Actor Jake McDorman On the ‘American Sniper’ Phenomenon

If we need to tell you who Jake McDorman plays in American Sniper, then it means you're one of three people in the country who haven't seen one of the biggest surprise hits in Hollywood history. By now, we all know the story of Bradley Cooper's searing war drama, but here's a quick refresher. Cooper plays Navy SEAL Chris Kyle, the deadliest marksman in U.S. history who was credited with nearly 200 kills during his tours in Iraq. McDorman, who's been racking up credits in movies and TV for over a decade, plays Kyle's friend and fellow SEAL, Biggles. His performance is both lighthearted and heartbreaking, a testament to McDorman's range as an actor. We caught up with him recently to talk about the unexpected phenomenon American Sniper has become, working alongside Bradley Cooper, and what we can take away from this incredible story.

Did you ever anticipate these kinds of numbers for American Sniper?I try to never anticipate anything, really. It’s so far out of my control at that point.

What was your reaction when you first saw the numbers?I think it took me awhile to believe it was happening. You get looped into these email chains of everyone involved with the movie saying ‘holy shit. we broke this record, we broke that record.’ But those statistics weren’t anything I followed beforehand. So it took me awhile to realize, wow. People are really responding to this movie. And that’s so great. That’s all we can hope for.

There's been a lot of drama surrounding the release of the movie. Have you been paying attention to it?You know, I haven’t really. So much of my responsibility is invested during the filmmaking process. Every actor on screen is portraying a real person in this movie. And all of us had some form of contact with that person or the people close to that person while we were making the movie. Some more than others. I think the drama that would have gotten my attention would’ve been if those people had felt exploited or marginalized in any way. And thankfully their reaction to the film has been very favorable.

How do you think Chris Kyle would react to the phenomenon the movie has become?Well I can’t speak for Chris Kyle, but I would hope he'd be proud of the awareness it’s brought to the struggle our veterans go through readjusting back home as well as on the battlefield.

Bradley Cooper gives a career best performance. What was it like working alongside him and witnessing his commitment?I only really met Bradley Cooper at the premiere in New York. And I know that’s such a trite thing to say. That kind of comment always surrounds these immersive performances, but it’s true. He was so committed. Obviously physically, but also emotionally. There was a fluidity from on set to off set. It never felt like he was being switched on and then switched off. He just was.

What did you learn from him in terms of acting?One thing I learned from this project and working with Bradley in particular was to avoid playing into the drama of the situation. It’s very easy to make that mistake given the subject matter. To look at a scene or an event and label it as sad or overwhelming. That’s a testament to his work understanding Chris. These guys’ didn’t have time to reflect. It could actually get you killed.

Tell us about the character you play.I play Ryan Job who was part of SEAL Team 3 with Chris Kyle. He and Chris formed a very tight bond while in BUDs training that lasted through their tours in Iraq. Ryan is one of the people that the book American Sniper is dedicated to along with Marc Lee and Chris’ family.

Has the movie's overwhelming success affected your day-to-day life in any way?It hasn’t too much. I’ve had a few people come up and recognize me from the movie. Those encounters are different than anything else I’ve been recognized for because of the subject matter and weight of the film. It’s a very different conversation than getting recognized for a comedy or television series.

In preparing for this role, what was the most interesting thing you learned about SEALs? To become a Navy SEAL you have to endure the most rigorous training process ever designed. As physically grueling as it is, it’s almost more about mental discipline. Some 300 people sign up and only 35 people make it or something ridiculous like that. We show some of that in the film.

Have you heard of the "fake baby" controversey surrounding the movie? What are your thoughts on that?I have heard about this. My friend sent me a College Humor video on Youtube where the baby keeps changing from one doll to another then into a watermelon and so on. I can honestly say when I watched the film I didn’t notice it. And all movies have a bit of Scotch Tape holding them together if you look hard enough. There’s a crew member in a black t-shirt walking through Gladiator. There’s a white van driving through Braveheart.

What is it about American Sniper that has struck such a chord with audiences?My hope is that the movie illustrates the effects war has on the people who fight and the people at home. There are parts of soldiers’ personalities that they have to sacrifice or compartmentalize to survive the conditions of war. It’s without those parts that can make it difficult for them to readjust back home. It’s like this pendulum that’s swinging from one extreme to the other. It’s a war movie that isn’t about the war. It’s about the person.

Photo by Brantley Gutierrez