I usually don’t post articles that are considered old news, but I found this piece so well-written and inspiring, that I figured what the eff.
Some of you might rememer James Ransone from HBO’s The Wire, Ken Park, or Generation Kill–and if you do happen to know who he is, congrats, you’re a cool person. Last weekend I saw Ken Park for the first time (NOT for the weak stomach) and was completely shocked and struck by his performance as an angry teen who (SPOILER) winds up brutally killing his grandparents because his grandfather cheated in a game of Scrabble. It was a pretty crazy role, and he handled it greatly.
But after a Google search, I also had a lot of admiration for him too. About a year ago, James wrote this article for Malibu Magazine, and did so with candid honesty and potency. You’ll have to read the whole thing to really get it, but trust me, it’s a really inspiring piece. ALSO one thing that was not mentioned in this article is that James recently saved a girl from a rapist by beating him down with a metal bar (story here). See, what’s not to love about him?
Twenty-seven is a strange age in the most Joseph Campbell sense of the number, especially for the male persuasion. It is the time when you realize you’re not 20 anymore, that whatever clever antics you may have done at a younger age now make you cringe. You’re also coming up hard on 30 and I think you start to evaluate the path that you’re on. Twenty-seven is the age when rock stars die and become legends, but to me it marked the death of my youth, when my past caught up with me and punched me in the head.
I weighed 115 pounds, was about 30 grand in debt and had developed a pretty healthy heroin habit. I had a few accomplishments under my belt as far as my career was concerned: I had been in some successful movies and television shows, and a few almost-successful rock bands. I was “cool” (in my mind at least) to a handful of downtown Manhattan degenerates. Things got so out of control in my head, that at one point I remember being offended when my agency would send me scripts for roles as “the junkie.” Looking back, I was far from the person I wanted to be. I was quickly on my way to being a 30-year-old adolescent. Twenty-seven changed that.
I was involved in a five-year relationshipwith a wonderful woman who I loved very much. It had run its course. Or to put it more succinctly: she got fed up with my bullshit and finally decided to leave. Let’s face it — junkies don’t tend to make the best boyfriends.
This set off a chain of events that led me to sober up and step up to the table as far as being a man was concerned. There were a lot of things going on inside me that I hadn’t faced, or at the very least, refused to acknowledge for a long time. There were a lot of hard corners in me that needed to be softened. I had no idea what the results were going to be as far as taking some responsibility for my past, but the outcome has been pretty remarkable.
It’s funny what happens to you when you decide — or are forced to decide — to make positive changes for yourself, because in my experience it starts a nuclear chain reaction. Change is painful no matter what form it takes. I’ve learned that the only constant in this weird life is, in fact, change. If I’m not going through it, something is wrong.
I feel like I evolved into the human being I had hoped to become while living in Africa working on a miniseries for HBO called Generation Kill, based on the book by the same name written by Evan Wright about his time embedded with a battalion of reconnaissance Marines during the initial six weeks of the invasion of Iraq. The book is basically an apolitical, true-life account of what it’s like to be on the ground as an enlisted serviceman in modern warfare. Ostensibly, it’s a road-trip story. Writers David Simon and Ed Burns adapted the screenplays with Wright, and I had worked with the pair previously on HBO’s The Wire. When I arrived in Namibia — where I was to live for seven months while filming the show — I had no idea what to expect. I had landed the part of Cpl. Ray Person, the sped-up Marine who drove the point Humvee in Iraq in March of 2003. The role itself was much bigger than I had anticipated. The amount of work cut out for me had yet to sink in.
The day I turned 28, I was participating in a simulated night mission that marked the end of a boot camp that all the actors were required to participate in before we began filming. It was kind of unreal how much had changed in a year.
Part of the catalyst for growth was the job itself, but much of the credit can go to the people with whom I got to share the experience. During this time, I became acquainted with two guys who changed my life.
Eric Kocher and Jeff Carizales are two Marines who fought together in OIF1 (Operation Iraqi Freedom). They had been brought to Africa to be military accuracy advisers during production, and their input was instrumental to the credibility of the show. Not only are they Marines, but they are two of the actual guys about whom Evan Wright wrote in his book. So here are these two dudes, reliving the drama of their lives, watching actors interpret their stories so that they are portrayed as accurately as possible. I think the word “trippy” comes to mind. I had no idea that I was going to end up loving these guys as much as I do.
Eric Kocher is imposing in the most terrifying sense. Imagine a shorter version of the Incredible Hulk with Tom Selleck’s face and a brain filled with an encyclopedic knowledge of military history and modern warfare tactics. By age 28, he had served in the Marine Corps for close to 10 years and done more than five combat tours in both Iraq and Afghanistan. While on a combat mission in Iraq, his Humvee was hit by a rocket- propelled grenade that nearly blew his arm off. Another member of his team, who was in the back of the truck, lost both of his hands in this same attack. Later, he would tell me that he himself pulled out the pins that had been surgically implanted in his hands so that he could get back to combat sooner. When people ask about the insane scar on his right arm he usually tells them it’s from an old “skateboardin’ accident.” He is one of the funniest people I know. For as intense as his appearance is, he’s one of the most loyal and kind-hearted human beings I have ever met.
