Anyone who has seen Gary Sinise’s heartfelt portrayal of characters such as Lieutenant Dan in Forrest Gump, astronaut Ken Mattingly in Apollo 13, or the serious yet softspoken Detective Mac Taylor on CSI: NY, knows that Sinise has an innate ability to put himself into a role so seamlessly that we can’t see where he ends, and his character begins. Which, of course, is the hallmark of any gifted actor.
That same commitment to excellence and the heart underneath doesn’t end with his acting ability though. It is also very evident in his commitment to the USO and his support of our troops. Tireless support that involves his personal time while on hiatus from filming CSI: NY.
We recently spoke by phone with Sinise only hours after he returned from one of his tours to Iraq. Though he had just gotten back from a lengthy time overseas, not to mention a lengthy plane ride, he was gracious enough to extend his time to do the interview. Which speaks very highly to the intense commitment and passion he has for this cause.
He has a very warm and polite mannerism and you can gauge by talking with him, that what he sets his heart to, and commits to, is very genuine.
I hope you enjoy getting to know more about Gary Sinise, the heart of this actor and musician, and his passion for supporting the men and women who serve and protect us. I hope you will also come out to see the show this Saturday, July 19th at Cantigny Park in Wheaton (for concert details and information, see sidebar above).
Q: You just got back from Iraq, didn’t you?
A: This morning.
Q: That’s got to be quite a trip to come back and then have to do an interview.
A: Oh, no worries. I’m trying to stay up anyway. I’m trying to shift my time clock here. Give me something to do here.
Q: Okay (laughing)
A: This is the end of a 3 week overseas trip where I took the band to the UK, the Netherlands, Belgium, and Germany and we did 7 shows on military bases there. We left on June 27th and that tour lasted until July 8th where the band went home that day, and I left on the 9th to go to Kuwait and then on the 11th I flew up to Iraq and spent the rest of the time there and then got back this morning.
Q: When you’re there, what do you normally do…visit with all the troops?
A: Yeah. It’s basically shaking hands, taking pictures, signing autographs, visiting with the troops, seeing what they do, engaging with them. I saw thousands and thousands of troops between the Europe trip and the Iraq/Kuwait trip. I spent all my time running around, visiting as many people as I can. I was there last year as well and took the band to Europe last year too and then I went on to Iraq last year, so it was a similar trip as last year, although I was able to get to some places that I hadn’t been before, and get back to Baghdad, where I hadn’t been since ’03. This was my 4th trip there.
Q: How did your ongoing commitment to USO come about?
A: I was involved with Vietnam Veterans groups for many years since the early 80’s in the Chicago area, so I was already supportive and sympathetic to the issues of our veterans and I have first-hand knowledge of what our Vietnam Veterans went through because I have Vietnam Vets in some of my wife’s side of the family.
When they came home from war it was to a nation that was divided and (had a) crazy atmosphere and, ungrateful to the soldiers. Our troops couldn’t even wear their uniforms in the airport when they got home. They had to take them off real quick because they’d get spit on from people who saw them as war mongering baby killers. It was a difficult, difficult time and we don’t want that to ever happen to our soldiers again.
So, when we got attacked on Sept. 11, like many of us I felt very, very vulnerable and at a loss for what to do, and so as a way to give back and to heal some of those wounds of being attacked and losing thousands of American lives on that day, I called the USO and (asked) What can I do? I want to volunteer to help our soldiers. I know they’re going to be deploying and going after these bad guys, so I want to do something to help and support them, so I started doing USO tours and I asked them if they would let me take some musicians with me, so we set up a band tour and I just kept giving them my dates and saying I want to take the band here and I want to take the band there and here’s dates that I have, let’s set up 4 show somewhere. The way I do it now, I give the USO a set of dates and I say “send me out.” This was a long tour. I always devote a certain portion of my hiatus from CSI: NY, to going out and supporting the troops.
Q: In 2006, you were invited to meet with President Bush in the White House. How did that come about and what was that experience like for you?
A: That was part of a big meeting. It wasn’t just me. My program, Operation Iraqi Children, it’s linked up under the umbrella of something called America Supports You. Americasupportsyou.mil. Operation Support our Troops IL is listed on there too. The defense dept. realized that there were many, many grass roots organizations popping up all over the country that wanted to do something to support the troops. Operation Gratitude, Operation Homefront, Operation Support our Troops, IL, Operation Iraqi Children, Wounded Warrior Project, all these different things out there, that were just popping up.
American citizens wanting to do something to help out. So, the Defense Department started a website called America Supports You where they brought all of these organizations together and listed them. Linked them all up on americasupportsyou.mil. So that if somebody is looking for a way to help the troops or support our service members, they can go to the website and find dozens and dozens of ways you can help. Ways you can donate money or pitch in or do a program or something like that and so, from time to time, President Bush and the White House have brought members of these organizations together for little meetings to discuss the issues and for him to say thank you to people who have pitched in and started these organizations, and I was one of the people.
