The R. Lee Ermey Interview with Tony Bray
Was Stanley Kubrick pleased with your work on "Full Metal Jacket"?
Kubrick ate it up. He loved it. He just let me go crazy. He said, "do it and do it right, that's all I care about". That's all I cared about too, was getting it right. We'd been made to look stupid in films like "Apocalypse Now" and others.
Did you have to read against a lot of other actors or did Kubrick know you were just right?
I didn't read. It's amazing. This thing just keeps going. It's a Kubrick film. Kubrick's films have life -- they just never die. You can just about find it anytime of day on some tv channel somewhere, especially if you've got satellite.
The best part about the movie, and everybody seems to rave about it, is the boot camp part. I got to write most of everything I said. It was based on a novel called "The Short Timers" by Gustav Hasford, who only went through boot camp. That's his only experience with the Marines. According to Gustav, the only reason drill instructors existed was to harass, punish and torture recruits. There was no rhyme nor reason.
He actually wrote a scene where Gunnery Sergeant Hartman called the recruit squad leaders into the head, had them urinate in a commode, and then brought Private Pyle in there and shoved his head down in it. I never heard of that being done. The recruits would have never had respect for a drill instructor that would do something like that.
There's a rhyme and reason for damn near everything a drill instructor does. The new privates arrive and it's immediate jaw-flexing, yelling, screaming, jumping up and down intimidation for the first week. The reason for that is to put the private in the capable palm of the drill instructors' hand. Back in those days intimidation was the greatest tool the drill instructor had. Without that tool, he would not have had control. The drill instructor must have total and complete control. Mindless obedience is what he's after. Once they leave those camps, it's a different deal. He needs that though, he needs that leverage.
I was stationed at a marine recruit depot in San Diego from 1965 to 1967. We had twelve weeks to train those privates. We'd get them out of receiving barracks -- 60 privates per platoon-- and would spring into the training mode. In very early 1966, we needed to get warm bodies to Vietnam, so the recruit training was cut down to eight weeks. With the same stroke of the pen, the commandant also increased the size of the recruit platoon out of receiving barracks to 120 privates, so we doubled the size of the platoon and lost a third of our training time. The drill instructors actually went into an accelerated mode of desperation because privates still had to be just as well trained when they graduated recruit training. We didn't have as much time to do it in. That was the main reason for the viciousness of recruit training back in that era.
There have been a lot of changes in recruit training in the past twenty years. I disagree with a lot of those changes, however at the end of the day - I go down to recruit graduation at least once or twice a year. I'm a charter member of the Marine Corp Drill Instructor Association, so I know exactly what the changes have been. Even though I disagree with many of the changes, when I see the privates graduate at the end of the day, when they walk off that drill field at the end of the ceremony, they are still fine privates; outstanding, well motivated privates. Proud to be there - proud to be a Marine. So even though I disagree, I can't find fault.
During the '60s, the Vietnam War was an unknown factor. A lot of kids were scared.
Back in the old Corp, we weren't training those privates to infiltrate into the peacetime Marine Corp. We were training those privates to go to Vietnam. So of course recruit training was very important. The first thing a drill instructor did in the morning was march those privates up to the mess hall, get them seated and have them say their prayers. The very next thing he did was grab the Stars and Stripes newspaper to look at the back page. The back page was the obits. He'd see how many privates he'd lost. It hurt drill instructors when they'd see their privates' names on that obituary page. It was very painful for them.
There was a lot of obituaries.
It was a bunch. The bad news motivated the drill instructors that much more. Drill instructors worked seven days a week, fifteen to seventeen hours a day in many cases, with no time off in between platoons. We had times in '66 and '67 when we would pick up a platoon of privates out of the receiving barracks the week before we even graduated the platoon that we were on! It was kind of stay on, stay on and stay damn tough. I tell you, drill instructors were the most motivated people that I've ever met.
People don't realize that you were probably the most important person in their lives, because if you did it wrong, they had no chance out there.
Without discipline, there is no Marine Corp.
One of the reasons I wanted to do this interview was to promote your new action figure that sells at your official site. It is needed by anybody who has trouble waking up. Any fan of "Full Metal Jacket" just has to get their own talking version of Gunnery Sergeant Hartman.
The toy company ordered 10,000. I got 3,500 for the website and we've already sold 2,700. We're not going to have enough. I talked to the toy company and they've already sold their units. I talked them into making another 10,000. I'm just trying to figure out how long it'll take them to get the other 10,000 in here for us.
I'm just about inundated with orders. I want to get everybody a figure that wants one, but it's kind of tough.
I wrote the dialogue for it. I had a meeting with the toy company last year and we decided we would do this thing. I required that I maintain absolute control of the doll to make sure that everything was right on it.
I don't blame you. It's a signature role and that film is going to be around 300 years, meaning you are, too.
I sure hope so. We've got a video coming out - an interactive video. Or interactive DVD. It's a computer game. It's called "Real Wars". According to "Gamers Magazine", this is going to be the best one to date. Matter of fact, I'm heading out to Sacramento tomorrow to work on the audio portion of that video game. I narrate the entire show. We'll have that on the website hopefully by the end of the month.
You went to `Nam yourself. If I remember correctly, you were wounded.
