Hurt Locker, The: Kill Zone–Characters and Cast

“The Hurt Locker,” directed by Kathryn Bigelow, is one of the best pictures of the year and the most interesting movie (thus far) about the Iraq War.

Staff Sergeant William James: Jeremy Renner

At the heart of The Hurt Locker are its characters–men who risk their lives daily in one of the most dangerous places on earth–fighting the odds to stop bombs from detonating in a city overrun with IEDs and insurgent snipers.

Against this deadly backdrop, Sergeant James becomes the heart of the story, a mercurial, swaggering, expert bomb technician with a cheerfully anarchical approach to combat and, paradoxically, a masterfully controlled skill-set, who shocks his new team members with his enthusiastic disregard for established procedures. Despite his teammate’s vocal misgivings, James refuses to modify his mood or change his behavior, representing the kind of all American hubris and spirited independence that can spark great sacrifice and also dangerously misfire.

“James really anchors the movie, he’s the galvanizing center of the team in that he instills both fear and admiration,” says Kathryn Bigelow. “a lot of what happens in terms of character development is about how the other guys react to this almost elemental force that comes whirling into their already on-edge lives.”

“It takes an incredibly skillful and intelligent actor to embody James’ bravado and allure in a nuanced way that doesn’t seem artificial, and Jeremy is as skillful as an actor gets,” Bigelow adds. “The role calls for the ability to command authority while also seeming to be totally reckless,” she continues, “that’s a very difficult but seductive combination which Jeremy can inhabit with seemingly natural ease.”

James is the catalyst for much of the film’s conflict. “His solitary focus is on the bomb,” says writer Boal. “That’s where he gets his engagement and his sense of being alive. He’s most at home when he’s working on a bomb and most out of place when he’s just with other people. So in a sense, the price of his heroism is his isolation, or loneliness. It’s a recipe for disaster to have these three men working together in the same unit.”

Jeremy Renner, who grew up in rural California, identified with the character’s salt-of-the-earth background, and he was also drawn to a universal quality in the script that transcends its immediate setting. “What attracted me was that it’s not simply about the Iraq war,” he says. “It could be about bull riders instead of EOD. It’s a backdrop for these three guys and how they approach life.”

The actor sees some similarities between his hotshot character and himself. “James’ philosophies are a big part of me. He’s a man of few words and a lot of action. I’m not a big talker. I’d much rather get something done.”

Like many people, Renner was unaware of the existence of the Army’s EOD squads until he read the script. “I could never do what they do. Just the thought of laying there next to a 155 [artillery round] and my heart starts pounding. They’ve got to have a switch in their head that they can turn on and off.”

Sergeant J.T. Sanborn: Anthony Mackie

Casting the role of Sergeant J.T. Sanborn—the proud, affable, level-headed intelligence specialist who has the toughness to go toe-to-toe with James—posed its own special challenges.  Recalls Bigelow. “Sanborn needed to be James’ equal in terms of being a strong presence, and he has to adhere to protocol in a way that seems thoughtful rather than rote,” the director explains. “It was a very difficult part to cast because we needed someone who projected real solidity and reliability while at the same time having the capacity for great sensitivity, which as it turns out it is not that common.”

Anthony Mackie caught Bigelow’s eye during his performances in She’s Gotta Have It, We Are Marshall, Million Dollar Baby, and especially in his role as a menacing drug dealer in Half Nelson opposite Ryan Gosling. “He completely controlled the screen in a relatively small part,” she remembers. “You couldn’t take your eyes off him. Anthony has that cunning magnetism that has true star quality.”

For his part, Mackie was attracted to the depth he saw in Sanborn’s character, which allowed him to find many levels on which to play. “Sanborn hides behind his machismo,” says Mackie. “There has to be a kind of superhero aspect to these soldiers. If they wake up every day in fear that every minute is the last, they’ll drive themselves crazy. Down deep though, he’s very humble.” In contrast to James’ consuming passion for his work, Sergeant J.T. Sanborn is the film’s Everyman. “He spent seven years in intelligence before joining EOD,” says Boal. “He’s a smart, capable, reliable, charismatic guy who has never encountered a whirlwind like James before. There’s an alpha male component to his personality that runs up pretty hard against James, who’s also an alpha male but of a much different stripe, so you have these two versions of masculinity dueling each other as they fight in these really tricky circumstances in Baghdad.” Providing the third side of the film’s inter-personal triangle is Specialist Owen Eldridge, the youthful, junior member of the team who is in search of a mentor, and who tries but ultimately fails to find solace in either Sanborn’s stoicism or in James’ indifference to danger. As the pain of the war creeps up on the young soldier, darkening his innocence, “Eldridge has to be every mother’s son,” explains Bigelow, “there’s a frankness, and earnestness to him that allows him to wear his fear on his sleeve.”

Specialist Owen Eldridge: Brian Geraghty

Bigelow had been impressed with Brian Geraghty’s performances in Jarhead, We Are Marshall, and Bobby before she cast him as Eldridge in this film. “Brian exhibited the fierce and the vulnerable in perfect measure,” she says. “He’s natural, totally fluid.”
Of the three men, Eldridge is the youngest in both age and his experience in the military. “He’s triangulated between Sanborn and James,” says Boal. “He’s looking to see which of these two older, more experienced men holds the answer to how to survive. He’s willing to throw his lot in with either, and he flip-flops back and forth, and eventually becomes seduced by James’ decisiveness – and then he comes to regret that choice.

By the end, he’s disenchanted with James for very good reason, but there is a point in the movie when Eldridge feels that James’ way is the way to go and that he needs to just ‘man up’ and follow James’ example.”

“I feel like he’s the emotional heart of the film,” Geraghty says. “I think Eldridge is over it and he’s just trying to get by and get home. Sanborn and James are more lifers and army guys. Eldridge reacts completely different under gunfire than they do.”

Sergeant Matt Thompson: Guy Pearce

With the three leads in place, the next role to cast was Sergeant Matt Thompson, the squarejawed, team leader beloved by his teammates, who opens the movie. “We needed an actor who could immediately convey the ease of command and warmth with his men that good sergeants possess,” explains Bigelow. The directors first choice was Guy Pearce: one of the most widely admired actors of his generation for his performances in L.A. Confidential, Momento, and The Proposition.

“Having Guy open the film sets up a sense of credible reality from the very start,” says Bigelow. “You need that because the world is so exotic, but Guy just seems like he belongs in it.” “I’ve wanted to work with Kathryn for years,” says Pearce. “And ultimately the material has to be the reason why I go and do any film. This film is packed with action, but it’s about people and emotions. It’s about people trying to connect with each other. The way in which the script was written is really fascinating and Mark and Kathryn have both done a beautiful job of capturing and realizing these characters.”


Director Bigelow’s reputation for making exhilarating, original films and eliciting strong performances from her actors attracted some big Hollywood guns who were willing to take on some of the film’s more intriguing cameo roles, including David Morse, Ralph Fiennes and Evangeline Lilly.