How real-life heroes got to play themselves in Eastwood film
LOS ANGELES—They bravely subdued a terrorist aboard a Paris-bound train and received France’s highest honor. Now, the three American heroes bravely accepted the challenge of director Clint Eastwood to play themselves in the film version of their real-life saga, “The 15:17 to Paris.”
With virtually no acting experience, Alek Skarlatos, Anthony Sadler and Spencer Stone suddenly found themselves in front of the camera in much the same way they just sprang to thwart a terror attack on a train in August 2015.
With the help of a British guy and two Frenchmen, they subdued Ayoub El-Khazzani, who was armed with an assault rifle, pistol, hammer, gasoline, blade and a backpack with enough ammunition to kill everyone on the train.
Before that moment, the three men, friends since childhood in California, were regular guys vacationing in Europe, using credit cards and staying in hostels. Alek was in the Oregon Army National Guard. Anthony was in college. Spencer was in the US Air Force.
But their heroic act aboard a train traveling from Amsterdam via Brussels drastically changed their lives. After staying in hostels, the three Californians suddenly found themselves at the Elysée Palace, receiving the Legion of Honor from then French president Francois Hollande.
Back home, then-US president Barack Obama welcomed them at the Oval Room in the White House and said, “Because of their courage, it’s fair to say that a lot of people were saved and a real calamity was averted.”
They went on to write, with Jeffrey E. Stern, the autobiography, “The 15:17 to Paris: The True Story of a Terrorist, a Train, and Three American Soldiers.” The book became the basis of Clint Eastwood’s film adaptation, which traces their friendship from a Christian middle school to that fateful day aboard a Paris-bound train.
In this interview, Alek, Anthony and Spencer—in shirts and jeans—exuded easy camaraderie as they took turns answering questions.
Alek already has a leg up in the trio’s show biz aspirations. Paired with pro dancer Lindsay Arnold, he competed in season 21 of “Dancing with the Stars” and placed third.
Excerpts from our conversation:
I salute you for your heroic deed. But it also took bravery for you to play yourselves, since you didn’t have any acting experience at all.
Anthony Sadler: Clint Eastwood asked us, and we said yes right then and there. But that night, I was the one having second thoughts when the three of us talked about it, because it was [so] out of the realm of possibility. People don’t play themselves in [films based on] real-life stories.
Spencer Stone: I had to gut check him.
Alek Skarlatos: Yeah, how are you going to say no to Clint Eastwood? If he has the confidence to ask us, then we should also have the confidence to at least give it a shot.
What’s it like to have this kind of life today?
Alek: It’s been a roller-coaster since the terrorist attack … a lot of ups and downs. But we’re grateful, not only for having survived the terrorist attack, but also for the opportunities that have come our way since then.
Anthony: We still think we’re dreaming. It seems pretty surreal.
Spencer: We’re just enjoying our life and taking it one day a time.
What was it like to relive the attack for the movie?
Spencer: Surprisingly enough, it was actually pretty fun for us. Because even though it was a traumatic event, we turned it into a positive thing in our lives. Not only did we get to play ourselves, Mark Moogalian, the man who got shot on the train, and his wife got to play themselves. And Chris Norman, the British man, also got to play himself. They also cast some of the same train employees, policemen and the medical team that brought us off the train. So, it was like a big reunion, and we got to hash things out.
What’s unique about our story is that no one died, not even the terrorist.
Alek: Going over the attack again was therapeutic. It felt like we were telling our story one last time for the movie. From then on, it would be like closing a chapter in our lives and we could hopefully move on from it.
Do you sometimes feel that being called a hero is a burden?
Anthony: It’s not a burden, but it’s more of a responsibility. Surviving something like that—it’s our responsibility to tell the story to as many people as we can, to spread the positive themes that people would draw out of it and hopefully inspire them to overcome obstacles in their own lives.
Alek: We don’t view ourselves as heroes. We only did what we did to survive. But, now that people have put us up on this pedestal and we have kids writing book reports about us, we try to live our lives to a certain standard.
Spencer: We’re very ordinary. We know we aren’t perfect. We’ll make mistakes but, for sure, we’re going to try and do our best.
What was it like to receive the Legion of Honor?
Alek: We googled it before we got it (laughs). We’re incredibly grateful to be honored in that way, because we felt like we were just doing what we had to do to survive.
Anthony: It was a crazy experience.
How did you guys meet?
Spencer: Alek and I have been neighbors since we were about 5 years old. We are still neighbors to this day. As a group, we met in middle school, when we were 12.
Alek: We were the misfits of our school. We were always getting in trouble together.
Anthony: It was important to depict us in the film from when we were children so you could see why we’d risk our lives for each other.
What were you doing when you decided to go to Europe?
Anthony: I was going into my senior year of college. I didn’t have that much money.
About two and a half years later, you guys became heroes and movie actors. Do you attribute that to fate or something else?
Alek: I wouldn’t say it was luck. I’d say it was more like fate or the hand of God … there was so much that went into that situation where we should have died or shouldn’t even have been there.
Anthony: We’re extremely blessed to have been 23 years old at the time and have a confirmation that that’s where we were supposed to be on that day, and do what we did.
Spencer: It’s something that we’ll always be proud of.
Spencer and Alek, can you give an update on your military life after the attack? And Anthony, did you resume your studies?
Spencer: I fulfilled my contract in the Air Force. I got out last year.
Alek: When I came back, they had me go to Air Assault School, BLC (Basic Leader Course) and Sniper School, all in one summer. They were trying to keep me in [the military]. But it didn’t work out because I got out to do this (acting), hopefully.
Anthony: I graduated from university (California State University, Sacramento) in May last year. I earned a degree in kinesiology.
Are you now interested in pursuing acting careers?
Alek: We’re all interested in it now.
Spencer: Yeah, making the film was easily the most fun two months of my life.
Anthony: Mr. Eastwood gave us the confidence to pursue it further.
Do you have agents now? Are you bombarded with scripts?
Anthony: Everybody is waiting to see how we do in this first (laughs).
Spencer: I have an agent, but weirdly enough, I haven’t seen a screenplay (laughs).
Alek mentioned the hand of God. How did this experience impact your faith?
Spencer: It solidified my faith.
Anthony: We know that God had his hand on us. That’s a huge credit to Mr. Eastwood for putting that [faith element] in our story.
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