Two and a half years after three friends helped thwart a terrorist attack on a Paris-bound train, their story is getting told on the big screen.
In August 2015, then-Airman 1st Class Spencer Stone, then-Army Spc. Alek Skarlatos and Anthony Sadler tackled a gunman armed with an assault rifle, a pistol and a box cutter on a train heading from Amsterdam to Paris.
But the childhood friends from California won’t be giving advice to the actors who are portraying them — instead, the three heroes will be playing themselves.
The Clint Eastwood-directed movie, “The 15:17 to Paris,” is based on the book written by Stone, Skarlatos and Sadler. The movie also depicts the trio’s childhoods, military service and friendship.
The three men were vacationing in Europe on the train heading toward Paris when the gunman came out of the bathroom, shirtless, with the rifle slung over his shoulder. Other passengers attempted to restrain him, but one suffered a non-fatal gunshot wound.
Stone, Skarlatos and Sadler sprang into action to disarm the gunman.
The attacker stabbed Stone, who was a medical technician at Travis Air Force Base in California at the time, in the neck and thumb, almost severing it.
Stone, who was promoted two ranks to staff sergeant, received the Purple Heart, as well as the Airman’s Medal. Skarlatos received the Soldier’s Medal. All three men received France’s Legion of Honor within days of the attack. Two months after the train attack, Stone was stabbed four times in the chest outside of a nightclub in Sacramento and needed open-heart surgery.
Stone left the Air Force in 2016, and Skarlatos left the Oregon National Guard in November.
Military Times caught up with the three heroes-turned-actors to talk about their upcoming movie debut, which opens Feb. 9.
How did it come about that the three of you ended up playing yourselves?
Stone: Well we had started the process and everything like that with Clint Eastwood in pre-production. They had been casting for over a month at this point, and we were only a few weeks away from starting shooting, and they randomly called us down to Burbank and said “Clint wants to have lunch with you guys.” We figured we’d just go down there to talk to him about the story, or maybe we’re going to meet the actors that were going to play us. Then we get down there, and we’re just casually having a conversation in his office, and he just goes, “So what do you guys think about reenacting things for us?”
And we were like, “Yeah, sure, for the actors to make sure they get the fight sequence right and everything like that.” And then he said, “No, no” and kind of rephrased himself, and then we just had to ask him like, “Let’s be clear. Are you asking us to play ourselves in the movie?” And he’s like, “Yeah, sure! Why not? Let’s do it.”
And then we just couldn’t say no.
Sadler: We kind of looked at each other in disbelief. We said yes, and then [Eastwood] walked out of the room, and then we were like, “No way? Are we really going to do this?” We kind of had to second-guess ourselves because we didn’t want to risk the success of the picture, but then we all were pretty set that we couldn’t tell Mr. Eastwood no, so we were going to do it either way.
Did you end up taking acting classes or getting advice from anyone?
Skarlatos: The cool thing about it was that [Eastwood] just told us to do it how we did it. We asked him if we should take classes because that was something we were worried about obviously since he was taking such a huge risk by doing this, but he just told us to be ourselves. And [he said] if we took some acting classes it’d probably just look like we were acting, and he wanted it just to be authentic to who we were.
It was a little stressful because, like I said, we’d never done it before. The first couple days of doing it was kind of an adjustment. But once we got used to it, it was actually just a lot of fun. I mean, Mr. Eastwood’s a legend and he was a great person to work with, super down to earth. And experiencing it with your two best friends that you’ve had since you were a little kid, I couldn’t imagine a better experience.
How did you balance telling your story with the time constraints and Hollywood movie magic?
Skarlatos: The nice thing about it was that we were there every day, and we helped write the script, so we had a huge amount of input on the movie. And making sure everything was accurate. Obviously, it was condensed and there was some stuff that got left out, but everything that’s in the movie was totally accurate to how it happened and is very true to who we are. If we saw something that we didn’t like or it’s not how it happened, all we had to do was show it to Mr. Eastwood and he would change it and make it accurate to what happened. It was a fantastic experience.
Stone: We truly felt like we were true partners in the making of the film. All of our input was used, and there was no time where we felt like we couldn’t step up and say something if we didn’t like it. It was awesome. We were very, very included.
What were some examples of something you wanted to take out of the script or make sure was in there?
A. Stone: A lot of it was just the wording in the script like how our characters would be speaking in the scene. So we would take the scene and keep the same context, but we would just put our own words into it and how we act. Also the train sequence — getting that right in every detail, so just things like that.
What did your family and friends think about this?
Skarlatos: They realized what a great opportunity it was, and our families have all been incredibly supportive of everything we’ve done. And obviously incredibly proud of us as well, which we’re grateful for.
Have you seen the finished movie yet?
Stone: We have, yeah, a few times. We just had our family and friends screening in Sacramento, so all of our families got to see it and tell us what they thought. They liked it, and those are going to be our biggest critics, so I think we’re all extremely happy with how everything turned out.
What was it like seeing yourselves on the big screen?
Sadler: It didn’t seem real, just like the whole process. This whole journey has been pretty surreal. One thing the three of us were happy with is this is a good presentation of ourselves and our lives, but in movie format. We’re thankful for the producers for making this happen.
Skarlatos: It’s been crazy, but it’s been a lot of fun, and we’re grateful for all the opportunities we’ve gotten. But really we all just try to keep each other humble, if one of us gets a little uppity. [laughs] It’s honestly just been a blast, and we’re incredibly grateful, not only to survive the terrorist attack obviously because each day since then has been a blessing, but we’ve had such crazy, fun lives since. We can’t believe this is the life we get to live now.
Stone: We all kind of caught the acting bug, so I think we all want to pursue acting and see where it takes us. It’s been the funnest two months of our lives making the movie, so if we can make those careers, you know, why not?
Skarlatos: I’m probably going to try to be an actor and see where that goes. You just take acting classes and do auditions and get a manager and agent and take it one step at a time.
Stone: We’re going full Hollywood!
Is there anything else you’d like to add?
Stone: People like to give us the full credit of what happened that day, but what’s really cool about this movie is that not only are we playing ourselves, but Mark Moogalian — the guy who got shot on the train — is playing himself. His wife is playing herself. Chris Norman, the British man who tied up the terrorist at the end of the attack, is playing himself. We had a lot of the same train employees, and the same exact medical team who brought me off the train two years ago. Same police. A lot of the same people depicting themselves in the movie. It’ll be cool for them to get the credit they deserve on such a big stage.
Charlsy is a Reporter and Engagement Manager for Military Times. Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.