Navy SEAL Turned Hollywood Actor: Mark Hyde
Has a High Risk Tolerance
by Ariel Nishli
Sunday night's Golden Globes ceremony boasted four nominations for Kathryn Bigelow's Zero Dark Thirty in top categories and earned Jessica Chastain her first win for best actress. The next day, it took the nation's number one spot at the domestic box office, reaching $29.5 million in ticket sales. Nominated for five Academy Awards and already touted as era defining, the film chronicles the decade-long manhunt for Osama Bin Laden. The question on some people's minds was how such a timely, well-made movie lost out to Argo, another film about a CIA operation that ended the Iranian hostage crisis thirty years earlier.
Not to take anything away from Argo. The thriller deserved every accolade it received, but Zero Dark Thirty arrived on the scene with a certain gravitas. The movie captured the zeitgeist of our overly communicative, yet humanly disconnected digital age. It also portrayed a detailed operation of the now-fabled Navy SEAL Team 6, the military group responsible for the covert mission that killed Osama Bin Laden. This element of the story was obvious trailer fodder -- $65,000 night vision goggles, exploding black hawk helicopters, terrorists picked off with special ops accuracy.
Why then, the snub? It should also be noted that Bigelow wasn't nominated for a Best Director Oscar. Argo's merits aside, there's a unique controversy surrounding ZD3 that may have contributed to it being overlooked. Last year the filmmakers were given unprecedented access to the Pentagon and White House while researching their story. The filmed results of such ingress were twofold: graphic scenes depicting U.S. torture methods used to gather intelligence leading to Bin Laden's death. And the sequence of the nighttime raid itself, portrayed with an uncanny level of disclosure down to the correct interior layout of Bin Laden's complex in Abbottabad, Pakistan.
As to the latter's exposition, government officials and frankly the rest of us were shocked when Mark Owen, a member of SEAL Team Six, authored and published No Easy Day: The Firsthand Account of the Mission that Killed Osama Bin Laden. Less than a year and a half had passed since the titular mission before Owen appeared on 60 Minutes in full cosmetic disguise à la Ethan Hawke in Mission Impossible, and walked Scott Pelly through every footstep of the operation, plugging his book in the process.
The American public is fascinated with Navy SEALs. Indeed, this love affair with our armed forces, especially its special ops units, was the subject of much popular entertainment since World War II. It's intensified over the last two decades with films focused on SEAL operations, starting with Charlie Sheen in 1990's Navy Seals, and continuing with Executive Decision, Under Siege, G.I. Jane, Tears of the Sun, The Rock, The Kingdom, Black Hawk Down, even Transformers 3. There's also a big-budget movie in development about the SEAL rescue mission for Captain Richard Phillips that killed a band of Somali pirates.
2012's Act of Valor progressed the genre by casting actual SEALs in an intimate portrayal of a fictional rescue mission. Reviews were overwhelmingly negative, as critics generally confirmed their suspicions that Navy SEALs do not good actors make. The stilted acting may have deterred praise, but Act of Valor, like the Zero Dark Thirty controversies that brought us face to face with the innards of high level military, was just too close for comfort.
"That's when you start thinking about what you're doing ... jumping out of a plane at twenty thousand feet on oxygen, and the night is clear as you wouldn't believe. You go through the clouds below and there's no perspective, just fog."
In both films, the flaws inherent in any organization were on display in high-definition zoom. Overly intimate for an American public that prefers to worship their military elite from a distance, and a Hollywood Foreign Press Association that doesn't like to rustle feathers. Gaining special access to Navy SEALs -- men who live and work in the shadows -- results in controversy. Audiences also balk if they're on naked display. Telling their stories, then, requires a precision not unlike that required by the delicate missions these men undertake.
In these missions, there's usually an X factor that may complete or derail the whole campaign. In military cinema verite, the coveted X factor would bridge the gap between truthful acting and preserving a sense of mystique. It exists. Mark Hyde is a Navy SEAL who transitioned from the theater of war to theater and film. He is one the stars of KoldCast TV's hit Internet series MALICE. The opportunity to interview this anomaly of a man came across my desk, and I took it.
MALICE is a show about a typically American family, the Turners, and the unexplainable macabre phenomena that dominate their lives once they move into the home of a deceased grandmother. Mark plays Nate Turner, the patriarch and Afghan war vet that shares a special bond with his daughter Alice. She's his favorite, and the only one left standing after her disturbed mother and skeptical sister disappear.
Nate Turner is eventually swept up by the forces working against his family as well, but harbors some knowledge of the events taking place. Hyde's character, also former special-ops, trains his sixteen-year-old daughter to shoot an automatic weapon in preparation for her lonesome battle with the supernatural.
