Action-adventure films are immensely popular for their extensive stunts and expensive special effects, but not many entries in the genre can combine impressive imagery with emotional prowess. The upcoming film Red Tails, which features helmer Anthony Hemingway in his directorial feature film debut, does just that as it chronicles the heroic true-life story of the Tuskegee Airmen.
While the World War II African-American pilots aren’t well known, and their story has sparsely been told on film, they fought against the Army’s belief that they lacked the intelligence and aptitude to be pilots or maintain military aircraft. Their struggle is being brought to the public eye in Red Tails, which features an ensemble cast that includes Cuba Gooding, Jr., Terrence Howard, Ne-Yo, Tristan Wilds and Elijah Kelley.
Red Tails, which was executive produced by George Lucas, follows a crew of the pilots in the Tuskegee training program who have faced segregation, and have been kept mostly on the ground during World War II. The pilots, including Andrew ‘Smoky’ Salem (Ne-Yo), Raymond ‘Jr.’ Gannon (Wilds), Samuel “Joker” George (Kelley), Joe ‘Lightening’ Little (David Oyelowo) and Marty ‘Easy’ Julian (Nate Parker), are called into duty under the command of Col. A.J. Bullard (Howard) and Major Emanuelle Stance (Gooding). Much to the Pentagon’s disdain, they eventually agree to let the inexperienced pilots help guard the Allied bombers.
Gooding, Ne-Yo, Wilds and Kelley discussed the process of getting into the Tuskegee Airmen’s mindset during a roundtable interview at The London Hotel in New York for Red Tails. The actors also spoke about the process of shooting the green screen shots, and how much they admire each other’s work.
Question: Can each of you talk about the characters you play, and how he functions within the context of the movie?
Cuba Gooding, Jr.: I play Major Emanuelle Stance. My character gives these young men guidance and proper training, encouragement, and send them out into their war machines over the skies of Berlin.
Ne-Yo: I play Andrew ‘Smoky’ Salem. Smoky’s kind of, I hate to call him the comedy relief of the film, but he’s the more light-hearted part of the seriousness of what’s going on.
Elijah Kelley: My character’s name is Samuel “Joker” George. Ne-Yo’s character and mine have a bond on-screen. We’re the guys who come in and bring the levity to a serious situation. I’m also a go-getter, a gun type of fighter. I just wanted everyone to have an incredible time.
Tristan Wilds: My character is Raymond Gannon. Everyone calls me Junior. I’m the youngest pilot. I’m basically the small man on the totem pole, just trying to fight for respect.
Q: Some of you have played military men before. Can you compare any type of boot-camp experiences you had on previous films to this one?
NY: Absolutely. Boot-camp for Battle: Los Angeles was modern-day boot-camp, it was for the Marines. It was definitely difficult.
But boot-camp for Red Tails was boot-camp via 1942. Meaning there wasn’t any music or food that wasn’t from 1942. No cell phones, clothing, nothing. Everything was 1942. It was snowing, and we were in tents (laughs)
Q: Was that mainly the director’s decision?
NY: Yeah, it was the director’s decision. Thank you Anthony, we appreciate it. (laughs)
Q: So no iPods playing, or cell phones?
EK: No, none of that. There were eight guys in a small tent, four bunks on one side, and four on the other. We had two drill sergeants from South Africa. They would literally come in and wake us up with M-80s. They would explode in the doorway.
CGJ: Towards the end of the young actors’ tour, they all made a pact that one would stay up and wake everyone up before they threw the M-80s. So the sergeants would throw them in, and everyone would walk out ready and dressed.
That’s where they got to. That’s how devoted these guys were. Some of these kids were crying in the shower. That’s how jarred they were.
EK: I can’t believe Michael B. Jordan did that. (laughs)
CGJ: (laughs) But anyway, they made it through, and were better because of it.
Q: Can you talk about what you all realized the commanders really were like, compared to who Marines are today?
NY: If you didn’t know know, and were told about the Tuskegee Airmen, you would instantly think, these are older men who had lives and families, and were in their 30s, 40s, 50s. But these guys were 17 through 25, doing incredible things. I think that alone is amazing in itself.
