Joey Luthman has spent most of his life in front of the camera. Voted one of Hollywood’s Top 25 young actors to watch according to IMDB, Luthman has already had a storied career at the young age of 20, with guest starring roles on TV’s biggest dramas include “Hawaii Five-O,” “Chicago Med,” “Grey’s Anatomy,” “Criminal Minds,” “Ghost Whisperer” and “October Road.” Over the years, as his skillset has grown, so have the amount of challenging new endeavors he has taken on. His latest project, Nat Geo’s ‘The Long Road Home,’ is no exception to the rule. Based on ABC News journalist Martha Raddatz’s New York Times best-selling book, the mini-series re-examines a dismal day during the Iraq War when the First Cavalry Division of Fort Hood, Texas, was ambushed on April 4, 2004, in Sadr City, Baghdad, on what would become known as “Black Sunday.” Premiering on Tuesday, November 7th at 9:00PM ET/PT, the adrenaline-fueled and emotional journey follows the action of that day on two simultaneous fronts – the chaotic, terror-filled streets of Sadr City, where a group of inexperienced young soldiers faces an unexpected and unimaginable attack with bravery they never knew they had, and the home front at Fort Hood, where family members, desperate for news of their loved ones and fearing the worst, discover their own courage and determination as well. Luthman stars as ‘SPC Jonathan Riddell,’ opposite Michael Kelly (“House of Cards”), Jason Ritter (“Parenthood”), Jeremy Sisto (“Six Feet Under”) and Noel Fisher (“Shameless”) in the spine-tingling true life saga detailing the despair, sorrow and loss that comes with war. Filmed at Fort Hood at one of the largest sets ever created on film, Luthman and his co-stars went through weeks of military boot camp training by real U.S. soldiers to prepare for their roles and bring the level of realism to the highest level. Jason Price of Icon Vs. Icon recently caught up with Joey Luthman to discuss his journey as an actor, the challenges he has faced along the way, the making of Nat Geo’s ambitious new mini-series, ‘The Long Road Home,’ and much more!
How did you get involved with the arts early on in life?
I have all of my brothers and sisters to thank for that! I’m the second youngest in a family of seven. We all did community theater for many years, both together and separately. Over the years, as a family, we were all doing things in theater in Dayton, Ohio. Eventually, as my brothers and sisters grew older, they grew out of it. With that said, many of them are still very much involved with the arts! My sisters are musicians and one of them is an art teacher in UAE. My little sister and I are still here, I mean, my YOUNGER sister! [laughs] She’s 18, so she wouldn’t like me calling her my little sister! My younger sister is an actress, my brother is a musician, and my other brother is an electrical engineer, so we are kind of all over the place from Texas to Ohio to California but that’s how it all started. I got my start by following in their footsteps. I do vaguely remember, but my parents tell me all the time that when I was really little, my older brother Jonathan, who is the electrical engineer, was in “The Music Man” as Winthrop. I would follow him around when I was really little, singing all the songs and doing all of the choreography with him. I looked up to him a lot back then and I still do. That really inspired me, as I got older, to do it on my own. When they got older and were going off to college and other places, I was doing the community theater on my own. From there, I think a friend of ours told us about a talent competition called Talent Rock in 2005 in Florida. It was comprised of a lot of elements from doing a skit on stage, you have a monologue to prepare, people sing, people dance, there are routines, comedy and modeling. I think I did modeling and singing. I went to Vegas a year later, 2006 I believe, for the same competition but this time I did acting and singing. From there, someone said, “You should try going out to Los Angeles and try that. There is film, TV and everything else. You’ve done a lot of theater, so maybe that’s something you could get into.” As a family, we came out here on a whim. We just visited every couple of months because I was still in school in Ohio. We went back and forth for the first year but in 2007 we made the decision to take the plunge. We had a lot of good experience with auditions and student films throughout the first year, so we pursued it and got an apartment out here. We still had an apartment in Ohio in 2007 but that was the start of us being here. We’ve been here ever since! That’s how it all got started and I have my brothers and sisters to thank for all of my success!
What were some of the early projects that had a big impact on you as an actor?
