Hollywood’s veteran newcomer
Chico soldier Jake McLaughlin makes his film debut in the company of Oscar winners
Can a phone call change your life?
For Jake McLaughlin, one certainly did.
It was last October. McLaughlin was doing concrete work in Chico. He’d come full circle in a way—five years earlier, before zipping up and down the West Coast and halfway around the world, he’d done the same work here in his hometown.
Stephanie, his wife, answered the phone. On the line was Sarah Arrington, a former neighbor of McLaughlin’s who worked in a Hollywood casting agency. The firm was recruiting soldiers back from Iraq to take part in a film by Oscar-winner Paul Haggis.
‘I was biting my tongue,” Stephanie recalled. Haggis was riding the wave of Best Picture Crash; this was a big deal, considering Jake had never acted before.
When he came home from work, Stephanie sprang this question on him: ‘How do you feel about going to L.A. and auditioning for a movie?”
Jake thought about it. The McLaughlins had nothing to lose except the last $200 in their checking account. Haggis was looking for veterans—'well, I’m a vet, and I’ve watched a lot of movies,” he reasoned, ‘so I know how to act.”
He flew down to Los Angeles, looked over the script and read for two parts. He got called back to audition for Haggis, which cost the McLaughlins another $10 (ticket-change fee).
The writer-director asked a series of questions about the screenplay, trying to assess its authenticity. ‘Here I am, Joe Schmoe vet, talking to an Academy Award winner,” McLaughlin said with a chuckle. Yet, lo and behold, his input showed up in the very next draft—Humvees were out, for instance, and Bradleys were in.
Leaving the office, McLaughlin crossed paths with James Franco: co-star of Annapolis, The Great Raid … and the Spider-Man trilogy.
‘Damn, there goes my part!”
It sure looked that way three days later, when the phone rang again. Casting director Sarah Finn told him, ‘Everyone in Hollywood went out for this, so the odds were not very good …
‘But you got the part.”
And that is how Jake McLaughlin—Chicoan, veteran, manual laborer—wound up acting opposite Tommy Lee Jones, Charlize Theron and Susan Sarandon in The Garden of Elah, better known by its newer title: In the Valley of Elah.
Haggis cast three Iraq War veterans as soldiers in Elah. The 24-year-old McLaughlin plays Spc. Gordon Bonner, who coincidentally was named Jake Bonner in early versions of the screenplay.
One of Bonner’s platoonmates goes missing soon after returning home from a Middle East deployment. The soldier’s father (Jones) and a local police detective (Theron) investigate, and soon they come across a cover-up, signaling that this may well be a homicide case.
The movie is based on the 2003 murder of infantryman Richard Davis at the hands of four soldiers the day he returned to Fort Benning, Ga. McLaughlin was in the same Army division as Davis, and he spent time with Davis’ family in Toronto.
A piece of stark filmmaking, Elah has been branded anti-war. “I see how people could perceive it that way,” McLaughlin said, “but they’re getting the wrong message.” The right message? “Soldiers are coming back and not having the proper mental or physical health care.”
McLaughlin speaks of this with certainty. He says he injured his back early into the invasion of Baghdad, and it got progressively worse over the next eight months. It took a year after he returned home to get an MRI. His honorable discharge included a $7,000 check, “which was saying, ‘Thanks for your service, sorry about your back, good luck.’ “ If he makes a claim with Veterans Affairs, he says, that $7,000 would have to go back to the Army.
“This happens all the time,” McLaughlin said. “Paul didn’t do anything in the movie that didn’t happen.
“This is more of a murder mystery than anything else. The movie wasn’t made to give you a message—the bottom line is it’s still a movie—but if you take out of it what I took out of it, you’ll get a past-due message that should have been delivered a long time ago.”
McLaughlin was born in Paradise and grew up in Chico, where he attended Notre Dame School and Chico High. He moved to Southern California, getting his GED from North Hollywood High, then up to Oregon, then back to Southern California.
He joined the Army after 9/11. He was a month past his 19th birthday, working as a security guard at Universal Studios, when the Twin Towers fell. He joined the Army on a delayed enlistment, ready and eager to go to Afghanistan to fight terrorism. Instead, to his surprise, he got sent to Kuwait, then into Iraq.
He returned stateside to Fort Benning. Next to the base is the Georgia town of Hinesville. Stephanie, who comes from a military family, met Jake one night when she and some girlfriends “were playing the spotting-eye-candy game,” she said with a laugh. “From then on, we were inseparable.”
She has taken their change in fortune in stride. They still live in Chico, in the same house, and haven’t altered their lifestyle beyond Jake’s trips to L.A. for acting classes and elsewhere to promote the movie.
On Sept. 11, he appeared on The View. He didn’t talk about it on the air, but being in New York City on that date “had a lot of meaning for me.” He heads to the United Arab Emirates this month, with Haggis and co-star Jason Patric, for an inaugural Middle Eastern film festival.
“I’m not the kind of person who gets star struck,” McLaughlin said. “At Universal, I saw stars all the time. What was great was getting to work with these people—Academy Award winners, the best of the best. I wasn’t nervous; I just was anxious, and everyone knew I was new to it. I never hesitated to ask questions, and everyone was willing to lend a helping hand.”
That’s the reason he has the same manager as Franco. He also has an agent. He made a guest appearance on the CBS series The Unit, playing a prison guard, and another on the Oct. 4 episode of CSI. He’s “going out on auditions left and right,” and there’s one movie he would really like to book: Pinkville, Oliver Stone’s follow-up to Platoon.
“This point of my career is probably the hardest,” he said. “I don’t have a résumé where people will take a leap of faith on me, and auditions are hard—it’s a totally different atmosphere than being on set.”
But, though he may be a novice acting-wise, he’s also a veteran. “I’ve already been through the worst of the worst. There’s nothing they can throw at me that I can’t handle.”