Playing a real person in a movie sounds like it should make an actor’s job easy. That kind of role has a blueprint of its own to draw on, after all; it’s just a simple matter of getting to know who your character is and learning how to emulate them. Right? Not so according to Kyle Gallner, who plays Engineman Third Class Andrew Fitzgerald in Craig Gillespie’s The Finest Hours, a biopic disaster drama about the 1952 rescue of the crew aboard the SS Pendleton during a brutal winter storm off the coast of Chatham, Massachusetts: portraying a living, breathing human being on screen is actually stressful, because that living, breathing human might buy a ticket to see the film for themselves. Sounds pretty challenging from that perspective.
But maybe not as challenging as handling The Finest Hour’s physical demands. Being soaked by water towers for hours at a time is a good way to catch a cold any time of the year, particularly in November (and especially in New England); it doesn’t help that as the film’s cast got saturated by rain, they had to give the impression of performing Coast Guard duties in a high pressure, worst case scenario. For Gallner, best known for his background with horror fare (A Nightmare on Elm Street, Jennifer’s Body, The Walking Dead) and his role on Veronica Mars, shooting on The Finest Hours presented a daunting but welcome, and ultimately rewarding, challenge.
Gallner took the time to sit down with us in the press tent on our set visit to The Finest Hours, where he talked about the experience of meeting Fitzgerald in the flesh, how much his perspective on the story changed after getting to know Fitzgerald, how to keep yourself from getting sick in a man-made nor’easter, camaraderie between cast members, and singing his way through his audition:
So what can you tell us about your character?
My character’s Andy Fitzgerald. He’s an engineman. He works with the engine. He was kind of a third-string type of guy where nobody really asked him to go out. He’s kind of a last resort. The other guy that Bernie usually takes out was sick and so Andy sort of jumped in and took his place. In real life, Andy was just — he was really bored. He was sitting at the station, just been sitting around all day, and just was so bored that when he found out they were going out, and he knew the other guy was sick, he pretty much forced himself on Bernie.
He was looking for an adventure?
He was like, look man. They didn’t even really know — they didn’t know that it was going to be this. They knew that it was going to be, you know, a big storm and stuff. But you know, he’s a 20-year-old kid stuck in a room. He was like, it’s time to get outside. And so he pretty much forced himself on Bernie to take him with him, and that’s kind of how he ended up on the boat.
So I have a question. You have a slight mustache going on. Is that kind of part of the character, of him being like, trying to —
Do I? [Laughter.]
Is that not a thing? Let’s move on. Can I ask you about the physical requirement of this role? Because like, I mean, what we’re seeing here is incredible. Talk about the physical aspect of this role.
It’s a hard movie. I’m not gonna lie to you, it’s been difficult. It’s a bunch of guys who aren’t exactly seamen. So for the first two, three weeks, every night you’re sleeping and you’re rocking back and forth because you’ve been on the boat all day. And you’re constantly cold, and you’re shivering, and we’ve had a progression of how to deal with that. Before, it was literally just like kind of plastic hunting gear and some thermals, and as it got colder we stepped up to dry suits in an attempt to stay warm. So you’re shivering all day, and the rain’s constantly beating down. It’s a physical game as much as it’s almost like a mental game, trying to keep morale up on the boat. Ben Foster’s been really good about that. He’s brought like — that guy’s prepared, man. That guy is who you want on your side when the world goes to s**t. He has everything. He brings like a little Jambox on set that’s waterproof so we’ll play music in between, and it just kind of keeps everyone going. Because, you know, you get rained on, five days a week for 12 hours a day, and…
How are you guys keeping from getting sick?
I don’t know! It’s just like been sheer luck of the draw that no one’s really dropped yet. They take really good care of us, though. They’ve been really nice. They make sure we have stuff to drink.
Why are you not in this scene?
I may be underneath in the engine room right now.
Did you have to learn how to fix an engine yourself in real life?
Not yet. We’ve been all through the boat. We’ve been out on the real 36500 and stuff. There’s a guy here, Kiwi, that I’m going to talk to, ’cause that scene’s coming up where he’s going to do a walkthrough of the whole engine and what to do. So we’ll be down there pretty soon. But yeah, I think I’m in the engine. Either that or I’m up front at the light, and they’re not going to see me yet because all those guys are in the back.
Is the water at least warm that they’re dumping on you?
Certain things are warmer than others. In the beginning it wasn’t. I mean it’s kind of straight from the ground, it’s really really pretty cold. They’ve since found a way to kind of heat it up a little bit so it’s not as ice-cold, but it also depends on the day. Like the last couple days we’ve actually been really lucky, we’ve been really warm, but this warehouse kind of drops everything sometimes 10, 15 degrees, that certain days are definitely colder than others. Like those dump tanks they’re getting hit with, they can’t heat those.
