This is the second in an occasional look at emerging artists, their struggle for the big break, and how they make the most of it. The first dispatch was the unlikely road Beulah Koale took to star in Thank You For Your Service and Hawaii 5-0.
EXCLUSIVE: Hollywood’s biggest grossing films cast brawny-looking actors who pretend to be world-saving heroes. Is there room in town for aspiring actor and honest to goodness hero Spencer Stone? Disarming in person, he might not look like the central casting ideal of a super hero, but how many on the Avengers: Infinity War call sheet saved around 300 people by disarming and kicking the ass of a terrorist about to massacre passengers on a Paris-bound train?
The idea of Stone struggling to be noticed in a business built on portraying heroes has troubled me since I met him. I first saw Stone during a Publicists Guild event where he presented an award and it was clear the industry crowd didn’t really know who he was, because they hadn’t seen his movie. I recognized Stone because I went to a theater to watch the Clint Eastwood-directed The 15:17 to Paris, and saw Spencer and his pals Alek Skarlatos and Anthony Sadler play themselves in a drama highlighted by their heart-stopping reenactment of that train ride.
The film was the third of Eastwood’s ordinary men in extraordinary circumstances trilogy, after American Sniper and Sully. This time, instead of Bradley Cooper and Tom Hanks, Eastwood tapped the actual heroes to reenact their lives and moment of heroism. Critics pounced on Eastwood for that, and the movie only grossed $55M WW on a $30M budget. If you saw The 15:17 to Paris, the bravery on the train, especially the courage and actions of Stone, is awe inspiring.
Here’s what Stone did (spoiler alert). Awakened from a nap by the sound of a gunshot, Stone charged 20 feet to engage a terrorist, who aimed and fired his AKM assault rifle at point blank range. It didn’t go off. Stone closed the distance, struggled with the terrorist and after knocking away the rifle, put the terrorist in a sleeper hold. He would not let go, even when the terrorist tried to shoot him in the head with a pistol (which also didn’t go off), and slash his throat with a knife. As Skarlatos and Sadler pounded the terrorist in the face with the butt of his own rifle, Stone hung on for dear life for the long minutes it took for his sleeper hold to live up to its name. Then, as his friends hog-tied the unconscious terrorist, Stone rushed over to stop the flow of blood gushing from the only gunshot victim, the Sorbonne professor Mark Moogalian. Stone stanched the blood flow enough to keep him alive until emergency crews took over at the next station. It was later discovered that the terrorist had 270 rounds of ammo. Months later, while still in a cast, Stone fought off a group of thugs outside a Sacramento bar and nearly died from knife injuries.
I met Spencer later that night at UTA’s pre-Oscar party, where he mentioned how surviving the Paris ordeal and the knife attack in Sacramento steeled his resolve to seek a career as a real actor, a bug that has also bitten his childhood pals and fellow heroes Skarlatos and Sadler. Like any newbie actor, Stone said he was sending out head shots and going on auditions, crossing his fingers and hoping for a break as he worked with UTA on motivational speaking dates and a TV show he hopes to host, one that celebrates ordinary people who found the courage to do heroic things, just like he and his pals.
I thought Stone deserved more consideration from Hollywood than some cold call auditions, and that some ink here could help. Shouldn’t there be some attention paid a guy who, along with his buddies, can’t pay for a drink in France after they were awarded the Legion of Honour by French president Francois Holland? Stone was also awarded the Airman’s Medal and a Purple Heart by President Barack Obama.
In the wake of the Parkland school massacre and President Trump’s call to arm schoolteachers even as reports emerged that several armed sheriff deputies failed to rush into the school and engage a shooter who massacred 17 students, I wanted Stone to answer a simple question. What would compel him to run, unarmed, toward a terrorist, while others, with guns, fell short?
