‘The Long Road Home’ Star Reveals How The Hard-hitting New Iraq War Drama’s Crew Worked Behind The Scenes To Deliver A Super-Realistic Punch

On what became known as Black Sunday, in Sadr City, Iraq a US 1st Cavalry Patrol was ambushed – eight US soldiers were killed and 51 wounded – ‘The Long Road Home’ is the new series that attempts to tell their stories, including that of SPC Jonathan Riddell, played by Joey Luthman…

RISING You went on a pre-filming boot camp to learn how to soldier? JOEY LUTHMAN, ACTOR ‘Yes at boot camp we basically did everything except the press ups and crawling through the mud! So, gun safety, manoeuvres, and gun handling in general, as well as patrolling streets. Knowing how to bound off the next guy and have it fast, and tight, drilling that over and over, for a couple of weeks.’

RISING Soldiers have to carry a lot of kit – did that make training tough? JL ‘It was tougher than I expected. We were wearing the kevlar vest, helmets and the rifles were 16kg (35lb), holding them up for hours at a time. But our military advisor Mike Baumgarten was telling us that we were really fortunate, because if we were actually in this we’d put plates inside the vest to protect us from bullets, which weigh an extra 23kg (50lb) – that gave me a great appreciation for what shape these guys are in, to be able to run for hours at time, often through mud – it’s gruelling.’

RISING How did that make things more realistic? JL ‘We went right from there straight into filming. Mike Baumgarten, who was a soldier in Iraq and Afghanistan, said we were learning this like drinking from a firehouse. It was super-educational training and talking firsthand to the soldiers who were actually there, who we are portraying – it gave me an insight into the military.’

RISING It was different to the movies, then? JL ‘You see things on TV and the movies and you assume that’s what’s happening but there a few different things! That’s what makes this show stand out so much, is that we’re very accurate in a lot of ways – to what actually happened, and to soldiering technique and training. That really helped to put me in the mindset, physically and mentally.’

RISING So, what do the movies get wrong about gunplay? JL ‘They were talking about Tom Hiddleston in the new Skull Island – holding a gun, his right elbow is a little too high, and it should be tight to the side of your body. I wouldn’t have even known and it’s subtle things like that, which make it more accurate.’

Explosions, the fire coming at you – it was everywhere all of the time – it wasn’t a stretch to believe we were in this

RISING What were the other things you did to bring in realism once filming started? JL ‘Our special effects were incredible – there were explosions and ‘cork hits’, these little foam bricks that would have dirt on them and explode in front of our faces to simulate bullet hits. They’d have little pockets inside the walls that exploded in front of us to mimic different rounds hitting the walls. There was dirt being thrown all over the place and it was surreal. All the gunfire around you, including your own, including the big turrets on top of the humvees, the explosions, the fire coming at you – it was everywhere all of the time. So it really wasn’t much of a stretch to believe that we were in this 24/7. We didn’t have to do much acting!’

RISING Did that give you a window into the sensory overload a soldier who has never even been in combat before, and is suddenly being in the middle of a massive ambush, must feel? JL ‘Yes. For me especially I had never even held a rifle before the bootcamp, or fired a gun of any kind. So this was definitely a different experience which really helped – I didn’t realise at first because I was just focussed on the training, doing what Mike Baumgarten was telling us to do. I didn’t realise I was helping myself get into my own character. He’s similar to me in that I am from Dayton Ohio, cornfields all over the place – my character comes from Oregon, a farm boy coming into war.’

RISING Did the style of filming and real-life special effects help you to become really immersed in the role? JL ‘There were so many times where we were getting shot at – OK they were firing blanks, but seeing the muzzle flashes all around us like a bunch of crazy paparazzi, and the explosions was very immersive. A lot of people and soldiers at the screenings have said it felt like they were there because it was so immersive – the cameras were right in the action all of the time and I think that was a great help for us.’

RISING When you started talking to the men who had been there on Black Sunday about their stories, what was the most surprising thing they told you? JL ‘The craziest story was hearing that this wasn’t the worst day. Sergeant Eric Bourquin was telling us that this day known as Black Sunday, April 4th 2004, was a terrible day and a turning point in the war but it wasn’t the worse day, out of their year. I was like, “really?!” There were so many casualties, so many deaths, so much unexpected enemy activity that caught them by surprise, from many different angles and it still wasn’t the worst day that they had.’