This is undoubtedly controversial in our post Sandy Hook political climate. This Wednesday afternoon, President Obama unveiled proposals for toughening gun laws. A day earlier, New York State passed sweeping gun-control legislation especially restrictive for the mentally ill. The behavior of our Americana family in MALICE brandishing these weapons certainly raises an eyebrow as to their overall stability, but this is part of what makes the show, and Hyde's character, so absorbing. They have their problems too, and they're trying to keep it all together.
Mark arrives for our interview five minutes early, sporting mirrored Ray Bans strapped around his neck and a polo shirt tucked into workman's jeans. Of course he's early. I try to dispel the stereotype forming in my brain, and perhaps Mark senses it. He orders a large coffee, black, as I sip my mixed berry smoothie with a shred of emasculation. All this fades away as soon as Mark the soldier settles in, and a calm warrior poet emerges.
The first thing that strikes me about Mark is that he doesn't crave the spotlight. In fact, he looks at the whole notion of fame through a pragmatist's lens, a tool for securing more interesting work. I ask him about courting the public's love, which elicits an amusing movie reference. "I'm all about the craft. My favorite film of all time is the original Planet of the Apes. It may be dated, but it's so atmospheric. You can watch it today and in the first half hour there's hardly any dialogue. They're marching through this incredibly barren landscape ... but the music, the introduction of the apes in the cornfield. That's visceral. And I think it still holds up today."
I'm skeptical. After interviewing enough actors (especially web series actors) I've come to the cynical conclusion that limelight is the number one motivator. Mark continues, "I appreciate my privacy. I'm a somewhat introverted guy. I guess fame comes with it, but I hate seeing celebrities complain about the very people they're purposefully entertaining. That's the job. Every actor hopes they achieve that type of fame. Some just want the fame, but with it comes security, opportunity. It's better than cold calling for it. As an actor, I am my product. I'm constantly trying to shop my product, and it's better when they come to you."
He goes on to reference Robert Duval, with his farm in northern Virginia, where Mark also grew up, as an inspiration both for his career and lifestyle. Then he launches into praise for Hugh Jackman, who won big at the Globes for his role of a lifetime as Jean Val Jean in Les Miserables. Mark bears a striking resemblance to Jackman, and recalls working security at an awards show several years ago where Hugh sat next to him. The star got a huge kick out of his doppelganger before getting on stage and enthusiastically accepting his award. This was in contrast to an unnamed starlet, who Mark says, "looked like she had just sucked a lemon" because she had to be there, even after winning. Skeptics will draw inferences from Mark's self-comparison to hotter-than-hot at the moment Hugh Jackman. It should be noted that we sat down in early October, months before Les Mis was on anyone's radar.
Mark's humility is instilled by a blue-collar work ethic of 20-hour days at odd jobs. He was simultaneously a roofer, nighttime office cleaner, and formatively, a movie theater usher before studying acting at Wesleyan University. "Do I have the gravitas of Charlton Heston? That's to be seen and judged by the audience. When I first started, I was taking class after class, and I think I'm getting better. I think the more you work, the more you grow. I don't have the 20 or 30 years of acting behind me that my peers and competition have, but I bring other life experiences to the table that they could never, ever, conceive of. I think I have a very unique skillset."
Liam Neeson jokes aside; Mark's very unique set of skills is a blend of high communications technological savvy, psychological and physical strength, and underwater infiltration operations. He was a graduate of the Navy's Basic Underwater Demolition Seal School, or, BUDS. SEAL Teams are specialized for particular theaters of operations such as jungle warfare, snowy terrain or underwater missions. The last are carried out by SEAL Team 2, of which Mark was a member. SEAL Team 6, which technically didn't exist during his tenure, was created especially for anti-terrorist operations.
Disobeying his mother, Mark chose to enlist in the Navy because it would allow him to travel overseas. Growing up in a small, rural town, he developed a romantic view of the world beyond Virginia's borders, a view fostered by a healthy addiction to film and television. Westerns, Star Trek (which Mark considers a space western), and of course, fantastical films like Planet of the Apes were especially influential. This romanticism reveals itself when Mark speaks of his time in the service, describing awe-inspiring environments like a director setting up a shot. "In the downtime before or after an op, I'd be tethered to the back of a submarine, sucking air off a regulator 50 feet under the Mediterranean. Waving your hand through the water, it's like being in space with all the bioluminescence around you. We're going maybe four knots, so there's a good current. You see the moon shining through the water. It's very surrealistic. It's beautiful. It's eerie."
