It made the news around the world on Aug. 21, 2015, when a terrorist attacked a train heading for Paris with 500 passengers aboard. The event could have had life shattering consequences, were it not for three men – Airman Spencer Stone, Specialist Alek Skarlatos and Anthony Sadler.
The trio actually stars in Clint Eastwood’s film about the event, “The 15:17 to Paris.”
These three men took it upon themselves to rush in while others were rushing out. What makes these three even more outstanding is that they have been friends since childhood. That’s where the story begins, Spencer and Alek are having problems at school as teachers and administrators see them as needing medication to keep them in line.
Not about to have it are their mothers Joyce (Judy Greer) and Heidi (Jenna Fischer), who are not about to be told how to parent — especially out of a medicine bottle. It is in school that they meet Anthony and a bond is formed out of mutual acceptance. Although they each have to go their separate ways, that bond becomes stronger as they grow up.
Spencer decides he wants to join the military, but soon discovers that the job he wants is not where the military sends him. Struggling with studies and keeping up, he becomes frustrated, which makes things even harder. Alek is overseas when, along with Spencer and Anthony, plans are made to see the sights of Europe.
Reunited, Spencer, Anthony and Alek become tourists going from place to place enjoying their freedom. After visiting Italy and Amsterdam, they board the Thalys train No. 9364 for Paris, where the lives of everyone aboard will change.
I had the amazing opportunity to speak with Spencer, Anthony and Alek, whom director Clint Eastwood decided would portray themselves in the film. Let me say first off that I found these three young men to be exactly how I expected them to be. They are very welcoming, funny and had a laidback ease I so enjoyed.
Jeri Jacquin: First of all, it’s so weird. I mean, you look exactly like yourselves.
Anthony Sadler: (laughing) I know, right? I get that a lot.
JJ: I saw the film and I have to ask you, is it very strange when you watch it? Because it is like you are watching yourself doing something you have already done.
Anthony: It’s weird on so many levels. It’s our story on camera with music with Clint Eastwood’s name on it and it’s also weird watching how accurate it is, because we lived it. It isn’t all Hollywooded up, so seeing us doing what we did two years ago is strange for us as well.
JJ: I felt like I was intruding almost while watching in a way.
Spencer Stone: Yes, that’s exactly what it feels like putting it out there.
Anthony: We hope that people like it and it spreads like wildfire. We want the audience to feel like they are there and see exactly how it happened and who it happened to. It’s not documentary, and I know it gets tagged that because we are not actors, but it’s not that. It’s like you are literally there.
JJ: Even more so for you.
Spencer: You have to be OK with everyone knowing everything about your life. Not everything in detail, but a majority of it out on a big stage with Clint Eastwood. It’s a scary decision, but an exciting one.
Anthony: We are a week away from release and we have shot the movie, promoted it, wrote a book about it and have talked about it all over. At this point, it is so weird to be in this place because millions of people are about to see it. It’s just an interesting time and pretty surreal, and we are excited for everyone to see it. I just really want to know what everyone thinks of it actually. I want to know how it touches them and makes them feel.
JJ: When you were first approached, did you think the film was going to go as far back into your life as it does? Because you are dealing with a 94-minute film going back to when you were kids.
Anthony: When Clint picked it up the book, I knew there was a strong possibility and I was wondering how much of our childhood he was going to show, because I didn’t know how relevant it was. We were all three discussing it amongst ourselves, wondering what was relevant to the story and what’s not. It’s weird because when I read the script I wondered why some scenes where there, but when I watched the finished product I thought — he’s such a genius. Every scene in there had a theme in it that set up the bigger picture.
JJ: Oh, absolutely.
Anthony: No matter how trivial it looked, like going to the principal’s office, because that speaks to a bond that we shared even as children. Ever scene mattered and only Clint Eastwood would have a vision like that.
JJ: Did he tell each of you why he decided to use you instead of actors?
Spencer: Not directly. The information we had was of interviews he has done talking about it.
Alek Skarlatos: I’m so glad he did though, because the first time we watched the film with our families and having our relationships on camera — the way we talk to each other — even they could tell that’s really how we act. We weren’t being different people, so the film really shows that that is who we really are and it’s very accurate.
JJ: Earlier you said that some people were hinting the film was like a documentary and I can see why they might say it even though they are pretty much wrong. When you are speaking to each other on the screen there aren’t “characters” acting like you — it’s you three being, well, you three! Again, there is that eavesdropping feeling.