There was an ABC show called “October Road” and it absolutely had a big impact on me. My episode aired in 2008, I think. It was the first really big guest starring role I had done. I played the younger version of a character on the show called Physical Phil, who was pretty much a recluse. He was very awkward but also very funny. I was playing that character and it was set in the 80s. There was such an interesting vibe and I had never really done a role of that size. It was a full episode guest star and it took up the whole story of the episode. It was basically the older characters on the show reminiscing about their past years and it was a big deal at the time. That was actually the job where I got my SAG card that is where my career really started to gain momentum. From there, I worked on “Weeds” and then I went to “iCarly” and “Ghost Whisperer” but it all started with that great role on “October Road.”
Let’s talk about your influences. Who have you looked to for inspiration throughout the years?
I’ve always looked to big actors. That’s the big dream — winning an Oscar, standing on that stage and giving an acceptance speech just like my idols I have seen in my favorite movies. I have always looked to Tom Hanks for inspiration and he’s been one of my favorites. I love all his movies and he’s one on the iconic voice from “Toy Story,” along with Tim Allen. Tom Hanks is the actor I always strive to be. He’s natural, very intense but also loving and funny. He’s brings such a variety in such a simplistic manner. That is something I was subconsciously thinking about every time I went into an audition, no matter what it was for. I thought, “How would Tom Hanks do this part?” It formed my way of thinking in a way and how I did things. I have my own choices as well but that voice was in the back of my head. He’s such a talented guy, so I would think, “What is he doing that I could learn from.” I have always looked up to him and the other greats as well. It was a such a devastating loss but I loved Robin Williams and his work, as well as Jim Carrey. I don’t remember the exact moment but I had loved Jim Carrey for years and then I discovered his really great dramatic work and I was like “Woah!” I lost it! So, I really love looking up to those guys as well!
Starting out as an actor at such a young age certainly has its advantages. Did you ever have an issue when it came to breaking out of the “child star” stereotype?
Not at all! It’s funny, I never considered myself a child actor. I didn’t know that was a thing people said until much later. I think I was about 14 years old when I first heard the term and thought, “What does that even mean?” I guess, technically, I was acting and I was a child but I never considered myself anything but an actor. The term “child actor” has such negative connotations attached to it. I never felt there was a lot of pressure. It’s certainly a job and a responsibility but it never really felt like a job or work to me because I just loved doing it! As I went on, I said, “Okay, this is my career and I’m shaping my career but I’m still having fun with it!” As I got older, I naturally formed a style for myself. I’m really good at both comedy and dramatic and I’ve always had great opportunities for both. I’ve done a lot of Nickelodeon and Disney work, which were great opportunities for comedic work and “The Long Road Home,” which is coming up in November is a fantastic opportunity to do some drama work. To answer your question, growing out of that stereotype just happened over time, so I didn’t have to break out of it, at least I didn’t feel I had to in that way. It was a natural progression of going from child actor who did both comedy and the dramatic, to growing into a teen and then an adult doing all of that as well. I’ve been lucky to have some great opportunities through the years but, overall, it’s been a very natural transition.
Let’s talk about your role on Nat Geo’s “The Long Road Home.” This series looks intense. What attracted you to the project and led to you taking the role?
It’s funny, the audition was quite a while ago. It was a long time before I even heard I was pinned for the role. There were about 6 months in between the time I did the taping for it with Joe Kell. He always puts me on tape and is the best quality when it comes to self-tape, as far as I’m concerned. He put me on tape and I didn’t hear anything. I thought the audition was great but, to be honest, I wasn’t sure if I had the right look for it. However, for my character of Jonathan Riddell, the role did say he was 19 years old and had a baby face. That pretty much described me at the time, as I was 19 years old with a baby face. Six months later, I thought this was gone and done with. My manager had been pushing me for the role over the course of those six months and then I found out I had been pinned for it. That was in March and we started filming in April! I thought I had lost out on the role and they were off filming it somewhere! [laughs] That was an incredible moment! They ended up casting me straight from that one tape and I ended up going through and filming in the weeks to follow. It was a very fast and slow process! [laughs] Very long and drawn out at first but then fast when we got started, which was a lot of fun! That was my intro into it!
