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Former 3rd ID soldier turns actor
Jake McLaughlin has supporting role to Tommy Lee Jones
Soldier turned actor: Former 3rd Infantry Division soldier and Iraq War veteran Jake McLaughlin as Spc. Gordon Bonner in director Paul Haggis’ “In the Valley of Elah,” a Warner Independent Pictures release. All photos are (c) Warner Independent Pictures. No other uses are permitted without the prior written consent of owner. Use of the material in violation of the foregoing may result in civil and/or criminal penalties. - photo by Lorey Sebastian / Elah Finance V.O.F. / Warner Independent Pictures 2007
“I actually don’t like watching myself on screen,” Jake McLaughlin said, although the chuckle following the statement suggests otherwise. “It’s definitely surreal to say the least.”
But while the former 3rd Infantry Division soldier and Iraq War veteran may have reservations about himself on screen, Hollywood executives are hoping to capitalize on the first-time actor’s star-turning role in writer-director Paul Haggis’ new movie, In the Valley of Elah.
The film, inspired by the July 2003 murder of Spc. Richard Davis by four fellow soldiers after returning home from Iraq, stars Academy Award winner Tommy Lee Jones as Hank Deerfield, a former Army MP searching for his missing soldier son.
Oscar winners Susan Sarandon and Charlize Theron also star in the crime thriller, but it’s the scenes between Jones and newcomer McLaughlin, who plays the roommate of Jones’ son, that are garnering the attention of critics.
“It’s the casting of Iraq vet and non-professional Jake McLaughlin as Specialist (Gordon) Bonner, who fought alongside Deerfield’s son in Iraq, that strikes a deeper emotional chord,” Newsweek film critic David Ansen recently wrote. “His scenes with Jones, fraught with a complicated mix of bitterness, concern and guilt, are the best things in the movie.”
McLaughlin is enjoying the newfound praise for his debut role, but said he is astonished by how quickly life has changed in just over four years.
In 2003, the 24-year-old was serving as a dismount infantry squad automatic weapons gunner with the 3rd ID during the initial push into Baghdad. After suffering a back injury in the field — that went untreated for over a year while he awaited an appointment with a Veterans Affairs doctor — he was discharged from the Army.
With a wife and two young children to take care of in Chico, Calif., he went to work pouring concrete and studying in his spare time to become a truck driver.
The childhood dream of being an actor was never far from his thoughts, but he was not actively pursuing a career in Hollywood nor did he think an opportunity would present itself.
Then he received a phone call from a former neighbor with a famous family connection.
“My old next door neighbor before I joined the service was John Wayne’s grandson and his wife works at Finn/Hiller Casting, who cast the movie,” McLaughlin said. “Paul Haggis was looking to cast veterans in the film or at least see if they could do a good job. She had me in mind because she knew me and called me up.”
On a whim and with a script in his hand, he withdrew the last $200 in his bank account to purchase a plane ticket to fly to Los Angeles and try-out for Elah.
“I auditioned on Friday and (the casting agents) really loved me. They had me stay for lunch, picked my brain about the military for a few hours and then had me come back that Monday,” McLaughlin said, adding he had to change his plane ticket back home and was down to $10 in his wallet. “I auditioned for Paul and the producers, but then on the way out, I saw James Franco coming in and thought I wasn’t going to get anything if he was auditioning for my role.”
Lucky for the veteran, the Hollywood heartthrob and Spider-Man actor was eyeing another part in the film. Casting director Sarah Finn called McLaughlin a few days later to tell him he was chosen for the role of Spc. Gordon Bonner.
Unlike most of the actors in Elah, the former soldier did not have to do much character study for his role and was called on by Haggis to do some directing of his own on the set.
“When we were doing the actual combat scenes in the movie, Paul stopped and told everyone, ‘Shut up and listen to Jake. Just do what he tells you to do and he’s going to show you how to clear a building,’” McLaughlin recounted. “I was allowed to take charge and show the other actors how to do things the right way.”
Prior to production ending on the film, however, it was already under fire for being a statement against the war in Iraq, mostly due to critics’ assumptions about Haggis’s political leanings.
But McLaughlin said labeling the film as anti-war could not be further from the truth.
“The storyline draws from the Iraq War and addresses post traumatic stress syndrome that soldiers are having when they come back from’s saying something needs to be done,” the veteran, who suffered his own case of mild post traumatic stress disorder, said. “But by no means whatsoever is it an anti-war film. If anything, it’s pro-soldier.”
“The lines are not made up. They’re the actual lines from real men and it’s really how our soldiers feel,” his wife, Stephanie, added. “Yes, they’re willing to go over there and continue to participate in keeping America strong, but at the same time they’re hurting and it shouldn’t be ignored.”
Since Elah premiered at the Toronto Film Festival in early September, McLaughlin has experienced the glitz of red carpet events, segments on national entertainment shows and a growing legion of fans-all signs of a young star on the rise.
With the film recently opening in theaters nationwide, recent roles in the CBS dramas “CSI: Crime Scene Investigation” and “The Unit” and a continuing stream of auditions, the increased exposure has also created pressure to relocate to Los Angeles. However, Stephanie said the couple is not ready to expose the L.A. lifestyle to their young children.
“Up here in Chico, it’s very simple. You have everything you need and it’s really kid friendly,” she said. “I think L.A. is just a little too the future, we will move down there, but for now we’re quite happy in Chico.”
Although the move to Lala Land is on hold, McLaughlin said he is relishing this time in his life, especially during those moments when he reflects on where he was just a few years ago.
“It’s pretty mind boggling that I went from being in Iraq to doing concrete work to being in a major motion picture as my first film,” he said. “I’m fortunate because I’m not the only Iraq veteran, but I was afforded the opportunity to make something good out of something bad. I was able to turn it around.”
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