SALT LAKE CITY — This weekend, a new film from director Joseph Kosinski tells the story of the tragic Yarnell Hill Fire, which claimed the lives of 19 wildland firefighters southwest of Prescott, Arizona, in June 2013. For the veteran cast of “Only the Brave,” re-creating the story of the Granite Mountain Hotshots was a unique, moving and unforgettable experience.
The first half of the film follows Prescott Fire Crew 7 as they work to qualify as the first city crew to achieve Tier 1 “hotshot” status, meaning they deal directly with wildfires. Later, re-dubbed the “Granite Mountain Hotshots,” the firefighters battle a series of fires throughout Arizona until the film culminates with the Yarnell Hill Fire.
The leader of the Granite Mountain crew was superintendent Eric Marsh, played in the film by Oscar-nominated actor Josh Brolin. Eric's wife Amanda is played by Oscar-winning actress Jennifer Connelly, and Connelly was able to work with the real-life Amanda as she prepared for her role.
“I really enjoyed spending time with her,” said Connelly in a phone interview. “She strikes me as someone who’s incredibly strong and resilient and brave, but also really loving and open-hearted and really honest.”
While Eric fights fires, his wife has her own career, tending to abused horses. Fortunately for Connelly, Amanda was able to help the actress with the more physical aspect of her role, since, Connelly admitted, “I was quite intimidated by horses.” Amanda also helped Connelly with important background information to give context to the scenes between her and Brolin, as they wrestle with the life-threatening nature of his job.
For Connelly, the opportunity to play a real woman that she got to know carried a great deal of responsibility.
“I feel beholden to her,” shared Connelly. “I feel it’s important for me to honor her and respect what she wants made of her life and her marriage.”
Actor James Badge Dale, who portrays Eric’s right-hand man Jesse Steed, was impressed not only by Steed's physical stature, but by his character. “This guy was a lot of things I’m not,” Dale said. “He had the strength and the bravery to look people in the eye and say, ‘I love you.’”
Family themes run through Kosinski’s film, echoed in the reflections of its stars. “(Steed's) wife told me that he would go work 16 hours a day on the line, cutting line with these guys,” Dale said, “and then come home and be with her and the kids as if he hadn’t even gone to work. He had that much to give.”
For actor Miles Teller’s character Brendan McDonough, the concept of family was something relatively new. At the beginning of the film, McDonough is a struggling drug addict who finds his determination to join Marsh’s crew when he becomes a father for the first time. To re-create McDonough's journey to become a Hotshot, Teller and his cast mates were trained by firefighters who had worked on the Granite Mountain crew — a unique experience for the star of 2014’s “Whiplash.”
“This entire cast bonded in a way that I hadn’t experienced on a film before,” explained Teller. “People weren’t hanging out in their trailers, you know. We were hanging outside and working out together, and playing horseshoes together, and playing guitar together. It was awesome, man.”
Of course, there was also a lot of hard work involved to get to that point.
“They beat us up!” laughed Dale. “They had five former Granite Mountain Hotshots, and they came to train us and they were like, ‘let’s torture some actors, man.’ They wanted us to have a taste of it.”
The presence of real-life Hotshots — including McDonough — was especially valuable for Teller, who played the only member of the original crew to survive the Yarnell blaze after being separated from the rest of the Hotshots. When it came time to film McDonough's reaction to the news of their deaths, a firefighter who was actually with McDonough at the time was on set. Following Teller’s performance, he gave the actor a hug.
“He said I was (McDonough) that day,” shared Teller.
Dale was determined to be a part of the film ever since reading a New York Times write-up on the Yarnell fire while he was on the subway. “As actors, the greatest gift you could have is telling a story that has meaning,” Dale said. By the time the cast sat down at a recent premiere with the firefighters’ families in Arizona, he felt he’d been a part of something special.
“It’s not something that happens very often in Hollywood,” said Dale. “But this is something that we all aspire to.”
“It felt like a really important story to tell,” Connelly explained. “I liked being a part of it as a tribute to them, as an act of remembrance. And then as a kind of tribute to first responders and their families everywhere.”
Working with the real-life Amanda Marsh and McDonough was invaluable to Connelly and Teller, but Dale also felt a strong connection to his character.
“You know,” says Dale, “I never met (Steed). He passed away in 2013. But I can sit here and tell you with all honesty, four years later, that this man I’ve never met has given me something. I’ve learned from him. And you know, I think I have more to give as a human being because of him.”
Joshua Terry is a freelance writer and photographer who also teaches English composition for Weber State University. You can also find him on YouTube.