If you don’t know the name, odds are you know the face. Over the past three decades, Canadian actor Bruce Greenwood has forged one of those careers where he seems to have been everywhere and tried everything. An accomplished character actor, his CV juggles acclaimed TV (Mad Men), indie darlings (The Sweet Hereafter) and blockbusters (Star Trek). He’s even been motion captured as the alien in Super 8 and had a small walk-on role in First Blood.
From across the Atlantic, Bruce is on promotion duty for the UK home entertainment release of Good Kill, although he seems more interested in discussing the issues director/writer Andrew Niccol raises in a film addressing the morality of drone warfare, and the impact it has on operators. After launching in competition at the Venice Film Festival last September to respectable reviews, the UK cinematic release in April came and went with less fanfare than it deserved.The film follows former combat pilot and now Las Vegas based drone operator Major Thomas Egan (Ethan Hawke) as he grapples with a new form of warfare that poses no personal risks, and brings dubious missions from the CIA. Bruce plays Lt. Colonel Jack Johns, commanding officer at the Vegas base and another man struggling with the realities of 21st Century combat. It was this that drew him to the film. “The movie explores really interesting territory in terms of what’s justifiable in war, and whether you can make an argument for this kind of warfare.”
Niccol’s film demonstrates concern at the increasing use of unmanned drones to attack distant enemies, and it’s a sentiment Bruce shares. “Politically, we’re much more likely to allow drones to exist because, and this goes for every country, we’re not putting our own people at risk. There won’t be as quick a political blowback as there won’t be body bags coming home. The body bags will all be half way around the world and the voting public will never see them.” It’s this disconnect that he seems most concerned by. “Fighting war from a distance is a little bit terrifying. It makes it a whole lot easier to pull the trigger.”
Good Kill keeps the focus on those pulling the trigger, as Hawke’s character begins to burnout, caught between frustration that he can no longer fly real planes, and shady requests from the CIA. Through all of this, Johns tries to guide his star pilot away from the rocks so many others have hit. “There’s a profound disconnect experienced by the flyers, who, like Ethan’s character, used to fly and now go from a BBQ in Las Vegas and drive for half an hour, jump into a metal box and begin to annihilate people half way around the world. Psychologically it’s very slippery territory.”
I ask if he thinks it’s harder on the drone pilots who have combat experience. “As Ethan’s character says, he has no skin in the game. At least if he were in an aircraft, he might pay for what he’s doing with his life, but here there’s nothing. You just go home and fire up the BBQ after immolating a group of potential terrorists on the ground in Afghanistan.” There’s a pause as he weighs it up. “I imagine it’s more likely pilots will experience burnout if they’ve flown real missions. I think for drone pilots who’ve never flown over a combat zone, they become very disconnected from the terror rained down on people. It’s dangerous to train people to fight when there’s nothing at stake for them personally. But there’s all kinds of accounts and literature now that describe the psychological trouble drone pilots have as well. Even if you push it away, you can’t help but appreciate that you’re raining death and destruction on people.”
While Egan, as befits the central character, wrestles dramatically with his conscience, Johns is also left to ponder his actions. I wonder if there’s anything that could push him over the edge as well. “I asked myself that question in my last speech where he [Johns] says ‘do you think if we stop, they’ll stop’. The answer for Johns is no. As long as he’s a soldier, he has to carry on doing what it takes to stop his country being overtaken in whatever small way he can. That is part of the justification for him continuing to do what Langley [CIA HQ] is asking. But I had to ask myself does he really believe that, or is he just saying that? He’s very close to retirement, if he walks away having refused to carry out an order, or if he quits early, maybe that changes. I’m not entirely sure Johns believes his justification.”
The ambiguity surrounding Johns’ motives seems to appeal to Bruce. I’m intrigued as to what attracts him to a role. “I just look for things that are interesting. In this one for example, Johns was as conflicted and almost as ambivalent as Ethan’s character, but he’s in the position of being a commanding officer. Although at the moment I’m trying to avoid playing authority figures. It’s very difficult to avoid at this age. It’s slimmer pickings out there for guys who are my age that aren’t authority figures.”It’s no surprise he wants to avoid reheating the same character. The sheer variety of roles he’s taken attests to that. Having worked from low budget to mega budget and everything in-between, does he have any highlights? “I have some favourites for sure, but they run the gamut from little independents like The Sweet Hereafter or Exotica to Thirteen Days or Star Trek. It doesn’t matter if it’s tiny or a massive tent-pole film. I’ve had fantastic experiences playing on all kinds.”
With time running out, we circle back to Good Kill, and the scarily dispassionate language the military uses to describe actions. ‘Good kill’, for example, is the phrase used to denote a successful strike. “I think in any discipline, you end up distilling actions into phrases, but the thing that feels so insidious about war, is when you come up with words that have multiple meanings like ‘proportionately’ or ‘good kill.’ It’s weird the way we condense into shorthand these most horrific of actions.” There’s one final pause, his last thought hanging in the air briefly. “It’s human nature I suppose. It helps us on some level to deny what we’re doing, and on another level just to deal with it.”
CultureFly would like to thank Bruce for taking the time to speak to us. Good Kill is out to own on 3rd August 2015.