ARLINGTON, Va. (Army News Service, March 12, 2008) — Singer-actress Jessica Simpson may not be a major movie star yet, but troops in Kuwait flocked to see her latest film, "Major Movie Star," when a free screening was offered Monday at Camp Buehring.
The movie was shown in conjunction with a "MySpace" concert in which Simpson appeared live to entertain 5,000 servicemembers, but a date for release of her film in the states has not yet been confirmed, according to Lt. Col. Paul Sinor, the Army's liaison to the film industry, from the Los Angeles Branch, Office of the Chief of Public Affairs.
"There's a built-in factor that will make any Jessica Simpson film a success," said Sinor. "She's talented, attractive and funny, and has a great following from both her music and film careers." The latter includes "The Dukes of Hazzard" in 2005 and "Employee of the Month" in 2006.
Sinor said any Soldier in the audience will enjoy "Major Movie Star."
"It's not a documentary and it's not a training film; it's a feature film and a comedy," he said. "I know there will be some in the audience who will question how Jessica holds her rifle, or the reason her hair may be falling from her cap in a scene, but this is the reality of the film and not the reality of the Army.
"As one who attended basic training at Fort Benning, Ga., many years ago, I tried to think of the things and characters a Soldier faces in that situation. I think anyone who has ever been in the Army will recognize some aspect of his or her training in this film," he said.
The Army-supported movie - filmed largely at Camp Minden, a 15,000-acre, joint-services training site belonging to the Louisiana Army National Guard near Shreveport - pits Simpson's character, Megan Valentine, a top-ranked actress who's suffered some setbacks, against the rigors of basic training, Sinor said.
"Her life is tumbling down around her. She's having trouble with her manager, accountant and boyfriend. She's very despondent. One night she finds herself at a strip mall and is befriended by an Army recruiter," he said.
"In basic training, we put Jessica through training at the rifle range. She does PT, and undergoes inspections. She's like a fish out of water," Sinor said.
When she screws up, her entire platoon pays the price. In one scene, they march in the rain, a virtual downpour produced by a rain machine parked over a Camp Minden volleyball court belonging to the Louisiana Guard's Youth Challenge program. In another scene, she's running in formation with her toothbrush hanging out of her mouth because her drill sergeant chased her out of the latrine before she could finish her personal-hygiene regimen. In another scene she wades into a muddy, smelly swamp, and later, braves a 40-foot confidence-course tower, moaning and groaning every inch of the way.
Despite Pvt. Valentine's complaints, "I think the film will boost recruiting," said the film's director, Steve Miner, a military "brat" as a child, whose infantry officer father was a World War II veteran.
"If Jessica - who starts out not motivated and becomes motivated - can get through basic training, other women will look at it as something they can do, and something that can be rewarding, too," Miner said.
"I hope Soldiers will see some truth in the way we portray the Army, the characters and what Soldiers have to go through in basic training," he said.
"We realize many of the Soldiers working here as extras will go to Iraq and Afghanistan, where it's a lot hotter than it is here. And they'll be wearing body armor," Miner added, as though to deflect some of the on-set, good-natured humor about Louisiana's hot and very humid August temperatures and the discomfort some of the cast had experienced from chiggers, fire ants and mosquitoes.
The basic-training portion of the film is strikingly similar to the 1980 Warner Brother's runaway hit "Private Benjamin," which starred Goldie Hawn as a privileged, spoiled city girl. Much as Pvt. Valentine, she couldn't seem to find her niche and just couldn't get anything right.
The day Megan arrives with a busload of other recruits at the replicated "Fort Jackson" - so named because Fort Jackson is, in fact, an actual basic training post in South Carolina - she's dog tired and wearing a flowing, cream-colored dress that shows off her curvaceous petite form. Long golden tresses hang over her shoulders and four-inch gold lame stilettos adorn her feet.
In the opening scene Vivica A. Fox ("Kill Bill," "Independence Day," "Missing") whose character, 1st Sgt. Morley, is a hard-nosed, "tough-love" figure, clanks trash-can lids together to shock the recruits off their bunks and into formation. "Okay, ladies! Fall out! Fall out! This is your 5 a.m. wake-up call!" she yells.
"I'm loving it - trying to be the loveable bitch. She's mean. She definitely makes the recruits get their cardio on," said Fox, whose brother, Marvin, joined the military after he graduated from high school. During his eight years in the service, "he went all over the world," she said. "Being in this film gives me a whole new respect for the people who sign up to do this."