From what I have read about this project, the actors were put through a very intense training process to capture the military feel of their roles. What can you tell us about the experience?
We went to what we call “boot camp” in acting terms. We learned a lot of basic techniques, gun safety and gun handling, along with learning how to maneuver and the movements that would make us look like we know what we are doing. We did that for a couple of weeks. In my 20 years, I had never fired a gun or held a rifle like that before, so it was a very interesting experience. My first time firing a blank, I had some idea of what to expect but it was still shocking! We were all under the wing of the military advisor who was there, Mike Baumgarten, who served in Iraq and in Special Ops in Afghanistan. If you want a guy who knows what he’s talking about, look no further! We trained with him and as far as our characters are concerned we have gone through 6 months of military training. Training with him and learning all of this stuff was like learning by drinking from a fire hose because it’s very fast-paced and right the point! The following week we were on set shooting! I mean that literally, as well as film shooting. It was very interesting. The very first part of the boot camp was learning how to patrol a city. We shot at Fort Hood and they actually have structures set up for this type of training that they let us use. The set where the film takes place was built right next to those pre-built buildings. We were going through the town and using the techniques we had learned. It was stuff like covering down the street, covering long while your buddies cross the street and then you bounce over to them. It was different maneuvers and little things like those that, if done precisely, smoothly and correctly, look great on camera. We were very well-trained. That was one of the biggest challenges of the project. You have to keep your gun at the ready at all times. When the sun is beating down on you and you have a heavy helmet, a gun that weighs 40 pounds and heavy boots, it gets to be a lot! I visited to my sister, who lives in Texas, in between filming. Her fiancé served in Iraq. For our training, we spent 3 or 4 hours walking around patrolling the city and trying to get a feel of what our soldiers experience. That’s a long amount of time to be walking and at the ready in the sun and everything. I told him about it and he said, “that’s nothing!” [laughs] He said when they are actually doing it is more like 12 or 13 hours at a time! Mike Baumgarten also pointed out that they weren’t putting the plates in the pockets of our Kevlar vests, which are what stop the bullets. Those plates add an extra 50 pounds to the gear! It was a very humbling experience as an actor to know what our soldiers go through. It was an intense process but also very educational experience which I was looking to have!
What do you feel you brought to this role that might not have been one the original written page?
The script was very well written and my character was described as a farm boy from Oregon who has been through the training but, like most of the other 19 men who were in this platoon, hasn’t seen war or even been this close to the warzone. It’s about the instant these guys man-up, so to speak, and loss of innocence. I think that is what I brought to the role that wasn’t necessarily in the script. Our director, Phil Abraham, described it as us growing with the characters from episode to episode. It was very interesting to watch as we filmed there 8 episodes. I think I brought the innocence that was written in the script but also brought that growth where my character is an experienced soldier now. I believe it’s episode 2 or 3 where it’s my character’s first time killing anyone. It was a truly sobering moment. It was like, “Wow. This is war.” I felt like I portrayed that experience pretty well.
That’s interesting and leads me to my next question. As you described this role allowed you to grow as an actor. What did you take away from this role in a creative sense?
In 2013, I did a short film where the director said, “Less. Just do less because it reads. You don’t have to force it because it will play. If you are feeling it in your eyes, in your heart and you’ve got this scene in your mind, you can just do it and it will come through.” I realized what he was saying at the time but it wasn’t until recently, especially while I was filming “The Long Road Home,” when I realized it comes down to being very natural. I find that very easy to do but it was definitely something I have had to develop over time. When I was doing theater, I was playing for 600 people. So, when I was younger doing film and TV, it was always a struggle to reign it in and play for the camera and the audience that is watching on the other side of the screen, as opposed to a room full of people. It was a transition over time that I naturally adapted. While I was filming “The Long Road Home,” I discovered so much about myself as both an actor and as a person. As an actor, we try to be humble and acknowledge both our strengths and weaknesses. With that said, I admire myself as being a very natural actor. I don’t always watch myself but when I do I like to critique myself when it comes to the subtle things that I could do better. Again, I’m thinking back to Tom Hanks and how he would play it. I think, “Why does his work feel so natural.” It’s because he’s just having a conversation and talking to you. That is something I developed when doing this, as well as it developing over time naturally. It’s about being conversational and being so in the moment and in the character that you don’t have to try. You just start saying the lines and it will naturally happen. That is something that has really shown itself in my work in the past 3 years and will continue to develop moving forward.
