Sully tells the amazing true story behind the “Miracle on the Hudson” — the US Airways Flight 1549 that landed on New York’s Hudson River, and the pilot, Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger, who saved the lives of the 155 passengers on board.
This dramatic biopic follows Sully (played Tom Hanks) and his equally heroic co-pilot Jeff Skiles through their unprecedented landing, to the subsequent investigation by the National Transportation Safety Board, as well as the personal and public firestorm that followed.
With the film hitting theaters tomorrow, Golden Globe nominee Aaron Eckhart, who stars as Jeff Skiles, chatted on the phone with Tribute about his role as the charismatic co-pilot, the process of becoming a believable pilot, and his favorite moments working with director Clint Eastwood and co-star Tom Hanks. ~Shelby Morton
This is a prestigious project, considering the amazing story behind it, and the brilliant people involved in it. How did the role of Jeff Skiles come to you?
Well, it’s blue chip all the way. I’m very proud to be involved with this movie, for all the reasons that you just said. Honestly, I don’t know. I don’t know how I got into The Boss’ consciousness. I think maybe one of his secretaries or assistants, maybe, knew who I was and passed my name along. But, my agent called me with this script, I read it, and met with The Boss. We talked, joked around, and he goes “How would you like to play Jeff Skiles?” And I said, “OK.” Haha. It was great to work with him, and it was fun to work with Tom, get to know how to work the planes, and get into these characters.
By “The Boss”…I’m assuming you mean Mr. Clint Eastwood?
Oh yeah, everybody calls him “The Boss.”
Haha, I wonder why! What was your experience like working with “The Boss”?
It was great. I think he’s got a reputation as a pretty economical director in terms of his energy and everything. He just loves actors. He’s always got a sparkle in his eye, a smile on his face, and he’s always making jokes. He really trusts his actors — he doesn’t feel a need to direct. That’s not to say he doesn’t have discussions with you, but he basically trusts you to do your job and that you’re there for a reason. All the way from Tom down to the smallest part. I just love to be around that sort of professionalism. A guy who just knows the business inside and out. And Tom as well, who’s so prepared and such a great performer. It just makes the day so much easier as an actor.
How does one prepare to play an airline pilot?
I obviously got to know my character Jeff Skiles and had some conversations with him. I got to hear the firsthand account of his experience — what was going through his mind, what was his heart rate. What were his feelings afterwards, like sleeplessness and weight loss, basically a form of PTSD. Also, what the NTSB (National Transportation Safety Board ) hearing was like.
I fly a little bit myself, so I got back into the cockpit and flew around, touched the buttons, worked the rudders, to re-familiarize myself with flying. Tom and I visited a simulator up in San Francisco, and flew the actual flight plan out of La Guardia. We taxied the plane and took off, gained elevation, and the birds hit, and we tried to land the plane. So that was fun. Also on the set, we had a completely reassembled A320 in the pool at Universal [Studios]. In pre-production all the way through production, we were always touching the buttons and going through it with the experts, and really familiarizing ourselves. So when the time came to actually put it on film, it all looked pretty believable.
I read that Sully himself helped you practice with the flight simulators?
Yeah, he was there, and that was the first time I met him. It’s interesting because it’s not only flying the plane, we have to make the audience believe that we’re 20, 30 years into a career, plus 10 to 15 years as an amateur. We have to make them believe that flying is our lives. And that’s down to the seatbelt, that’s down to adjusting your seat, the fluidity of touching the buttons, adjusting your pants, your necktie, and putting this thing or that thing away. Your routine. Sully was really meticulous about how that was done; the routine of the cockpit. Because it had to look like any one of us getting in our car and adjusting the radio. It had to really be second nature. He was there also to give us his perspective of the flight and everything that happened afterwards, all of the stardom and the fame. Jeff and Sully had two very different trajectories in this story — Sully became the face of the flight. And Jeff had to take this place, both alongside and behind Sully. And that’s an interesting dynamic between the two.
What surprised you most about these two men?
That this is business as usual. With all their training, that this was, not another day at the office, but it was what they do. It’s not out of the ordinary. I mean, obviously dual engine loss at 3,000 feet is [out of the ordinary]. But that by following the procedures and following their training, most pilots should be able to get you down in that circumstance.
