Film: Surviving Private Ryan

James Innes-Smith recalls the harrowing experience of acting in spielberg's latest gutbuster
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The Independent Culture
"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.