By Jonathan Decker, Clinical Director, LMFT
This interview originally ran in Meridian Magazine in 2012.
Saints and Soldiers-Airborne Creed is the second film in director Ryan Little’s critically-acclaimed series of inspiring World War II films (read my interview with Little). With an emphasis on finding humanity and decency amidst the horrors of war, the Saints and Soldiers brand is also characterized by its fine acting. The new film has many excellent performances, including Nichelle Aiden’s romantic turn, VirginieFourtina Anderson’s fiery portrayal of a female French sharpshooter, and Lincoln Hoppe’s devastating turn as a German officer. I wish time and space permitted me to interview them all.
As it is, however, I invited the main trio portraying American soldiers to speak about their experiences, inspirations, and favorite films. In the process I hope you’ll come to appreciate and admire the good men that Corbin Allred (Saints and Soldiers, Take a Chance), David Nibley (The Best Two Years, Joseph Smith: The Prophet of the Restoration) and Jasen Wade (17 Miracles, Treasure in Heaven) clearly are.
CORBIN ALLRED (“ROSSI”)
Jonathan Decker: So how is it that you ended up in this film, playing a completely different character then you played in the first one?
Corbin Allred: Ryan approached me to do another WWII film last summer. After taking a 4 year hiatus from film to pursue my academic goals, I jumped at the chance to get in front of the camera again, especially for Ryan. The project actually began under a different working title so there was no issue with confusion at first, but about half way through the shoot whispers began about the possibility of placing the film under the Saints and Soldiers brand. The message of the film had the same power thematically as the original and seemed to be a good fit for a continuation of a series. Of course…there were great concerns about having the same actor portray a completely different character in the new installment (and I was no exception with regard to harboring that concern) but Ryan, Adam, and Gil were confident in my abilities to pull it off, and in the collective ability of the audience to separate the two entirely different films as separate pieces.
JD: Other than the mohawk (which I’m told is historically accurate), what would you say most differentiates Rossi, your character in the new film, from Deacon, the Mormon sharpshooter in the first Saints and Soldiers?
CA: Deacon and Rossi are vastly different people, coming from different places with regards to their faith or lack thereof, their principles, and their motivation to fight. Deacon harbored deep regret and guilt as he strived to reconcile and come to terms with his mistakes and his continued duty to fight and kill a people he grew to love. Rossi hates the people who took his friend from him, and in his perception, took his innocence. He, in error, blames the enemy for his own spiritual and emotional depression. Lacking the passion for the bigger cause, Rossi is more a vigilante, fighting for selfish reasons as he strives in vain to find justification for his lack of mercy. Deacon fought for his friends and for redemption for his mistakes; Rossi fought for himself until he was forced to find a cause outside his own despair. He found that kindness and mercy can overpower even the deepest hate.
JD: You had an intense and impressive fight scene in Airborne Creed, one that would not have been out of place in a Bourne film. Did you do all your own fighting and stuntwork? What can you tell us about preparing for that scene?
That’s a great compliment! Thanks…not sure if it was on par with the Bourne films, but I definitely felt like I fought Jason Bourne after that day. I did have the good fortune of doing all my own fight and stunt work in [Airborne Creed] and was happy to have survived it with only a few punches to the face that actually connected (look close and you’ll see them).Preparation was [in] the hard and physical work days leading up to the film. I rehearsed with John Lyde (the German I tussled with) in my off time. We wanted to make the experience as real as possible for us and for the audience, so we focused on realism, stretched, ate [our] Wheaties…and got into it!
JD: My favorite scene in the film, and I’ll be careful to avoid spoilers here, but it’s a conversation between you and another man that’s very poignant and emotional. I’ve done some comedic acting before, but I have no idea how one would get into the mindset to deliver something that powerful. How did you prepare? Is it draining to go to such a heart-breaking place?
I know the scene, and yes…it was very draining. But we had a responsibility to take the audience there and the payoff was tremendous. I think [a] contributing factor to the power of the scene was the fact that we shot the scene at 2:00 a.m. at the end of an 18 hour shoot day. Additionally, the other actor and I are very close personal friends, making the emotion easy to reach.
JD: You’ve guest-starred on many popular television shows, including Touched by an Angel, JAG, Monk, NCIS, Bones, and CSI-Miami. What has been your favorite TV show to work on, both for experience and for the final product?
Teen Angel was a riot! Such a great experience for me at such a pivotal point in my life. However, my experience on CSI: Las Vegas was some of the most rewarding. The cast and crew were amazing, and the message of the episode was powerful…
JD: What are some of your favorite films?
