For those of us who have long had him in our sights, the fact that Adam Beach is about to become an Oscar front-runner is especially gratifying. (It’s nice for him too.) Beach’s almost shockingly emotional performance in Clint Eastwood’s World War II drama Flags of Our Fathers is a beautiful thing to behold, and fulfillment of the breakthrough promises Hollywood and the media made to the actor upon the release of the 1998 indie hit Smoke Signals, and then again in 2002 with John Woo’s Windtalkers, the underrated action epic in which Beach played a World War II Navajo code breaker being guarded by Nicolas Cage. Windtalkers tanked, but Beach kept plugging away, often on episodic TV — as a Saulteaux Indian, he’s Hollywood’s go-to guy for all roles Native. Last year, Beach was sick with the flu, avoiding the world and all phone messages, until he heard one from his manager, who had this urgent query: “Clint Eastwood is trying to reach you! What are you doing?”
Sitting in a suite at the Four Seasons Hotel earlier this month, Beach admitted that being sick probably gave him the edge of vulnerability he needed when Eastwood asked him to come in immediately to audition for the role of Ira Hayes, the Pima Indian and U.S. Marine who became forever famous after he and five other soldiers were photographed joining together to raise the American flag at the battle of Iwo Jima. Portraying Hayes, Beach says, “humbled” him, a feeling that’s obvious in the focused, hushed intensity of his voice as he speaks about the role. “Part of me is still holding tight to Ira,” he says. “I felt such clarity while projecting what he was going through. I’ve never expressed that kind of honesty and emotion in my work before. It’s like security now, keeping him close.”
As detailed in Eastwood’s film, the Iwo Jima photograph, taken by Joe Rosenthal of the Associated Press and printed in newspapers around the world, quickly became the iconic image of the American soldier, altering forever the lives of the flag raisers, with tragic results for Hayes. Plagued by survivor’s guilt and grief, he became an alcoholic and died, destitute, at age 32, the same age Beach was when Flags of Our Fathers was filmed. The actor gives a nod to the kismet of it all and then shifts right back to Hayes and his comrades, a subject that clearly stirs him more than talk of his rising career.
“We can’t imagine it. Those guys at Iwo Jima were 16, 18, 20 years old. And most of them didn’t get past the water. So many young guys, just gone. I don’t drink, but I understand how Ira needed some sort of stimuli to tame that . . . horror.”
Then, as if he’s just put something together, Beach sits back in his chair and tells this story: “Three weeks ago I watched my dog get his head trampled under the rear tire of a taxicab. I wailed like you never wailed. I ran into the house. I was crying, ‘Bailey died!’ I lost it. After that incident, I thought, it’s just my dog, imagine [if it were] my best friend, my whole troop. Thirty, 40, hundreds, dying at once. I can’t get that image of my dog out of my head, you know? But a human being? How do you escape that?”
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Those words hang in the air for a few moments, until I wonder aloud what Hayes would’ve made of this fancy Beverly Hills hotel room. Beach grins, and he is once again the buoyant man who waved me in half an hour earlier with a happy “Hey, buddy!” as if I were a pal he’d been waiting for all day. “This,” he says, his left arm sweeping wide to take in the whole suite, “is comfort at its best. A little studio comfort after the hard work. It’ll never get bigger than this. Eastwood directing. Spielberg producing. But Ira? Ira would’ve stayed home, enjoying the sun.”