The nostalgia begins to manifest itself behind Mark's eyes. It would be a stretch to call it longing, as this is a man who has made his peace with a simpler existence, but he appreciates the lifestyle he's experienced. "That's when you start thinking about what you're doing ... jumping out of a plane at twenty thousand feet on oxygen, and the night is clear as you wouldn't believe. You go through the clouds below and there's no perspective, just fog. Then you break through and see the lights below. It's a surrealistic feeling ... And it's a tough act to follow. Working in a telemarketing call center after that -- and I did that -- it doesn't compare." I'm reminded of a deadened Jeremy Renner shopping for cereal after his Iraqi tour as a demolitions expert in Kathryn Bigelow's 2008 film, The Hurt Locker, and for the first time, can actually relate to the scene.
"Ambushed drug runners were dumping bales of marijuana into the sea -- the wholesale version of flushing your drugs down the toilet. SEAL Team 2 then saw the school of giant hammerhead sharks that had surfaced to chomp on the abandoned pot."
Assuring me everything he's about to tell me is "pretty much declassified," Mark gets into the logistics of a SEAL Team 2 mission. "The mini subs are flooded, you're still on SCUBA." "Like in The Rock" I ask? It's really all I have to go by. Mark humors me with a chuckled affirmation. "We had these big shelters (manned floodable submarines) that we would piggy back the mini subs on. We'd take it down to 50 or 60 feet, open the hangar, launch the sub out, and take that into whatever the mission was. It can be reconnaissance, setting a charge on something, dropping off a platoon. It's an incredibly diverse vehicle. The nice thing about those mini subs is you can go anywhere in the world virtually undetected."
I interrupt to ask about the mechanics of the shelters and the wet subs. Mark creates a crude diagram with his hands, a bowl, and the saltshaker. "We'd launch two or three zodiacs (a rubber inflatable boat) up to the surface, pull up the motors, all of our weapons, our coms, and our gear. With those shelters, we were able to lock out three or four zodiacs in 20 to 30 minutes. It was surreal. You'd be out in the middle of nowhere, on a starry night, then all of a sudden these boats and guys are popping up out of the water."
We talk about the more conventional post-service life of Navy SEALs and how the highly specialized skills they learn don't readily transfer to civilian jobs. Mark runs through several: "leadership, management, how to follow as well as how to lead, critical thinking, team playing, reasoning, logic. These are really great skills you learn, and I think they're applicable. But as for learning a trade ... the trade most of those guys learn is combat." It's a disconcerting truth. Most ex-SEALs are recruited by private security firms, law enforcement, and contractors that place them right back into high risk jobs once their tours of duty are over.
Mark tells me about the Navy SEAL Foundation's efforts to help former SEALs find civilian jobs, especially in the wake of the 2012 American Embassy attack in Benghazi that left a SEAL dead. He and Phil Cook shot a public service announcement last July supporting the foundation. The organization dedicated to supporting the Navy SEAL community and their families, issued a statement two months later rejecting proceeds from No Easy Day. They distanced themselves from its author Mark Owen, whom the Pentagon claims leaked classified information without first securing their review.
Mark regards his own skills as anything but useless when it comes to furthering his craft. In a manner that convinces me he's thought this through, he begins drawing parallels between the stages of a mission and a film shoot. "We may not get a script, but we get a warning order, which is basically a briefing on what the mission is, what your goals are, maybe your resources, and the timeframe. And we'll get together to figure out how we can do it. A lot of the guys are very creative and very ingenious in what they come up with. It's not a highly structured environment."
I joke that it sounds like the development process for a movie's screenplay. He concurs, and then postulates how SEALs have to consider many of the same things as a production manager. "Your resources: the funding, equipment, manpower". Then there's rehearsal. Depending on the mission, Mark says it could require many walkthroughs in sets constructed solely for that purpose, or if you're getting ready to perform a 10-man jump, you do it on the ground first. Bin Laden's Brutalist Abbottabad complex, for example, was recreated for Seal Team 6 to practice their raid in, and again for filming Zero Dark Thirty. As for learning lines, we talk about the various languages Mark has practiced the phrases "get down!" and "don't move!" in.
These preparation procedures strike me as to why Mark is so interesting. He's a wholly pragmatic guy, a problem solver; a man who's seen some shit and whose head is still screwed on tight. By acting, by working in America's dream factory, perhaps he's trying to recreate the romanticism he once experienced in the service, an experience he describes in the same bygone way as the opening scene of Planet of the Apes. It's that same postmortem, life after combat, that Kathryn Bigelow's 2008 Best Picture winner Hurt Locker explored, and it's the question Jessica Chastain's character is left with in Zero Dark Thirty after finally killing Bin Laden.
I ask Mark if he's in it for the long haul. "I suppose. It's like gold mining. The ones really making it are catering to the miners, just like in the 1850's. The photographers taking headshots, the agents, they're making a living while the actors are still out there panning for gold. But it only takes that one -- sometimes a really good audition is enough of a fix. Because it is a drug, but it's enough of a fix to make me think, I want to keep doing this."