Fox said she watched "An Officer and a Gentleman" and "Private Benjamin" to help her prepare for her role. Additionally, she spent two days learning how "to scream with authority and salute."
For a swamp scene, Simpson's father, Joe, said the murky brown water at nearby Lake Bistenau had to first be cleared of snakes and alligators. And when Jessica shot the 40-foot-tower obstacle scene, "she wasn't acting; the fear was real," he said.
"I thought Jessica would be a prima donna, said Fox. "I thought she'd have her stunt person do her work, but she hasn't. She's a lot more physical than I thought she would be."
Sinor got the script for "Major Movie Star" in April 2007 and began working with the film's producer and director to make the romantic comedy believable.
"A movie is a work in progress, until the movie wraps," Sinor said. "The biggest problem I saw in the original script was that Megan joins the Army and is on the bus to basic training the next day. That just wouldn't happen." So, he suggested a script revision.
When the recruiter learns that Megan is a movie star, he realizes it would be a coup to enlist her, and he overlooks the requirements for her to take the physical and aptitude tests that are standard for entry into the military. He enlists her before she has a chance to change her mind, Sinor said.
A case of fraudulent enlistment and the love interest of Drill Sgt. Mills Evans, played by Ryan Sypek, add to the storyline.
"Sgt. Evans is very much attracted to the movie star," Sypek said, "and he has to deal with this attraction, do what's right and make a name for himself, as his father did.
"I was very happy to get auditioned for the role, but it's the farthest thing from my upbringing; I didn't know anything about the Army before taking the part," he said. "I've gained a lot of respect for Soldiers and realize their lives are not easy. They make a lot of sacrifices."
Cast members also include Cheri Oteri from "Saturday Night Live" as Pvt. Jeter; "High School Musical" star Olesya Rulin as Pvt. Valentine's best friend Pvt. Petrovich, and "Gibson Girls" actress Keiko Agena as Pvt. Hamamori.
"This is my first mainstream film," said Agena, whose favorite scene was the swamp scene in which she, Simpson and other "privates" come out of the mucky water with their rifles raised high above their heads, runny mascara creating raccoon-like eyes.
"When we came out of the water, it was awesome, like, 'Yeah. We did it," Agena said.
Rulin's character has a brother who was killed on duty in Afghanistan. In real life, her brother, Daniel, is in the Army, serving a second tour of duty in Iraq when this article was written.
"I went to his boot-camp graduation," Rulin said. "And we have a basic-training graduation scene in the movie. It's kind of a paradox. We're full-on doing it. My brother's so proud of me."
Real-life Louisiana Guard Soldier Sgt. Dionne Branton is an administrative specialist one weekend a month and an accountant full time for the Louisiana Military Department.
She landed a drill-sergeant role and in one scene is shown with four other drill sergeants - among them Fox - as the recruits get off the bus at "Fort Jackson."
"I don't have any speaking lines; just yelling lines," Branton said. "I have a yelling voice, but it's out of character for me to yell."
Alison Trotter, an extra in Megan's platoon, got out of the active Army four years ago. The former Arabic linguist is in virtually every group scene with Simpson, she said.
Upon seeing the casting call in her local newspaper, she sent in the requested photo and was hired for the day, Sinor said.
"To see all the pieces of a movie come together has been fascinating," Trotter said, "as has getting to know the cast and crew. People focus so much on the stars, but it's the people behind the scenes who should get the credit."
Trotter said moviegoers who have never experienced basic training will get an idea of what it's like, but it will be nothing like the real thing. "It is, after all, a romantic comedy."
"We're at a time in our country where the nation is focused on war," said Mr. Simpson. "This movie will give us a chance to laugh at the same time we have serious thoughts about the military and Soldiers' sacrifices.
"Being in the movie and wearing the uniform of a Soldier is something special to Jessica," he said of his famous daughter. "And going through some of the training Soldiers go through has given her a better perspective of what they must be able to do. Now, when she sees Soldiers at the airports, she has a better idea of what they've experienced.
"Jessica loves the military," he added, "as evidenced by her USO tours to Bosnia in 2003 and to Afghanistan and Iraq. In Afghanistan, she put on a Santa suit to greet the troops at Christmas time, Mr. Simpson said.