Throughout his varied career, James Badge Dale has played a lot of men in uniform, and a lot of villains too, he’ll be quick to remind you. But his role as Jesse Steed, the second-in-command of the Granite Mountain Hotshots, meant something special to him. So much so that he even wore his pride for the film on his belt buckle, a Granite Mountain Hotshots oval number. As it happens, he was invested in the story long before Only the Brave came along.
“The week of the Yarnell Hill fire, I was riding the 6 Train downtown in the [New York] subway and The New York Times did a two-page article on these guys. Fernada Santos is the writer. The first half of the article was about what it takes to be come a Tier 1 Hotshot crew. The difference between Tier 1 and Tier 2, how hard these guys worked, what it meant to be the first crew to come from the city and not a federal agency or state. And then it was about how they stuck together through the end, what those shelters [individual fire tents designed to protect firefighters overwhelmed by a blaze] are and what they do. And what it would be like, the science behind it — you’re standing there and a 40 foot wall of flames is coming at you at 3,000 degrees,” he remembered.
“I was struck by that story …. it deserves to be told. You know, because I think we can all learn something from this, take something from this. This movie is a celebration of life.”
And indeed, Only the Brave relates the tale of a tragic loss of life, but the film also takes great pains to show us those lives and what they mean. That dedication to authenticity meant the actors in the fire crew were on mountains cutting line and doing the work of the real-life counterparts, with guys who had been there on-hand.
“They trained us physically, technically, but also this other side of it was ‘look man, we have a lot of fun with our work, this is our attitude, this is the way we do it, we’d love for you guys to have the same attitude,'” Badge Dale explained. “So, at every moment on that set, there was someone who was there for you, supporting you, also telling you ‘you’re doing it completely wrong.'”
The training paid off for the aesthetics of the film, of course, but it also helped the filmmaking crew to build a real camaraderie and gain an understanding of the work done on he ground in these situations.
“By the end of it, we were the number one actor fire fighting crew around!” he declared. “There’s no number two crew! And no one is ever going to call us to ever put out anything. But we took a lot of pride in our work. It was a beautiful thing at the end of the day, even as actors, we’d sit there and be like ‘Hey man, look at that line. That’s a nice line.'”
Quite apart from their training on the line, the actors all took great efforts to know their characters. For Badge Dale, that meant putting himself in the shoes of a larger-than-life leader.
“He was a dynamic guy. He came to work with this kind of gregarious, positive attitude, you know? He wasn’t involved with himself, he was involved with you. To a man … everybody I know who I’ve talked to that worked with him will talk about how much he gave. He was that type of guy. What blew me away was this guy would work 16 hours a day cutting line, he’d spike out for two weeks and come home and be present with his family and he gave to them. He had that ability and he didn’t struggle with that,” Badge Dale said.
Slipping into Jesse’s shoes proved to be a different kind of learning experience. Badge Dale said he’s always walked away from every role with something, but that this time was different.
“Now I’m learning that I’m taking something different … taking something a little more positive. I didn’t know Jesse Steed, I didn’t know Tyler Woods, but these guys have taught me something. I’ve learned from Jesse Steed. I wanna be a better person because of what he gave,” Badge Dale said.
“There’s things about him that made me nervous because I didn’t know if I had that within myself. It was something as simple as the fact that this man had the bravery and strength to walk up to people and look them in the eye with a big smile, give them a hug and say ‘I love you, man.’ That scared me more than anything.”
Only the Brave is now playing in theaters everywhere.