Sean Brosnan is an actor, writer and director living in Los Angeles. A graduate of the Central School of Speech and Drama in London, his acting credits include David Simon’s Emmy-winning HBO series Generation Kill and the films Don Peyote and What Dreams May Travel. In 2012, he began writing and directing award-winning short films through Knightmarcher, the company he started with his wife and producing partner, Sanja Banic. His debut feature as writer-director, My Father Die, is in theaters now.
In April 2003, the 1st Reconnaissance Battalion was among the first wave of U.S. troops to invade Iraq under George W. Bush’s orders. The U.S. government spends roughly $10 million on training for each individual soldier in the battalion, highly efficient predators capable of surviving in the harshest environments. Going with them to Iraq at that time was also a tall, awkward journalist from Rolling Stone magazine named Evan Wright.
Wright ended up writing a book about his 40 days spent with the 1st Recon Battalion, titled Generation Kill. The book did so well that HBO asked David Simon and Ed Burns, the creators of The Wire, to adapt it into a miniseries.
I’m laying in bed in a college dormitory in Edinburgh next to a pretty young redhead who suffers from a nervous tic which intermittently makes her blink compulsively. We’ve been up all night doing ketamine and I’ve just taken my second ecstasy pill. My phone rings. She picks it up and answers in her thick Scottish accent. I quickly grab the phone back. It’s my agent, Theresa, asking if I can self-tape an audition that day for an HBO miniseries called Generation Kill.
Never one to back down from a challenge, I take a shot of vodka and ask the redhead if I can borrow her computer. A few hours later, we’ve recorded the scene and sent it back to my agent. “A job well done,” I think as I smoke a joint on her bed, the ecstasy really starting to kick in now.
A week later, I’m sitting inside a bathroom in a casting office in London for the Generation Kill callback, going up for the small role of Corporal Daniel Redman, a .50 cal gunner in Bravo Company, second platoon. I unwrap some tinfoil and proceed to smoke a tiny bit of heroin, before going in and doing my best tough-guy acting. “Not a chance in hell I booked this one,” I think as I pass a long line of guys who all resemble me in one way or another: blond-haired, blue eyes, athletic build.
Three months go by and not a word about the show. I’m walking through my front door, back from a long, blurry week at the Cannes Film Festival, when my phone rings. It’s my agent telling me to pack my bags because I’m to going to South Africa for six months. “For what?” I say. “For the HBO miniseries you auditioned for.” “What HBO miniseries?” “Generation Kill, you idiot. You booked it – congratulations!”
Day one of a two-week bootcamp and I’m running on a desert road in Namibia getting yelled at by 1st Recon Marine Sergeant Rodolfo Reyes, aka Rudy – or as his comrade Nick named him “Fruity Rudy,” due to the fact that he would literally dress up for battle as if it were a camouflage-themed fashion show. He always wore clothes to show off his physique and usually opted for almost none at all.
“Pick up the pace, brother. It’s an easy day, brother. Let’s go, let’s go, let’s go!”
He shouts as he effortlessly runs past me in a pair of black short shorts. Rudy was playing himself in the show because casting couldn’t find anyone who could quite fit the bill. He is literally one of a kind. A huge heart but with a set of skills that I wouldn’t like to be on the wrong end of. He joined the Marine Corps because he identified with the commercials back in the day that depicted a soldier slaying a dragon with a sword.
Generation Kill prided itself on its authenticity, and rightly so. With its lack of score, excellent performances (not talking about myself here) and military accuracy, the show created an experience that was as close to the reality of the invasion as one could safely get. The firefights were captured with claustrophobic handheld camerawork, mostly from inside the Humvees, juxtaposing the utter chaos of war with the calm demeanor and methodical actions of the warriors themselves.
The show wasn’t about picking sides, and abstained from the usual political platitudes about supporting our troops and the dignity of war. David Simon and Ed Burns and directors Susanna White and Simon Cellan Jones engendered sympathy toward the soldiers without shying away from the innocent lives they took under the ever-changing rules of engagement. (Rules that arguably were more detrimental to the soldiers’ safety than Al-Qaeda itself.)
Generation Kill let the audience decide which side of the line they wished to stand. In my opinion, it’s one of the most trenchant depictions of war ever.
