How did you get involved with Black Hawk Down?
Basically because I loved the book. It's the most page-turning work of non-fiction I've ever read. My character, Steele, is the most fascinating man.
Basically because no one really liked him, despite the fact that he was a good guy. The paradox of leadership is you want the men in your command to like you and to follow you, but you also want them to be scared of you - so that ultimately, when bullets are flying, they do what you say rather than follow their instincts. That was him. He was a very by-the-book guy who tried to maintain discipline amongst these 19-year-olds. There's a definite sense of romance about the elite Delta Force, who the Rangers worked with in Somalia, and Steele had to stop them being influenced by that. Those guys are much older than the Rangers, they don't use rank, they call each other by their first names and so on - whereas the Rangers have a prescribed method of doing absolutely everything. He realised if they started that, the whole chain of command could fall apart. I actually felt some semblance of his unpopularity myself on the time we spent preparing for the shoot. We went to train with the Rangers and, as it turned out, they didn't understand the hierarchy of the film business - if I was playing Captain Steele, it was decided, I should be put in charge of all the actors. I ended up having to make some very unpopular decisions, like when the food hadn't arrived in time and we had to go out to eat. Since we had to get up early the next day, I said no one was allowed a beer. It was basically a week-long improvisation and, all credit to them, most of the time they went with it. They could easily have told me to f**k off.
Was it a difficult role to prepare for?
I'd like to say that after a week we were all ready to fight, but I'm sure it was a heavily diluted training programme. It was more an indoctrination to get inside the minds of these incredible people who live by something called The Ranger Creed, which, as far as I can see is like a Medieval code.
The other thing I wanted to make sure I got right was the accent. We trained in Fort Benning in Georgia, which is where Steele is from, so luckily I was able to soak everything up like a sponge when I was there, which tends to happen to everyone that hangs out with these guys for long enough. I met one guy from Yorkshire who'd joined the Rangers and he had a Southern accent. The action scenes were certainly difficult to prepare for and shoot - simply because the whole thing was absolutely f**king terrifying. Not often in acting are you called on to perform with buildings blowing up either side of you, the ground underneath your feet rumbling while being peppered with bullets, but we were on Black Hawk Down.
Did you ever feel in genuine danger?
Tempers flared quite a few times because adrenaline was so high, but there were very few injuries. My theory is that the people that were orchestrating the chaos around us were doing it in a far more safe fashion than they let on, in order to cultivate a sense of panic.
Is the film successful in getting across the situation in Somalia?
I don't think Ridley was actually trying to represent the situation in Somalia at all - he was more interested in telling an intimate, personal story than a political one. He just wanted to take you through the lives of this company of Rangers over a very specific 24-hour period, so in some ways it could have been set in any urban conflict.
It represents the soldiers accurately, pretty much as supermen. Every country has a regiment like this - front line infantry who go in to the most dangerous places that haven't been softened up by air attacks and that will lay down their lives for their comrades without question. The mission itself was successful and was over in fifteen minutes. But the helicopters got shot down, and then they weren't coming back until they recovered the bodies, even though the likelihood was that they were dead. The guy that Eric Bana plays in the film did something that was so extraordinary, that they couldn't actually include it. When it was all over, he loaded up his weapons and walked out again by himself and came back in with the location of the bodies of two fallen delta force snipers. He'd got them off of the mob, taken them somewhere and buried them out of harm's way.
Phil Mason, Total DVD, October 2002