Actors Embrace Army Life in 'The Long Road Home'
Kelly, perhaps best known for playing shady chief of staff Doug Stamper in the Netflix drama "House of Cards," said the scrutiny he received gave him insight into the role.
"They were like, 'No, really, you better do a good job,' " he told an audience in Washington, D.C. in October. "Every guy I spoke to said one of two things: one, I would follow that man into hell, or I would go rob a bank with that guy tomorrow if he asked me to, because I know he'd have a plan."
For the National Geographic miniseries "The Long Road Home," which portrays the costly and heroic 2004 fight in Sadr City, Iraq, that would become known as "Black Sunday," the cast moved to Fort Hood for three months, filming on base and often in close proximity to the real-life troops and family members they portrayed in the show.
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For Kelly and Sarah Wayne Callies, who play then-Lt. Col. Volesky and his wife, LeAnn, there was an additional challenge.
Volesky, then-commander of Fort Hood's 2nd Battalion, 5th Cavalry Regiment, is now a three-star general, commander of the Army's I Corps and Joint Base Lewis-McChord, and very much in the public eye.
"Michael Kelly and I spoke quite a lot about about not wanting to do a dead-on impression," Callies, a former star of hit shows "The Walking Dead" and "Prison Break," told Military.com in an interview. "Instead, let me try and convey [LeAnn Volesky's] spirit and take on the role that she took on in that community."
The "Long Road Home" depicts parallel stories: that of the soldiers engaged in brutal conflict in Iraq, and that of their spouses and community back at home on base, working to care for each other and love their families while waiting for news from the battle.
That made the project different than a typical war story, Callies said.
"It's a story about devotion," she said. "And the devotion is, yes, between men in battle, but also between soldiers and their families and their communities, and the communities of women who support each other back on base. It's extremely exciting to be a part of."
E.J. Bonilla plays 1st Lt. Shane Aguero, a platoon commander whose unit gets pinned down for hours in a Sadr City ambush. Bonilla told Military.com he interviewed soldiers who knew Aguero to get a sense of what he was like before finally meeting the man himself days before filming started.
"It's harrowing and it's exciting, but it's scary at the same time," Bonilla said. "We have the honor and also the duty to portray these people well, as whole human beings. And it is kind of scary when that person's a real person."
That anxiety went both ways.
Eric Bourquin, who was a sergeant in Aguero's platoon and worked on the show as a technical adviser, got to watch himself portrayed on screen by actor Jon Beavers when "The Long Road Home" premiered in late October.
"I was very nervous and very anxious to find out what they were going to do with the character based on me," Bourquin told Military.com in an interview at Fort Hood. "... Having such a wide lens with such a bright light on my life, and the portrayer of my character and the things that I did, it's a little nerve-wracking, because not everything gets done right."
He was reassured, though, to find out he would be played by Beavers, the star of a show, "The Fresh Beat Band," that Bourquin had enjoyed with his children. The two quickly bonded through their work on-set.
And despite any discomfort with being thrust into the spotlight, Bourquin said he was glad the show was made, because it told the stories of the unit's brave fallen troops.
Callies, who married into a family of military veterans, said she nonetheless gained a new appreciation for the challenges of military life and the costs of war, not only for the troops, but for their loved ones on the homefront.
"There's a different kind of courage, I think, that accrues to the person who has no control over the situation," she said.
As she played LeAnn Volesky, who led a family readiness group and cared for spouses as reports came in of soldiers killed and wounded, she was impressed that the show didn't shy away from showing a range of emotional reactions and experiences. Some women react with outrage when their loved ones are hurt; others cling to the military for support.
"One of the things I love about this story is it doesn't say, this is how women do it; it explores a dozen different women and their dozen different responses," she said. "So often in a war story, there's one or two women that end up standing in for all of us. But of course there's as many different female experiences as there are women on the planet."
Likewise, Bonilla appreciated the series' willingness to portray soldiers who weren't stereotypical manly men, and who had little prior experience with combat.
"You see everyone at first contact, so you get to know who they are, just kind of as a personality," he said. "One of the things you get from the show is, you kind of get to see the arc of these characters. I do believe you will watch Shane Aguero on this show go from kind of a calm, normal guy to, something's a little different, because something has changed."
And in telling that story, Bonilla said he was also changed.
"I have a respect for the military that I just didn't even know I didn't have before," he said.
"The Long Road Home" premieres Nov. 7 on the National Geographic Channel.
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