As for Stone’s acting potential, I asked Clint Eastwood his assessment, after the director caught some hell from critics for making the career Air Force man and first time actor the lead in The 15:17 to Paris. Said Eastwood: “I believe Spencer will do really well as an actor. He’s intelligent, extremely motivated and takes great direction. I would hire him again in a heartbeat.”
So I bought Spencer lunch to draw him out. He answered questions about his experiences without a shred of bravado or bragging. I started with the question of why an unarmed Stone would charge a gunman while those armed Parkland cops did not race to confront the school shooter. These terror attacks rear up with alarming regularity — the latest occurred just this morning in a French supermarket — so ordinary people are tested regularly. I tell Stone I imagine it is all about how one handles the rush of adrenaline that energizes some, paralyzes others.
Stone paused, careful not to get drawn into a polarizing political argument. Finally, he suggested the swarm of critics who condemned those deputies, or anyone who hasn’t experienced such an extreme crisis moment, can’t grasp how hard it is to make the right choices.
“They don’t understand the mental aspect but also the overall picture,” Stone said. “What’s that first guy going to do? Say you’re the guy there. You could just open the door and go in, no matter what. If your chief is telling you not to go and you do it and come out alive, probably they fire you because you disobeyed a direct order, and then you’re a failure and you’ve lost your job and let down your family. You can’t necessarily blame anyone in that situation. They’re there to do a job and sure they want to help people and sometimes you make a good call and sometimes a bad one. Should we really expect that first guy to go rogue and run in the building?”
I say, that’s what Eastwood did in the Dirty Harry movies.
“But life isn’t a movie, man,” Stone said. “I don’t believe in that [blame] stuff because hindsight is 20/20. When I see someone not rising to the occasion, of course you have answers after the fact that you don’t know that in the moment. I had no idea when I got up in the train that I was going to make it to that guy. No idea. I thought I was going to get gunned down the second I stood up, especially because he locked eyes with me, and I was like, ‘Oh, sh*t.’ So to each his own, every situation is different.”
Even though he’s written and acted out his story, and described it in motivational speeches, Stone’s description of his hero moment is electric to hear and left me wondering if I, or most anyone else, would have the guts to react similarly in that split second when Stone was in a position to save every passenger on that speeding train.
“I wasn’t able to process everything, but I saw had no other option,” he said. “You’re going 200 miles an hour on a train in the countryside. There’s nowhere to go. This guy’s 20 feet in front of me, and oh, shit, it looks like he just jammed his gun. Running at him, it was 50/50 I might live, but it was certain I would die, otherwise. So 10 times out of 10 I think I would do what I did. I just knew that if I didn’t go right when I did…That’s the crazy thing about adrenaline. I think it can either paralyze you or it can just turn your brain on, like some crazy magic pill, because I remember at the end of it thinking, I’ve never been more clear headed ever, in my entire life. My brain was operating at a crazy level of clarity. I just looked down the aisle, and it was only a few seconds between then and when I got up and charged, but I had ten different thoughts. When I saw him go like this [he mimics cocking the rifle,] but then it took a second or two for him to start shooting…in my head, I’m like, ‘this is our moment. Did he jam his gun? Is it on safety? What’s going on? We need to do something now.’ And that’s when I took off. But I knew at the same time that if I didn’t do anything, I was going to die anyway. So why not just go out in a blaze of glory, as morbid as that sounds?”
Luckily, Stone closed the distance before the terrorist could get his rifle to work.
“When I ran at him, he raised the rifle. He didn’t jam it, it wasn’t on safety. He pulls the trigger. It doesn’t go off. Turned out it was a bad primer in the bullet, so it was just faulty ammunition. I close that distance, the gun doesn’t go off, but he slapped me in the face with the gun. So right away I’m dazed when I tackle him, but I still hit him pretty hard. We’re both on the ground now and I’m trying to grab the AK from him but it kept slipping out of my hands and I can’t see out one eye so I’m reaching blindly. I stand up and that’s when I throw him in a choke hold and pull him back.”