So are you just super happy to not be in this scene?
I’m not mad about it! [Laughter.]
So we heard that you met the real Andy Fitzgerald?
Can you tell us a little bit about that?
He’s great. He’s really funny guy, actually, he’s a really nice guy. The craziest thing about talking to Andy and meeting Andy was, when you talk to these guys, they don’t glorify this story at all. And you sit here and hear about this story and you know how amazing it is what these guys did, and kind of how crazy it was, that they went out and did this, and yet these guys are telling it like it’s nothing. They didn’t glorify it. I don’t think Andy’s wife even knew that he had done this until they were married for like three years.
Did your impression of the material change after you met him and how you approached the character?
Totally. Absolutely. Because it came from this thing of, okay, these guys are like heroes, which they are, but you kind of think like, well, how do you play a hero? And you meet these guys and it’s like, they just did their job. You know, they went out and they did their job every day, and that’s what it was. They knew they were getting into some trouble, but you know the old Coast Guard saying was, you have to go out but you don’t have to go back. You don’t have to come back. And that’s really what they lived by. These guys, no one was over 25 on that boat. Andy was the youngest at 20, and then I think Bernie was 23 or 24. So these guys were just kids. And they were literally just going out and they did their job. That was the mindset. They came home and you know, Andy told me, I was the last guy left on the boat, when everybody got off, and somebody asked me, what are you doing? Get off the boat. And he goes, oh, I have to tie it up. You know what I mean? Like after everything, he was like, I still have a job to do, I have to finish my job. And that kind of really resonated of like, wow, these guys, while heroes, it was still just another day at the office for them. They knew what they had to do, and they knew that these guys needed to be saved, and that’s what they were going to do.
What has been the toughest scene to shoot so far for you?
It’s an interesting thing, because you know, in terms of acting, it’s not like big monologues and a ton of dialogue and stuff. So I think the toughest stuff is mostly the physical stuff, just you know, getting pounded all day and you know, losing your voice because we’re yelling over the rain. But in a way, it really helps having the rain and everything. It kind of takes part of the acting out of it, because you just, you can’t fake it. I mean, you’re cold, you’re wet, and you’re kind of miserable, and you’re kind of like okay, we’re doing it again, we’re doing it again. But it’s great. Everybody knew what they were getting into when they signed up, which is really good because there’s not a single diva on the set.
You still feel that way?
Yeah, totally. Absolutely.
You feel like they prepared you, like, this is what it’s going to be?
Yeah. Yeah. No, no one pretended it was going to be a cakewalk. No one sat there and was like, you guys are going to have a great time. [Laughter.] You know, it was like, it’s going to be hard.
[Joking.] “It’s going to be CG storms, it’ll be fine!”
Yeah. And it has, it’s been hard. But it’s been really fun. Working with these three has been really great. Everybody has their head on straight and really knows what this is, and doesn’t sit there and complain. Everybody’s been really tough about it and stepped up. I mean, ’cause you’ve gotta think about the story you’re making. You’re not really allowed to complain when these guys really did this. Yeah. You’re like, oh, I can step off and have tea. [Laughter.]
Did you have to go through any Coast Guard training before you took it?
We didn’t necessarily do training, but we did a whole kind of field trip down to Chatham, where we went down and we met all the Coasties and hung out and we actually took the real 36500 out and we took it to… No, we didn’t take that boat, that would’ve taken forever. We took the real, like, their new boat that they use, we took that to where the ship sank. But we did a whole day with them, and we took a big long pleasure cruise on the 36500 and got to know the boat and got to just talk to some of the Coast Guard that have been around for a really really long time and some of the new guys. So just kind of swapping stories and just hearing their stories and what they’ve done. They showed us some drills and they just showed us how things operate nowadays. Other than the technology changing, I don’t think a ton has changed, you know, in terms of, it’s a branch of the military, it’s structured and this is how they do things. So getting to just see that and talk to these guys, and you’ve got a lot of really experienced boat guys hanging around that’ll just tell you what to do. It’s been good company.
How long did Andy actually serve in the Coast Guard?
He didn’t serve very long. I’m not sure of the exact time served, but he did everything kind of in fast forward. Like, he started on the lightship, which is really just kind of b***h work. You know, you get out on the lightship and it’s one month on, one week off, and you basically just sit on the ship and bounce up and down in the water.
What is a lightship?
It’s essentially a lighthouse in the water. It’s a ship that’s basically got a lighthouse on it. So you sit there for a month at a time, and they kind of just give that to the new guys.
Is it stressful playing a real person who will presumably see you play him sometime?
