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August 10, 2017

Answering the Call

Military veterans spotlighted in special episode of The Night Shift.

Dinah Eng
  • NBC
  • NBC
  • NBC
  • NBC
  • NBC

Military veterans from California to New Mexico answered the call to audition for tonight’s special episode of NBC’s The Night Shift, which shines an emotional light on the issue of PTSD.

The medical drama, now in its fourth year, follows the ER staff on the night shift at San Antonio Memorial Hospital. This season, the hospital receives a contract from the Veterans Administration, advancing the show’s focus on the lives of military physicians returning to the workplace after a war.

Since veteran issues feature prominently in the series, showrunners decided to do an episode with guest stars who all were veterans.

“We wanted to find vets who didn’t have a lot of acting experience, and help springboard their careers in a couple of the roles,” explains Jeff Judah, creator and executive producer of the show, with writing/producing partner Gabe Sachs. “There are people in this episode who have one or two lines, but they’re said with such authority because those people are real life heroes.”

Sachs notes that a number of The Night Shift crew are veterans, and says the show often draws on the expertise of vets who are on set. For example, during the show’s first season, Sachs began talking with an extra named Toby Montoya, who was in a wheelchair.

“He told some amazing stories about his time in the service,” Sachs says. “He’d served in Afghanistan and Iraq, and said he’d love to learn how to be a script supervisor. So we helped him do that, and now, he’s the show’s military advisor.”

Tonight’s episode, “Keep the Faith,” was written by co-producer Brian Anthony, who served both as an Army Ranger and Special Forces Green Beret in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Directing the episode was Timothy Busfield, who has helmed several episodes of the show, and who served three years in the Navy.

Busfield, an Emmy Award-winning actor (thirtysomething), admits that he initially had doubts about directing veterans with little acting experience.

“I was really nervous about it when I saw the first round of auditions, but it turned out great,” Busfield says. ”This was a big episode with battle sequences, and it turned out to be one of our strongest episodes. The nice thing about working with the vets was their eagerness to play and their openness to direction.”

The actor-director, who was an enlisted personnel man in the Navy, describes his mid-1970s job at Miramar Naval Air Station as doing “what Radar did in M.A.S.H. I was the clerical guy who worked for the CO (Commanding Officer).”

Working with veterans on the show was an inspiring, and sometimes difficult, experience, he notes. While Busfield’s stint in the service was during peacetime, many of the vets on tonight’s episode served in combat, making scenes with gunfire particularly hard.

“One of our actors gets caught in the firefight, and I was afraid to shoot any more coverage with him because I was afraid we were recalling too much from his life,” Busfield says. “Those are memories these guys would rather forget. The gunfire would start, and you would see their reactions. It was intense.”

On set, veterans who had never met would sit and share stories from their years in the service.

“There was a brotherhood of pain when they connected,” Busfield says. “There’s honor and teasing, but - especially with those who saw action - there’s no joy. There’s something in my gut that’s been affected by being with these men and women.

“People don’t expect to see vets as artists. I want the audience to lean in, and with this episode, I want them to lean back and say, ‘I don’t have enough respect for those who have died for our freedom.’ “

In “Keep the Faith,” a protest results in numerous veterans being injured, triggering wartime flashbacks for physicians and patients alike. Issues of PTSD, the way society looks at veterans, and the sacrifices made by military families when those serving are away are explored.

Among the veteran actors in the episode is Josh Kelly (UnREAL), an Army Ranger who did four tours in Afghanistan and Iraq who plays a politician with a  military past that intersects that of Dr. Drew Alister (Brendan Fehr). Film editor Yvonne Valdez, who served in the Army for four years, portrays an injured photographer in need of acceptance and a job after her discharge.

In addition to the usual Hollywood casting calls, audition announcements went out to the SAG-AFTRA Military Personnel & Families Support Committee and Veterans in Film and Television. The show, which films in Albuquerque, New Mexico, hired several local veterans there for supporting roles, as well.

One of those booked was Denver Johnson, a 10-year veteran of the Air Force who now works as a federal agent with the U.S. Department of Energy in Albuquerque, transporting and protecting shipments of nuclear weapons components and special nuclear materials to various DOE facilities and military bases.

“We’re heavily armed and highly trained, but are low key and low profile,” says Johnson, who got the acting bug after a friend persuaded him to try background work. “I started taking acting classes and got signed by an agent who saw me in a workshop.”

Johnson went on to snag a recurring role as a Secret Service agent on the first season of Graves on EPIX, and other non-speaking roles in the films Sicario and Gold.

On tonight’s episode of The Night Shift, Johnson appears as a reporter in a frenzied media mob outside the hospital ER.

“The biggest thing I’ll remember is that I was treated no differently than the regular cast members,” Johnson says. “They made the veterans part of the team, and didn’t isolate us. I was there one day, for one scene, and the director talked to me like he talked to Scott Wolf (Dr. Scott Clemmens).”

Given Johnson’s expertise in firearms and tactics training, the veteran has started a company called Tactical Acting in Albuquerque, which trains actors how to look technically and tactically sound in law enforcement roles on camera.

“We teach people how to clear a room, how to talk and walk like an officer,” Johnson says. “There’s just a certain demeanor that people in law enforcement and the military have. The difference between a cop and an untrained actor playing one is command presence.”

Another veteran in tonight’s cast is Rosa Estrada, who served two years active duty and seven years reserve in the Army as an enlisted nurse. Estrada, who handled medical props on Breaking Bad, now does the same for The Night Shift.

“I got an opportunity to play a helicopter pilot earlier in the season, and then they asked me to audition for the role of Veteran 3 in this episode,” Estrada says. “Acting wasn’t a goal of mine. It was a cool opportunity to be outside my comfort zone.”

Estrada says many veterans have had trouble finding jobs after leaving the service, especially those who were artillerymen or specialists in rocket systems, because their skills didn’t immediately translate to civilian jobs. Yet military training gives vets a special expertise in discipline, accountability, and teamwork, she notes.

“The level of camaraderie you feel in the military becomes part of your life experience,” Estrada says. “You don’t ever get that level in the business world. In the military, you’re all in the same boat, and you’re trained to know the job of the person above you and below you.

“You know those people have your back, even if you don’t like them. I think that occurs because the stakes are higher. I hope tonight’s audience will understand that for veterans who have seen combat, the scars – whether they’re on the inside or the outside – never go away.”

For Dan Lauria (Pitch, The Wonder Years), playing Douglas Stratton, a vet who suffers from PTSD on the episode, was an experience that hit home in a personal way.

Lauria, a lieutenant in the Marines during the Vietnam War, was assigned overseas to several Asian countries before being discharged as a captain in 1973.

“I knew a lot of guys who didn’t make it back,” says Lauria, who serves as an honorary board member of the National Veterans Foundation. “This is an important episode because it talks about PTSD. We’re losing 22 Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan veterans a day to suicide. Until it affects a family member, people just don’t get involved.”

Lauria says that Vietnam vets have a saying when they see each other.

“We say, ‘Welcome home, brother,’ because when we got back, we really weren’t welcomed home,” Lauria notes. “I hope if people see a vet today who seems a little distant, they’ll reach out and give them a hug. There are a lot of war injuries that are inside. Some of us carry the guilt of making it home alive.”

“Keep the Faith” airs on The Night Shift tonight on NBC at 10 p.m. Eastern/9 p.m. Central.

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