An interview with the SEAL Team actor A.J. Buckley
Best known for starring in the US crime series CSI: New York and the fantasy Supernatural, A.J. Buckley talks to Mandy News about his experiences on his most recent work as Sonny in the action drama SEAL Team.
Introduce yourself and tell us about how you got involved with acting and how you got into the industry?
I’m originally from Dublin, Ireland. The acting bug started back when I was in Ireland. As Irish people, it’s in our blood as performers and storytellers. I went and saw ‘Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs’ when I was 5 years old in Dublin. I always remember the sound of the laughter, it was like tickling my ear every time Sneezy came out on stage.
I remember turning around to the audience, looking and seeing what that sound was because the sound of the laughter was in my ears. I asked my mum and my dad what those people on stage were and they said those are actors - my mum has me on tape that Christmas saying that I wanted to be an actor.
How did you actually get into it after that?
I fell in love with movies. Putting on the Ritz, Singing in the Rain, all Fred Astaire’s stuff, Gene Kelly, Wizard of Oz - magical timeless films. Then we emigrated to Vancouver, Canada. I started playing soccer, sports and doing various things but I just had these ideas in my head of films and being in a movie or on stage. I was always performing. My dad had gotten a camcorder for Christmas one year and I started making movies. I was putting on performances and charging 25 cents for the neighbours to come over and watch. They’re pretty horrific, I’m not going to lie - they should have asked for their money back, for sure. Yet at the time I thought I was a genius, I thought I was making something great.
In Vancouver, there’s a really big film community and I started auditioning. I did extra work too to see what the movie set was like and I fell in love with it. It was the most magical place I’d ever been. Growing up I struggled with reading as I’m dyslexic. I had hard times with comprehension as a child and was bullied over it, but with acting all of those problems went away - I was free for the first time. I had no issues with understanding the dialogue or what the intention was. It kind of clicked for me and it made me feel empowered in a sense that as a young kid I could say these lines without it messing up my brain.
I booked a couple of gigs, then at the age of 17 I booked a film with the director David Nutter - it was called Disturbing Behaviour. It was Katie Holmes, James Marsden and Nick Stahl. He gave my parents a call and said that my character was testing high at the screenings and that I should come down to Los Angeles. My 18th birthday was coming up and my parents were a little apprehensive but David said we’ll all look out for him and take care. So I came down and I got an agent, my plan was only to come down for a month or so and figure it out. The agent I got sent me out on an audition which led to my first audition being booked. That led to me staying for a while - 23 years later.
You play Sonny in SEAL Team which just started its second season on CBS. Can you tell us a bit about the show and your character?
This is a dream role for me as an actor for so many reasons. The show itself follows the tier-one operators, these elite group of Navy SEALS that exist over here. Kind of like SAS. They are the best of the best. What I loved about the show when I first read the pilot is that there’s this real human element to these guys that have to go do this as a job. What they choose to go and do and sacrifice.
It really goes deep into the home life of how families are affected, how these guys are affected coming home, the PTSD, and the support that they need combined with the lack of support that’s there. It really opens up, we’re the first military drama that has gone into that side of it - I fell in love with it.
We’re shooting an episode right now where we’re working with the SAS. We fly all over the world and do this, and this is what these guys do. On our set, we have some of the most decorated Navy SEALS and tier-one operators that have ever existed. They’re on set with us every day. They’re hired as writers on the shows, producers, and behind-the-scenes camera operators. CBS, our showrunner and our main producer Chris Chulack - who shepherded this whole project - they all made it a mandatory thing that if you are a veteran, you will be hired on our show.
We have 200 something people cast and crew on our show and over 65% of our crew and cast are actual veterans. No other show has done that before. Our entire stunt team are all former special forces guys. One of our producers who are an ex-SEAL said ‘there’s nothing that my guys can’t do that a stunt guy can do’.
A lot of these guys coming home from war don’t have a job to go to and they can’t find a transferable trade - they come to SEAL Team and you’ll be hired no matter what. If you’re a veteran returning home, the door is open. It’s a policy on our show - we will find a place for you.
It must create a real camaraderie atmosphere on set?
It truly is a real brotherhood. When you hear these guys’ stories some of them are missing their limbs, parts of their arms are gone or they’ve got scars from the times they’ve been opened up - some of them have literally been blown up a couple times. One of our guys has been blown up twice and then got stitched up - he then went back to war a year later where he then got blown up again.
To me, that takes a certain type of human being to love your country so much to sacrifice something that’s bigger than you. That goes to every person in the military across the world, whatever country you’re in. For the mere sake of the love of your country. That’s an incredible quality to possess, to risk it all for everybody else is a really special thing.
To have those people on set for you as an actor must be a blessing and a challenge in getting things correct?
What’s really cool is there is a guy on set that my character is loosely based on. I get to hang out with him all the time. He gets to tell me stories, plus I’ve picked up his walk and certain things about him that I’ve been able to apply to my character. It’s a really humbling experience. I hadn’t fired a gun, I didn’t have any military background going into this show so to go there and to really understand how these guys operate and the ability to stay calm in the most insane situations was a plus.
It’s not about the physical strength, it’s about your mental toughness - how strong the mind is and the ability to overcome any obstacle. You kind of start applying that into your daily life. The work ethic, the ability to push through, to get up and go on, in a sense the metaphor ‘no man left behind’. The loyalty that these guys have for each other makes you start implementing that into your daily life. It’s truly been a life-changing experience just being a part of this show in so many other ways.
Have you encountered any challenges along the way?
I was on two series prior to SEAL Team. I was on CSI: New York and also recurred on a show called Supernatural. Both characters I was playing these nerdy guys. In one I was this ghost hunter and the other I was a lab rat. When I got off the show I was perceived as this nerdy guy.
My favourite character growing up was John McClane from Die Hard. That’s the character I’ve always wanted to play - the sort of everyman that can do the impossible. There was a time that had come along shortly after CSI had ended and my dad had just passed away so I had put on a lot of weight and I wasn’t as focused. A really big opportunity came up for a big franchise film and I auditioned - I got down to the wire. They had said, “look he’s the best actor for the part but physically we’re not going to have enough time to get him ready”. That crushed me inside.
Look, life happens and you have to to go on your own journey. But I turned to my wife and said: “this is never going to happen again, I’m never going to allow an opportunity like this to pass through.”I hired this amazing nutritionist. Started working with a trainer and I was unemployed at the time so I literally turned the working out into a job.
Over the course of three years, I went from out of shape to the best shape of my life and 10% body fat - from then on my perspective and my work ethic changed. The doors to the roles that I had always wanted to play started opening and people would go “oh you’ve changed”.
Three years later, I’d get a phone call that I have this audition for the SEAL Team. The writer Ben Cavell, who I’d worked with on Justified sent me a message saying that he’d written this role with me in mind. The last time he saw me, I was out of shape. So when I went into the audition, the casting director who actually knew me from CSI was like “what’s happened to you?!” I said I’ve been working out and they followed to say that I looked great. A week later I found out that I got this role of a lifetime.
What advice would you have for other actors?
You’ve got to create your own path. You have to put the work in. There’s no easy way, you have to commit and go after it and most importantly believe. There’s going to be hard days but the hard days make you stronger.