Noel Fisher talked EXCLUSIVELY about tackling the role of war veteran Tomas Young in ‘The Long Road Home.’ Noel reveals what it was like meeting Tomas’s family and more.
Noel Fisher, 33, plays Tomas Young in the National Geographic mini-series, The Long Road Home, which airs Tuesdays at 10 p.m. ET. Tomas was an American military veteran who was paralyzed by a bullet to the spine just 5 days after he got to Iraq. When he returned home, Tomas began speaking out against the war. Tomas sadly died at the age of 34 in 2014. Tomas’s story is an incredible one, and Noel knew he was taking on a great responsibility in playing this real-life hero.
Noel, one of his most notable roles includes playing Mickey on Shameless, admits he had an “immediate, visceral response” to Tomas’s powerful story after watching the documentary, Body of War. That’s when he knew that he had to get the part. Noel talks to us about what it was like meeting Tomas’s family and witnessing Tomas’s mother and Robert Miltenberger, who helped keep Tomas alive after he was shot. Read our Q&A below.
When you were researching Tomas Young for the project, what was your initial reaction to this man’s story?
Noel Fisher: I didn’t actually know much about Tomas Young. I had kind of heard about his story in general, like there was a soldier who was speaking out, he was writing Bush and Cheney open letters. I had heard little bits and pieces, but I didn’t know that that was Tomas. I certainly didn’t know any kind of detail about the incredible journey that he went through. How I came to learn about it and my initial reaction was actually when I was learning the sides. I got some scenes to learn for the audition, and I was memorizing them on a treadmill. I like to memorize on a treadmill for some reason. That’s sort of how I do it. I was learning my lines on my treadmill and my wife, Layla, came into the room with my iPad and said, “Hey, there’s a documentary about this guy that you’re auditioning for.” I was like, “Oh, okay. That sounds really interesting.” I put Body of War on and continued to do my treadmill thing, and I maybe got 15 minutes into the documentary before I had tears running down my face. I had to stop being on the treadmill. I couldn’t breathe very well, so I had to get off and kind of walk off the initial emotional trauma that’s associated with watching a documentary like that. From the moment when I was invested in the documentary, I just knew that I had to get this part. I don’t know the last time I felt that strongly about a part. It was such an immediate, visceral response from deep inside my chest.
You have played so many characters over the years. What was the experience like playing a real person rather than a fictional character?
Noel Fisher: Well, that’s the biggest difference. Because, like you said, I’ve been so lucky with the characters that I’ve been gifted. Mickey [from Shameless] is the clearest example of that for me. He’s a character that has touched a lot of people, and it’s an important story. Props to everyone involved in making Shameless for telling that kind of a story. As you said, that particular person is a fictional character, whereas Tomas was a real person. The single biggest difference there is, for me at least, there’s a vast weight in terms of how to shoulder the responsibility of playing a character like that. I got to sit down in Kansas City and meet Tomas’s actual mother, Cathy. I got to sit down and meet one of his actual brothers, Nathan. I got to see photo albums from him as a baby and all the way up to when he passed. I got to see the real life of this person, and there’s something that’s very striking about that, and honestly very worrying when you’re taking that kind of a role on, because his story is so incredible. The fact that I was going to be the voice of bringing this story back in this miniseries… I needed to be able to look at Cathy in the eyes and look at Nathan in the eyes and tell them that I understood that responsibility and I understood my place in this.
Was his family supportive of you taking on the role and National Geographic telling his story?
Noel Fisher: Yes. And that is due to a couple of things. In my understanding, firstly, they’ve been telling Tomas’s story for a long time on a national stage at least and sometimes an international stage. It’s definitely not an easy thing. I can’t even wrap my head around what that would be like as a mother. I can’t even imagine that really. They are wholly behind spreading his message as much as possible because it’s such an important and powerful message. They were definitely on board with it, but that’s why they were totally on board with me and giving me anything that I needed in terms of help. For instance, Cathy lent me the only letter that she received from Tomas Young while he was in Iraq. He was only there for a handful of days just before he was injured. I got to read the one letter that she has from her son. It’s little memories like that and experiences like that where… she was definitely all about making sure people tell his story and people understand his story. My second answer to that question would be that I think that Mikko Alanne, the writer of the miniseries, he’s been working on this for a decade. He’s been in touch with the families for a very long time. This has been a passion project of his for an extraordinarily long time. Likewise, the book that the miniseries is based off of by Martha Raddatz is also somebody who has spent a very large part of her life trying to understand and be a spokesperson and advocate for veterans. I think the picture that starts to come together there, especially when you have a very fact-based network behind it like National Geographic, is that I think those are all very comforting things. You can rest easy as a family member knowing that everybody involved in making this cares about this story and the people that are in the story. They care about doing them justice, so that must at least add some level of comfort as one of the families or veterans of this story.
What was it like preparing for Tomas’s life directly after the war and getting into that dark headspace?
Noel Fisher: For me, acting revolves around some sort of empathy. In some weird ways, I consider acting professional empathy. It’s not something that I’ve directly experienced, but I immersed myself in Tomas’s story for the entire prep and the entire shoot of The Long Road Home. I had Body of War on repeat literally every day. When I would be walking around the house, we all lived on Fort Hood for the shoot, I would just be walking around or in some case wheeling around in the wheelchair, and I would just always have that on. Every meal that I ate I was watching it. I would go to bed watching it. I really immersed myself as much as I could in that. I was also continually reading the book that was based on Tomas Young’s life called Tomas Young’s War. I had so much research at my disposal, but that helped me empathize with it as much as I can possibly do in my imagination and get myself to that point of what would that shift of reality mean to me in that circumstance. What did it mean to him? What would you even be able to do to avoid sinking into a very dark place, a place where I imagine to be rage at this incredible injustice? I tried to take in as much as of him as I could.
Will we see more of Tomas’s story going forward?
Noel Fisher: No, you’re not going to see more of future Tomas Young. Episode 6 is the episode that focuses on this strong man that he became, and the rest of it is going to be much more about the story of his evacuation and the people that are trying to get him out and to safety along with the several other people that were injured in this battle.
Tomas’s mom was on set and the real-life Miltenberger was on set. What was that like?
Noel Fisher: That was an intense night. Cathy, Nathan and some of the family drove down from Kansas City. We were walking through the set, and this is just another moment where you understand the responsibility that you’ve taken on, and we were walking by the recreation of the open bed truck that Tomas was in. Cathy stopped and touched it and got very emotional and had to step away. That means something totally different to her than it does to anyone else. So that was one moment from that night that I really remember. Another one even more powerful was her meeting the real life Miltenberger, who also came that night. They had never met before, which I found so surprising. We were doing some behind the scenes footage. I was basically the tour guide for the camera, and I’m walking with Cathy, Nathan, and the family through the set, and then we just happen to come across Miltenberger. It was one of those moments. It was such a powerful moment, and all I could do was just step back and get out of the way and feel grateful that I was there to witness this beautiful, sad meeting between those two people. I remember she just kept saying, “Thank you for giving me another 10 years with my son.”
HollywoodLifers, have you been watching The Long Road Home? Let us know!