The young star of Friday Night Lights takes us behind-the-scenes of George Lucas' upcoming World War II biopic about the Tuskegee Airmen
Red Tails will be George Lucas's first original project since ending the Star Wars Saga in 2005 with Revenge of the Sith. George co-wrote the screenplay with John Ridley, and chose Anthony Hemingway, who has mostly worked in episodic television, to direct this rousing true-life tale of the Tuskegee Airmen. History hasn't been too quick to acknowledge this team of African-American fighter pilots, formally the 332nd Fighter Group of the U.S. Army Air Corps.
The film will trace the group's constant struggles throughout World War II, when the American military was still racially segregated and subject to Jim Crow laws, which prohibited black soldiers from fighting alongside white soldiers on the battlefield. In chronicling the Tuskegee Airmen's bomber escort missions in Europe, Red Tails will also provide George Lucas the opportunity to reenact some of the greatest aerial battles ever witnessed in history. It was these same aerial battles that influenced and shaped the many starship dog fights seen in the original Star Wars trilogy.
Red Tails won't be released until later next year, but we recently caught up with its young star Michael B. Jordan, who plays pilot-in-training Maurice 'Bumps' Wilson. Often called the Denzel Washington of his generation, Michael B. Jordan rose to prominence on Friday Night Lights and has recently joined the cast of Parenthood. He chatted with us about Red Tails, working with its all-star cast that includes Terrence Howard, Bryan Cranston, and Cuba Gooding Jr., the rumors swirling around those pesky reshoots, and what we can expect once the finished movie is in theaters.
Here is our conversation:
Can you tell us more about the character you play in Red Tails? There's not a whole lot of information about Maurice 'Bumps' Wilson out there...
Michael B. Jordan: I want to talk to you about Red Tails. But it's currently in post. There have been a lot of rewrites. We did a lot of reshoots. I am not sure, exactly, what the finished product is going to be right now. I play young flight officer Maurice Wilson. He is a Tuskegee Airman straight out of camp. He is straight out of flight training, he just got his wings, and he landed in Italy. He is a really young pilot, but he is eager to be a man. He is eager to fight. But he has a lot of learning to do. Some of the veteran pilots take him underneath their wing. They show him how it is done in a war. It's like a freshman going into college for his first semester. The upperclassmen take the freshmen under their wing. They show him the ropes. They try to make him feel comfortable. They want to make him feel like a part of the crew. That he is one of the boys in this war. Because we are out there by ourselves. I'm not sure how familiar you are with the Tuskegee Airmen and their journeys, but during the early 1940s, we didn't have any rights at all. They didn't want us over there. They didn't want African-Americans fighting in the war whatsoever. So we kept each other company. And we kept each other focused. For the war, we weren't actually allowed to engage in air-to-air combat. We weren't allowed to engage in any fighting, whatsoever. For the first six months, we were literally practicing, and dog fighting, and training. The first time that we went out on an actual mission, we were veterans. Because we'd been practicing for the first six months between ourselves. We weren't allowed to actually fly. Or see any of the action. When we first got action, that is how our reputation started to build up. We got known for our flawless missions because we were already pros by the time we stepped into a plane and actually saw live combat.
You say that the script changed. Did the entire storyline of the film shift its focus?
Michael B. Jordan: The story did change. It is a sticky situation. I wish I could be more elaborate about it. I don't know exactly what I can speak about. Or not. I don't know which direction the film is taking in post. I want to talk about it. But I'm not really sure if that is a good idea.
There were rumors that George Lucas stepped in to direct part of the film. But Lucasfilm said that wasn't the case. What actually happened there?
Michael B. Jordan: I don't want to be the bad guy in this case, but no comment. I'd like to tell you as much information as I can, but I have to go with 'no comment' on that one. I'm sorry.
Can you talk about working on the film itself. I know a lot of the movie was shot on green screen. How did that isolation between you and your cast mates play into the real isolation that you were trying to bring to the screen? Especially in regards to the unbreakable camaraderie between the Tuskegee Airmen, and the camaraderie you found between yourselves as actors?
Michael B. Jordan: We shot overseas. We shot in the Czech Republic. We actually went through boot camp. It was a two and a half week boot camp program. We ate everything the Tuskegee Airmen ate during training. We dressed the same. We were in flight gear and in our uniforms. We had no running water. We lived in a bunker, inside a tent, in an abandoned factory. This was in the Czech Republic. They took our cell phones from us. In the morning, when we would go to shower, we had to get in running formation. We had to make sure that our uniforms were properly dressed. If there were any infractions, if there was a zipper undone, we had to do an extra hour of physical training. The running water was maybe a half a mile away. We had thirty minutes to get in line, we had to march to where this running water was, where the showers were held at, take a shower, get changed, and march back to our base camp. All in thirty minutes. If we were late, we had to do another extra hour of physical training. Those were some of the little things that built our camaraderie. That really made us a tight-knit group. We had to look out for ourselves. We had to make sure we were at the top of our game all the time. When we shot on green screen, that was for the visual effects. That was mostly for the dog fighting. And the stuff in the cockpit. Most of our missions in the film were all shot against green screen. But a lot of the visuals that we got were on location, in the Czech Republic and Croatia. We also shot in Venice. It all looks amazing. This film is going to look really good.