Some of my favorite films (and I have many), include Oh Brother Where Art Thou, Dr Strangelove, Goonies, the Indiana Jones films, the Harry Potter films, Raising Arizona, Best in Show, the Sherlock Holmes films, anything war, anything scary, anything with good monsters…holy cow, dude. I could go on forever!
DAVID NIBLEY (“JONES”)
Jonathan Decker: You made a big splash in The Best Two Years, which in my opinion is one of the few LDS comedies that works. Why do you think that film has had such lasting appeal?
DN: It’s a film about Mormon missionaries, but it’s not preachy, doesn’t hammer the viewer with a message. It’s simply a well-told story that works so well, in my opinion, because of the basics – it’s genuinely funny, has characters you can relate to and root for, and the storytelling is great. To me it was also an honest film – there were many elements of it that felt very familiar as I thought about my own mission in Italy.
JD: Do you have any favorite memories from that shoot?
DN: I have a lot of them, actually. It was my first feature film, so I really soaked up every moment. It was such a great experience that I remember feeling that if I never did another film again in my life, I’d be fine. This one filled the quota. I still believe that (although I’ve had lots of fun on other films).
Going and shooting it in Holland was a phenomenal experience – and I absolutely feel that the film would not have been the same without that element. Walking by tulip fields in full bloom, riding our bikes past windmills, working with the members. It gave the film something special, but it informed our performances and I think gave us the context we needed to really inhabit our characters and the experience they were having. Also, the chemistry between the elders that ended up on the screen was genuine – we formed friendships that are just as strong today. I truly love those guys, and know we’ll be friends for life.
JD: You played love-struck, then heartbroken, very well. Was that all acting or did you rely on personal experience? In other words, did anyone send a Dear John to Elder Nibley?
DN: Good question. Actually, yes. I think my Dear Jane letter and her Dear John crossed in the mail. So I wasn’t too heartbroken about that specifically. But I’ve had my heart broken at other times in my life, and that was a valuable resource to draw on. Incidentally, that photo that I kept staring at of “Julie” was actually a picture of my wife. So in the end, it kind of all worked out.
JD: You portrayed Alvin Smith in Joseph Smith- The Prophet of the Restoration, a role that proves essential to Joseph’s seeking answers regarding the afterlife. How did you prepare for that part? How does one go about approximating an actual historical person?
DN: That was truly a privilege. I did my best to prepare by doing plenty of research, reading everything I could about Alvin, which unfortunately wasn’t much. What was written about him, though, was all pretty powerful. He was very much loved by his family, and Joseph looked up to him immensely. And Alvin really was a constant influence in Joseph’s life after he died. The original ending of that film really brought that concept home, but unfortunately it didn’t make the final cut.
I also learned a lot about Alvin while we were shooting, and in particular I remember being taken into the frame house he was building for his the family when he died. There are whitewashed prints in the attic wall of what are likely Alvin’s and Lucy Jr.’s hands. It was very touching for me to see them, especially considering how close those two were.
JD: In Saints and Soldiers- Airborne Creed you play a Christian soldier whose faith is a major influence on his actions and motivations. Why drew you to this character? What did you enjoy most about playing him?
DN: I was drawn to this film in a lot of ways because of my grandfather. He served in the 101st Airborne in WWII, and had some truly amazing, miraculous experiences. He was very involved in the war, but a strong pacifist at the same time. He hated war. But he served because the cause was so clearly just. I believe his faith strongly motivated him throughout his service.
I based my character very much on him, and I hope he would have approved of the film, and been proud of my portrayal. I’m very interested in the questions that the film poses, in particular, how do you retain your humanity in the most inhumane conditions imaginable? I think the film answers that question very well, and I’m incredibly proud to have been a part of it.
JD: Did you do any training for the combat scenes?
DN: We did have a little boot camp experience, which was very helpful. Learning how to shoot the M1 Garand was great, and combining that with being in the full uniform really threw me into the character. I actually messed up my knees pretty good jumping off the tank in the first few days of shooting, and had a hard time running for the rest of the shoot. There’s one shot in particular where I’m supposed to be squat-walking through tall grass, and I do a pretty terrible job at it – the Germans would have seen me for sure!
JD: Just for fun, what are some of your favorite films?
DN: To Kill a Mockingbird, Raising Arizona, Raiders of the Lost Ark.
JASEN WADE (“CURTIS”)
Jonathan Decker: You burst onto the LDS film scene as the lead in 17 Miracles(though you had a memorable supporting role in the short film Treasure in Heaven). What is your acting background?
Glad you noticed Treasure in Heaven. I am proud of that project. It is a wonderful short film, and a powerful story. It was also my first project with T.C. [Christiansen, director of 17 Miracles], so it will always have a special place in my heart.
