3 The Cast of Saving Private Ryan Went Through a Literal Hell
When he was making Saving Private Ryan, Steven Spielberg wanted to do a different kind of war movie. Rather than focusing on the heroics of our men in uniform, Spielberg wanted to get across the pants-shitting terror aspect of war. This unflinching portrayal of death and destruction was lauded for its ballsy approach to showing war as realistically as possible, and also for the intense performances of the all-star cast that included Tom Hanks, Matt Damon, and a pre-fame Vin Diesel. None of them knew what they were walking into.
When push comes to shove, it's very difficult to act out a war onscreen because everyone knows in the back of their mind that all of the terrible carnage around them is really make-believe. You can throw around all the blank rounds and fake explosions you want, but at the end of the day, everyone's going back to covered trailers and warm cocoa. Spielberg's dedication to making the most realistic war film ever caused him to rightfully fuck all that noise.
And replace it with even more noise.
To prepare the stars for the "war is hell" mentality, Spielberg put his cast through hell. Almost every major cast member went through a 10-day boot camp with retired Marine Dale Dye, whose overall job was to absolutely wreck them until their hands were "like hamburger." Actor Edward Burns describes preparing for this movie as the worst experience of his life.
You can object that real-life soldiers have to live it for a hell of a lot longer than 10 days, but again, keep in mind that these people are used to eating their meals off of the abdomen of a nude Japanese woman. The level of culture shock is pretty hard to imagine. Dye would only refer to the cast by their character names, made them learn basic combat and survival techniques, and even shot at them with blank ammunition. God seemed to be in on the act as well, because on the very first day of field training, it rained like crazy, soaking everyone to the bone and turning the soft earth that they had to sleep on into mud. Eating only old canned rations and having a Marine screaming for them to move double time pretty much drove them to the brink, which helped them bring genuine mental and physical exhaustion to the screen.
Now, we did say that almost every cast member went through this training. Matt Damon, who played the titular Private Ryan, got to skip out on the horror, just showing up at the end of the whole thing with a cappuccino in hand and shooting his part in a mere six weeks. This was a deliberate decision by Spielberg, who wanted the dynamic between Damon and the rest of the cast to have a hint of animosity. After all, their characters spent two-thirds of the film just looking for this one punk-ass kid in the middle of Nazi-infested nowhere. What better way to get actors to act like they hate a character than to actually make them hate the real person playing him? Other than to, you know, just tell them to do it? Since they're actors?
"Now, to get everyone really intense, Tom Sizemore's going to eat a box of kittens."
2 Ed Harris Is Frighteningly Insane ...
Ed Harris has been in several dozen movies you've seen (The Truman Show, A Beautiful Mind, The Rock, A History of Violence, The Firm, The Abyss, and 80 others), but he virtually never turns up in the lead role. That doesn't mean that he doesn't take his method acting serious as hell.
In Pollock, which he also directed, Harris played the world-famous painter Jackson Pollock during the final years of his life. Harris not only spent 10 years working on the film, but made sure to literally become Pollock in every way imaginable. He gained 30 pounds, took up painting in Pollock's trademark drip style (by building a whole art studio in his house), and even smoked Camel cigarettes, the artist's favorite brand. Basically, he stopped just short of devouring Pollock's heart to absorb his soul.
"No, no, I ate it to gain his strength."
That's just the way Harris is -- he kind of has to live it. In A History of Violence, where he plays the villain, Harris wasn't one to let something like "not even being on set" take him out of character. While at a press conference for the movie, a reporter asked him, "What is violence?" His bafflingly furious response (in which he started pounding on the desk and flinging small objects) left everyone silent for a few seconds, thinking, "Shit, that escalated quickly."
And it's not like he's always going for an Oscar here -- while on the set of The Rock, one of the most Michael Bay Michael Bay movies ever, Harris was so mentally involved with his character that he simply refused to stop acting like a hardened, pissed-off war vet. Not only did he refer to Bay as "sir" at all times, but he even managed to make the other people around him refer to him in the same way. And while messing up a take can be frustrating for any actor, Harris absolutely lost his shit whenever he flubbed his lines. Not because he was just a big drama queen, but because that is exactly the kind of rage someone like his character would've had.