Elite Force

06.30.11

The ‘Transformers’ Trainer

How do you mold an effete movie actor into a believable paramilitary soldier? Hire Harry Humphries, Hollywood’s Navy SEAL to the stars—who’s trained A-listers from "Transformers" to "Con Air."

Any movie star worth his 150-foot trailer and nine-figure payday knows the drill on portraying military grunts in Hollywood blockbusters. Exude steely determination with a thousand-yard glare. Grit your teeth often (to highlight your sturdy jawline). Yell above the explosions and try not to look like a drama-class wimp while wielding your gigantic machine gun.

Yet few working actors today can lay claim to any real battlefield experience. If Tropic Thunder has taught us anything, it’s that most of the mollycoddled pretty boys lighting up movie screens don’t know a tactical infiltration from a substance-abuse intervention and couldn’t identify a Steyr Aug if one shot them in the leg.

Which is precisely what has kept Harry Humphries’ phone ringing for all these years. Since 1998, the U.S. Navy weapons and demolitions specialist/master hostage-rescue instructor has earned his stripes as Hollywood’s go-to Navy SEAL. He’s the guy big-budget moviemakers hire to make sure all the military gunplay onscreen doesn’t reek of bullshit.

Exhibit A): Humphries worked extensively with Josh Duhamel and Tyrese Gibson to help them portray elite paramilitary soldiers in the multibillion-dollar Transformers film franchise, the latest installment of which, Transformers: Dark of the Moon, arrived in theaters Wednesday.

“There are nuances of tactical body language,” Humphries explained, “how they walk, how they approach a target—standing or walking up. You’ll see the smoothness of a high-speed shooter or a Delta operator, closing on a target with his weapon up. His eyes are on the site as he’s moving. He’s not bouncing up and down as he moves, he’s gliding. He is absolutely still but his legs are the only things moving as he approaches the target.”

“As opposed to someone who has not been trained,” he continued. “He’s walking clumsily, bouncing up and down. You realized this guy couldn’t hit anything if he tried.”

“I’ve run across some actors who are not quite at the A-level yet. They have a certain mechanism that says, ‘Don’t bother me with the details.’ I find that those guys are not true professionals.”

Humphries’ bona fides are impeccable. He has served as a tactical instructor with the Advanced Hostage Rescue Team program at Eastern Michigan University and also taught at Illinois State University’s Police Training Institute. A member of SEAL Team Two during the Vietnam War, he ran rescue missions, earning a Bronze Star under Dick Marcinko, founding father of the Navy’s SEAL Team Six, the top-secret unit that’s considered the U.S. military’s most elite fighting squad and is responsible for bringing down Osama bin Laden in May.

When Hollywood producers Jerry Bruckheimer and Don Simpson optioned the rights to Marcinko’s bestselling memoir, Rogue Warrior, for adaptation as a TV show in the late ’90s, the Navy legend pressed his old war buddy into service. And what began as a “favor” ushered in an extraordinary new life chapter for Humphries.

He’s served as technical adviser on many of the most explosion-wracked action epics to hit move theaters in recent memory, among them Con Air, Black Hawk Down, Iron Man, Hancock, Deja Vu, and Armageddon. As well, Humphries has provided security management on such non-military genre fare as the first three Pirates of the Caribbean movies and Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time through his company Global Studies Group Inc.

“I’ve done all of Jerry [Bruckheimer]’s action stuff,” Humphries said. “Michael Bay, I’ve done all his action stuff except Bad Boys I. All Peter Berg’s action stuff. Ridley and Tony Scott—that’s the circle I work with. We’re like a family. We’re more than just employer-employee.”

In addition to helping filmmakers develop scripts for increased verisimilitude, he vets dialogue to make sure that the lingo and jargon specific to one branch of the military isn’t deployed willy-nilly in the service of another (say, a character barking a Marine “Oorah!” in an Air Force movie). Most important, though, Humphries provides two-week “training sessions”—don’t call them boot camps—to help actors naturalize the moves required to portray “precision operators.” It’s not quite the SEAL training hailed as “the most ferocious workout in the free world.”. But combining rigorous exercise with clinics in gun handling, the pre-production get-fit sessions are by design geared to impart discipline.

It goes without saying, of course, that the job has put Humphries up close and personal with a veritable Alpha Force of Hollywood’s A-list. And he has the war stories to prove it. Among them:

Bruce Willis (whom Humphries worked with on Armageddon and the 2003 war drama Tears of the Sun). “He went through two weeks of what we call Land Warfare Phase. He and his team learned how to patrol and shoot, mastered techniques of over-bounding, peeling left and right, a choreographed leap-frogging movement that assures someone is always firing and covering—a ballet, if it’s done correctly. Bruce was clearly the team leader there. Not only his character. He was.”

Will Smith (Hancock, Enemy of the State, Bad Boys 2). “He’s a professional’s professional, open to any training and any coaching. He’s one of those that retains the skills that he learns. He’s an athlete.”

Nicolas Cage (The Rock, Con Air). “I’ve probably worked with him more closely than anyone else. He’s a natural. He plays the dummy when he wants to do comedy. But when he needs to be hard, he is. In Con Air, he had to learn fight skills and weapons handling to demonstrate to the audience that his character is a former [Army] Ranger. And he did have the skills a Ranger would have. He’s one of those you love to work with.”

Denzel Washington (Déjà Vu). “Denzel clearly has a background with weapons. I wanted to make sure he would look professional on camera so I said, ‘Can I see your cross-check?’ It’s a two-handed operation where you slide the slide back to see if brass is chambered in the breach of the weapon. He took the gun using just one hand, turned it and was pinching the back-strap to slide the slide. It was such a classy move—I had never seen it before! It’s the rare case where an actor taught me something. And I’ve shown it to everyone ever since.”

Demi Moore (G.I. Jane). “Demi was probably the hardest-working individual I’ve ever seen in my life. We put her and her actors through a mini BUD/S program—a Basic Underwater Demolition/SEALs program—and kicked their butts. Demi not only went through that stuff, but at the end of every day, she went to a gym with her trainer and spent three hours doing her own workout regime. I had to pull her off one of the runs because I saw blood coming off her ankle. Blisters on her feet the size of silver dollars. She would not give up.”

In a recent interview, Duhamel recalled how Humphries taught him to hold and reload a gun and convincingly issue orders to his troops. Duhamel’s recurring failure to properly execute certain choreographed movements, however, became something of a “running joke.”

“I’d be running and my magazine would just drop out of my gun. ‘Oh, Duhamel dropped another clip,” the actor said, recalling Humphries’ typical reaction.

The comment throws into stark relief a fundamental paradox of Humphries’ professional existence. Where Navy SEALS have become a touchstone of national pride for their near super-human athleticism, unfaltering discipline, and deep reservoirs of mental fortitude, Hollywood actors… are known for possessing none of these attributes.

You can’t court-martial the movie star. So how does Humphries reconcile the typical actor’s low threshold for any kind of pain or discomfort—especially when he’s trying to make them seem real as military-trained Ü bermensch?

“I’ve run across some actors who are not quite at the A-level yet. They have a certain mechanism that says, ‘Don’t bother me with the details.’ I find that those guys are not true professionals,” he said. “I’ve had male actors bitching on the phone with their agents, ‘I didn’t sign up for this!’”

“Typically, you run across something that’s quite the opposite of a SEAL in Hollywood.”