KAJAKI – Interview with star Scott Kyle, and survivor Stu Pearson

We talk to the real life inspiration for KAJAKI, and the actor who played him…

KAJAKI is released in Omniplex cinemas this weekend, and tells the true story of a troupe of soldiers caught in an Afghani minefield with little hope of escaping with their lives. Movies.ie caught up with actor Scott Kyle, and the man who inspired his character, Stu Pearson, on their recent trip to Dublin. When we first meet them, Stu and Scott are chatting like old friends, and it is clear that making this movie has created a lasting frienship between the two Scottish men…

Scott, were you aware of the events at the Kajaki Dam in 2006, before you signed on to the film?
Scott Kyle: No, I hadn’t heard of the incident; the first time I heard about it was when I saw the script. Right away, I read it and thought ‘Wow, what an incredible story to have happened’ and then I thought it would be amazing to get a chance to retell it.

Stu, people often want to keep traumatic experiences private, so how did you feel about your story being told so publicly?
Stu Pearson: When I first heard about it, I heard a movie and they wanted to interview a couple of guys and I was up for that, but it was just like whatever… There have been documentaries made about the incident before, but on watching it I was over the moon with how everything was portrayed. They’ve done us all justice, they’ve done my wee mate Mark Wright [who was killed in the incident] justice so I’m happy with it.

Scott, how did you prepare for this role?
SK: It’s very very strange; you go through the audition process and everyone you meet is lovely. It’s a lovely environment to work in, the arts. You continue that train of thought until you get off the bus at the boot camp, then we met Luke Hardy who runs his own security company. We got off the bus and it was all ‘You, over here. Move, move, move fat boy!’ Right away we realised these guys weren’t messing. We were soldiers, we got in and did what we were told. When Stu and the guys first went into their training they were treated this way. So right away we knew this was going to be tough and it was not going to be a relaxed experience. We were set a diet and a fitness regime; the training, for me, changed my view on Stu… When I went into the boot camp I thought ‘I’ve underestimated this guy; he’s a professional soldier’.

At what point did you meet each other?
SP: It was a couple of days into the boot camp we all got together; most of the soldiers involved were there. I got to meet Scott and he told me about all the clips he’d seen of me on YouTube, then he produced a photo that I had put on Facebook. My first thought was ‘This guy is stalking me!’ [laughs] But we clicked, and we’re mates.

What advice did you offer Scott, on playing you?
SK: I remember [what he said] very clearly; ‘Don’t eff it up!’ [laughs] I sat with Stu over a few beers, until 6 in the morning, and that helped; asking him some questions and hoping he would open up. I learned a lot from Stu, but also from chatting with other veterans as well; Stu has his memories of the incident but there are certain memories where the guys are more compos mentis than others, because they were self medicating with morphine.

The thing that is really striking in the film is that this is not a tale about Queen and Country, but a story of camaraderie and survival. How did you get this right in the film?
SP: Each of us have our own views on the recent wars in Afghanistan and Iraq; put that all to one side, that’s not what this is about. This is the story of 12 blokes that fight for their lives.
SK: Whenever I’m describing it I tend to say that it’s about an incident that happens in very close quarters, and there just so happens to be a war going on in the background.
SP: The way it all panned out is like it was written for a movie. This has got Hollywood all over it; it’s as if it has been made up.

Scott, since this is a true story, did you feel a sense of responsibility to get it right?
SK: Yeah, it was a sense of responsibility to get it right, but it was also a sense of responsibility to remember that the guys are just lads. It’s about making sure that the guys are real on screen, and that they are not always seen in the best light. The guys are having a laugh and ripping each other. The guys got through it with the dark humour.

Stu, the way the soldiers react to danger in the film is almost instinctive. Did you training take over in this crisis?
SP: It did just kick in; none of us had been in that kind of situation before, none of us had been in a minefield, none of us had ever seen a mine go off. As soon as I stood on the mine I knew exactly what I had done. I was blown up and landed on my bum; I lifted my leg and it was gone at boot height. I just got a tourniquet and got the morphine out and stabbed myself with it. It genuinely didn’t hurt at the time, but I knew it was going to hurt immensely soon. [The training] just kicks in, this is what was taught in pre-deployment training.

Scott, what was the biggest challenge for you?
SK: I think bonding with the guys really helped, the training really helped. Going out there and trying to be respectful to Stu and the story, and understand that I can only play the standing on the mine how I think I would react myself; to find the truth in it. You look down, and your leg’s not there any more, what’s your reaction to it? When you watch it on screen you believe what you see. I was really adamant that it was as close to 100% as we could get, and Stu gave us 99.9% so I’ll take that! [laughs]

How did it feel to watch the film? Was it cathartic or upsetting?
SP: I thought it would be worse for me to watch, but because I had read the script a number of times – I was a bit tearful reading the script – seeing it on screen was kind of different. I didn’t shed any tears the first time I saw it, but I was holding my girlfriend’s hand and she said she had to let go a few times because [her hand] was literally turning blue because I was squeezing her hand so much. It wasn’t too tearful, but at the end where the faces come up, that does hit me.

What do you both hope audiences take from the film?
SP: The actual bravery of those who were there. Four of us got awards, but everyone should have got awards, because guys were doing things they didn’t need to do. They were charging about that minefield, checking the areas that hadn’t been checked. They didn’t need to do that. They should take away from it how proud they should be of their armed forces.
SK: For me, it’s a funny one. When you’re an actor you are going into the entertainment business. I said to Stu that going through this whole process has been the best time of my life, but I have been portraying the darkest day of his. It’s a weird contrast. When making this movie I was really conscious that the truth is there and it’s done well. I think when audiences come to see it they get sucked in, and they are in there on the ground with the guys. By the end they are laughing and crying with the guys.

Words: Brogen Hayes

KAJAKI is screening in Omniplex cinemas around Ireland from March 13th. Check your local Omniplex listings here