For the X-Wing battles in Star Wars, George Lucas based a lot of the maneuvers on old footage of fighter pilots in World War II. Did he talk about going back to that original footage in creating what we are going to see here? How similar will the actual dog-fighting scenes be to what we previously saw in George's early films?
Michael B. Jordan: The dog fights in Red Tails are based on what Roscoe Brown and Lee Archer did. They were known as the gruesome twosome, and we had the actual logbooks, the actual mission books, from the force. If I am not mistaken, the missions that we flew on in the movie are actual missions that took place in World War II. George Lucaswent really authentic on this one, and he got the actual mission that they went on back in the 1940s. They perched it up, and elaborated on it, to make it look a little bit more exciting and what not. Those actual missions will be in the film.
Were you interested in the actual history behind this project before you joined? Or was this an instance where you learned about the reality of this situation as you immersed yourself in it?
Michael B. Jordan: Being an African-American myself? You think you know about your history. And your culture. But until I actually got a chance to talk with these guys, and really learn the history of the Tuskegee Airmen? It's a shame that more people don't know this part of our history. It's such a controversial subject. The government and the Air force, and all the injustices that were imposed upon the Tuskegee Airmen at that time? That got swept under the rug. It didn't have any light shed upon it. It's good for us to go back and show what really happened. I am not sure if you are familiar with the HBO film, with Laurence Fishburne and Cuba Gooding Jr. That came out back in 1999 or 2000. That was more of a documentary. That took it back to Alabama, in Tuskegee, and what it took for these guys to get their pilot's license. Our movie is already placed in the war. It focuses on us going on missions. Beforehand, I was ashamed that I didn't know too much about the Tuskegee Airmen. But once we got into it, and I started to really learn about what they went through, and all the obstacles they had to endure, it really made me appreciate them that much more. I think everyone will appreciate this. They will take the history from the film once they see it. It feels good to have these guys finally getting recognized, especially after all they went through.
With Cuba Gooding Jr. already having worked on that HBO film, did he bring a lot of insight into the history you guys were trying to capture on set?
Michael B. Jordan: Yes. Cuba Gooding Jr. was just excellent. He plays one of our commanding officers. He brought a little more authenticity to the part, since he had already played this role. Any questions we might have had, or anything we needed to talk about, he would discuss it with us before hand. We were extremely prepared. We went through a few weeks of rehearsing before we started shooting, so by the time we got on set, we were to a T. We were on point. All of the actors were. The director was. Everyone knew this history inside and out. We knew our characters inside and out. Once we started shooting, we were all up to speed, and up to date. Once we were actually doing it, we were in it. Cuba Gooding Jr. was a good influence actor-wise. I appreciate how talented he is. I learned a lot just by watching him. I learned about his preparations, and how he came up with a backstory for his character. It's all the homework you do before you step on set. That is the stuff I learned the most about from these veteran actors, like Terrence Howard, Cuba Gooding Jr., Bryan Cranston...These are actors that I look up to. They definitely helped the process along. Especially with this being one of my first major feature films. It was a huge process.
This film really does have a great cast. What was it like for you to come onto your first movie and have such a great group of guys to work with?
Michael B. Jordan: I felt like it was too good to be true. At such a young age, I get to work with a producer like George Lucas? I get to work with Bryan Cranston? I get to work with Oscar winner Cuba Gooding Jr.. It just sets the bar so high for my next project. I learned so much. I learned about work ethic, and how important homework is. When you enter an operation like this, you always need to be prepared. You never know what is going to happen. Any last minute change could come up. Those are the things that I definitely learned. I will take that knowledge to every set that I work on for the rest of my life. Those are valuable things that I learned from this cast.
Were you begging Bryan Cranston to get you onto Breaking Bad?
Michael B. Jordan: (Laughs) No, no! Bryan Cranston is cool. We didn't have a lot of scenes together, because we are in two different worlds. But we would see each other in passing, or at base camp. We exchanged words. It was cool. I mostly interacted with Cuba Gooding Jr. and Terrence Howard. We'd hang out in Italy and Europe during our downtime. It allowed me to really get to know these guys as people. They are great guys. They are extremely helpful at passing on whatever information that they have. I was able to better myself, and better my craft.
Red Tails was released January 20th, 2012 and stars Bryan Cranston, Cuba Gooding Jr., Terrence Howard, Daniela Ruah, Michael B. Jordan, Aml Ameen, Tristan Wilds, Ne-Yo. The film is directed by Anthony Hemingway.