I think it speaks to the amaziness of these individuals. It wasn’t about how old they were, or levels of majority. It was about we got a job to do, and we’re going to get it done. That’s one of the amazing things about the Tuskegee Airmen.
EK: It spoke to the myth that many publications and many Americans had of the Tuskegee Airmen, and African Americans in general. They were saying we didn’t have the mental capacity to complete these ordered tasks.
We were half the age of most people in power, doing 100 more percent of the grunt work than they would ever do in a lifetime, in a span of four, five, six years. I think that also speaks to how brave and intelligent they were, and how much valor they had for the task.
Q: You did a lot of CGI and green screen work for Red Tails. Can you talk about the differences of acting in this, compared to a movie without any effects?
EK: I used to laugh at people who did special effects movies. Like Terminator and Transformers, I said, that’s so easy. But it’s the hardest thing. You have someone reading lines next to you, like “You’re in the plane and bombs are coming towards you. You get shot.” (laughs) “They’re coming after you, look harder. Move faster.”
You’re like, I’m getting shot at. I need you to give me something. All the Sam Worthingtons, the Shia LaBeoufs, Arnold Schwarzeneggers have stood in front of that screen, and made something out of nothing.
Q: Ne-Yo, did that make it more difficult for you, coming from music?
NY: Definitely. It was easily one of the hardest things I’ve ever done. On top of the whole green screen, and trying to create something out of nothing, basically, a lot of the times we had the masks on. So it’s not like you even get your whole face to create this stuff, you have to do it with just your eyes.
For a guy who doesn’t know a whole lot about this game, I was looking at Anthony like, what? What am I supposed to do with this? Can I take the mask off? I can’t take the mask off, okay. What do you want from me Anthony, I sing! What am I supposed to do? It was difficult, to say the least.
Q: How did you get cast in this?
NY: I went through the process, just like everybody else. I auditioned, and Anthony dug my audition. I told my people, I don’t want any roles just because I’m Ne-Yo, that defeats the purpose of even doing this. So I co-read, it was my third time co-reading in my life. I was enough to impress Anthony.
Q: For the younger actors, how was it working with the older generation on such an important historical adaptation?
CGJ: Yeah, I’m old, but still strong as hell! (laughs)
TW: I think working with people like Terrence and Mr. Gooding here…
CGJ: Now I’m a mister! (laughs)
TW: I think it was definitely a learning experience. I had the benefit and joy of being the youngest guy here, so everyone was my elder. I got to learn from ever single person, from Elijah to Ne-Yo to Nate to David. It was a constant learning experience, and I’m forever grateful for it.
EK: We are portraying historical people, and these airmen were amazing.
Cuba and Terrence have graced the stage that not many African-American performers have graced ever. That’s seen with the Academy Awards, Cuba being a recipient (for Jerry Maguire), and Terrence being a nominee (for Hustle & Flow). They’re both incredible performances.
Being in the company of those men, like Sidney Poitier, Denzel Washington, Forest Whitaker, they are living legends. They’re writing history, and re-writing history no body ever thought would happen. So to look at that, and for that to be tangible, that gives me hope for the things I want to do in this particular profession.
NY: For me personally, it’s safe to say that I’m the novice here. They don’t like when I say that, but it’s the truth.
In the beginning of the movie, when we find out that we may be getting shot down, Cuba has this powerful monologue. I remember that day, and Anthony made you do it about 12 times. Every time you did it, it was different from the time before, which blew my mind. (laughs) It was the same words, but every time you did it, it had different emotion, it had a different spin.
To me, that’s the essence of acting. Taking the words, and making you feel something every time I deliver them to you. Every single time I deliver them, you’re going to feel something different. That’s a level that I aspire to get to.
So having Cuba and Terrence on set, and then having these guys (points to Wilds and Kelley), who are in the same age bracket as I am, doing the amazing things the were doing, it made me go, I really need to step things up if I’m going to be part of this film.
