Stop-Loss Casting

Casting was a key component for Peirce and the filmmakers in telling the story. For the key role of the heroic, conflicted Sgt. Brandon King, Peirce was looking for someone who could express the strength and masculinity to lead men into and through battle and also possess the warmth and humor that is necessary to be at the center of these men’s lives. “It required someone who could depict the patriotism and innocence required to go to war on behalf of his country, but who was also introspective enough to question what he had done when he needed to question it. Because it’s essentially a point-of-view movie (one guy’s journey) and he’s in every scene, he had to be able to carry us through the entire story.”

Peirce was excited when actor Ryan Phillippe agreed to take on the role. “Ryan brought something unexpected to the part,” she affirms. “Not only could he act it, but he seemed like Brandon. He seemed like someone who would have signed up for this war, who would have been the leader, who would have killed in order to protect his men and been devastated when he lost them, who would have questioned, who would have gone on the run and who would have ultimately gone back to war for his family, his friends and his country.”

Phillippe says that, as always, his main priorities in deciding whether to take on a film role are the talent of the filmmaker and the quality of the material. For him, “Stop-Loss” was the perfect melding of script and director. “I truly believe Kim Peirce to be an artist,” he attests. “If you look at her first film, she’s clearly talented. As for the script, I love reality-based material. This is not a true story, but many men have lived it and when a project is grounded by that kind of dramatic weight and truth, you feel convinced that you’re telling a story that needs to be told.”

To play an Iraq War-era soldier, Phillippe plunged into deep research. One of his primary sources was Peirce’s brother Brett and the specifics about his real-life experience that he shared with his sister, as well as the videotapes he brought back from the Middle East. “I watched hours and hours of video camera footage that the soldiers shot of each other to get a sense of their camaraderie,” he says. “I also viewed many of the excellent documentaries that have been made about the Iraq conflict. Also, I got really into the military aspects, which I tend to do when I get involved in this kind of movie. You really want to make sure you know how to behave and appear like a soldier. I think you’re doing these men a service if you do your best to appear legitimate. It was very important for me, and for all the other actors, to look like the real deal. We were fortunate to have Jim Dever as our technical advisor. He’s the best in the business and I’d already worked with him on ‘Flags of Our Fathers.’” made about the Iraq conflict. Also, I got really into the military aspects, which I tend to do when I get involved in this kind of movie. You really want to make sure you know how to behave and appear like a soldier. I think you’re doing these men a service if you do your best to appear legitimate. It was very important for me, and for all the other actors, to look like the real deal. We were fortunate to have Jim Dever as our technical advisor. He’s the best in the business and I’d already worked with him on ‘Flags of Our Fathers.’”

In speaking of his experience of working with Peirce, Phillippe says “I’ve had the opportunity to work with Altman, Eastwood and Ridley Scott, and I put her right up there with them. I think she’s maybe tougher than any of them and she’s a real artist. She’s got this drive and is determined to get what she wants, and that’s what a director has to do -be decisive, authoritative and unrelenting.”

The character of Michele was inspired by real military wives Peirce interviewed, women she found “fascinating – for the challenges they face, the fears and hopes they feel while their men are at war and struggles they face upon their men’s return,” she says. “Many spoke of feeling committed no matter what, but felt old before their time; many said they felt they lived two lives, one when he was home and one when he was away. Many spoke of how the other wives banded together to deal with the loneliness and the strangeness of their soldier’s return: men meeting their newborns for the first time after being away for a year; the sudden bouts of anger and violence; how they couldn’t go out to a bar without having a fight/brawl erupt; how going to Dunkin’ Donuts was a challenge when they were overwhelmed by the number of donut flavors, being forced to make a choice about what they ate for the first time in months.”

“I was immediately struck by Abbie’s deep understanding of and affinity for the character of Michele,” says Peirce of actress Abbie Cornish, who plays Michele. “Michele is the emotional touchstone of the film, and the difficult choices she faces ultimately change her and those she loves. We felt very fortunate that Abbie joined our ensemble, and she did an incredible job.”

The film intrigued Cornish “because it made contemporary issues personal. It was an interesting exploration of what is happening in the world as told through a man’s desire to disengage from the war and how that affects his family, and the people around them. I also liked that it was very much an ensemble piece,” Cornish says. Her character makes some life-altering decisions in the course of the movie. Cornish attributes Michele’s bold choices and spirit to an innate core of honesty and fortitude, qualities that also appealed to Cornish.

