Filming a high-action adventure film that’s filled with a multitude of visual effects can be taunting for any actor, especially a young up-and-comer who’s never worked with green screens before. When the story is also rooted in history, and based on real-life men, the challenge dramatically increases. But Tristan Wilds, who’s primarily known for his roles on 90210 and The Wire, successfully made the transition in the new action drama Red Tails.
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 (Elijah Kelley), Joe ‘Lightening’ Little (David Oyelowo) and Marty ‘Easy’ Julian (Nate Parker), are called into duty under the command of Col. A.J. Bullard (Terrence Howard) and Major Emanuelle Stance (Cuba Gooding, Jr.). Much to the Pentagon’s disdain, they eventually agree to let the inexperienced pilots help guard the Allied bombers.
Wilds sat down with us at The London Hotel in New York to discuss the process of shooting his stunts and green screen sequences in Red Tails. The actor also spoke about what it was like getting in the mindset of a Tuskegee Airmen, and what it was like reuniting with the film’s director, Anthony Hemingway, who he previously worked with on The Wire.
We Got This Covered: How much knowledge did you have of the Tuskegee Airmen before you began shooting Red Tails, and how much research did you do while preparing for the film?
Tristan Wilds: I think initially, I had a very general knowledge of who the Tuskegee Airmen were and what they did. I was fortunate enough to have my grandfather and other people around who were actually there, or knew about it. Actually, my great-cousin is a Tuskegee Airman. Even hearing stories from him helped.
I don’t think I knew to the extent, mainly how young they were, and that they hold the record for most bombers brought home. They never lost a bomber. I think I knew the general knowledge. I was proud, but didn’t know to what extent of American history they accomplished.
WGTC: Like you said, your grandfather and cousin were in war. Did they tell you any stories?
TW: My grandfather was in the Vietnam War, and my great-grandfather was in World War II, but he wasn’t an Airman. My cousin, I met with him pretty late in my life, so I didn’t get as many stories. I just knew of him being a Tuskegee Airman.
But the stories I’ve actually heard about war and the times were pretty amazing. I definitely always wanted to learn more. I was always very inquisitive. Shout-out to encyclopedias and Google and all the resources out there. (laughs) They definitely fed that hunger.
WGTC: You play Ray ‘Ray Gun/Junior’ Gannon in the film. What was it about Ray that convinced you to accept the role?
TW: I think the main thing was how genuine he was. He’s a real kid, just trying to be respected in the eyes of the guys he’s out there with. It’s not that he wasn’t being respected. I think it’s more like he’s the little brother, but he wants to be seen more as a peer than a little brother.
I think that constant struggle, with not only the war, but being someone who’s out there saving the world. You’re still fighting for respect, not only from your country, but also from your peers. You’re trying to be looked at by them as a peer, instead of a younger brother. So I think that’s what really drew me to him.
WGTC: Did you and the rest of the cast have respect for each other? What was your working relationships like?
TW: It was amazing. I thank God for boot camp and for Prague. I think being in a completely different country where they really don’t speak that much English, it brought us together.
Then boot camp, that experience alone, everybody going through it and knowing what it was, brought us closer together even more. It was literally like a fraternity. We are still to this day like brothers, we’re inseparable. You can’t get us in a room together and not expect jokes and anything fun to happen. I love those guys with all my heart. I know they love me too.
WGTC: While in bootcamp, you and your co-stars stayed in a sparsely furnished military tent, just like the Tuskegee Airmen lived in during the war. What was your experience like during the boot camp and in Prague? Was it difficult?
TW: It was definitely difficult. For a lot of the guys, it was difficult of the point of almost wanting to commit a mutiny, (over things like) working out until we threw up. I had to lose 10 pounds in five days. With that added stress, among everything else we were going through, it was definitely pretty crazy.
WGTC: While Anthony Hemingway has directed episodes for such series as Heroes and Battlestar Galactica, Red Tails marks his feature film directorial debut. What was it like working with him on the film?