Yeah, absolutely. [Laughs.] It is. It’s very stressful. But he started on the lightship and this one guy wanted off — or didn’t want to get off and they wouldn’t transfer him. So Andy went to one of his superiors and was just like, I’ll take his place. And the guy was like, you can’t, you’ve only been on the lightship for like two months, you know, you’re supposed to be on there for quite a while. But he ended up getting kicked off, took that guy’s spot, and went somewhere else. He went to Martha’s Vineyard. I think it was to Martha’s Vineyard. And then he went to engineman school and became an engineman and then he got kind of stationed over at Chatham. And he, after this happened, he actually got out like a couple months later. He wanted to go to college. The only reason he joined the Coast Guard was he didn’t have money for school. So he didn’t know what to do and he was like, I’ll join the Coast Guard, and then he ended up being able to get the money for college, so he went to school after that.
And what did he do from there?
What did he do… I forget what he did.
Ah, we can probably look that up. I was just curious.
Yeah. He moved to Colorado.
He moved far away from the ocean.
I totally forget what he studied. But yeah, he just went to school.
How do you audition for something like this? Because there’s not much dialogue. Do they have to stand there and pour water on your head?
No, it’s really weird. There’s like a song, and all sorts of stuff. One of the auditions was like a song…
Can you talk more about that please?
It’s the last thing you want to come across your desk, is like… I gotta sing, like, by myself? There’s like a sea shanty thing where my character kind of, they’re going into the storm and it’s really scary and he starts kind of just singing to himself and then the other guys kind of pick up on it.
What song is it? It’s “Rock of Ages,” right?
[Joking] It’s “Rock of Ages”. It’s “Suddenly Seymour” from Little Shop of Horrors. No, it’s a song called “Holloway Jail.”
And everyone kinds of just picks up on it and it’s sort of a collective, like, oh s**t here we go.
Were you at all nervous, because some people don’t like to sing.
I don’t like to sing. Yeah, of course.
Was that where you kind of like, great, now I play a real guy, I gotta be in snow…
I gotta sing… yeah. So auditioning was a little strange. They also had one of the auditions which was also, Ben has a big long speech that they ended up having my character also read for the audition. So they just kind of mixed it all up. So it was a little weird. Singing was a little weird.
You’ve done a lot of horror movies. How was making this different from making those?
A lot less blood and violence. It’s just — they’re all different. A horror film is just kind of, it’s a heightened sense of dread, and fear, and you just kind of have to keep yourself in such a headspace that it’s nice. This one’s not easy, it’s not like it’s a cakewalk, but it’s a totally different mindset than something like that. Whereas instead of being scared all day, you sit there and you kind of have the mindset of just, who these guys were. All you have to do is be able to walk around with your chin up and just kind of be who these guys were. They were men, you know. And the camaraderie between me and the three guys. So having those guys to bounce off of and just kind of create that world, it’s been nice. It’s been very different.
A heroic action-thriller, “The Finest Hours” is the remarkable true story of the most daring rescue mission in the history of the Coast Guard. Presented in Digital 3D™, Real D 3D and IMAX® 3D, the film will transport audiences to the heart of the action, creating a fully-immersive cinematic experience on an epic scale. On February 18, 1952, a massive nor’easter struck New England, pummeling towns along the Eastern seaboard and wreaking havoc on the ships caught in its deadly path, including the SS Pendleton, a T-2 oil tanker bound for Boston, which was literally ripped in half, trapping more than 30 sailors inside its rapidly-sinking stern. As the senior officer on board, first assistant engineer Ray Sybert (Casey Affleck) soon realizes it is up to him to take charge of the frightened crew and inspire the men to set aside their differences and work together to ride out one of the worst storms to ever hit the East Coast. Meanwhile, as word of the disaster reaches the U.S. Coast Guard station in Chatham, Massachusetts, Warrant Officer Daniel Cluff (Eric Bana) orders a daring operation to rescue the stranded men. Despite overwhelming odds, four men, led by Coast Guard Captain Bernie Webber (Chris Pine), set out in a wooden lifeboat with an ill-equipped engine and little, if any, means of navigation, facing frigid temperatures, 60-foot high waves and hurricane-force winds.
Disney’s “The Finest Hours” is the unforgettable story of the Coast Guard’s courageous mission, which is directed by Craig Gillespie and stars: Chris Pine; Academy Award® and Golden Globe® nominee Casey Affleck; Ben Foster; Holliday Grainger; John Ortiz; and Eric Bana. Produced by Jim Whitaker and Dorothy Aufiero, the screenplay is by Oscar® nominee Scott Silver and Oscar nominees Paul Tamasy & Eric Johnson based on the acclaimed non-fiction book of the same name by Casey Sherman and Michael J. Tougias. Doug Merrifield serves as executive producer. “The Finest Hours” storms into U.S. theaters on January 29, 2016 in Digital 3D™, Real D 3D and IMAX® 3D.
The Finest Hours opens in U.S. theaters on January 29th, 2016.