My background in acting didn’t start until college. I was at my third university, and I had changed my major for the fourth time. My sister recommended me, to a director, for a summer play in Zion National Park at the Bumbleberry Inn/Grandma’s Playhouse. Not sure why she did this because I had never even mentioned a desire to do such a thing, but I met with the director only because he said I could live in Zion National Park if I did the play; that’s all I needed to hear him say, and 83 nights of Seven Brides for Seven Brothers gave me a vision of what I would like to do with my life.
I immediately changed majors again, and since there wasn’t a filmmaking major available, I began to focus my attention on Theatre and Broadcasting. The Dean of Performing Arts at Southern Utah University, Chuck Metten, was my mentor and recommended I head to LA after graduation. I was extremely cautious about this decision, and I almost didn’t make the move. Lucky for me Kieth Merrill [director of Legacy and The Testaments] came to SUU and put on a 3-day film seminar. I skipped class for those three days and my face became very familiar to Kieth, so at the end of the 3-day seminar he approached me and we began a conversation that would dispel most of my fears about the Hollywood “Monster”. What struck me the most profoundly was when he simply said that the industry needed people of substance and spirituality. He talked about his own experience with casting a movie and how hard it was to find people to fit certain roles.
In no way do I want to limit myself to LDS movies, but I do want to be part of the great movement of Mormon Cinema. I think we have some of the most profound stories to tell, and I feel compelled to align myself with filmmakers who can tell these stories authentically.
JD: What do you do for a living? Do you act full time?
JW: My day job is being employed by the BLM as a wild land firefighter. I spend my summers chasing fires across the Western United States. When we were filming 17 Miracles I was heavily involved in the fire season. The guys I work with all thought I was crazy leaving at the heart of the fire season. That is when we make a huge chunk of our money for the year, but I was willing to take a pay-cut to be a part of such an amazing project. 17 Miracles was a fulfillment of part of my vision I had so many years ago. I feel that my firefighting training and experience allows me insights into some of my characters. Just before filming began my fire team was on a pretty large fire. We were working all day cutting trees, digging line and hiking for miles up steep terrain. We were bedding down at night, in the dirt, underneath the stars. How ideal is it for me to leave that atmosphere and walk onto a set where we are supposed to understand what it is like to walk for 18 miles a day and be at the mercy of the elements around us. It was a perfect fit for me.
JD: Tell us about Curtis, your character in Airborne Creed. What drew you to the role? What was the most enjoyable aspect of playing him? The most challenging?
Bud Curtis is part of the “Greatest Generation”. He is a hero, and not because he self-proclaimed himself a hero (like so many do today). He simply did what he felt needed to be done. As I read Lory Curtis’ book about his father he started to emerge from the pages. Bud wrote home to his family quite often. His evolution from citizen to soldier is documented in his letters, and it was fascinating for me to witness the transition. He joined the paratroopers because of a neighborhood boy who came home in the Airborne uniform and Bud fell in love with how it looked on this young man. He also saw those paratrooper boots. He didn’t join the paratroopers so much for the money, but the boots!!!
What drew me to Bud was his dare-devil tendencies and his innocence. The roller coaster story is taken straight out of his letters. His innocence shines through all his letters. War is hell. War claims the lives of so many and death has no respect and is not partial. I wanted to play Bud as the innocence lost in war. So much is sacrificed during the time of war, and I wanted Bud to be the representation of that sacrifice. Bud Curtis, in reality, lived an honorable life until passing away in 2005, but we wanted him to represent thousands of others that we lost fighting for our freedom.
The most enjoyable aspect of playing Bud Curtis was in honoring him. The film is dedicated to him and the 517th. Having his son, Lory, on set as one of our military advisors was also part of my great enjoyment because I had Bud’s son right there next to me. Like father like son, right? So I watched him, I studied him, I asked him question after question. I read his book, picked his brain and forged a wonderful friendship with him. The challenge was putting in nuances and mannerisms that I picked up from Lory so that he would see as much of his father as possible in the film.
JD: In the film you play something of a love-struck every-man with a love interest back at home who keeps him going. Are you much of a romantic in real life?
I am a hopeless romantic. Well… I am just overly dramatic. Ask my wife, Holly. Everything is larger than life with me. Halloween, and all holidays, are my obsession. I guess romance just falls into that category where you get to embellish a bit. You get to go above and beyond in expression. In the flashbacks it was easy to miss Charlotte because in my real life I have to say goodbye to my wife and kids for 14 days at a time, sometimes longer, when our team is sent to the larger fires.
JD: What can you tell us about the shoot, when, where, and for how long did it take place?