As Sully says in the movie, it wasn’t just his work that saved lives, it was the combined effort of the flight attendants, New York Waterway, air cops, and, of course, his co-pilot. I noticed a real comradery and sense of teamwork between you and Tom on the screen, how did you cultivate that connection?
I just have a tremendous amount of respect for him. He’s one of our greatest actors, and he has a filmography that any young actor would dream of. He’s been a part of my life cinematically for so long. It was easy, because I just have so much admiration for him. We would talk about acting, the theater, our careers, and I would just pick his brain and try to learn from him. Plus, he’s a natural, he’s gregarious, and he’s a storyteller. He has so many great experiences with directors and movies, and you can just sit there and listen to him all day.
He’s definitely an actor I’d like to hang out with.
Haha, everything that comes out of his mouth is like Make a Wish. I remember one time we were walking down 5th Avenue, before we were going to shoot, there was [Steven] Spielberg. And he was just talking to Clint and Tom, they’re all best buddies. And I was like “Oh my gosh. Is he gonna stay here?” It was great. It’s a Who’s Who when you’re talking to these guys. It’s a lot of fun. Plus, with Clint, as well as Tom, you’re talking about movie history. You can go back all the way to Clint’s earliest television and film experiences, and it’s like going to school. You can get a real history lesson.
I’m assuming you all shared in your frustration in regards to the way Sully and Jeff were treated by the NTSB during the aftermath of the flight?
Yeah. It was all condensed for the film, but the actual NTSB hearings were over a year and a half long. I think after a heroic landing that saved all those lives, the fact that they would even be questioned is maddening to people. But, you know, I think it’s in the best interest of aviation that the t’s were crossed and the i’s were dotted, and that they made sure, for insurance purposes, that the pilots followed the rules and regulations and procedures. But it definitely caused the pilots a lot of stress in that time.
You obviously spent a lot of time on a plane, in the cockpit, in the water. What is one of the most memorable moments filming in those unorthodox conditions?
Haha, you know probably just sitting there with Tom in between takes, fiddling with buttons, doing old Airplane! jokes, you know “Roger Roger, Vector Victor.” Just whenever The Boss would come and make a joke. We had a lot of fun in between takes. It was just a lot of fun to be on as an actor.
While this is very much a movie about Sully and his experience, your character boasts, in my opinion, the best line in the movie. When you read the script, were you like “Yes!”?
I was a little nervous that it was really the only joke per se, like the only out-and-out joke in the movie. So, that was actually a funny day, and I was a little worried about it, because whenever you know it’s a joke, it’s always hard to make it a [funny] joke. But when we did it on the day, everybody was in the amphitheater, and I said the line, and everybody laughed. And then, because of the way you make movies, you have to put the cameras on the audience, and so I kept on saying it and saying it and saying it, and everybody laughed and laughed and laughed. So the line became weirder and weirder as it went on. It morphed into something. But it’s a great line, and we managed to pull it off.
Well, you delivered it perfectly, and I definitely laughed.
I think that’s because it was unexpected, too. And that’s where the energy comes from the joke, is that it’s just totally unexpected because it is a pretty serious film. Are there any other places you laughed?
A couple times, mostly at your lines. Jeff definitely added levity, and acted as a relief to some of the heavier scenes.
Sully is a very put together, meticulous man with a very dry sense of humor. Great guy. I think that Jeff is the looser of the two. And I think they needed to add a little bit more of that, in terms of [scenes with] Jeff, in order to help define who Sully is and what he went through.
You have a film called Bleed for This premiering at the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) in just a few days, what can you tell us about that?
Bleed for This is about five-time champ Vinny Pazienza [played by Miles Teller] out of Rhode Island. It’s a true-life story of a heroic warrior, a boxer who broke his neck and came back to win titles. I play Kevin Rooney, who was trained by Cus D’Amato and was once a boxer himself. He also trained Tyson in his heyday. When he was fired by Tyson, his life sort of went downhill, and then he met Vinny Pazienza, and they resurrected each other’s careers. It’s a pretty down-and-out, gritty movie about this wonderful boxer. I think people are pretty excited about it.
Will we be seeing you in Toronto?
Oh yeah, I’ll be in Toronto, for sure.
Great! What else is next for you?
I’m actually trying to direct. I’ll definitely be directing something in the next little while, I’ve just got to find the right project first.
Can’t wait to hear more about it! Thanks for chatting with us, Aaron.