Not all heroes wear capes.
On Aug. 21, 2015, three American men — the Air Force’s Spencer Stone, student Anthony Sadler and Alek Skarlatos of the National Guard — were on holiday. As their Paris-bound train hurtled across the border from Belgium into France, another man, 25-year-old Ayoub El Khazzani, armed with an AKM assault rifle, a pistol and a bottle of gas, opened fire in a passenger cabin in an apparent terrorist attack.
The three men, all in their early 20s, leapt into action and with the help of two other travellers subdued El Khazzani, ending the siege and saving the life of a passenger who had been shot in the neck.
Their heroics saw them inducted into the French Legion of Honour as knights and feted by then U.S. president Barack Obama. An autobiography, The 15:17 to Paris: The True Story of a Terrorist, a Train, and Three American Soldiers, was a bestseller and is now a movie directed by Clint Eastwood.
“We met (Eastwood) at the Spike TV Guys Choice Awards,” says Stone. “He was giving us the Hero Award. We knew that making real-life stories into movies was right up his alley as a director so we thought, ‘We have to mention something to him, even if it is as a joke or whatever.’ We said, ‘We’re writing a book right now! You should turn it into a movie. Ha. Ha!’ He said, ‘Send me the book. I’ll tell you what I think.’”
Three months later a call came. Eastwood even put on hold a project he was working on at the time so he could begin their film.
“We thought that would be enough,” says Sadler. “Clint Eastwood is picking up the picture. We made it! This is it! Three weeks before shooting he calls us into a meeting and we think we’re going to meet the actors who are going to play us. He says, ‘You guys mind re-enacting things for us?’ He kept talking, hinting for us to be in the film. We’re like, ‘No way he’s saying that,’ so we stopped and said, ‘Mr. Eastwood are you asking us to be in the film?’ He said, ‘Yeah, why not?’ Minds blown at that point.”
None of the three have any previous acting experience but say that Eastwood, who insisted they not take acting classes, brought out the best in them.
“We were all anxious to do our first scenes,” says Stone, “but honestly after our first one with him, we relaxed. He’s such a chill guy and the atmosphere on set is so chill. He and the crew make things easy for you. Once we got a few scenes under our belt it became pretty fun.”
Skarlatos, the quietest of the trio, chimes in: “Honestly, it was a lot of fun. It was not a traumatic experience for us because nobody died, first of all, and for us, only good things have come out of it. Doing it again was therapeutic. Going over all the details was very helpful because I was able to kind of close that chapter. Doing it with Clint Eastwood was the coolest experience.”
As for the veracity of the film, Skarlatos says the movie captures “who we are as people, how we interact with each other and how the events transpired on the train.”