The terrorist then pulled a handgun from his ammo vest – one he’d just used to shoot the other passenger — placed it to Stone’s head and pulled the trigger. Again, no bullet was discharged.
“We got that moment misplaced in the movie,” he said. “You see him take out the pistol and then the magazine falls out as he [raises it to shoot me] and it doesn’t go off? That actually happened outside of the bathroom just when the terrorist came out to start shooting. When he shot Mark as he was running away with the rifle, I think he dropped the magazine right then, because otherwise there would have been one left in the chamber, and there was nothing in there when he [tried to shoot me]. So when he reached back, I hear click, and it doesn’t go off. I felt it against my head, and I couldn’t go anywhere. I couldn’t get him off me fast enough. I’m trying to choke him. There’s a table there, chairs all this stuff, and me trying to choke him out.”
The terrorist then pulled out a blade and tried to hack at Stone to escape the choke, desperately slashing at Stone’s throat but only cutting the back of his neck because Stone leaned in. It left him unable to deflect the knife assault, but Stone was determined not to loosen his grip. That is when Skarlatos and Sadler joined in the fight, with Skarlatos pounding the terrorist’s face with the butt of the automatic weapon.
“I think he was trying to slit my throat or just at least get me off of him, thinking that would make me let go,” Stone said. “But I didn’t necessarily feel that either, because of the adrenaline. I felt a burning, but I didn’t pay much attention to it because he just tried to shoot me in the head with a handgun so I didn’t care.”
Perhaps the real explanation for why Stone acted — this is something he tells audiences in motivational talks — was that he had pre-visualized what he might do in such a confrontation, and as the movie conveyed, he had been training for such a moment not only in the Air Force, but in emergency first aid and even the martial arts. “I had been training in Jiu Jitsu for a year before this happened, and that hold was my go-to move. For anyone who doesn’t know how to defend against Jiu Jitsu, they’re not really going to be able to stop it. If you don’t have that knowledge, I’ll get the choke on you, eventually.”
Stone was motivated by training and adrenaline, but as he got the upper hand, some level of anger also set in.
“I’d been in my share of fights, but never thrown the first punch and I’m not quick to anger,” he said. “It was weird to watch those moments in the movie. You just do what you had to do, but I was prepared to kill him if I had to, as he was prepared to kill me. Seeing that, and knowing I have the potential to kill someone, obviously for a good reason, is also kind of a weird dynamic when you look at yourself. But I remember in the moment that I was seeing red, by the end. In the movie, I stopped choking the guy when he was unconscious. In real life? I wasn’t letting him go, I was going to kill him. The only reason I let him go was because I saw Mark bleeding, and so I said, this is your lucky day, man. I’d rather go help this guy than kill you.”
This wasn’t the only life threatening altercation for Stone that year. Three months later, his thumb still in a cast, and right after a Sacramento parade held in honor of Stone, Skarlatos and Sadler, Stone was leaving a local Sacramento bar with friends. While one went to retrieve the car, a female friend began puking against a wall. A rowdy group began filming her with their iPhones and taunting her. When Stone told them to go away, suddenly one was on his back, and another punched his friend in her face. The attacker on his back stabbed Stone three times. Again, adrenaline and a survival instinct took over.
“I didn’t realize I got stabbed until after, I only thought I had been punched,” Stone said. “I turned around and threw a punch and they were all on me. I was trapped against this wall for a bit and just swinging for my life. I still had the cast on, so I was just throwing rights, one after another. I am telling myself, just don’t fall down. I didn’t want to get stomped, because that is how you die.” Stone broke free and took the brawl to the street hoping that oncoming cars would create space between him and his attackers. He dropped one thug, and then the one with the knife (who is currently serving a nine year sentence in Folsom State Prison) stabbed him in the back, deeply, before the attackers fled.
