I showered and met the director, Terry George, and Bill Paxton for breakfast.
Bill and I were already tight. I met him two days earlier sitting across the aisle from me on the flight over. He laughed at my t-shirt and sweatpants combo. He was wearing a suit jacket and slacks. He told me his father insisted when traveling, business attire was required.
I was embarrassed I was underdressed but wanted to be comfortable. I told him a really uptight rich guy standing behind me in line for First Class tapped me on the shoulder and told me to get in line for economy. I showed him my ticket (I’m embarrassed to admit I did that, like a schoolboy being asked to produce a hall pass) and noticed his ticket was for Business. I wouldn’t have done it if he hadn’t pulled the first dick move, but I told him Business was the next line over. He went and stood in a line about twenty deep and I waved to him.
The guy sitting next to Bill was polite and asked if I wanted to switch seats so we could talk. Over the course of the next twenty hours, we got close as brothers.
Deplaning at Seoul, we caught a glimpse of Mike Culbert, Bill’s personal assistant, sitting forty rows deep, stuck in the middle of the bird. A big, strong, fit, kid, 6’ 2” 220 pounds, he looked miserable. Bill waved and Mike flipped him the bird.
A buffet-style spread was laid out for breakfast. There was standard Western stuff, like scrambled eggs, bacon and pancakes, but Thai food as well.
Terry was awesome. He was funny and had a big heart, but could be intense. His wife and kids were with him. Terry’s sister, Catherine, was working on the film in the costume department. We got through introductions and Terry asked how I was liking Thailand.
“It’s beautiful. People are great. But I almost got killed this morning.”
He asked what I was talking about and I told him about the dog attack.
“Doi dogs,” he said. “That’s what they call them. There are millions of them in the country. Since Thais are Buddhist, they don’t like the idea of euthanasia, so they dump dogs on the street rather than put them down. They don’t spay or neuter, either. You got lucky.”
I learned a lot from Terry. He was both an open book and a mystery. Part of that I figured was from his growing up in Belfast during the height of the Troubles, a spell that culminated with him doing years in Long Kesh Prison as a suspected member of the IRA. He could be fierce, and in those moments I saw flashes of a man who’d lived through serious shit. Other times, he was deeply caring and soft, especially when it came to the way he spoke of his wife and doted over his youngest son, Seamus. He was generous as a collaborator. I was playing Neil Sheehan, the famous journalist whose book (a Pulitzer Prize winner) the film was based on. We’d have long sessions while he was writing the narration, and I was flattered he gave thought to my opinions. It was a Herculean task to take an eight hundred page book and make it into a two-hour film.
The cast and crew were incredible. Along with Bill and Ed, there was Eric Bogosian, Harve Presnell, Kurtwood Smith, Vivian Wu, my sister, Karina, Amy Madigan, and Robert Burke.
Robert wasn’t due into the country for a few weeks and I found myself hanging out a lot with Eric. I was star struck when I met him, although he couldn’t have been more low-key and kind. When I was in college, I saw his one-man show, “Sex, Drugs, Rock & Roll,” and it blew my mind. As much as I was into the show, I more blown away by the power of story-telling; how just one person, alone on stage, could take you on such an epic journey. Eric Bogosian was who I wanted to be. His stories were incredibly poignant and while sometimes profane, always human.
We’d drink tea, talk about life, and Eric told me about NY back in the heyday of the mid-70s— tales of CBGBs and Richard Hell going off at loft parties. One morning, we went for a walk. After watching the elephants for while, I suggested crossing the bridge. Eric seemed hesitant. “It’s alright,” I reassured him, “I've crossed it before.”
We took the first step and Eric froze. “Hold on,” he said. I asked if he was okay and he said he had a crazy fear of heights. He was trying to calm his breathing. I was blown away. Here was a man who’d been so fearless in his life, so incredibly open in sharing his pursuits and misadventures, but in that moment, he stood before me, shaking slightly, sharing an intimate fear.
I felt honored to be with him in that moment. It’s one thing to be bowled over by tales of exploits and conquests, but, in my book, it cuts a thousand times deeper when someone reveals a vulnerability. If I was in awe of him before, I had even more love and empathy for him on that bridge.
In a bit of a bold move, I offered to take his hand. He accepted. Together we stepped to the second plank and stopped. He looked down at the water (which honestly, was a fairly short distance) and took a breath. Together, we stepped to the third. He said, “Enough.”
We laughed and slowly made it back to the edge of the river. On the way back to the hotel, we talked about fears and respecting them: be it of flying, heights, spiders, ticks, speaking in public, whatever. There’s a rational side to fear. At the time I didn’t have any personal phobias (I have a few small ones now), but I’ve always respected other people’s fears because I’m afraid of not being granted a level of understanding of my own.
We made a pact that every day we would try to make it one plank deeper over the bridge.
Later that afternoon, Eric and I took a trip to Erevan National Park in the mountains. I drove. We hiked to a lake under a waterfall famous for butterflies. We came around a turn in the path that revealed the lake and both said, “Wow.” It was stunning. I suggested we go swimming and Eric said, “No, no, not for me. Knock yourself out.”
I dived in and was in a state of bliss. I went deep and saw a school of fish flash past me in the streaks of sunlight under the water. I swam towards the waterfall and when I surfaced, I misjudged my breath and inadvertently took in a huge mouthful of water. Eric noticed my distress from the shore. He waited patiently on a log while I coughed out a lung full of water. The most massive, beautiful, black and white butterfly landed on the lid of Eric’s Yankees baseball cap. Even though I was still hacking water, I took a picture. Somewhere, buried in a box in a barn up in Oregon, is an incredible portrait of Eric Bogosian with a butterfly resting on the lid of his cap.
We made it back to the hotel as the cast and crew were coming back from a long day. I could tell it had been a hard one. Jack and John Conroy, Irish DP legends, were looking for a beer. I joined them, Bill, Mike Culbert and the brilliant costume designer Joan Bergin for dinner. Joan is one of the most incredible human beings (and I was fortunate to be reunited in working with her in the TV series “Vikings” years later). They asked me what I did that day and told them about my trip. I got some shit for having free days and acknowledged I was lucky I didn’t have to work every day and had time on my hands.
“But you have a big day tomorrow,” John said. It was true. The next day we were going to shoot a recreation of an infamous event -- the immolation of Buddhist monk Quang Duc in 1963 in protest of the Diem regime and the war.
After dinner, Bill said he arranged for the hotel to set up a TV and a VCR for us in a little room off the dining hall so we could watch “Patton” with George C. Scott.
The film started, Scott stepped in front of a massive American flag to deliver one of the most famous speeches in cinematic history, when Bill asked if I could grab him a beer from the cooler. I said, “Sure.” I grabbed the beer and froze. Bill asked if I was alright and I said, "I don’t know." I was incredibly dizzy.
That’s the last thing I remember. I guess at some point I was back in my hotel room, projectile vomiting, going from the toilet to the bath to lying on the floor. Someone from production came by my room because apparently, I had called the front desk (clearly hallucinating) saying I was in a local hospital and afraid the IV they were giving me would infect me with AIDS.
A doctor showed up and I don’t know how, but after getting a horse-sized injection of penicillin and drinking a quart of Imodium, I made it to work the next day and we shot the scene of the monk lighting himself on fire.
I told the story to Mel Gibson years a couple of years later on “The Patriot,” and he told me the same thing happened to him when he was working on “Gallipoli.”
"When we shot the scene where we raced to the pyramids, I was dying. You got parasites from the mountain water. You should see someone about that because you still have them. I've had mine since 1980. I go to a guy in Chinatown. I’ll give you his number.”