When we began shooting this WWII film it wasn’t Saints and Soldiers. It was under the working title: Foxhole. None of us, including the director and producer, were thinking in terms of branding it Saints and Soldiers. However, about seven days into filming they were getting footage and performances that they felt fit perfectly in the Saints and Soldiers category. We shot the film in 15 days up in Alpine, UT. It was one of the most entertainingly-grueling shoots. We were constantly racing with the sun. We didn’t have light kits, so once the natural light was gone, we were finished for the day. Not sure how we were able to do it in such a short amount of time, but there was something uniquely advantageous about the shoot schedule. You were completely dialed into the emotional arc of the story, and continuity was easier to keep when picking up a scene later because it had only been a few days since you did it last.
I want to mention the many reenactors that legitimized our movie. These men and women came from all over the country to help us out. They brought their own gear, weapons and uniforms. They showed up on set the first day and they set up camp and didn’t leave that mountain until we were done filming. They know the history of WWll so well, so they were a wonderful source of knowledge if you had any questions about the details of this war. My brother came up on set for a few days and said he learned more about WWll hanging out with these reenactors for two days than he did learning about it in school.
By the way, I kill my brother in the movie. The scene where Bud pulls a grenade out and throws it, and then you see a German summersault from an explosion, well… that is me killing my brother! He has wanted to die in one of my movies for many, many years. It was a dream come true for him.
JD: How did you prepare to become both a soldier and a man from the 1940’s?
My BLM job had a lot to do with my preparations for the film. On a fire we usually are carrying around 35-45lbs. of gear. We also have tools, chainsaws, bladder bags and hose that we need to hike around, so when I showed up on set the first day Ray Meldrum, our military advisor, mentioned that the soldiers carried around about 50lbs.of gear, but he would be padding our gear with cotton so that we didn’t get worn out by the weight during the long days of shooting. I told him he would do no such thing. I wanted my gear to be the exact weight that these soldiers had, so we filled every canteen, we packed my bag with gear and weighted me down. I vowed never to take the gear off during the length of the shoot.
Of course, I took it off when I went home at night (believe me, if I didn’t have family responsibilities I am pretty sure I would have spiked out on the mountain with the reenactors). I feel that this helped me lock into my character. It was just something I personally wanted to do. I also memorized the entire Airborne Creed (which is much longer than what we show in the movie), and recited it several times a day. The powerful words in the Airborne Creed resonated with me and helped give me insight into these soldiers’ minds, and in the duty that was expected and placed on them.
JD: 17 Miracles seemed like it’d be a grueling shoot. What do you remember being the hardest aspect of making that film? What was most rewarding?
17 Miracles was shot in 18 days, so it does fall under the “grueling” category, I guess. The summer shoot didn’t seem too grueling for me. I actually found it difficult to stay focused on the challenges these Saints endured because of the catered food, amenities of trailers and air conditioned buildings. It was a challenge to feel their discomfort in such a comfortable environment. The winter scenes were my favorite because only a partial crew was brought back… a skeleton crew. We were forced into the elements, and with temperatures of 11 degrees and rain or snow storms, you most definitely were given a glimpse into their physical sufferings. I no longer needed to “act” miserable. I watched as so many of our Extras were willing to lie on the frozen ground for hours, or pull handcarts up steep hills in the deep snow. So many times I found myself standing back a bit and just witnessing what was around me. You sensed that you were time traveling back into 1856.
The most rewarding part of 17 Miracles is meeting so many descendants of Levi Savage and having them tell me they were pleased with my portrayal of their “Grandpa”.
JD: What did 17 Miracles do for your understanding and appreciation of the Latter-day Saint pioneers?
Like so many others, I have heard so many of these pioneer stories growing up, but having the chance to research for the role of Levi lead me on a wonderful journey of discovering so many other stories of faith and determination. Being a part of filming the movie made these stories personal. Now this history has been brought to life for me. They are more than stories. They are a legacy. A legacy that can still bring strength and wisdom into the challenges that we face today. My life was altered for good being a part of this project.
When a pioneer story is brought up now my whole soul stops to listen. Have I heard this story? What can I learn from it? How has this story influenced the person telling it? I have absolute respect and appreciation for the sacrifices of so many. It was a blessing and an honor to be a part of a movie honoring the miracles and sacrifices of these dedicated and faithful pioneers.
JD: Just for fun, what are a few of your favorite movies?
Nightmare Before Christmas, It’s a Wonderful Life, The Incredibles, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, The Mission, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, Raiders of the Lost Ark, Young Frankenstein, Lord of the Rings, Band of Brothers… just to name a few.
Rent or buy Saints and Soldiers: Airborne Creed here.
Jonathan Decker is the clinical director of Your Family Expert. He is a licensed marriage and family therapist, husband, and father of five. Jonathan earned a masters degree in family therapy from Auburn University as well as a bachelor's degree in clinical psychology from Brigham Young University. He is an actor, author, and television personality.