Stone felt his lung collapse, and finally sat down. The stab wounds pierced his heart, the lung and his liver; one came an inch from his spinal cord. He realized the severity when he could sense that the police officer trying to interview him believed he was going to die.
“There are five stages to death and they are denial, anger, depression, something else and then acceptance,” Stone said. “I went from denial straight to acceptance, right away,” he said. “I thought, no way I am making it out of this one. I saw how much I was bleeding and I couldn’t breathe. I just lay down on the ground. It’s so cliché, but I told my friend Lisa, just tell my mom, my brother and sister I love them and they’re going to be okay. Then I passed out and just thought I had died.”
His reality was different. “I had open heart surgery, exploratory surgery in my stomach, bilateral chest tubes…all this stuff. So 24 hours later I wake up. And there was someone basically dying in the bed next to me. I listened as his dad was screaming, you got to wake up, Jim. He’s punching the wall, and there is a big commotion. I’d worked at a hospital so I knew what was happening. I asked a nurse, and she said someone just died. Pneumonia. He was just 18 year old. I just broke down and started crying. How did I survive a terrorist attack, and now the doctor told me I’m going to recover 100 percent from this thing, and this kid’s over here dying of pneumonia at 18? Why am I still here? It was almost like a wave of survivor’s guilt.”
A religious man, Stone came away feeling like he must have been spared for a reason, and he wanted life to take him somewhere meaningful.
“I look back on this now after the passage of time,” he said. “I felt like there is something I’m supposed to be pursuing, and I believe it’s the acting thing. I don’t know why it’s that. But this feels right, the direction I need to go in and I’m going to work hard and do it.”
Before boarding Thalys train 9364 from Amsterdam to Paris via Brussels in 2015, Spencer never imagined himself pursuing an acting career, much less finding himself the star of a Clint Eastwood-directed feature. Stone’s crazy Hollywood journey began when he, Skarlatos and Sadler wrote their account of the train attack. The trio signed with a major agency Stone declined to name, only to see the reps essentially agree to a film rights deal the trio found underwhelming. “We felt, this is our life story, the one thing we got, and while money had something to do with it, I read the contract and basically they could take our story and do whatever they wanted, and potentially never even call us,” Stone said. The deal fell through, the agent was angry and told the trio they’d blown it and that no other film or TV company was interested. Goodbye.
But then they got a little lucky.
“One month later, we got the deal with Clint Eastwood, all on our own,” Stone said. This came after the actor-turned director presented the trio with a Hero Award on the Spike TV Guys’ Choice Awards.
“He actually said, ‘I wasn’t going to do this but when they told me it was you guys getting it, I wanted to come,’ and so we knew Mr. Eastwood was interested in the story,” Stone said. “He pulled me aside and asked me, ‘whatever happened to those punks in Sacramento?’ I said, you know about that? He’d lived there and was following it.”
They exchanged addresses and phone numbers. They submitted the book to Eastwood’s office. After hearing nothing for months, Stone remembered he had Eastwood’s home address, and sent a copy of the book there. This was just as he was leaving the Air Force and getting antsy about the future.
“I got a call from him three days later and from there we negotiated the whole deal with just two lawyers.” Stone, Skarlatos and Sadler would have been grateful merely to be included as consultants while Eastwood directed experienced actors, but the filmmaker had a different idea.
“We’d had a few meetings with him, and he had been casting for a month,” Stone said. “He calls us for lunch and we assume it’s to meet the actors because this was three weeks before filming. He tells us about this prototype camera he has that will allow him to get cool shots on the train. ‘What do you say we take some shots of you guys on camera and see what it looks like, and maybe you can reenact some things for us,” Eastwood asked them. “We figure maybe it will help the actors get the fight sequences right, but he was vague and so we just had to ask,” Stone said. “Hey, Mr. Eastwood, are you asking us to play ourselves in this movie? And he says, ‘Yeah, why not? What do you guys think?’ It was as simple as that. Of course, we said yes, we’ve love to.”
