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Masters of the air

Producers Tom Hanks and Steven Spielberg deliver their latest WWII epic with Masters of the Air

When the creators of Band of Brothers and The PacificTom Hanks, Steven Spielberg and Gary Goetzman — decided to tackle yet another aspect of the Second World War, actors in the appropriate age range immediately lined up for service. “It’s amazing, the war dramas that those lads have created,” says Irish actor Anthony Boyle, who portrays Major Harry Crosby in the 100th Bomb Group of the United States Army Air Forces. “I think they just get it right. This time period, it’s the sweet spot for them and each time they deliver. When there was an opportunity to work with these guys at the top of their game, I just took the opportunity with two hands.”

Masters of the Air on Apple TV+. Pictured: Air force men looking skyward from a field. These young men were called upon in extraordinary circumstances, putting their lives on the line in service of protecting their freedoms and against a tyranny unlike anything the world had seen before.
Apple TV+

Coming into Second World War drama Masters of the Air, Boyle and his castmates’ knowledge of the most recent world war may have been superficial, but after their immersion into lives of the “Bloody Hundredth,” these actors have been gifted a deeper sense of warfare than most will ever experience. “We had to become experts,” says Boyle, recalling a scene that really hit home for the 29-year-old. “I say goodbye to Bubbles [Capt. Joseph Payne, played by Louis Greatorex] as he’s going off to war. It’s a bit of a jokey line, but what’s actually happening there is that the men are masking what they were feeling. It wasn’t a massive scene, just a small moment of me watching him as he was driving off, going, ‘Oh, f***, I would be saying goodbye with no reassurance that I would ever see this person again,’ which I think it’s hard for us to really understand in a modern context.”

Masters of the Air on Apple TV+. Pictured: Anthony Boyle plays navigator Lt. Harry Crosby.
Apple TV+

The emotional impact of battle came courtesy of Donald L. Miller’s book Masters of the Air: America’s Bomber Boys Who Fought the Air War Against Nazi Germany, on which the series is based. “I loved it, from start to finish,” says Boyle. “Each page was incredible. The guy I played also wrote a book called On a Wing and a Prayer, and that was really informative. It gave such insight into Crosby’s way of being and how funny he was.” For Boyle’s colleague Nate Mann, who plays Major Robert Rosenthal, Miller’s book also provided valuable insight into the pilots’ everyday lives. “He got to know these guys so well. There’s this emotional connection and you really feel like you get to know these guys,” he says. “You could tell, reading it, that he’s writing about men that he knew and is trying to put it into context.”

Masters of the Air on Apple TV+. New Doctor Who star Ncuti Gatwa portrays  2nd Lt. Robert Daniels.
Apple TV+

That context is over 300 combat missions resulting in tremendous loss, which the actors simulated in replica cockpits. “They would be filled with different types of special effects, and they were loaded on top of hydraulic gimbals. The gimbals were attached to 360-degree screens,” explains Mann. “It would move and shake the world around us, the sky and the terrain and even the enemy fighters were moving with us. It became this incredibly immersive, really exciting and pretty bone-shaking thing.” It was also profoundly uncomfortable as an experience. “We were up in the planes for nine hours at a time, so trying to not pee during filming those scenes was quite hard,” remarks Boyle. “Other than that, Nate had to learn every little switch that you would hit if you were actually flying a plane. I had to learn the coordinates and different mathematical stuff. You were trying to be an actor and fly a plane at the same time, or at least look like you knew what you were doing. That was a hard element.”

Masters of the Air on Apple TV+. Pictured: Nate Mann is Major Robert “Rosie” Rosenthal.
Apple TV+

For the actors, these combat scenes became more about expressing the urgency of the moment than establishing character. “When we were in the planes, all I’m thinking of is, ‘Don’t be sick and don’t f*** it up,’” he laughs. “You’re just trying to ground yourself in the reality of what these men were going through.” But it wasn’t all a physical rollercoaster. “There’s a cultural element of the show, which is all these young American boys showing up in the countryside of England and scenes that happen in London where they’re overlapping with English officers,” says Mann. “That ended up being really interesting and an unexpected aspect of the series.”

Masters of the Air on Apple TV+. Pictured: Callum Turner as Maj. John “Bucky” Egan and Elvis star Austin Butler as Maj. Gale “Buck” Cleven.
Apple TV+

Additionally, Major Rosenthal was a great lover of music, which Mann says courses through his storyline. “There’s an undercurrent of rhythm and pulse, right underneath everything, that gives him a sense of drive,” says Mann, who relished delving into the man behind the title. “Because there was footage of our characters talking about their time in the war, and because that period of history is so well-documented, it was like a treasure trove for us as actors to be able to go in there and find the detail that really gives it life. That, I think, carries through every aspect of this production. There’s this sense of, ‘How comprehensive can we be, to do justice to their sacrifice and courage?’ for these young men who were called upon in extraordinary circumstances, putting their lives on the line in service of protecting their freedoms and against a tyranny unlike anything the world had seen before.”

Masters of the Air, streaming Wednesday, February 7 on Apple TV+

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