Michael Slenske's last Back Home From Iraq feature was on Herold Noel.
“As veterans we often get our experience defined for us. For me the goal of it is to provide a creative outlet for veterans, for us to put work out there, and for the community to see it and get a better grasp on what it really means. To see that we’ve got a lot more to offer than just bullets.”
What does a Hollywood extra do after his time as an enlisted soldier ends? Stage war, of course. “I grew up in theater and had what you might consider an atypical path to becoming a Marine Corps infantryman,” says Sean Huze, an actor who joined the Corps at his local recruiting station off Sunset Boulevard on September 12, 2001. No shock then that since his 2003 demobilization from Iraq with the 2nd Light Armored Battalion, the warrior-thespian has returned to the stage in full force. In the past two years, he’s penned two raved-about plays drawn from his military experience, The Sandstorm and Weasel. He recently formed an all-veterans theater company in Los Angeles, VetStage, which boasts 22 members, including vets from Iraq and Afghanistan. Among his crew is actor (and former Army grunt) Ed Asner, who was originally slated to appear in a screen version of Huze’s new play, The Wolf.
The story, which draws on everything from news headlines to Huze’s intense personal combat experiences, has been hailed critically and given him cred in Hollywood. Huze plays the lead role of Joey Dallriva, a PTSD-suffering vet attempting to navigate the horrors of the homefront—alongside military parents coming to grips with losing their children and a Catholic priest having a crisis of faith—while chained up in a psych ward after participating in a Haditha-like rampage in Baghdad.
In December, shortly after incorporating VetStage, the ex-Marine corporal spent a week shooting a part in Crash director Paul Haggis’ upcoming Iraq war flick In The Valley of Elah. And after reading about VetStage in the L.A. Times, screenwriter Bobby Moresco, approached Huze and helped turn out a star-studded, sold-out crowd for the March premiere of The Wolf. Shortly after the gala, SMITH caught up with the infantryman-turned-playwright to see the advantages of tackling war from his new high ground.
Why start VetStage? Did you have a model or major influence this sort of “theater of war” concept?
Back in the day, the Vietnam guys had something called VETCo. VetStage member Dan Lauria was part of it. So I knew Vietnam guys had done something like it 20, 30 years ago, but I think there’s certainly a need for it. I just wanted to get it done, to put it out there. Other than the stipulation of the themes and that the theater company consists of prior military, the model of it is that of any other theater company.
You’ve got some older vets on board, so I’m assuming service in Iraq or Afghanistan is not required for membership?
Correct, it’s prior military. Period. I thought about making it exclusively for Iraq and Afghanistan veterans, but that’s almost like saying this is not a place for you if you served in Kuwait, or if you served Stateside, or if you were involved in the first Gulf War, or Vietnam, of Korea and not involved in the current operations. I didn’t want to invalidate any veteran’s experience. I feel like the more perspectives we can get, the better when you’re talking about creating. The only requirement for membership is being prior military regardless of whether you served in garrison or combat or both.
Did you find a lot of vets were approaching you to participate in theater?
No. But I also recognized as I got some distance between the time I wrote The Sandstorm and the year and a half before we put it up for the first time how much of a healing process and catharsis I personally experienced being able to express it creatively. And looking around and seeing these struggles in some non-positive outlets that I think a lot of vets turn to to cope, I realized this is something I’d like to make available to other veterans, regardless of what their theater experience level is. The response that I received initially was primarily from veterans that were already into the arts, who already had some sort of inclination to be involved in it, but not exclusively. There are a couple guys who’ve never acted before who are getting involved.
How did your debut on March 23rd go?
Tremendous turn out. Some pretty big names and a lot of veterans were out there, and the general public just turned out in force to support it. We had Jonathan Tucker, the star of The Black Donnellys, who was also in the Paul Haggis film with me, Kirsten Bell, who plays Veronica Mars, Ed Asner, Dan Lauria, Patricia Foulkrod, Paul Rieckhoff, and we played to a packed house. I know I’m forgetting people. It really was an incredible event. Hollywood is a community often demonized, I think, as unpatriotic or a place that doesn’t support troops. But they’ve been overwhelmingly supportive of this endeavor more than any other single industry that I can think of. Right now we’re announced through May 6, but with the response we’re getting we’re already looking at an extension.
What was it like shooting with Paul Haggis?
Incredible. I don’t know if you’re familiar with the project or not, but it just reflects a lot of what my writing does as well—that the first casualty of war is humanity, and I feel the script really embodies that. I only shot for a week. I’m not a lead. But to be a part of that project and to get to be directed by an Oscar winner while doing scenes with another Oscar winner, Tommy Lee Jones, was a pretty incredible experience.
What was your role?
Captain Jim Osher. But it’s pretty integral to the plot so I can’t really talk about it right now.
Do you feel you’re getting more roles now than you did before the war?
I think if somebody’s got a military script I do have a name that’s recognizable in that genre or niche now.
How would you gauge the overall participation of Hollywood community in general?