Anthony: Clint didn’t want us to act either. He didn’t want us to…
Alek: …do too much.
Anthony: Yes, do too much. We were trying to be ourselves and not overplay it. He took the weight of a motion picture out of the situation. He said be friends and forget what the script says. He said, “You were here and you know how it was, do that and I’ll capture it.” The trust goes both ways because we trusted him to tell the story and he trusted us to just be ourselves. His trust was huge, and we didn’t want to disappoint him. We wouldn’t have trusted anyone else to be so personal with our story, and when we saw the picture we just wanted to be happy with it and we are. We are thrilled that he did the film justice.
Spencer: I don’t think we would have been happy with the film if it was anyone other than Clint Eastwood.
Anthony: He gave us the confidence to try. We thought if Clint sees something, I don’t know what it was, but if he sees something then we will do it.
JJ: Clint always does stories that share something of a character, but here it is the three of you so it is much wider of a story being told.
Anthony: We are all so very different as well.
JJ: Yes, you certainly are.
Anthony: The movie will show that we are three very different individuals. Typically you wouldn’t think we would be friends and not only friends, but life long friends. We risk our lives for each other and that’s a huge theme of the film.
JJ: I think you literally proved that.
Spencer: I guess we did.
JJ: One scene that touched me was your troubles, Spencer, growing up and struggles with the military. I recognize that in you, I can’t exactly say “your character” because it’s you! Did you ever in a million years think all those struggles would be called upon in a fraction of a second?
Spencer: Absolutely not. I felt like even all the way up to the train attack I was feeling very unfulfilled and kind of angry because I felt like that’s all I ever wanted. I felt like joining the military was the first time I ever truly applied myself just to have it stripped from me. It was devastating for me. Then to be put in another career that I wasn’t too excited about and to fail out of that just felt like a huge waste of time.
It’s just funny how I would be pushed away from the things I wanted and guided toward the things I needed in my life. I think that wasn’t something I was able to fully comprehend until I went through this experience. Now, having that perspective in my life, it has much improved how I see things in a hundred different ways. It is something I can carry throughout my life in any situation and just feel calm and at ease and pretty much know that I am here for a reason. I don’t know what that is, but I need to trust.
JJ: Life is busy chugging along while you are busy making plans?
Anthony: That’s perfect!
JJ: So Alek, I heard people refer to you as “the quiet one,” is that true?
Alek: I mean… depends on the context.
Spencer: It depends on who is around.
Alek: Yea, it does depend on who is around. If it’s these guys then I’m not, but other people I might be quiet.
Spencer: If there was a cute girl he would be all chatty.
Alek: Yep, that’s right.
JJ: I kind of got that feeling with the scene in Rome.
Spencer: Oh, look at the pretzels!
(a joke that took these boys almost to the floor laughing)
JJ: So Alek, seeing yourself on screen, did you see anything about yourself that you didn’t notice before?
Spencer: Oh, good question.
Alek: I think how ridiculous I look sometimes. If you add up between the pretzel scene and me drinking the baby soda, it’s like, “Wow, I’m kind of stupid.” That’s very accurate to who I am, but you don’t notice those idiosyncrasies in an objective manner until you see them on screen.
(Spencer and Anthony are cracking up at Alek’s answer so the Mom in me steps in)
JJ: Stop teasing your brother!
Spencer: (explaining the laughter) Every time we hear a good word, we bank it so that we can use it next time. Now we have to look it all up.
Alek: Google it!
JJ: You guys are too much. OK, onto a serious note because we have to go there. Watching the attack scene on the train begs the question for you, Spencer, of how do you manage to do that again? Your face is so focused.
Anthony: You put anything in slow motion and add music to it — it’s going to look good.
(They have fallen out cracking themselves up again)
JJ: Now you will go through the rest of your life putting music and slo-mo in your head to everything you do.
Alek: (still laughing) Right?
Spencer: We have to give the entire credit to Clint and his whole crew. They went into such detail and as far as having the same exact clothes we were wearing that day, the same luggage, being on the exact same train going to Paris — it’s insane. We had Mark and his wife and everyone else there.
Anthony: People think it’s traumatic for us.
JJ: I think that is how most people would see it.
Spencer: Clint knew that we didn’t have much experience and that he was going to do this in a positive way. Being back in the moment for us, Clint made it easy to get back to that moment.
