Noel Fisher is no stranger to portraying real figures in history, but the “Hatfields & McCoys” alum says he has never felt more responsibility, nor been so close in time to the real man he was portraying as with his role in “The Long Road Home.” In the limited series based on Martha Raddatz’s book, Fisher stars as Tomas Young, the Iraq war veteran who famously became a war protester after being paralyzed during an ambush in Sadr City only days after being sent to fight overseas.
“Tomas’ story is one of those stories where once you know it, it’s just impossible not to be touched by it and changed by it in a very profound way,” Fisher tells Variety. “The thing that weighed on me the most through the shooting of the series was just the sense of responsibility. It’s hard for me to pinpoint what meant more to me or what I found more important than that.”
Although Fisher admits he didn’t know a lot about Young prior to this project, he says that once he received the sides for the audition, he felt it was important to get to know more about Young as a man and as a soldier, as well as about the family and life he was leaving behind when he went off to Iraq. He first watched the 2007 documentary about Young (“Body of War”), which he acknowledges, was the moment he first realized he didn’t know if he “ever wanted a part as much as I wanted this.”
Fisher then flew to Kansas to meet Young’s mother, his brothers and some of his best friends. He felt it was the only way he would “have a hope at shouldering the responsibility” of telling the man’s story since he is no longer here to tell it for himself. (Young passed away in 2014.)
“I got to be embraced by this family who’s gone through this incredible and tragic situation. That was something that was of utmost importance to me in taking this part,” Fisher says.
Ahead of Fisher’s defining “The Long Road Home” episode, he talks with Variety about how he got to know Young, what he used as motivation during some of the most emotional scenes, and what he learned about the military that he hopes others will take away from this show as well.
Any time you play a real person, there are historical documents on which you can base a performance, yet you must still want to be able to put your own stamp on the character. How did you tow the line of truth for your performance as Tomas?
The script and Mikko Alanne really helped with that. There was a lot of energy — everyone’s heart and soul was very clearly in making this as honest a representation as this can be. That being said, there are very clear differences, even from Martha Raddatz’s book, in the story. For instance, the truck that Tomas Young was in was not the same one that Arsiaga or some of the other people were in. I think on Black Sunday a total of three went into Sadr City, and I believe Tomas was in the second of those, but there’s things like that you have to do because there’s literally thousands of people who are involved in this entire story, and you can’t tell everybody’s story, so you just do the best you can with presenting the idea and some of the particulars. It’s not a documentary.
Does it help to have his story so clearly laid out from the jump in a limited series like this, as opposed to learning new bits about a character over time in an ongoing series?
Absolutely. I think it allows you as an actor to really clearly lay out the arc and where you want to be in any given moment. We also shot in, basically, episodic chronological order, and that helped a lot as well because it’s a huge, sweeping story, and you want to show that growth for the person you’re playing. It’s helpful to have that laid out for you because then you can step back and allow yourself to be in the moment, to be spontaneous, and to be surprised, which will hopefully make things better. It’s a lot easier to relax into if you have the overall foundation there.
How well-versed in the military were you before “The Long Road Home,” and how did working on it change the way you thought about that environment?
I didn’t know anything about the military, really, before this — not in any real way. Something that I’ve actually found really informative, and this is one of my favorite things about being an actor, is when I get to do parts that expose me to ideas, groups of people, beliefs that are foreign to me. When I am lucky enough to do a part like this, it’s a real learning experience, and something that was really eye-opening to me and beautiful to me was really getting to know the people on this project that are active military or had been active military. I think when a lot of people think of the army, it’s this large, vague concept, and something that I think this story does really well is talking about the people — individual people and lives that are profoundly impacted. It’s much more personal, and I think that that’s something that can get lost in the noise a lot of time, especially for the civilian population. It’s far too easy to keep it at a conceptual level as an unknown entity. But it’s not that. There are thousands of Tomas Youngs out there, and there are tens of thousands of active military who come away with wounds you can’t see but are just as serious as the ones Tomas went through. I think that’s something important to remember.
The sixth episode really explores Tomas’ injuries. What did you have running through your mind to inform Tomas’ reaction in the immediate aftermath of the attack?
In the scene directly after the ambush, what kept me in the emotional place I wanted to be was conversations with his mother. I didn’t expect that, but for some reason that’s what really struck me. When any military member goes into war or conflict, there’s the actual active member, and then there’s the other totally vulnerable position that their friends and family find themselves in, and that’s what was really going through my mind a lot — the incomprehensible pain and worry and anguish that his mother and every member’s family goes through.
The episode also explores how the experience changed Tomas. How much time will future episodes spend with him in his new life once he has returned home?
Episode 6 is the only episode where you’re going to jump into the future. That’s one of the things that makes the episode unique in the series — it’s the only one that does that. Episodes go back into a character’s past and shows them and their home life and how they ended up where they are. For the rest of the show, you see him from time to time in the evacuation from Sadr City, but because so much of Tomas’ story is about what he became and this incredibly strong voice [he developed], we see more.
How do you feel about that strong voice being used against the war Tomas just fought?
The best answer I have for that is a conversation that I had with another soldier and something I learned about the military. It’s portrayed as “one size” — you think of one kind of person. It’s a very large group of people, and you may think they have one set of beliefs, but that could not be further from the truth. There are people from all parts of the political spectrum, religions, or whatever — they have different perspectives. That’s something that was interesting for me to learn, and one of the soldiers [with whom] I had a conversation about Tomas, said something to the effect of he disagreed with [Tomas’] overall premise, but he absolutely believed that he had the right to that belief because he had earned it. He supported Tomas regardless of whether or not he agreed with Tomas. And I love that idea, and I love that I got to be exposed to that way of communicating about differences.
Watch an exclusive clip from Episode 6 of “The Long Road Home” below:
“The Long Road Home” airs Tuesdays at 10 p.m. on Nat Geo.