EK: Ne-Yo did an amazing job. He disappears in the movie, and Smoky comes alive. I can say that, because I wanted to hate. (laughs)
Q: Cuba, Anthony said he didn’t want to cast anyone who was in a previous movie about the Tuskegee Airman. You’re the exception to the rule, Cuba. Why was that?
CGJ: I was in the first Tuskegee Airmen film (HBO’s 1995 movie The Tuskegge Airmen). I called my agents, and said I hear they’re casting Red Tails with George Lucas. This is the real tale now, that was an HBO movie. I hear he’s financing out of his own pocket.
He loves to say $58 million. But when he goes to (visual effects company) ILM (Industrial Light & Magic), it’s his production company, so you’re going to get production value for a lot more than $58 million.
Then my agent said, there’s no role in there for you. I said, don’t say that to me, send me the script, let me read it. So I read it, and there were obviously two great roles in there for someone of my maturity. (laughs) I got upset with my agent, and was literally yelling on the phone, saying why wouldn’t you say these aren’t great roles.
My agent, I’ll never forget it, said Anthony won’t see you! I go, why? My agent said, because you were in the first film, and he wants nothing to do with that movie. He wants it to be the next progression. Then I really started yelling, and said put me in a room with him.
They’re not telling these stories very much in Hollywood. This is the first time where I read a script where these men empowered themselves. I love Glory, I think it’s one of my favorite movies, but they didn’t need Matthew Broderick in this movie. They did it on their own. These are black men doing for themselves.
I said, I have to get in a room with Anthony. I think tears were literally going down my face with him. After three hours of meeting him, he said welcome aboard.
Q: What was it like for you Cuba, working with the younger actors?
CGJ: When I started acting, in 19(86), you’re right, I am old! (laughs)
TW: Everyone else is in the 2000’s! (laughs)
CGJ: When I started acting, everyone fought to get in a movie. Please don’t think I’m bagging on The Wayans Brothers, because I love them to death, the only thing that we could fight for was a film called I’m Gonna Git You Sucka. A lot of us were from Shakespeare. But we were trying to get in that movie, because that’s what they were green-lighting, and that’s what everybody was getting real paychecks for. I was doing Boyz n the Hood and these movies where they were going with the hottest rapper.
You look at these men now on the screen. They say they look up to us. But I’ve been so emotional on this journey, because I’ve heard Nate Parker give his dissertation in colleges, giving the history of the Tuskegee Airmen. I’ve listened to Elijah speak so elegantly, not only on his background, but what he’s experienced just on this tour.
We’re talking about black history told from the vantage point of a filmmaker that’s an icon, and allowing us to do it on our own. So to me it’s like the younger actors look up to Terrence and I, but we look at you and say, wow, they’re our new and improved models.
What you don’t know is that all three of these guys can blow you away. Ne-You disappears in this role. These are entertainers. Elijah is like Sammy Davis Jr., he wants to play him in a movie. But he thinks from a production standpoint. All of these guys are amazing musicians, actors, producers. This is the next generation.
Q: There were so many distinct personalities in this movie. Who was the most like and unlike their character?
NY: Who was the most like their character? To be completely honest, probably Nate. Nate is very much like the person he plays, besides the whole drinking thing. (laughs)
EK: Nate does not drink! Not my Nate! (laughs)
NY: But just from a standpoint of how regal he is. He definitely has his chest out and head up, like his character, which I like about him. The most unlike their characters are Cuba and Terrence.
Q: They probably have more of a sense of humor?
NY: Yeah, these guys are a laugh a minute, all day long. Then Anthony goes action, and they become serious. But that’s the essence of acting. There’s Cuba, and his character in the film,two completely different people, two completely different personalities, two different stories. They’re two completely different people, which is amazing to me, and what I inspire to become in this whole acting thing.
That concludes our interview, but we’d like to thank Cuba Gooding, Jr., Ne-Yo, Tristan Wilds and Elijah Kelley for talking to us. Be sure to check out Red Tails when it hits theaters on Friday, January 20.