The other Marine I befriended was Jeff Carizales. He drove the same Humvee that Eric was in during the invasion in of Iraq. He is 100 percent Texan, through and through. He is the type of person who will insult you within seconds of making your acquaintance, only to test your resolve. It’s hard to sum up Jeff in anything short of an epic poem. When I first met him in a bar in Africa, I wanted to punch him in the face within about three minutes. He insulted my clothes, the city I lived in and my general way of life. We only started to bond after we opened up about the demise of both our long-term relationships and our mutual disdain for most actors. Certain anecdotes can paint a better picture. For example, while traveling in Europe recently, he would meet other international backpackers and tell these elaborate stories about what he does for a living. He liked to regale these people by telling them that he was a small-arms dealer training guerilla forces in northern Africa so they could overthrow their governments. The truth is, he is an engineering student at Texas A&M. When he flew home from Europe, he thought it would be funny to dress up in Chechnyan mujahedeen garb, thereby convincing airport security that he was a terrorist. Yes, this is the man I spent seven months with.
These guys introduced me to a side of life with which I had been unfamiliar. In some way, they reconnected me to myself. As a shit-bag junkie who lived in New York, I rarely came across servicemen unless they were sailors visiting the city during Fleet Week, in which case they were usually just in the way on my way to the bar. My father is a Vietnam vet, and my natural inclination towards people who would volunteer for that life could politely be described as “resistant.” I just never understood why someone would knowingly sign up for something that seemed so conformist, in my opinion. I was way off base in this assumption.
Let’s start first by saying that I don’t support this war or the reasons why we are over there. I am of the school of thought that we should clean up our own yard before we start to clean up someone else’s. Having said that, the people I have met who are in the armed forces are doing a uniquely un- American thing. It’s unique in the sense that we grew up in a country of excess, to the extent that in this post-industrial, post-sexual-revolution age in America, my generation gets to live off the fat of the land without developing a work ethic that generations before ours seemed to have had. In the age of short attention spans and reality television, Marines are a group of people that actually strive to go against that excess. As Wright points out in his book, “they have chosen asceticism and assimilation over the idea of being an individual” who can dream big and be the next American Idol winner. Out of this, it seems, comes maturity.
There is a school of thought that seems to imply that as Westerners, we have lost a certain amount of our identity because the rites of passage into adulthood are viewed as archaic. There is no tradition for sending boys out into the wild, not to return home until they came back men. To a large extent, the Marines seem to have experienced these rites, and for a short amount of time, I did as well. While living in Africa, Eric and Jeff forced me to grow up,to look at things differently.
We forged this bond by taking long road trips while filming the series. The production itself was grueling. We had six-day work weeks, but anytime that we would have more than 24 hours off, we would plan these insane adventures and take off on a whim with little more than half a tank of gas and a change of underwear. Most weekends we would drive 10 hours to Cape Town to blow off steam. On longer breaks we would look on a giant map of the continent, pick a spot and point our car towards it. We would have made Hemingway proud.
I can’t tell you how many times Eric and Jeff got me nearly killed, whether it was while we were breaking into Botswana, nearly drowning in the Zambezi river, or avoiding getting trampled by elephants. Our road trips got to be so infamous that the producers would send out memos specifically targeted at our little tribe, letting us know that we were an insurance risk. It’s generally considered a bad thing if one of your actors dies during production — from a business perspective, anyway. In fact, Eric and Jeff always wanted to know the location of the closest U.S. Embassy in case I did die so they could fly back to the states and not get sued by HBO.
During these trips, I really felt alive. My brother (who was with us on some of these adventures) pointed out that it was because these guys have truly lived. They have been around more death and destruction than I could possibly imagine or cope with, yet their vitality is undeniable. I don’t remember a time that my stomach didn’t hurt from laughing. I dealt with more insults and put-downs from them than anyone could imagine, but after a while I came to realize that they were forcing me to examine my shortcomings and actually do something about them. They have a fraternal bond that I envy. For a little while, I got to experience it. They treated me as a brother and tenderized me like a piece of steak, because, at the end of the day, they wanted me at my strongest.
Living in Africa with Eric and Jeff was the best experience of my life so far. The art that imitated life was imitated by life again on our road trips. The irony was that after a breakup forced me to re-examine myself, some of the most romantic moments I have had in my life were with these psycho jarheads — but not in a “gay” way.
It’s been a year since we started production on Generation Kill. I recently turned 29, and by the time this article comes out, the show will be airing. I talk to Jeff and Eric regularly. I miss them and that time in my life. Regardless of whether the show is popular or not, I am a stronger human being because of the experiences I had with them and what they taught me. I will have that for the rest of my life. This August, I plan on taking a motorcycle trip in Mexico with them. There is part of me that hopes not to return, knowing that it wouldn’t be any fun if those two weren’t trying to get me killed somehow every day we’re on the road. I think I can honestly say that while I do not support this war, I do support our troops.
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