On Aug. 21, 2015, longtime friends Anthony Sadler, Alek Skarlatos, and Spencer Stone were making their way from Amsterdam to Paris on a high-speed train. The three young Americans from Sacramento were simply enjoying a vacation together when they were thrust into history by the presence of a heavily armed terrorist intent on murdering everyone on board.
Stone, an Air Force Airman First Class, and Skarlatos, a member of the Oregon National Guard who had recently returned from deployment in Afghanistan, were quick to jump into action with Sadler by their side.
Stone was the first to rush the gunman, only to be met with an AK-47 assault rifle that the terrorist shot. But no bullet came out. The gun misfired.
That allowed Stone, Skarlatos, and Sadler, to tackle and subdue the gunman, who still managed to cut Stone with a box cutter, injuring his head, neck, and hand.
The three Americans were hailed as heroes around the world, but were quick to give credit to God for guiding and protecting them that day.
Now, their story is hitting the big screen in the Clint Eastwood-directed feature film “The 15:17 to Paris” (opening Friday Feb. 9). And not only that, Stone, Skarlatos, and Sadler are starring as themselves. Other than World War II veteran Audie Murphy starring in a movie based on his autobiography in 1955, there doesn’t seem to be much precedent for this kind of decision. But it was the direction Eastwood wanted to go.
During a “Christopher Closeup” interview, Sadler, Skarlatos, and Stone admitted the risk the director was taking by casting them, but “his confidence in us enabled us to say ‘yes’ to it and be fully in.”
The three friends are also happy that the God factor isn’t downplayed in the movie. Skarlatos explained, “Hindsight’s always 20/20, but looking back you could see our whole lives leading up to that moment without us even knowing it. Based on the training that Spencer and I had in the military, it all played out perfectly…There was a lot of discussion that we wouldn’t even have been there in that time and place. And then all the coincidences that kept us alive, and things that went our way. It’s just impossible to not see God’s hand or some sort of fate working in our favor.”
That was especially true for Stone, who would likely have been killed if the terrorist’s gun had not misfired. He said, “When does that ever happen? That’s such a rare thing in a moment like that with one of the most reliable weapons on the planet. And so, there were definitely a lot of prayers of gratitude up to God after that one, because that would have changed the whole course of the event. I’d be dead and probably hundreds of other people.”
The seeds of faith were planted in each of the young men’s lives by their families. Skarlatos credits his mother with taking him to church and putting him in a Christian school. And he developed a personal interest in reading the Bible, which has kept him going through difficult times.
Stone also notes the influence of his mother’s faith, but adds that there was a point when believing in God became his own choice: “At a certain point, I was able to distinguish between people telling me that God was there and working in my life – and feeling and seeing it [myself]. That recognition cemented it.”
Sadler’s greatest spiritual influence was his father, who is now the pastor at Shiloh Baptist Church in Sacramento. He said, “What made it important for me was my dad told me, even as a kid, that he was just giving me the foundation – that there would be a time when I’m 18 and I’d move out and be on my own. It would really be up to me to make my choices in life to see if I was going to continue my own journey with God. And I credit him with doing that because it actually made me attentive when I was an adult and could make my own decisions. It was important to keep that relationship [with God] and I’m glad I did because people often are looking for a biblical moment of confirmation that He exists. I feel like at such a young age – at 23 years old at the time [of the incident] – we got that big confirmation that He exists. Surviving that situation in the manner that we survived it, you can’t look at anybody else but God.”
While Sadler’s dad isn’t really portrayed in the movie, Stone and Skarlatos’s moms – Joyce Eskel and Heidi Skarlatos – are played by Judy Greer (Arrested Development) and Jenna Fischer (The Office).
Skarlatos was impressed by how well Fischer reflected his mother’s personality, especially her sweetness and kindness: “If you ever get to meet my mom, you meet Jenna Fischer and you’ll see it right there. She did a fantastic job.”
Stone was equally happy with Greer’s portrayal because of the great influence his mother had on his life. He said, “My mom raised myself, my brother, my sister all by herself. No child support or anything like that – working full time if she could. She made me into a hard worker and [taught me] to be really appreciative and treat people well. So I’m just very grateful to her and I love her.”
Though they are viewed as heroes, Sadler, Skarlatos, and Stone each embody an “everyman” quality – and that’s what they hope people who see “The 15:17 to Paris” are left with.
Sadler concludes, “We hope [viewers] take away from it just how ordinary the three of us are. I think everybody will be able to identify with one of us or all three of us in the fact that we’re just regular guys that were put in an extraordinary situation. Often times, people think it’s something that just the three of us have within us, but we wanted the film to portray that everybody is capable of doing the extraordinary no matter what the obstacle is…We hope this story portrays that and inspires people to act in times of adversity.”
(To listen to my full interview with Anthony Sadler, Alek Skarlatos, and Spencer Stone, click on the podcast link):