From real-life heroes to Clint Eastwood’s actors

First they saved a European train from a terrorist attack. Then they became movie stars.

Spencer Stone, left, and Alek Skarlatos reenact their heroic train ride in The 15:17 to Paris.

Spencer Stone, left, and Alek Skarlatos reenact their heroic train ride in The 15:17 to Paris.

A few months into the making of the movie The 15:17 To Paris, Anthony Sadler Jr., Alek Skarlatos and Spencer Stone traveled to meet with director Clint Eastwood again. The trips had become routine, but this occasion was different, and they sensed it.

Eastwood’s film tells the story of the three nearly lifelong friends and tourists from Sacramento who stopped a terrorist in August 2015 and saved hundreds of lives on an afternoon train headed to Paris from Amsterdam via Brussels. The 87-year-old director and co-producer of the movie had something to ask the trio in his trademark low-key manner.

“We figured maybe this time it was a trip to meet the actors who were going to play us,” recalled Sadler during a recent interview in Sacramento. “But [Eastwood] said, ’How do you guys feel about acting things out on camera?’”

“And we were like, ’For the actors, so they could get it right? Sure.’ And then he said it again. And we all kind of looked at each other with the thought, ’Is he saying what we think he’s saying?’ I forgot which one of us finally said it, but someone said to him, ’Let’s put it all out on the table. Are you asking us to be in the film?’ He was like, ’Yeah, why not?’ We were mind-blown.”

The result is Eastwood’s 36th film as a director dating to the 1971 thriller Play Misty For Me. He directed his then partner, Sondra Locke, in his debut. The actors and subject matter in his quickly approaching 50 years behind the camera have been as diverse as any filmmaker.

Meryl Streep, Morgan Freeman, Robert Duvall, Sean Penn and Hilary Swank are among hundreds of actors Eastwood has directed, including himself. And this summer, he’s among the producers of a remake of the 1937 film A Star is Born starring Bradley Cooper and Lady Gaga.

But the casting of Sadler, Skarlatos and Stone last July as main characters who were previously non-actors is unique. The movie is adapted by Dorothy Blyskal from the 2016 book The 15:17 to Paris: The True Story of a Terrorist, a Train, and Three American Heroes written by the trio and Jeffrey E. Stern. It will debut nationwide February 9.

The 94-minute film also details the friends’ respective childhoods in Sacramento. Parts of the movie were filmed in town, including the opening scene, in addition to Arras, France. The saga builds up to the thwarted attack and its aftermath in Paris.

The three friends were nearing the end of their vacation and napping as the train zipped along to the City of Lights. Back then, Stone was a martial arts enthusiast and airman first class in the U.S. Air Force, Skarlatos was a member of the Oregon National Guard and Sadler was a student at Sacramento State University. A lone terrorist, Ayoub El-Khazzani, boarded the train in Brussels with an AK-47, a pistol, a box cutter and a robust supply of ammunition. El-Khazzani armed himself in a bathroom and began his attack.

A train employee ran through the aisle, awakening the trio, and they charged and overpowered the gunman. The film centers on their split-second decision-making and passengers’ assistance that apprehended the terrorist.

Though the three men ably filled the role of heroes in real life, they weren’t actors.

“None of us had ever acted, not in school plays, nothing,” said Sadler. “But [Eastwood] was like, ’They’ve got cool faces,’ and he saw our friendship, and he said, ’You can’t really fake that.’”

Since their heroes’ journey, the trio have been repeatedly honored. They’ve visited with politicians, received medals and attended parades as guests of honor. They’ve appeared on many television programs, from The 700 Club—the religion-based show hosted by Pat Robertson—to Late Night With Jimmy Fallon.

Before leaving on a recent promotional tour, they were honored at Shiloh Baptist Church in Oak Park. The pastor, who also happens to be Sadler’s father, Anthony R. Sadler, gave a sermon that emphasized faith and friendship. Intertwined among spirited hymnals, live musical accompaniment and vivacious prayer, Sadler blessed and embraced the trio in front of the altar and facing the parrish. He spoke emotionally of his convictions.

“God put them on that train, and they ran through the fire,” Sadler said. “God was the only one who knew [the terrorist] would be on that train. They should have listed God in the credits.”

The night before the service, the movie’s lead characters, as well as family and friends, attended a private screening at Century 14 in Sacramento.

“I thought the movie told their story, and it told it accurately,” the elder Sadler said. “As a father, I was unprepared. I read the book. I heard their stories. But I was unprepared for the emotional strain it was going to put on me seeing the train scenes. It made it so vivid to me how close they came to dying on the train. I was a wreck for a few minutes emotionally. I had to collect myself.”

Eastwood’s recollection of casting the trio is similar to the actors’ versions. It also defines the icon’s understated persona.

In a behind-the-scenes YouTube video about the film, Eastwood says, “I looked at a lot of actors, good actors. But I kept looking at the guys. I kept looking at their faces, and finally one day, I said, ’Do you guys think you can play yourselves?’ The more they thought about it, the more they got with it.”

Sadler, Skarlatos and Stone were apparently quick at learning how to play themselves. They followed Eastwood’s well-documented brevity in directorship.

“In the beginning, it was an intimidating thought; leading up to it and when we first started,” said Stone. “But once we got going and got a few scenes under our belts, it became a lot of fun. It was a chill environment. Clint Eastwood is a star. He’s got a big name, but he can get down to anyone’s level and make you feel calm. It was really a lot of time with him asking us, ’Hey, how did it happen? Well, just do it that way.’ That was it.”

Added Skarlatos: “It was a lot of fun. It was just a good experience because we know he had our backs. We knew he was going to portray us in the best light and portray the story accurately. That was a very comforting thing, knowing we had that trust.”

Sadler, 25, graduated from Sacramento State last May with a bachelor’s degree in kinesiology. Skarlatos and Stone, both also 25, have completed their military careers. They’re are all now pursuing acting. Their ordeal, military service and faith instill an overt calm in their demeanors.

“It’s a combination of things,” said Stone. “We have each other to do it with. We are not alone. It puts us at ease. This story is positive, so I feel content telling it. It’s basically our duty now to share it with people.”