Attention holiday shoppers! If you're looking for a present for the TV fan or history buff in your life, run, don't walk to your nearest Best Buy to pick up HBO's The Pacific.
We cherished every minute of The Pacific when it originally aired this spring, but we had a special affection for those stories that involved Joseph Mazzello as Eugene "Sledgehammer" Sledge, a gentle Southern kid who miraculously emerged whole from the crucible of war. We just caught up with Mazzello, whom you might remember from his key role as the little boy in Jurassic Park, and chatted about his experiences on the shoot, the meaning of the series as a whole, and whether or not Steven Spielberg handed him the part on a silver platter:
What have you been doing these years since Jurassic Park?
Joseph Mazzello: I was in jail. No, just kidding. [Laughs.]
Hey, it's happened to many young actors.
Yeah, I know, I know—that's why it's not that farfetched. But, no, listen, I went to school. I went to USC. I went to film school. I wanted to learn about the other side of the camera a little bit. My parents always instilled in me this feeling of wanting to be a normal person. I never moved out to L.A. as a kid and got into that scene and that whole thing that happens to kid actors that's the reason they go off the deep end. I lived in upstate New York, I went to a regular school, I played kickball—all of the normal things in life were just as important to me as my career. When I got to high school I started turning some things down because I was more interested in regular high school things, as silly as that sounds. And then I wanted to take the SATs, get in [to college] and do the dorm thing and the football games. [But once I got USC] I realized acting is still my number-one thing and still the thing I want to do with my whole life and so I'm trying to do that again.
You were in Steven Spielberg's Jurassic Park when you were 10 and then you took years off and re-emerged in a project produced by Steven Spielberg. Had he been wanting to work with you again? Where did he fit into this process?
Spielberg is, of course, the decision maker at the end of the day, but as much as I wish that were true and he just called me up at home, and said 'Hey, I have this part for you,' he, much like you, didn't think I was acting anymore. He knew I was going to USC because I had seen him a couple years earlier, but he actually told me that on the day that I showed up for my fourth audition for this thing that he looked at his paper and saw my name and that was the first time he even knew I was auditioning for this.
When I got in the room, yes, he gave me a hug, and it was great to see him, but then I knew it was down to business. Steven Spielberg cares too much about his projects to do any actor a favor when $200 million is on the line. He's way too smart for that. I knew he was going to give me a fair shot, I knew that he had known me from the past and had hired me before, so I probably had a leg up there, but then again, I also started thinking 'If he doesn't hire me then does that mean I'm no good anymore?' or 'Does he think I stink now?' All those thoughts went through my head. Luckily, hey, he liked what I did. I actually had to come back in one more time though because Tom Hanks couldn't make that audition and finally, after the fifth audition, I got the part.
Can you pick a scene from the scene that captured Sledge's struggle the most?
The scene that captured the struggle I would say is in episode nine, when the dying Okinawan woman asked him to basically put her out of her misery. He's just on that brink, he's always just on that brink of going over the line and losing his humanity and sanity and all these things, when he sees that woman he realizes why he's here, why they're here, what he's trying to do, what his purpose is and who he really is as a human being and decided not to do that. I think was the thing that kind of brought him back into the real Sledge, allowed him to go on with his life, even though it was very difficult.
Was that scene taken from Sledge's book?
It was taken from Sledge's book but it was modified a bit. But the essence of it was still there.
The war as depicted in the The Pacific seemed to be a much more isolating experience than the European-theater war of Band of Brothers, which on some level is more like a bunch of Boy Scouts going a field trip to fight Nazis. Was that isolation and emptiness something you were conscious of?
I don't think it was an accident—that's one of the reasons the higherups wanted to tell this story in the first place was because it was so different from the European theater. It was a culture that nobody understood at the time. It was islands of dirt, in the middle of this vast ocean, that for some reason were said to be important. They weren't just fighting the enemy, they were fighting malaria, they were fighting the diseases, they were fighting the islands, the conditions and all of those things were absolutely integral to the whole project, and that was one of the things that was very important for everyone to show. We were very conscious of that the whole time.
What was the shooting process like? Did you walk away with any substantial new friendships?
Tons of those. That was actually because it was so difficult. It really was the hardest shoot I've ever done in my life. The most physically and emotionally exhausting experience ever, literally ever, I've ever had. [They told us when we started], 'you guys are going to become so close and this and that' and I'm like 'Yeah, yeah, yeah, like whatever, it's going to be 30 type-A personalities in a room for 10 months and we are going to hate each other.' But it really was the opposite. We honestly did love each other. I still talk to everybody. I didn't expect it, and it is like so cheesy, but it really did happen that way.
You just had a part in The Social Network, and then what's next for you after that? I've been a huge fan since you did The Cure as a child actor back in 1995, and I'm so thrilled you're back working.
Oh thank you, that means so much to me. You know I'm going to keep plugging away. I just got back today, and I've got like 10 scripts to read—my agents and managers are diligently finding me the next project. Acting is always going to be number one but what I learned in film school I want to make that happen too, so I'm going to actually start working on my own. I wrote a script with my girlfriend, and I love it, so I'm going to try and do the hardest thing you can possibly do in Hollywood and that is make your own movie. We'll see how that goes. We're in the beginning stages.
What's it called? What's it about?
It's called The Plains, right now, working title—and it's obviously set there. It's an odd postmodern Western—it's a psychological thriller basically and it's something that developed just this past summer, and we've been rocking and rolling trying to get it ready. So I'm having some people I really trust to look at it and give me some notes and I'm going to try and get it made.
We can't wait to visit Joseph Mazzello's The Plains! Now, what did you think of The Pacific when it aired on HBO earlier this year? (Or will the DVD be your first chance to watch?) Who was your favorite character? Tell us in the comments!