Anthony: The first 24 hours after the attack we went back to the hotel while Spencer went to the hospital. All we wanted to do was to see Spencer, that’s all we wanted. Finally the next day we laughed for like 20 minutes in the car saying, “Can you believe that happened?” This is the day after!
Alek: I mean, we are drinking champagne at the ambassador’s house talking about a terrorist attack.
Anthony: We are just a bunch of young guys living the dream. Clint Eastwood came along and put the stamp of “badass” on it all for us.
Spencer: I mean, if Clint Eastwood says something is badass, then it’s badass.
JJ: When the attack scene was made, did the adrenaline flow? You cannot walk away from that and not feel something about it.
Alek: I would say that while we were shooting the scene the adrenaline absolutely did, because those feelings came rushing back. It was very realistic, like Spencer said, but after it was over we were chilling with the gang again.
Anthony: People expect so much. It’s not that deep — it’s pretty simple. We are pretty simple guys.
Spencer: Not going through something this crazy before, and I’m sure there are people who have gone through crazier things in their life before, I feel like we have been able to cope with it very well. It’s not that we aren’t affected by it, it’s just that we have been able to deal with it well.
Anthony: We’ve had the luxury of talking about it on such a large scale whether it’s the initial media frenzy or the book or the movie process. We have talked about it so much.
Alek: We’ve dissected it.
JJ: You have been each others’ therapist.
Spencer: Exactly, that’s why talking about it has been so helpful and therapeutic.
Anthony: We’ve been able to share and it’s out there.
Spencer: Even now we’ve done about 200 interviews, and we get to talk with other people and each other in a way that means something to us.
JJ: So being together has made all the difference.
Spencer: Absolutely it has.
Alek: Always together. Whenever one is uncomfortable we have the other to make it easier and joke around like we do. We have three brains. If it had been just one of us on that train, we would have been all alone in it.
JJ: Nobody else would understand it.
Alek: Yes, no one would be able to understand it and couldn’t make jokes about it.
Spencer: They would look at you like you were crazy.
Alek: Exactly. Going through it with these two has been fantastic.
JJ: Here is the final question.
Alek: Ut oh!
(Spencer and Anthony laugh with Alek)
JJ: You have said that about a lot of my questions, Alek.
Spencer: Getting all serious on you now, Alek.
Anthony: Just when we were having so much fun.
JJ: Oh, it’s not that tough of a question. What would you like the audience to talk about after they see “The 15:17 to Paris.”
Alek: I would just like them to remember that if they ever are in a situation where they can help — then help. You really don’t have to just stop a terrorist attack to contribute positively to society. If you see a car accident and you don’t know first aid, you can call 911 and find someone who does. You can always help by doing something positive. It’s rare because people seem to want to just whip out their cell phones and watch instead of doing something. Also, remembering the importance of friendship.
Spencer: It is important to show how God has played a factor in our life and this is a good way of showing that on such a big stage. We have been asked, “What advice would you give me to stop an attack?” and I can’t really give you advice because nothing is the same. You are probably more than likely not to be on a train where a terrorist who has a gun that doesn’t go off on you. Nothing is the same, but the only thing we can offer as advice without putting someone in a bad position because I’m not telling anyone to run toward a loaded gun. I would never tell anyone to run toward a man with a loaded gun, so just ask yourself what you would do and have an answer. That’s all you can do. We have talked about it so many times before it actually happened so something ingrained in our minds.
Anthony: I just hope it inspires people. People think there is something special about the three of us and say, “What do you three have that’s so special?” and I think the movie shows that we are just three guys. Maybe someone will see something of us in themselves and be inspired to know they are capable of being extraordinary themselves and overcome adversity as well. It doesn’t have to be a terrorist on a train, just any obstacle and they need to know that they are on a journey and capable of being extraordinary. It’s not just us.
And that ladies and gentlemen is why I love what I do. These three men shared a moment of time with me and will forever be in the hearts of those they saved. I thought it extremely important to share their playfulness because it is a bond created by their friendship that endured the difficulties of childhood up to the most important moment of their lives.
Yet, it didn’t change their friendship. In fact, I see how it made them even closer than can be imagined. Their belief in one another and the ability to not to take life so seriously is the lesson created in childhood and the lesson they take with them from their experience.
That is not to say what happened hasn’t had an effect on their life at all, of course it has. But, as they all agree, having their friendship and the ability to lean on each other has made all the difference. We should all be so blessed to have friends like that in our lives.
Experience the journey as director Clint Eastwood brings “The 15:17 to Paris” to theaters.