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Director Anthony Hemingway was able to flex his ability to work with ensemble casts when he started working on ‘Red Tails’. When casting began, nearly every young African American actor was looking for the opportunity to be a part of this film. Hemingway understood this and was eager to accommodate.
“A film like this, especially for black actors, doesn’t come along too often.” Hemingway says. “And, I didn’t want to make any offers, so everyone had their chance to come in and win a role.” Hemingway, producer Rick McCallum and casting director Alex L. Fogel held auditions in Los Angeles, New York and London. “It was amazing,” Hemingway recalls, “and it was so hard to pare down the list because so many great actors came in front of us.”
Furthermore, Hemingway wanted to avoid any actor that had appeared in one of the previously released movies about the Tuskegee Airmen or even any recent war movies. “They are all amazing actors and I’d like to work with them in the future, but I wanted this film to stand alone.”
Anchoring the fresh talent of the Red Tails flyboys were two veteran actors filling out the roles of important and inspiring commanders. Golden Globe and Academy Award nominated actor Terrence Howard (Hustle & Flow, Iron Man, Ray) plays Colonel A.J. Bullard, while Academy Award winner Cuba Gooding Jr. (Jerry Maguire, Men of Honor) plays Major Emmanuel Stance. These actors were the only ones not to audition.
In the case of Gooding Jr., Hemingway made an exception to his own casting rule for Red Tails. “Cuba is always someone I’ve wanted to work with, but he had been in another film about the Tuskegee Airmen.” Hemingway notes. “But he beat down the door to get to us and asked to be a part of it.”
“This is such an important story to tell that I wanted to be a part of it, no matter what,” says Gooding Jr., a sentiment shared by Howard.
“Colonel Bullard is an incredible character,” says Howard, “who is like the Martin Luther King, Jr. of the Army Air Corps. George Lucas is standing behind this and it’s been his beloved project for over 20 years. He picked a talented young director and gave him all the resources to tell a great American story without the unnecessary hype, but just the real life story about the Red Tails and a more truthful history about America and the contribution that black people have made to it.”
While Gooding Jr. and Howard form the inspiring leadership in Red Tails, the emotional core of the movie belongs to the reckless ace Joe “Lightning” Little (played by David Oyelowo) and his squadron leader, Marty “Easy” Julian (played by Nate Parker).
“These are great characters because they’re two guys who have immense respect for each other and what they’re all about, but at the same time they keep butting heads,” says screenwriter John Ridley. “They’re like brothers and they love each other, but they see the world differently. One of the great things in life and in this story is that they push each other like only two guys who are tight can.”
Oyelowo and Parker confidently landed these memorable roles. “Those two came in and it was so obvious right away that they were those characters,” says Hemingway. “They killed their auditions and it was really hard to see anyone else in those roles.”
Producer Rick McCallum was equally sold on the two. “I had heard of David from a friend of mine who was working on a film with him for the BBC. He came in, didn’t say a word, did the reading and walked out. We knew we had cracked it and it was the same situation with Nate Parker.”
Oyelowo saw himself as Lightning as soon as he read the script. “I was passionate about this guy from day one,” he says. “What I loved about him is that he exuded the confidence and invincibility that you feel when you are a young man. It just seemed to me that Lightning embodied so much of what was necessary in order to be someone in their early 20s who is going to get into a plane that can go between 300-500 miles per hour and be shot at and shoot at other people, and just expect to make it home that night.”
For Nate Parker, taking on the role of Easy was an amazing challenge. “To me, he is a very complex character and that excited me.” Parker says. “The thing about Easy was that he wasn’t just a pilot, he was also a flight leader, and as the leader he always felt the pressure. If someone died, it was his fault.
If they failed a mission, lost a bomber or let Colonel Bullard down, it was his fault. It all rested on his shoulders, because he was given this responsibility to lead.”
Michael B. Jordan, Clifford Smith (Method Man), Tristan Wilds and Andre Royo were all actors that Hemmingway worked with previously on The Wire. “They didn’t get the role because of that,” he says. “They all earned the role, but I loved that they were a part of Red Tails.”
Andre Royo relished the challenge of playing Coffee, the squadron’s crew chief and he automatically got the gravity of his role. “If the mechanic didn’t fix the plane properly, then that pilot didn’t come back. That’s a heavy burden and I wanted to make this character serious and heartfelt.”
Hemingway knew of Ne-Yo’s talents from Stomp the Yard. “He did a great job on that film, so when we started thinking outside of the box to ensure this cast was really diverse and eclectic, his name came up.”
McCallum particularly recalls Ne-Yo’s audition. “He was a bit of a stretch, but there are all these music guys that also want to act and we figured we should try to meet them,” he says. “Ne-Yo got it. He brought that character of Smokey to the audition. He walked in with a little wad of chewing tobacco (that was really licorice) in his lip. He’d worked out his entire character. It was great.”
Ne-Yo was the perfect complement to Elijah Kelley, who played Samuel ‘Joker’ George. “Both of those guys are from the south, they know the lingo and they bounced off each other,” Hemingway says.
Finding just that right blend was vital to the success of the film, Hemingway says, especially since this is an ensemble cast. “We had to study the palette of how these actors looked together, how their chemistry was together and how they affected the story. Looking at how it ended up, I can wholeheartedly say that every one of them were meant to be part of this film.”
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