When Eastwood left the room, the enormity of that hit them. When the filmmaker returned, they asked if he could help them plunge into acting lessons.
“No, you don’t want to do that,” Eastwood told them. “Because then, it will like you’re acting.”
So the three real life heroes, who’d never acted before, simply trusted a director whose movies they loved. Talk about flying blind.
“He doesn’t like rehearsals, apparently, so I never rehearsed anything, either,” Stone said. “In the beginning, we would shoot maybe eight or nine takes per angle, and then that got shorter, down to maybe two three and then a lot of times I did it once and he was like, ‘alright,’ and that was it. I said, okay. I had to trust him.”
Stone did a bit of sneaking around, working out his first scene with actor Sinqua Walls the night before shooting began, and relying on that actor and Judy Greer (who played the mother of his character seen at a younger age) as sounding boards ever since. For a career Air Force guy, the intangibles of acting proved jolting, especially since Stone and his partners didn’t watch dailies. Eastwood feared those would make them self-conscious.
“The hardest part was figuring if I was doing a good job or not,” Stone said. “I had no idea. I asked people but even if they told me yes, I didn’t believe that they would tell me if I sucked. The difference in being a good soldier and actor is that in the Air Force, you see results and our worth is defined by numbers. As an actor, your results are based on other people’s opinions.”
Those opinions came in the form of reviews, and many were not kind. Stone read only one, in Rolling Stone, and then stopped. Most reviewers seized on the meandering pace of the film leading to that heart-stopping train confrontation, and for his decision to cast the real heroes who hadn’t acted before.
Stone took his own solace from what he saw onscreen, particularly the depiction of the train scene.
“What I really cared about, to be honest, was the train sequence and how it was portrayed in the movie,” he said. “This was exactly how I pictured it in my mind, and exactly how it happened in real time. I’ve broken down those moments since then and I was proud of myself, for rising to the occasion, and that I did what I always hoped I would do in a situation like that. It’s always disappointing when you say something about yourself to yourself and then the moment comes and you’re mad at yourself because, dang it, Spencer, why didn’t you do what you’d always said you would. I was glad I did.”
So after a spectacular couple years spent stopping a terrorist and saving hundreds of life, then fighting off attackers and surviving near fatal knife wounds, then making his screen debut as the star of a Clint Eastwood feature and weathering the reviews that likely would come with anyone without experience under his belt, Stone is now drilling down in hopes of turning acting into his next career, along with his motivational speaking and the reality show on heroes for TV. He’s starting on the ground floor, learning the craft so he can grow more comfortable onscreen, with acting lessons and an audition process he called “humbling.”
He has his supporters like Judy Greer, who costarred in the Eastwood film and has helped him figure out the working actor’s life.
“[Spencer] was so committed and honest and focused,” Greer told Deadline. “I guess it helped that he actually experienced everything in real time, but still, after spending a month with him, and getting to know him as a friend afterwards, I can see that he’d be that devoted to his craft no matter what. He was eager to do the work, talk about the scenes, the craft of acting, and has no ego about what he does and doesn’t know. It’s refreshing to work with someone who cares so much about the process.
“Even though it was his first film, his confidence calmed me down, and I was supposed to be the veteran actor making him feel better,” Greer said. “We were all in awe of Clint, but Spencer’s charisma and work ethic had us all completely charmed and excited to dig in every day so we could tell the story. Since filming, I’ve tried to lend an ear whenever I can. There’s something so refreshing about his openness and presence, and I have no doubt he has the ability to work a lot in this industry. We spoke of different paths he could take, and I’m excited to see what’s next for him in this industry. Personally, I’d like it to be a comedy because he’s damn funny.”
What’s clear from the movie is that nothing came easy to Stone, from school work to turning himself into a good soldier, but that he worked at it until he became someone who could rise to the occasion. He’s content to do that, again.