When you put on a uniform or join a group, it automatically becomes a part of your identity – if not your whole identity. Consciously or unconsciously, your ideological values and core beliefs become impregnated by those of the group or organization – whether it’s a police officer in uniform, or an actor entrenched in a role.
One of the greatest things about being an actor, though, is you can take that costume off at the end of the day. You get to pretend to be someone you are not. You get to pretend to believe in philosophies that would normally be repugnant to your senses and you get to pretend you are stronger or weaker or braver or meaner than you would ever be in your day to day life. One of the things I’ve learned, though, is that you can actually start to believe your own bullshit if you do it long enough and there’s someone else to validate it.
It’s a Friday night in Johannesburg and me and a friend of mine who I shall call Fucknut decide to hit a strip club after a long day of filming. Fucknut isn’t the best influence on me since he is also an alcoholic, or at least an alcoholic-in-training. At six foot three inches, he’s a big bundle of sarcasm and vanity. A true self-obsessed actor. Before going out, he would have the makeup girl apply cover-up, foundation and a slight tan. If nothing else, he’s hilarious. No subject is safe from his sardonic sense of humor, which usually preys on other people’s weaknesses.
“Welcome to the Jungle” by Guns N’ Roses blares through the club’s speakers as a peroxide blonde twerks on stage. We’re at a table drinking Vodka Redbulls when a group of four Middle Eastern-looking men sit down next to us. I can tell they’re already drunk by the way they keep groping the waitress and laughing obnoxiously.
“You Marines?” one of them asked.
I’m about to say, “No, we’re actors,” but before I can, Fucknut – in his best gruff actor voice – fires back with, “Yeah, we’re Marines. What about it?”
It’s then that I realize Fucknut still has his USMC shirt on from set.
The man stumbles up to us with a crooked smile and leans on our table with both hands. “Want to know why the world hates Americans?”
Fucknut sits in his chair with his usual shit-eating grin. “Why’s that, punchy?”
“Because you think the world needs you, when it doesn’t.”
And then comes the sloppy right hook. The man hits Fucknut right in his forehead. It’s a pathetic punch, but enough to scare Fucknut half to death. The three other men jump up from their table and a small scuffle ensues, which the bouncers quickly break up.
Two burly Johannesburg policemen wrestle me down a hallway and toward a cell as I kick and scream, occasionally breaking into a manic laughter. They uncuff me, open the cell door and throw me inside with 10 other men. I am the only white guy in there. I might as well have walked in with a fucking target on my chest. But here’s the funny thing: I am not afraid. Having been around 51 men pretending to be Marines (and some who actually are Marines) for the past five months has instilled a sort of confidence in me.
After almost 36 hours in that cell, I am released back into the custody of Fucknut. When he walks in, he finds me arm-wrestling one of the guards. I have already beaten all the guys in my cell, which made for good entertainment, but after I woke from a few hours of sleep they wanted me to challenge the police. The first two officers were not that difficult, but I put up a bit of a struggle so as to not enrage them. The last officer, however, is about 6’3” and 250lbs. I almost have his wrist to the table when Fucknut walks in.
“Grubby Man – there you are!” he shouts. Grubby Man was the name he gave me after the first night we went out together and I woke up next to the fridge covered in food. (Apparently I was eating raw bacon.) After picking me up from the police station, he managed to get us back to our hotel in time for pickup and we arrived on set as if nothing happened.
Over the course of the 2016 presidential election cycle, the most entertaining piece of reality TV I have ever seen, I watched in astonishment as reptilian candidates spewed duplicitous rhetoric at hordes of people differentiated by primary colors. It was a perfect reminder of how people will defend opinions that they don’t even necessarily believe in just because they feel the need to identify with a particular group. The need to belong, to be accepted and to have a purpose; sometimes, any purpose will do. Even if you’re an actor clinging to an identity that’s not even your own.
I think HBO should re-release Generation Kill, as it feels all too relevant to these times. Since the Civil War, there hasn’t been such a level of blatant animosity and anger between Americans as there is today. Once again, I feel as if we are giving birth to a new generation willing to kill for an identity they haven’t fully investigated and for beliefs that are as archaic as they are ignorant.