‘It’s terrifying but also just crazy to think about that this was these guys went through. We’ve got to appreciate our privilege as citizens and to thank for that but we also get to go home and sleep in our beds and be healthy, whereas some of these guys got their legs blown off by enemy RPGs. It was hard to forget when we were filming it.’

We are telling these stories for the families that suffered through it as much as the soldiers

RISING That kind of explains why it’s so important to tell the stories that are known, because so many don’t get told? JL ‘Yes and this is an eight-part miniseries that wanted to focus on a specific person from their vantage point in each episode. What was so difficult for Mikko Alanne, our writer, was that he had to choose – that’s only eight guys and there were over 60 guys that were severely wounded and so many that died. It was tragic how many people were affected by this.’

‘We are telling these stories for the families that suffered through it as much as the soldiers, not knowing if their son was going to come back alive – it’s for them and it’s for our fallen soldiers who served because people don’t even know. That’s what we want people to understand – there is nothing political about it, there’s no agenda we’re just trying to tell stories of great men who served that people wouldn’t know otherwise.’

RISING When it came to the combat scenes how did you get into the mindset of a solider? JL ‘It was black and white because it was scripted and we were doing what we were told, which is what soldiers do anyway. We didn’t have to think about it too much, which really helped. Saying lines back and forth, reacting to things, explosions, covering our sectors, firing single shots at the enemy. It was black and white and that helped me to get into the mindset of the soldier.’

RISING Learning how to soldier were you surprised at how much soldiers in a combat team have to trust that their buddies have got their back? JL ‘Absolutely, the first two episodes showed me how much soldiers have to look out for each other. No man is left behind. There are tough times in the first episode where we get out and one of our guys is pinned down back there and we could have just gotten out of Sadr City. But Lieutenant Shane Aguero, he wanted to go back so we went back in. It really shows that soldiers will bleed for their brothers – or die for them. And we all felt that as actors, in a small way.’

It really affected me – he is just now starting to recover from that so many years later

RISING When you were talking to the soldiers who had been there did they say how the experience had changed them personally? JL ‘They talk about it matter of fact but in war you don’t have a whole lot of time to have emotions – so much is happening so fast that you have to be on top of things all of the time and if you let your guard down that could be the moment that things go wrong. From what I have learned they are getting better because it was several years ago, but it still affects them. E.J. Bonilla, who plays Lieutenant Aguero, was speaking with the real Shane Aguero, who is friendly, outgoing and happy but it has been a while – and from what I heard he struggled for a long time to go out with his buddies or really do anything that he like to do before, because it has changed him in big and subtle ways. That really affected me – he is just now starting to recover from that so many years later.’

RISING Did you work on showing emotion during combat without it being unrealistic? JL ‘Director Phil Abraham really wanted to show that in a subtle way and we found a sweet spot over the course of a few takes where I could convey what the character was feeling when I get my first kill, and I have never killed anyone before. A moment of, “Hell yeah, I got that guy,” and all my buddies are “Sweet man!” and then it’s back down to the guy that I killed and you just see it. I didn’t know if it would come across as too hokey but it was subtle in the way I showed the emotion and how it affected me.’

RISING It must have added pressure to know that you were trying to portray something that had actually happened – did it make it more rewarding too? JL ‘We were at the Fort Hood screening and it was incredible because there were so many soldiers who come up to me afterwards and said: “Hey man you really did a good job.” Soldiers who were there that day. To hear the family say that they could feel the emotion in my eyes was just incredibly powerful, because that’s what it’s for. Everything we did was for that moment, to hear them say that, because it was for them and their families. It was so rewarding.’

WHAT NEXT? During the filming of The Long Road Home 360º cameras were placed around the set and inside the Humvees. Watch this 360º video that attempts to portray one, then 24-year old, soldier’s memories of being ambushed in Iraq on Black Sunday.

The Long Road Home is being broadcast on the National Geographic Channel

Follow the writer @mattfitnessray