Charlie Sheen, played Chris Taylor
My brother Emilio Estevez and I were huge fans of Scarface and Midnight Express, which were both written by Oliver Stone. Emilio kept talking to me about Oliver’s new Vietnam film, which he was auditioning for. He got the lead part, Chris Taylor, but then couldn’t do it because of scheduling conflicts. When I auditioned, Oliver said I was “too mannered” and needed to do more work. So I did The Boys Next Door and Lucas – and I got the part, but only if Willem Dafoe approved. I didn’t meet Willem until we got to the Philippines. He ran past me in our hotel and gave me a hug. Later, Oliver came up to me and said: “Willem digs ya.”
Oliver dumped us in the jungle and put us through a gruelling training course. It was insane. You had to be treated according to your rank. Willem and Tom Berenger, playing two sergeants, were in command and I was an FNG – a “fucking new guy”. It really felt as if I was expected to scrub latrines, which I actually ended up doing in the movie.
I thought we’d go out in the day then return to the hotel at night, but at sundown on the first day, there was no bus pulling up. I looked at Johnny Depp and Forest Whitaker and said: “I guess we’re just staying here.” It was a shock – but I don’t know if we could have captured the authenticity without that intense boot camp. Relationships that were forged there still exist to this day. We survived together.
Everybody was tired and angry. At one point, we found a coconut grove and Forest somehow got a coconut. I can still see him now, trying to line it up with his machete. Before I could say, “Your thumb is too close!” he swings and hits his thumb dead centre. He popped it into his mouth and two thick streams of blood poured out both sides. It was a “scream for the medic” moment – and that was still in training camp.
Oliver’s easily one of the smartest people I’ve ever met but he likes to show that off. When I knew I could get a laugh out of him, and he saw that I gave him respite from his self-imposed darkness, we got along famously. I remember the scene where Kevin Dillon goes nuts in the village with some poor guy. As my character was shooting the ground and losing his mind, I could see Oliver just off camera pumping his fist, jumping up and down and wanting to scream “Fuck yeah!” but not ruin the take.
When I wrapped, there was a coup brewing in Manila and Oliver was taking his director of photography and a camera into the streets to film it, which was madness. I got on the flight home and, as we banked over the country, I could see everything I had left behind, everything we had all experienced. I started weeping because I was just happy to be alive.
Veterans thank me for finally telling their story and a lot of them have tears in their eyes. It’s their life.
I didn’t find the training that big a deal physically, but what was hard was learning how to read maps, load weapons and be in this triple canopy jungle out in the middle of frickin’ nowhere. We were eating MREs – Meals Ready to Eat – and nobody could poop.
Willem drank water from a river when there was a decomposing oxen downstream and he got medivacked, Tom dropped a knife in his fucking foot – it was just all getting terribly real. And there were snakes. Two weeks earlier, we were running around New York’s West Village having coffee, bagels and talking about Hamlet. Now we’re in the jungle with bamboo vipers. Oliver loved it, of course.
After that boot camp, it took only a tiny imaginary leap to believe what we were saying. When my character said, “I gotta get the fuck out of here”, I meant it. My mother was having a brain operation back in Pittsburgh. There was no acting.
I only felt in danger once, when I almost fell out of a helicopter. It was up about 1,000ft. It was supposed to land and we would run out and past the camera. Something was going wrong on the ground, so they wanted to go to a different area. For three weeks, we’d been drilled that the one thing you don’t ever let go of is your weapon – so as the helicopter turned, I start to fall out because I was holding it. Francesco Quinn, who played Rhah, grabbed my backpack and pulled me in. If he hadn’t done that, I would’ve fallen out. I got pretty righteous with Oliver after that.
During the film’s final battle, my character hides by covering himself with a dead body. Afterwards, on a press tour, I was seeing veterans and doing self-help chats – which I had no right doing. Dozens of vets would tell me they covered themselves with bodies too. They would be weeping. I was just this 26-year-old donkey, way out of my depth, but none of that was lost on me. What Oliver touched on, all of that stuff, was overwhelming.