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The drill sergeant to the stars

If a Hollywood actor's depiction of the horrors of war is realistic, that is because Dale Dye has driven them through his tough boot camp. Guy Adams salutes him

Dale Dye offers a few choice words about the sort of men he's helped make it big in Hollywood.

"You have to understand one thing about actors," he says. "Well, actually you don't. But it might be interesting. So listen up: actors are brought up to think that the sun rises and sets on their ass. That's all you need to know: they are self-centred sons of bitches, every one of them, and any actor who says he isn't is a straightforward liar."

Since Dye's roster of former clients includes Tom Hanks, Johnny Depp, Tom Cruise, Daniel Day-Lewis, Charlie Sheen, Woody Harrelson, Steve Martin, Sir Anthony Hopkins, and a generation of the loftiest leading men in show-business, you could be forgiven for thinking that his comments, delivered at a Beverly Hills luxury hotel, might prevent him from being able to eat lunch in this town again.

That, however, would overlook the very special nature of the work that the silver-haired 65-year-old has spent the last three decades doing with the film industry's most cosseted stars. For Dye, who is known to his famous employers as Capt Dye, has built an extraordinary Hollywood career on his rare ability to bully, cajole, and shout at the normally cotton-wool-wrapped stars of blockbuster war movies.

A highly-decorated former marine and Vietnam veteran, with the moustache to prove it, he has acted as "military advisor" to nearly 50 epic films, TV series, and video games, from Platoon and Born on the Fourth of July to Saving Private Ryan, Band of Brothers, Medal of Honour, and Tropic Thunder. Now he's in the spotlight for his work on The Pacific, Steven Spielberg's ambitious new mini-series about the US campaign against Japan during World War Two, which had its red-carpet premiere on Thursday.

For years, Capt Dye's role has been simple: he takes everyday actors who don't know one end of a rifle from another, educates them in military techniques, and then helps them understand the bizarre range of emotions that a real-life soldier goes through in battle. He hopes they will go on to realistically portray the often-misrepresented and cliche-ridden world of modern warfare.

"An actor's life is all about 'how many lines do I have in this scene' and 'is my hair good?' and all that nonsense," he says. "That's antithetical to the way military people think. In combat, I think about you and you think about me, and we both think about the bigger picture: a mission, and that mission is more important than we are. So I try to bridge that gap, and teach the military way of thinking to kids who have grown up thinking absolutely the opposite."

The Pacific, Spielberg's follow-up to Band of Brothers, chronicles every major battle fought in the Pacific theatre. It cost $150m (£99m) for 10 episodes, took almost a year to shoot, and so – by some distance – is the most expensive television series ever made.

Before the actual filming commenced, Capt Dye took all of the young actors and extras hired to appear in the show on an exhausting 10-day "boot camp" in the Australian wilderness, where they slept rough, wore military uniform, ate rations, marched for miles each day, staged mock battles, and generally lived like the 1940s soldiers on whom the programme is based.

"I wore their asses out physically," he said. "I hurt 'em so hard and took 'em so far out of their comfort zone that they became numb and confused. That's how I want them. Because at that point they were only concerned about 'Am I going to be able to stay away from that white-haired bastard and survive?' That's when I'd got 'em: They became blank slates and I could go to work."

Thanks to this "work", Spielberg's forthcoming series (which comes to the UK via Sky in April) has already been acclaimed both by critics, and – perhaps more importantly, by actual veterans of battles such as Iwo Jima – as one of the most vividly accurate portrayals of war ever realised.

During a typical boot camp, Captain Dye says he lectures students about the gamut of emotions he experienced during a 20-year military career that saw him gain a reputation for extraordinary derring-do, and win a bronze star, three purple hearts, and no fewer than 42 other medals.

"I can teach you in two days how to effectively portray a soldier. I can teach you how to handle a weapon, how to wear your equipment, and how to move your body. But that's superficial. That's shallow. What's really important is what's going on inside your mind, your heart and your gut. That's where all the really stupendous emotional performances come from."

He teaches by talking through scenarios. "I'll give you one," he says. "Imagine this: your best buddy, a friend you've know for years and years, you and he are walking across a battlefield. A sniper opens up, puts one round right between his running lamps. Blows the back of his head out. He's dead before he hits the ground. I ask my students, 'Whaddya feel?'"

Most students reply they'd expect to feel a mixture of anger, sorrow or fear. "That's bullshit," Capt Dye counters. "Total crap. Let me tell you what you feel at that moment your best friend dies in battle. You feel absolute joy. Absolute jubilation, because it wasn't you, that's what you feel. Don't lie to yourselves and say it wouldn't be. Because it would. That's human nature. That is the reality of war. The guilt and the sorrow comes later."

Capt Dye cites the (initially reluctant) former student Tom Hanks as a beneficiary of this very lesson, which informed the famous opening scene of the Normandy landings in Saving Private Ryan. "I work from the inside out, as opposed to the outside in," he says. "I want to reach inside your chest and pull out your throbbing heart and show it to you. I want to get inside your mind. You can see, in that film, just how far inside his mind I got."

Like many a show-business legend, Capt Dye made it to the top through a mixture of hard work and luck. He came to Los Angeles in the mid-1980s, after leaving the Army. "I was a movie fan. I'd seen every war movie there was and all of those movies pissed me off. They didn't reflect my experience and were full of cliches and nonsense. You'd just got a load of stunt guys wandering around like cartoon characters, blowing shit up, and actors with guns doing the funky chicken. It was terrible. So I came to LA and I said, 'I'm going to fix this.'

"I knew a real look at the emotional rollercoaster that is combat would be so much more interesting than whatever these crack-smoking hippies were doing out here in Hollywood. But for months, I couldn't get anyone to listen to me. Hell, I couldn't even get a meeting with the guys on a studio lot."

His big break came when he read an article in Variety saying that a virtually unknown young film-maker had been given the green light to make a film based on his own experiences in Vietnam. "It was a guy named Oliver Stone. I can't tell you how, but I got his home phone number. I called him one Sunday morning and said, 'You don't know me and I don't know you. But if what I read in the papers is true, you need me.' And being Oliver he liked that left-handed approach, and he hired me."

Capt Dye spent a fortnight in the jungle with 30 actors who were to appear in the film. By the time he'd put them through the rinser, just 19 were left, including Tom Berenger, Johnny Depp and Willem Dafoe. The film was Platoon; it won four Oscars and launched Stone's career as an A-list director.

The rest is history. Today, Dye's consultancy firm, Warriors Inc, is on the Rolodex of almost every film-maker looking to make a serious war movie. And his face is known around the world thanks to cameo roles as an actor in almost 70 films and TV shows. "I've always said you can't polish a turd. But in my case, apparently you can. Directors see me teaching people, and want to put me in front of cameras," he says. "I'm the worst typecast guy in Hollywood. I play myself. But the money ain't bad."

His happiest moment, though, is watching real-life veterans enjoy the fruits of his labours. "We had a screening of The Pacific for WW2 veterans a couple of weeks back," he says. "I saw one of those guys afterwards and asked what he thought, he looked at me with a tear in his eye, and said 'Dale, that film showed things just how they were.' For me, that's as good as an Oscar."