Film: Surviving Private Ryan

James Innes-Smith recalls the harrowing experience of acting in spielberg's latest gutbuster

"YOUR CALL could come at any time," warned my agent. "He's working very quickly." I had been cast as Lieutenant Stone in a scene with Tom Hanks in a new war movie directed by Steven Spielberg. The anticipation was becoming unbearable.

The call to arms from my agent eventually came at three o'clock on a Friday afternoon. I would be picked up at 6am the following day and driven to Heathrow. From there I'd fly to Dublin and then on to the location in Co Wexford. I dutifully tried to get an early night. Excitement and fear made it impossible to sleep, so I watched my old copy of ET instead for inspiration.

On arrival in Dublin, I was picked up by my driver who was making his fifth trip of the day down to the location in Co Wexford. He was full of stories about the great man. "They say he can even control the weather," he informed me. Since Spielberg's arrival, the weather had changed dramatically from pleasantly autumnal to downright miserable, which is exactly what Spielberg had wanted for the filming of the Omaha Beach landings [the D-Day landings which Spielberg re-creates in Saving Private Ryan. That terrible day in June 1944 had been particularly grey and drizzly].

At the location I was ushered through a field laid out with row upon row of false limbs and mangled bodies soaked in blood. These were to be used in the D-Day landing scenes, which were still being filmed on the beaches nearby. Apparently Spielberg was hiring amputees for added realism. I thought back to the whimsical ET from the night before and wondered whether this could possibly be the same director.

It was taking much longer than expected to film the D-Day landing scenes, so three days later - and after witnessing some of those spectacular scenes in action - I was sent home to await further instruction.

My eventual call came a month later - two days filming at a location in Hertfordshire. On arrival, I seemed to spend an inordinate amount of time in wardrobe with two Second World War experts who knew everything from the correct tightness of ankle garters (until you lose the feeling in your legs!) to the exact angle of a gun holster. Everything had to be just so.

My scene involved warning Hanks and his battalion of men not to venture any further behind enemy lines. Hanks and Tom Sizemore improvised a discussion about death, and whether or not there was a heaven. The others joined in. I watched in awe. Keen on improvisation, Spielberg recorded it all for possible use as dialogue.

Then we read the scene, but because of their amazing, naturalistic style of acting, I did not even know they had started. It is hard to tell where reality ends and the acting begins. As an English actor, when I am told to start acting I mean start "acting". These guys just live it. The script is flexible, too. If you do not like a word or phrase, Spielberg allows you to experiment - a rare luxury. He will, however, argue his case forcefully if he thinks you are wrong, and he draws from his own vast catalogue of work to back himself up. For instance, when Tom Sizemore showed reservations as to why six guys would be travelling through a war zone in only a jeep with no roof for protection, Spielberg told him to think back to the famous "We're gonna need a bigger boat!" scene in Jaws. In other words, that was the whole point.

We were now ready to shoot the scene. I had problems getting my American salute right, much to the annoyance of "Mr Vietnam".

While we were waiting to roll, Hanks movingly described his thoughts on the funeral of Diana, Princess of Wales, which he had attended with Spielberg and Tom Cruise the day before. And with Spielberg still coming to terms with the death of his close friend Gianni Versace, the fashion designer, and the fear of being stalked by a fanatical rapist who was still at large, there was a real sense of gloom and unease in the air.

The scene went well and Spielberg added a couple of badly needed lines to my part. Hanks seemed stressed and tired, not surprisingly. He was in the last few days of the shoot and with so much death around, the strain was beginning to show. There was a feeling, though, among everybody involved in the film, that this was going to be no ordinary war movie, but a testament to the reality, horror and bravery of that day in June 1944.

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksAn evocation of the conflict through the eyes of those who lived through it
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Dress the Gaza situation up all you like, but the truth hurts

    Robert Fisk on Gaza conflict

    Dress the situation up all you like, but the truth hurts
    Save the tiger: Tiger, tiger burning less brightly as numbers plummet

    Tiger, tiger burning less brightly

    When William Blake wrote his famous poem there were probably more than 100,000 tigers in the wild. These days they probably number around 3,200
    5 News's Andy Bell retraces his grandfather's steps on the First World War battlefields

    In grandfather's footsteps

    5 News's political editor Andy Bell only knows his grandfather from the compelling diary he kept during WWI. But when he returned to the killing fields where Edwin Vaughan suffered so much, his ancestor came to life
    Lifestyle guru Martha Stewart reveals she has flying robot ... to take photos of her farm

    Martha Stewart has flying robot

    The lifestyle guru used the drone to get a bird's eye view her 153-acre farm in Bedford, New York
    Former Labour minister Meg Hillier has demanded 'pootling lanes' for women cyclists

    Do women cyclists need 'pootling lanes'?

    Simon Usborne (who's more of a hurtler) explains why winning the space race is key to happy riding
    A tale of two presidents: George W Bush downs his paintbrush to pen father’s life story

    A tale of two presidents

    George W Bush downs his paintbrush to pen father’s life story
    Restaurateur Mitch Tonks has given the Great Western Pullman dining car a makeover

    The dining car makes a comeback

    Restaurateur Mitch Tonks has given the Great Western Pullman dining car a makeover
    Gallery rage: How are institutions tackling the discomfort of overcrowding this summer?

    Gallery rage

    How are institutions tackling the discomfort of overcrowding this summer?
    Louis van Gaal has £500,000 video surveillance system installed to monitor Manchester United players

    Eye on the prize

    Louis van Gaal has £500,000 video surveillance system installed to monitor Manchester United players
    Women's rugby: Tamara Taylor adds fuel to the ire in quest to land World Cup

    Women's rugby

    Tamara Taylor adds fuel to the ire in quest to land World Cup
    Save the tiger: The day America’s love of backyard tigers led to a horrific bloodbath

    The day America’s love of backyard tigers led to a horrific bloodbath

    With only six per cent of the US population of these amazing big cats held in zoos, the Zanesville incident in 2011 was inevitable
    Samuel Beckett's biographer reveals secrets of the writer's time as a French Resistance spy

    How Samuel Beckett became a French Resistance spy

    As this year's Samuel Beckett festival opens in Enniskillen, James Knowlson, recalls how the Irish writer risked his life for liberty and narrowly escaped capture by the Gestapo
    We will remember them: relatives still honour those who fought in the Great War

    We will remember them

    Relatives still honour those who fought in the Great War
    Star Wars Episode VII is being shot on film - and now Kodak is launching a last-ditch bid to keep celluloid alive

    Kodak's last-ditch bid to keep celluloid alive

    Director J J Abrams and a few digital refuseniks shoot movies on film. Simon Usborne wonders what the fuss is about
    Once stilted and melodramatic, Hollywood is giving acting in video games a makeover

    Acting in video games gets a makeover

    David Crookes meets two of the genre's most popular voices