The stars of new military dramedy “68 Whiskey” gathered together for the premiere party at the Sunset Tower Hotel on Jan. 14. The phrase 68 Whiskey is known as the international NATO call sign of military combat medics. As “68 Whiskey” follows the lives of deployed combat medics in the Army at a NATO base, what better name for the show could there possibly be?
This new Paramount show toes the line between comedy and drama perfectly and delivers excellent performances from all. We talked with the cast members and learned about the training they all partook in to portray Army medics. With a real 68 whiskey veteran on set as a consultant, “68 Whiskey” pays great attention to detail.
When asked what drew creator Roberto Benabib to “68 Whiskey,” Benabib responds “the Israeli show was brought to me to be adapted and “MASH” was the reason I wanted to be a filmmaker in the first place so it came together really well and easily for me. It was a subject matter I like, it was a tone I had grown up with and fell in love with so it all kind of came together.”
There are many female soldiers in the show, including Cristina Rodlo who plays Sergeant Rosa Alvarez, a Mexican immigrant who joined the Army with the promise of citizenship. Rodlo speaks of the importance of telling her character’s story in today’s climate. “[Alvarez’s citizenship situation] was one of the main reasons I wanted to do it because she may not be a citizen of the United States but she feels she is a citizen as she has been in this country for as long as she can remember. She may have been born in Mexico but she’s American. To me, she is a dreamer that is what this country is going through and wants to take all the dreamers back to their country but it’s not their country, this is their country. We need to tell this story because we need people to understand that they don’t know another home. Their home the United States of America, that is the only reason she is fighting for this country because that’s [Alvarez’s] home. So when she finds out that her family is being deported and they also want her to discharged and deported, she’s like I’m fighting for a country that doesn’t even think I’m a citizen.”
Each cast member approached the task of playing a soldier with great respect. Gage Golightly who plays Grace Durkin speaks about what drew her to the role. “What drew me to the role honestly was getting to be part of something so serious, portraying someone who’s in the military is a really big undertaking. I have family and friends who have served in the military so approaching that with the utmost respect was really important for me.”
Beth Riesgraf plays surgeon and Major Sonia Holloway who is a stern commander of the base hospital but shows surprising warmth towards unexpected characters. “The training was pretty intense to get hired on a Thursday and by Monday I was a surgeon and Major who grew up in the Army. My character’s father is a retired general so this is the life she has known and she has moved from base to base her whole life. I did speak with some military consultants and vets and people who lived this life and it was really helpful. I think in that short amount of prep time all I could do is try to relate to my experience as an actor where we’re all gypsies and move from city to city and place and to place so I could certainly relate to that. It was pretty intense I have to say but in some ways, it was great because I didn’t have time to overthink it and I loved this character from the moment I read her and I was so excited that Roberto wrote all these compelling characters but especially for women to be strong and powerful and also to have these amazing misbehaviors and we all get to play different arcs where we get to into trouble and we break the rules in that we find the freedom and the release we need because of the content we’re dealing with and the war.”
There is a special cast member who was not at the premiere: Boz the goat. Australian actor Nicholas Coombe had a dream come true when he got to spend a large portion of his screen time with goats. “[Working with the goat] was amazing. I spent the majority of my time working with the goat which was great and honestly they are really well trained. We didn’t know what to expect but when I read the script I thought ‘oh I’m about to spend 80% of my time with a goat!’ There were two of them so they would swap them out every now and then, depending on what it had to do, if it had to fetch or if had to chill, but it was fantastic. Great scene partner, no complaints. I love animals and always wanted to work with them.”
The cast went through extensive weapons and medical training in preparation for their roles. Jeremy Tardy explains the cast received weapons training at “California Tactical Academy. [We] worked with the AR15s and some really awesome instructors who were professionals and veterans. I did everything from learning how to shoot from the prone position to running, all the basics, of course, safety. Along with that too there [was] the medical training because as combat medics we are saving lives and doing procedures. We have a great consultant, Matt King, who was a 68 Whiskey who shows us all of the procedures that we are going to be doing for any particular scene. So it’s quite a bit [of training.]”
The cast also got involved in a few military charities including Student Veterans of America (SVA) and Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors (TAPS). Jeremy Tardy and Derek Theler attended an event for Student Veterans of America a few weeks ago at NatCon, an annual conference of student veterans. Representatives from SVA and TAPS were both in attendance at the premiere.
Sam Keeley who plays Sergeant Connor Roback spoke of the attraction to play such a complicated character. “First reading [the script] and seeing the people involved is always a big draw for me then again I had never played anyone like Roback before ever. I usually play quite dramatic characters with very high stakes very damaged emotional young men. And I supposed he is that too but he deals with it in a different way and deals with his trauma in humor and trying to pull that off.” As an Irish actor, Keeley was nervous to portray an American. “Portraying an American convincingly was really a challenge for me and really wanted to go for it. But I mean like getting into a black hawk helicopter every day to go to work is like ‘pinch me I’m dreaming’ that’s some of the most fun stuff.”
The cast went to great lengths to do research to play soldiers in a respectful way. Many of the cast members have family and friends in the military and many spent a large amount of time talking with veterans. Lamont Thompson who plays Colonel Austin on “68 Whiskey” describes how his upbringing in the military helped him prepare for the role. [Growing up in a military family] “took care of all the research [I had to do for the role.] My biological father was in the Army and my stepfather was in the Air Force. My upbringing was very stern but fair. Not a lot of room for mistakes. That’s how I was raised so it wasn’t that much of a transition to playing Colonel Austin.”
Despite the strict character of Colonel Austin, Thompson brought a warmth to the role. “When you’re playing someone like [Colonel Austin,] a leader, leaders are about being tough but fair, and the fairness comes from compassion. Understanding that he was once in their shoes, he was a cadet, he was a sergeant but he also understands the military that he is commanding is not the same one that he was recruited into. That changes generationally. So this is a whole different crew of kids he’s got to deal with so it’s like he has 2 or 3,000 kids and they’re all different and have their needs and leaders have to recognize that.”
As for Derek Theler who plays special forces soldier Sasquatch, it was a “dream come true” for the actor. Growing up on an Air Force base in Colorado, Theler says “I’ve always wanted to play a soldier because I was surrounded by them growing up and getting this opportunity is something I’ve always wanted. I get to shoot guns and get in helicopters and I’m an MMA fighter on base so it’s really fun to partake in those stunts for the show. I got to work with our stunt team which was in incredible, Kathy Jarvis was our stunt coordinator, and putting together those fights was grueling and intense but I loved every second of it because it was such hard days to put those scenes on film but I’m really proud now that it’s over and I’m hoping the audience loves it.”
As for the attention to detail regarding the Afghan village scenes and Afghani characters, Omar Maskati who plays Qasem spoke of the accent training “The accent stuff I was lucky enough to have a little bit of time with Fahim [Fazil] who is our cultural technical advisor who was able to give me a few pointers. Also Qasem’s background is from Afghanistan but [he is] well educated and also educated in the west so it was sort of an amalgamation of things and just tried to find something that was comfortable enough and natural enough that worked and that the directors were okay with.”