United 93: Reel Vs. Real Cast

Casting United 93 was handled with the same sensitivity as the research and preparation for the movie. It was handled primarily out of New York, with calls going out for those actors who resembled the actual people aboard the flight, and for any performers who may have flight-related experience that could be germane to the characters.

Says writer-director Paul Greengrass: “What we did on this film was to gather together an extraordinary array of people wanting to get this film right, aircrew from United Airlines, pilots, the families of the people who were onboard, who gave us a sense of what their family member might have done given the type of person he or she was in any given situation; controllers and members of the military. We had a lot of expertise that in the end allows you to get a good sense of the general shape of events.”

Actors who made it to audition found that Greengrass’ unusual working style was apparent right from the start. No script or “sides” were provided, and actors were brought into the room in groups, instead of one at a time. Once inside, they were given minimal information, only that the film concerned United 93. Chairs were arranged in rows, as on a plane, and the group was then instructed to improvise, like getting on the plane, reacting to the hijacker.

David Rasche as passenger Donald F. Greene

Rasche recalls: The audition process was very mysterious. They just said that it was about United 93. It was really interesting to see people going through various stages of hysteria or however they reacted to the situation.

Greengrass has more courage about diving into the complete unknown than any director I’ve ever been involved with. The most difficult thing for me was the convergence of realities, the reality of what Paul thinks happened, and then what I think happened. But the truth is no one knows for sure. It was a challenge and a fascinating work experience.

Pilot JJ Johnson as Captain Jason M. Dahl

Commercial airline pilot JJ Johnson (who has enjoyed a distinguished career with UA) was told about the film by another pilot, who ended up recommending Johnson for the role. He recalls: “The next thing I knew, I received a call from a casting agent, who wanted to know how quickly I could be in New York for an interview, in my captain’s uniform. I was later cast as UAL 93’s Captain Jason M. Dahl. I arranged for five weeks off from United. They were very supportive of me.”

Gary Commock as First Officer LeRoy Homer

Gary Commock has flown commercially just over a deacde. Both Johnson and Commock flew commercial 747s to arrive in London, just prior to arriving on the United 93 set.

The Female Flying Attendants

Of the five flight attendants on United 93, two–Sandra Bradshaw and Lorraine G. Baywere played by actresses who had worked as United flight attendants, Trish Gates, who was still working in the field when cast, and Nancy McDoniel. The three additional flight attendants look to them for advice on in-flight procedures.

Casting FAA’s Ben Sliney

The FAA’s Ben Sliney had initially signed on to work in an advisory capacity. His three-decade expertise in air traffic control and involvement with the events of 9/11 (as the man in charge of the FAA’s command center in Herndon) rendered him a high-valued asset to Greengrass and his team.

Sliney was then invited to work on-camera during the shoot, portraying a controller in the New York center. He was asked to step into the shoes of one of the key players, so Ben Sliney was cast as Ben Sliney. Reliving his 9/11 experience Sliney states: “What I was called upon to do for Paul was accurate, albeit it was heightened for the purposes of the film. But it was factual in the progression of events, since it was developed using the facts from the 9/11 Commission Report.

“Having read the treatment, the story was about how people in ordinary walks of life, without any guidance from hierarchy or protocol, could all rise to an occasion, which culminated in the ultimate self-sacrifice of the people on United 93. It was focused and clear, so it was easy to do my job on the set.”

Casting the Plane

Another key role in the recreation of the day was the airplane. The production team found a 20-year-old, out-of-service Boeing 757 earmarked for the scrap heap. It had the plane dismantled and shipped to Pinewood Studios outside London, where United 93 was filmed.

Gleaning instruction from a massive 9,600-page owner’s manual, the production crew began to carefully reassemble the 140-foot-long fuselage. Rather than putting it back together as one continuous piece, however, builders reconstructed the 757 in pull-apart sections, the cockpit, first class, coach cabins. Each part could later be mounted separately on motion gimbals that could simulate the movements of the plane (banking, ascending, descending, turbulence), or assembled back in one piece.

The art department then performed a makeover on the interior, dressing the seats and cabins with period-appropriate, company-issue graphics, fabrics, lights, magazines, even the correct images on the in-flight TV monitors. The goal was to replicate as closely as possible the appearance of the five-year-old Boeing 757 that took off from Newark on Tuesday, September 11, and later crashed in a field in Somerset County, Pennsylvania, near the town of Shanksville.