Oh, I'm no big hero. I got hurt heading for the bunkers -- me and my guys.
How did you go from the Marines to acting?
I found myself in November '71 standing outside the gate of MCR San Diego with my ditty bag and saying "Oh, what the hell am I doing to do now?" My objective had been to be a Sergeant Major in the Marine Corp.
I had to rewrite my script a little bit. I heard that they were going to be shooting Vietnam War movies in the Philippines. I saddled up -- being a single man back in those days -- and hauled ass. I got space from Travis Air Force Base, went back to the Philippine Islands and made it a point to meet the only American casting director in the Philippines. I was off and running.
Well, it sure has made a long career for you.
Well, I've been at this now for, Jesus, pretty close to thirty years.
You've got an impressive list of film credits, plus you've worked with a lot of impressive stars.
It's been a pretty fun ride, to tell you the truth.
As many times as you've talked to vets, does anybody really know why people back at home treated them so bad when they came back?
I wasn't treated bad when I came back. There's a lot of whiners in every crowd. If some of the soldiers didn't get welcomed with parades, wreathes, hugs and kisses, I guess they had a tendency to feel shunned. I was never shunned. Of all of the veterans I know personally, I don't know one that was ever shunned. We never had a problem in that area.
Do they get treated right medically?
It's getting better and better. There was a huge, tremendous amount of disabled veterans and the Veteran's Administration just wasn't geared up for it. I know for a fact that it's getting better and better.
I go the VA Hospital when I have a problem and the doctor jumps on me. The doctor comes to see me, fixes me and gives me a pat on the butt (a Navy doctor, you know) and sends me home. I've never had a problem with the VA. Of course, I've always been an outpatient. I've never had to spend any time in the VA hospital, so I really can't speak for those guys.
I was at the Vietnam Veterans Convention in Greensboro, NC last week. I talked to everybody that I could talk to. I opened myself up and was always amongst the crowd. I never heard any complaints. It's better, and if it was bad then, it's improving. America's trying to do the best for its veterans.
The president of the Vietnam Veterans of America has asked me to put together a golf tournament for the VVA. I think we're going to have it in San Diego or Oceanside, one of the two. It'll be like a two day golf tournament. Hopefully we can make some money for the VVA. I have a bunch of actors who are just dying to be in this tournament. Everybody respects the Vietnam Veterans of America. When you try to find funding for a VVA function, it doesn't seem like it's any trouble at all. People come out of the woodwork with their money to help out because we went over and fought a war. We didn't ask to go. It was a situation where America puts out the call and we went.
I don't have any respect at all for the scum-bags who went to Canada to avoid the draft or to avoid doing their fair share. It's my firm conviction that when Uncle Sam calls, by God we go, and we do the best that we can.
The problem with our war was that it was run and lost by the assholes up there in the oval office. The biggest problem was the politicians knew nothing about fighting a war. None of them, or 90% of them, hadn't even been in the military. In WWI, WWII and the Korean War, our Generals were told to take our soldiers into battle and win the war. They made the decisions.
In the Nam war, we had people in the oval office saying "let's send a message over to the military personnel to give the North Vietnamese a break with their Tet Offensive - let everybody have some time off". Shit! You can't fight a war like that! That just gave them time to re-group and get their weapons caches back to top order so they could fight harder! Politicians wanted us to fight the war like we were a bunch of pussies.
If there is anything positive to take from that era of fighting, it is the fact that Generals are now being listened to by most politicians.
You know what, if we didn't accomplish anything else, we did accomplish that. By God, they're not sending us in to some trivial bullshit and then trying to dictate how we fight the war. They turn it over to the generals, like Schwartzkopf and Powell, and then say "here's the outcome - we want to win". I firmly believe that you live and learn, and if you don't learn from past mistakes, then you need to be drug out and shot.
I'll tell you what. I just can't do enough for the Vietnam Veterans
You've done a lot for this country. I don't think it hurts to have an interview about things other than just a movie or tv show to promote.
I don't think so either. I think it does some good. To be quite honest with you, I feel as though I represent all of us in Hollywood. I address all the email that comes through my website. I've always sent everybody a signed picture and responded.
The year before last, I was so busy answering normal mail that I had to recruit my wife, daughters and son to help with addressing envelopes. After one year of help, they said, "We're not doing this shit no more, dad. So you better figure out another way to handle this!"
I beat my brains out and finally decided to open a web page. The reason that came into existence was simply because I couldn't keep up with the mail. It was my little way of keeping myself available to the regular Joe Schmuck's on the street. We've been averaging about 6000 hits per day on the website. I'm getting probably 75 to 100 emails a day to answer. It really gets a little tedious when I'm off on location for a week or two because when I come back, there's a stack of about a 1000!
I have to sit myself down and pay attention. A guy doesn't email me just for the fun of it. He's got a question to ask and wants an answer to it.
You'd be surprised how many kids and young people come to the website and send me email that they are actually going into the Marine Corp because of something that I said or did. I honestly do feel that I am a role model for young people. I talk at high schools. I go to children's hospitals. I try to stay as involved as I can with young people, because they are the ones that count. When somebody tells me "I went into the Marine Corp because of something you did", it makes me feel pretty good.
The End of R. Lee Ermey Interview
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