TW: I’ve worked with Anthony since I was 16 years old. He was probably the first person I met when I got on the set of The Wire. Anthony’s always been like a big brother to me. Seeing him direct a film was definitely different than television. But he still kept that same feeling, that same essence that we had while shooting The Wire.
It was like family. Not that you couldn’t do any wrong, but you’re free to explore and try different things. I think that was the main thing I took from The Wire. You have the creative freedom to build this character, and make it whatever you want.
Anthony made me do the same thing. He said this character, Junior, he can’t be like any other character you’ve ever played. He has to be completely different. He has to be something like we’ve never seen from you yet. He gave me the instruments of different research to do, and different tapes to listen to, just to build this character. I think for being a first-time movie director, he did an amazing job.
WGTC: Even though you worked with Anthony on The Wire, he has said that you automatically didn’t get hired for the role of Ray based on your previous relationship together. What was the audition process like?
TW: Oh yeah, and Anthony knows exactly how I am. I never expected any hand-outs. I’ve always been that kind of guy. I don’t want any hand-outs. If it’s a script that suits me, cool, I’ll work on it. As soon as I read the script (for Red Tails), I said this is something I definitely have to be in.
I told Anthony, whatever I have to do to be in it, I’m down. He told me I have to audition, and I said cool. I auditioned for it. I remember getting the call, he called me first, he didn’t even call my management, and told me I got it. He definitely had me on pins and needles for weeks. He definitely had me go through the whole process.
WGTC: As the youngest actor on the set, did you look up to the rest of the cast while filming?
TW: Oh, 200 percent. I’m grateful I got to learn so much from so many walks of life. From Ne-Yo being on set, although he’s a novice (at acting), he’s a veteran at many other things, especially in fields I aspire to be in. We’re learning from each other.
From Elijah Kelley, the way that his mind works. He’s an amazing human being. From Nate Parker, delving into the history behind the Tuskegee Airmen, and really helping me want to make this film not just great, but from a part of history. David Oyelowo keeping me in touch with my spirituality. Everyone around just taught me many different things.
It’s crazy, because it’s something that happened so long ago. To this day, I’m still reaping from the repercussions of something that we did back then. I thank them for that, for making me the man that I am today.
WGTC: Did you feel any kind of pressure while preparing for the role, and when you were trying to get into Junior’s mindset?
TW: No, and I thank Anthony for that. I think there would have been pressure if there was a specific thing we had to do. But it was more so, this is your character and time-frame, build it. It kind of gave us free rein to build our character. Of course, that could have added a level of which way do I go. But for me, it was everything I needed.
WGTC: Several Airmen visited the set in Prague to meet with you and the rest of the actors. Did you ask them for any advice while shooting?
TW: Always, and even before shooting. Anthony brought us up to Lucas Ranch to meet them, and it was amazing. Just asking questions, and picking their brains about everything that went on during the time. Whether it was something as minuscule as going to the clubs, or the girls back then.
Or, something as huge as what was it like having a Jerry on your tail, shooting at you, while dealing with the G-forces of the plane. I think it helped us immensely, just to keep the character of the movie in tact.
WGTC: What was the process like of shooting in front of the green screen? Was it difficult?
TW: Of course. You’re up there in a big plane, shooting at a big green screen. (laughs) There’s nothing there. Not only do you have to stay in character, who you built out of your imagination, you also have to build the world around you as well.
You have to envision the Jerry behind you. You have to envision the cloud that you’re flying through, and the planes that are next to you. You have to make sure that it looks and feels real. You can play it off, but it always has have that inkling of truth. It was definitely hard.
WGTC: Did you have any experience with green screens and visual effects before?
TW: No, never. I think it was my first time. I couldn’t have asked to do it with a better person than George Lucas. This was what he does, this is his life, and what he loves to do. I couldn’t have learned from a better person on how to do it.
That concludes our interview, but we’d like to thank Tristan Wilds for taking the time to talk to us. Be sure to check out Red Tails when it hits theaters on Friday, January 20.