Very interested and lots of offers to help. Showing up is a big deal. Wrangling celebrities to attend an event—it sounds like a minor thing, but it’s hard to get people to commit to coffee, so I’m really excited. You have guys, prior military vets like Dan Lauria and Ed Asner getting involved and being able to reach out. Joe Mantegna and Lesley Ann Warren have been really encouraging. I think a lot of people in this community really give a shit. It’s something creative so it’s something they relate to in that regard, and it gives them an opportunity to be supportive of a community they identify with.
What’s Ed Asner’s role in VetStage?
Kind of as a mentor. He’s a member of the troop and it certainly means a lot to these guys to see a face they grew up with that’s also a vet. A lot of people don’t know that about Ed. He’s known for a lot of things, but having served a couple years in the Army is not one of them. I think it means a lot to him, and I think it’s inspiring for [VetStage members] to see someone with that similar background that’s gone on and achieved a very real level of success in this industry. Ed’s got, I guess, about a dozen Emmys, a half-dozen Golden Globes, and a half-dozen SAG Awards, and when he was our age he was just another grunt in the Army, so I think that his involvement really serves to inspire the other guys.
And he was slated to have a role in the movie version that never came to be, right?
The company that had the option on the film didn’t get it off the ground so their option expired, but it gave me a great opportunity. It’s funny, when you initially think something didn’t work out, but after a little time passes you gain some perspective and realize it worked out exactly as it should have. This gave me a chance to go back in and do a lot more script-development; I think I have an infinitely better story.
And Bobby Moresco?
He’s conducting writing and acting workshops. They’re free for VetStage members and the general public pays money to attend, with all the proceeds going to VetStage. He’s done two workshops—one for actors, one for writers—and he’s part of the host committee and really did a lot to get the word out. It is L.A., it is Hollywood, and to get people interested and excited, you know having some recognizable faces in the crowd certainly helps. Bobby did a lot to help make that happen, and he also made sure people paid. A lot of celebrities feel that at other events their presence, just being there, was their part. I feel really grateful that they not only showed up but they financially contributed while they were there.
How many vets have come to you with scripts?
I’ve had about a half-dozen script submissions from veterans. We’ve really been focused on getting our first production up, which just opened, so I didn’t have the time to script-read, but we’re going to get caught up on that now. With the Bobby Moresco workshop we did in March we found about four or five veterans from that. One of the first veterans I didn’t know who joined the group is a Marine Corps reservist from New York who just got back from his second tour in Iraq; he heard of me from The Sandstorm. And another guy, Brian Seuffert, is a fellow Marine who came to L.A. to get involved in the industry. He tracked me down, fired me an email, and jumped right in.
Is there an overarching political goal with VetStage?
As a nonprofit we don’t endorse any policy or candidate, but I think the most important thing whether someone is Republican or Democrat, political, not political, whatever—if they’re prior military this is a good place for them to sort it out and define their experience. As veterans we often get our experience defined for us. For me the goal of it is to provide a creative outlet for veterans, for us to put work out there, and for the community to see it and get a better grasp on what it really means, To see that we’ve got a lot more to offer than just bullets.
You were also one of the subjects of The Ground Truth, which was shortlisted for a Best Documentary Oscar. What was that experience like?
I’m very pleased to have been a part of it, I’m just very glad I could lend my voice to affect some change. I’m very proud for Patricia Foulkrod and Focus Features. I know a lot of people who hosted Ground Truth screening parties, and a lot of people have seen it. I hope that all of these projects cumulatively become this deafening roar that the country has to respond to and pay attention to, because we are responsible as a society when we send men and women off to war. We are responsible for them. And I think these projects that really drive that point home are important to be in the American consciousness. I’m certainly proud that I’m part of a film that I think does that.
Do you think people are watching enough of these films?
They will eventually. If I didn’t believe that, I’d go sell car insurance or something. Make more money and work less hours. Paul Haggis said it best when he accepted his Academy Award, and it’s probably one of my favorite quotes from Bertolt Brecht: “Art is not a mirror to be help up to reality, but a hammer with which to shape it.” I do believe that we can be a hammer and that we can affect change.
What is it about stage that helps to better talk about this war?
I think stage provides a really intimate experience between the actors and the audience; it’s almost participatory, whether you break the fourth wall or not. They’re right there. You know the majority of productions are put up in really small theaters, whether it’s Equity Showcase in New York or 99-seat theaters in L.A. and that affords the audience a really personal experience with what they’re witnessing and I think there’s a lot of power in that. One of the advantages of stage is that you can put together a really great stage play for about $30,000. You can’t make a good movie for that. It affords some talented people with a voice and message to get it out there very quickly.
Is there something about not being able to run away?
Yeah, they got you. You’re there. You can’t pause it and take a smoke break and shake it off.
I read you’re considering doing some David Rabe material for VetStage?
We are considering one of his plays, The Basic Training of Pavlo Hummel, for later on in the season, but I would love to be in touch with David personally. Particularly at VetStage I want to have world premieres of veteran-authored work. I would consider it a privilege for VetStage to do a world premiere with David Rabe. Put it in the magazine and maybe his people will contact me?
What else is in the works?
We’re looking at things like John DiFusco’s Tracers, The Basic Training of Pavlo Hummel, possibly revisiting a piece from the Vietnam era, and putting up all veterans in a cast. I really am looking for world premieres. I want to get to the point where it’s all world premieres, all veteran authors. That’s important to me.