You are definitely multifaceted and that is evident from a quick look at your resume. You seem to have a passion for the world behind the camera as well. What might the future hold for you in that respect?
I’ve always loved writing stories and scripts, when I have the time. I also love editing. My friend and I are always asking each other if we’ve filmed anything recently because we like to edit the work the other has done! [laughs] For me, I love every aspect of filmmaking. I love how sound is captured, how lighting affects a scene or how one angle might tell a dramatically different story than another angle might. I also love the acting side of it, as well as the editing side of things. I love all those elements, so much so, that I can almost guarantee that if I’m not acting in the future, which is hard to fathom, that I would still working in the entertainment industry. I would most likely focus in on being a director because that is the best of every world! It’s funny because I would always make my own little homemade films with a camcorder and a laptop and upload the movies to YouTube. I was goofy and I didn’t think anyone would watch it but it was kind of fun to be creative in that way. I would spend hours editing at night and making everything perfect. When I look back, those skills came so naturally to me! It was never something I thought I would be great at but it was something I loved to do! I love creating content and creating stories. When it comes to what I might do in the future, I could see myself wanting to direct and star in my own film. It would definitely be a challenge to balance all of those elements out!
When you’re not on set, I know you do a lot of great work for charity. What can you tell us about the organizations you are involved with?
I have been a big supporter of the Starlight Children’s Foundation. Their entire mission is to put smiles on the face of kids that are hospitalized with different illnesses and who are often secluded from certain events because they are in the hospital so often. They put on events where we get to see these kids, interact with them and let them have fun! The organization recently had their “Dream Halloween” event, which they put on every year. It’s a great event and we all love it because we love seeing these kids have fun! There were arts and crafts and a virtual reality Star Wars experience! They had a replica R2-D2 that was remote controlled with all the sounds and lights! There was even a person in a C-3PO costume that looked like they just walked in from the set! It was perfect! [laughs] The kids absolutely light up when they see this stuff! It’s something I’ve been a part of for the past 8 or 9 years and I been doing the “Dream Halloween” event for at least 6 years. I’m also a big supporter of The Ronald McDonald House and St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital. There as so many great charities out there which help some truly amazing causes, so I’m happy to help out wherever I can!
You can definitely serve as a true inspiration to so many young actors with the work you’ve accomplished. What’s the best lesson we can take from your journey as an artist?
It’s going to sound ridiculous, cliché and so overdone but it all comes down to perseverance and not giving up. There were times where I was so close to getting the next big break in a giant movie franchise or a series regular on a show where I would be set for life but I missed it by that much. Times like that, when you are that close and miss out of something, you start to think, “Man, how can I do anything else. What else could compare to that opportunity?” In those moments, and I do this all the time after an audition, I just let it go. I think, “Okay, I did the best that I could do. I’m on to the next onto the next one!” Even if I don’t get a big role, I know I’m not going to give up and that I will persevere because I know there is another one out there and it’s not the end of the world! I say to myself, “This is what I love to do, so why not just keep doing it!” That’s my words of advice to anyone out there. It’s like I said about “The Long Road Home,” I had completely forgotten about it. After I did that initial taping and didn’t hear anything, I thought, “Well, I did the best that I could do. We’ll wait and see but I won’t be waiting by the phone every waking hour because I have to get out there and pushing forward!” Sitting by the phone, waiting and being stressed is definitely not one of the things I love to do. It’s a matter of staying true to yourself, knowing what your goals are and what you’re going to do to achieve them. Never give up!
Great advice! Thanks so much for your time today. I can’t wait to see where the journey takes you!
Thank you so much, Jason! I’m sure we’ll talk again soon. Take care!
NatGeo’s ‘The Long Road Home’ relives a heroic fight for survival. Be sure to tune-in on November 7th at 9/8c. Follow Joey Luthman’s adventures through social media on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.