“When first exploring the character of Michele, I found her honesty and direct nature to be very strong. She has a big heart and is a pillar of strength many times throughout the film. Michele to me was a symbol of the realizations of war, its effects on both Iraq and its occupants and also the soldiers and their families. Michele embarks on a road trip with her friend but comes away a changed person. The idea of playing a Texan like Michele, a small town girl dealing with the effects of war in the same world we live in today, really appealed to me.”

Of course, Peirce also was a huge influence on Cornish. Cornish particularly appreciated and admired Peirce’s passion for the project.

“Kim engaged herself very much in the story of the characters and held them very close to her heart. She really enjoyed watching the film come to life and seeing the actors bring the words off the page. It was great to work with a director who so clearly loved and adored the characters so much,” Cornish notes.

Steve Shriver is another complex, multi-faceted young man, someone whom Peirce refers to as “a true believer” and was inspired by a number of real soldiers Peirce interviewed -“guys who loved their wives, who loved America, but after fighting never really came back and ultimately needed to go back to war to feel complete. Though I came to understand and love these guys and saw the heartbreak they faced in acknowledging and allowing themselves to live out this truth about themselves, the challenge in writing Steve was in depicting him honestly, with dignity and passion, so that we bring the audience all the way inside this guy, why he feels and acts as he does, why he must go back.”

Peirce auditioned rising young star Channing Tatum for the role and says she was impressed by his emotional depth and maturity, his range and his ability to take direction. She immediately championed him for the role and never regretted her choice. “Channing was sheer energy on the set, willing to try anything, go anywhere emotionally and bare that side of himself – his vulnerability, his sense of dignity, his feelings of brotherhood for the other men, that was so necessary in becoming that character.”

Tatum was both flattered and intrigued by the offer to play Steve. “’Stop- Loss’ was honestly one of the most raw, heartfelt scripts I had ever read. Since I was a kid I’ve been fascinated by soldiers -about their morality and their ideals so to have the chance to play one was very exciting,” says Tatum. “And that was just at the start. It only got more interesting as we got deeper into the role.”

Returning to civilian life proves to be arduous for Steve, and Tatum says it’s because “in Steve’s head, he fell in love with the military. He found his place in life and his journey in the film is to figure out that it’s the military he’s really married to, and that’s very hard for him.”

But none of his insights into his character could have taken full form without the guiding hand of his director, he claims. “Kimberly is an absolute genius. No one, in that short amount of time, has ever been able to open my eyes to a character the way she did. Steve is a sniper at heart and what they teach you in the military is to be laser specific. Well, that’s what Kimberly taught me – to be laser specific in every single thing I did and said in the film.”

The dynamic among the characters of Brandon, Steve and Michele is equal parts personal and political. The two old friends and comrades in arms, Brandon and Steve, come to distinctly different conclusions about the war in Iraq and their roles there, and their reactions change their relationship forever. Steve and Michele’s relationship also disintegrates, all against the backdrop of Brandon’s “stop-loss” orders.

“Steve’s involvement in the war begins to take its toll on their engagement and their wedding is pushed further and further back until Michele has had enough. I spent some time (on location) in Austin (Texas) talking with women who have had boyfriends and husbands at war, most of them expressing feelings of fear, anxiety, loneliness and a separation between themselves and their partner when they returned. Throughout the film, Michele says it’s a sense of freedom in her life, that she can’t be (just) a military wife and that’s the only life Steve can provide, assuming he ever commits to her,” Cornish says.

“I think that anyone who has had a family member who has gone to war has struggled with the changes in their loved one when he or she returns home,” says Peirce. “Who is this person now…what has the war done to him—and to us? That is one of the key situations we wanted to address in this film.” Of course, Brandon, Steve and Michele are not the only ones having trouble adjusting to civilian life. The character of Tommy, while able to channel his smoldering rage and violent temperament to good effect during battle, cannot contain it easily in peacetime – with devastating consequences. Peirce set her sights on the prominent young actor Joseph Gordon-Levitt for the pivotal role. “And I did not want to compromise. I had to have Joe. He’s one of the best actors of his generation,” she says. Again, her instincts proved correct. “He was phenomenal to work with – a true method actor.”

Gordon-Levitt had a unique take on the character. “I think Tommy left home and joined the Army partially to escape demons at home and found a real family, found more connection and love in the Army than he had at home. think that when he comes back, he first has the same problems a lot of guys have when they come back but, for him, the old demons rear their heads again alongside new ones he has brought back from Iraq,” says Gordon-Levitt.

It was the script coupled with an opportunity to play a soldier that attracted him to “Stop-Loss,” he continues. “There are very few really good scripts so whenever I read one, it stands out. It was well written and a page-turner and seemed like an honest and heartfelt statement about what was going on today.

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