SEALs who participated resist being called actors because they say they were merely doing what they do every day. “The hardest part was saying the lines,” says Ajay. “Running around and shooting guns and moving and communicating, that’s commonplace. That’s nothing. Sitting there and speaking to someone and making it not sound fake was really difficult.”

Watching himself on screen also took getting used to, says Rorke. “When you hear your voice on an answering machine, you generally don’t like the way that sounds. I think everybody’s had that experience, so multiply it by a thousand on a 50-foot high screen. In our work we expect a level of expertise that’s close to perfection. In the end, I focused on the other guys and not myself, and they did a great job. I think we all feel good about the product and are excited about the way it turned out.”

The non- U.S. Navy SEAL characters in Act of Valor are played by professional actors, including Roselyn Sanchez, best known for her long-running character on the television series “Without a Trace,” and Nestor Serrano, who has appeared in dozens of films and television shows. “We tried to cast the most talented actors we could find, but for the most part we selected people who are slightly under the radar,” says Waugh. “Those actors could really slide right into this film. Because the guys are just being themselves, the bar was raised for the actors.”

One of the relatively unfamiliar faces in the film is actor Jason Cottle, who plays Abul Shabal. Waugh remembered Cottle, a veteran of the New York theater scene, from his own early days in the theater industry as a young actor. They had lost touch in the intervening years, but Waugh was able to track him down and offer Cottle the role. “He was one of the most remarkable actors I had ever met,” says Waugh. “We needed to find somebody who was unfamiliar to film audiences and who would be truly scary to play this part. I immediately thought: Jason Cottle. The guy has so much intensity.”