They did it a couple of times. The first time I couldn’t go and my partner and co-founder of Operation Iraqi Children, Lauren Hillenbrand and one of our administrators, Liz Wegman, they went to the meeting. You can go to our website, Operationiraqichildren and you can see 2 pictures and there’s Laura and Liz in one of them sitting around the table with the president and then there’s one of me and you can see me sitting there next to the president (picture above), with a lot of other people from all of these different organizations. If you go to America Supports You (website) you’ll see how many I’m talking about. So many different ways you can pitch in and do something.
Q: Being involved with the USO as you are, you have an opportunity to see firsthand what most Americans can only speculate about by what we hear on the news. What is the experience like there for the soldiers? What has it been like for you?
A: Generally what I experienced this trip was a sense of relief from a lot of the troops that things had calmed down. Although it’s still a dangerous place, and it is a war zone, and there are bad guys all over, but the tone of it is quite different than it was a year and a half ago. I talked to a lot of different troops that were there in ‘05 and ‘06 and they were fighting every day and some of those troops are now experiencing a relative calm compared to that.
That was a general sense around. I was someplace yesterday in Baghdad and they said that they had one rocket attack in 2 months, as opposed and in comparison with this time last year they might have been getting rocket attacks every day or something like that. So that was different. You know, things have changed quite a bit, but it is a place where you have to keep your guard up regardless.
Q: In the numerous times you traveled to Iraq, have you ever been in danger?
A: The second trip I was on a base that was being mortared, but it was a distance away and it woke me up. The detail that I was assigned to security for our USO group, said that it was a nightly occurrence and a lot of times it happened at this particular end of the base that we were at, and it was a place that got a lot of attacks, but there wasn’t anything over there and this was as far as the mortars could go at that time or something, so they didn’t seem too concerned about it. But it did wake me up and I thought it was rattling pipes, the building was shaking. But they didn’t seem worried about it, so I went back to bed (laughing).
Q: You figure…if they’re not worried, I guess I won’t be?
A: Kind of. Yeah. Last year I was at a base (and) over the speakers there was an announcement that the base was under attack. This particular base that I was at was very big, so, you know, it could be taking place, some rockets could be coming in on one end of the base, and the other end of the base barely notices. But I looked around and everybody kept eating their food, so I didn’t do anything. That kind of thing.
The USO has a very, very good track record of keeping people safe and not sending you where you shouldn’t go. The last thing that the Department of Defense wants is that anybody who is coming over there voluntarily to entertain the troops, to get hurt. They make sure that you don’t go this way or you don’t go that way. But, you know, whenever you’re flying over Iraq in helicopters or planes, the pilots and everybody are always staring out the window, looking left and right, and there’s always a possibility that something could happen. Somebody could fire something at you, you know.
But I generally feel very, very safe with our troops over there and they take very good care of me when I’m there. They’re great folks.
Q: There are so many opinions about the war out there....
A: We have certain professionals who are in our special operations forces, who, they’re professional soldiers, that’s what they signed up to do. Then there’s other people who signed up and they do their 4 or 6 years and they get out of the service or whatever. That’s why it’s very hard to say when somebody asks me “What do the troops think?” Well, I’ll tell you a lot of different things because not every soldier or marine or sailor or airman are the same. They don’t all have the same thoughts, you know? (laughs).
The media tends to portray the troops as all one thing. “Well, the troops think this or the troops think that.” Well, I’m sure you could find a soldier or marine to verify anything you want to think. If you want to think that the troops all hate the war and they all hate the president and they all hate everything and they’re mad about stuff, I’m sure you can find troops that are like that, and exactly the opposite as well. They’re doing their job, they like their job, they’re happy to be in the service.
Recently, we had a ceremony at a palace I visited just 24 hours ago where 1500 military people re-enlisted and these are people that are in the war zone and they are re-enlisting! Then I’m sure there’s people that just want to get home and get out of the service too. You know. You can’t just lump it all in to one thing.
Q: The media can at times, tend to portray only one image of what is going on.
A: Oh constantly. Bad news sells. If there’s 2 houses on the block and one of them is burning, you’re not going to write about the other one. You’re going to write about the burning house and not the house that’s fine. You know. That’s unfortunately what happens.
Seems to be plenty of people who have a lot to say about it with having not been there (laughs).
Why wouldn’t somebody who has been there have something to say about it? I mean, and look, like I said, you could have a soldier there whose been there for 15 months and had a lot of different experiences and he might verify your particular perception of the war based on what you know from reading whatever you read in the media. Then there might be another soldier that you can find that might substantiate your perception of what’s going on and all of that.
Q: Does your family come with you on your trips overseas?
A: Nope. They’re very supportive. My wife, her two brothers are Vietnam veterans, her sister was in the army, her sister’s husband (is) a Vietnam veteran (who) was in the army for 24 years. She’s very, very supportive of our soldiers and she knows that they can be away from their families for 15 months at a time and me going away for a few weeks, she loves that I do it and is very supportive of me doing it.
Q: Gary, you’re originally from Chicago, correct? Where do you live now?
A: I live in Los Angeles. When I was a freshman I went to Glenbard West in Glen Ellyn and I lived there for a few years and I finished high school at Highland Park high school. We’re playing at Great Lakes Naval Base on Friday and we play Cantigny on Saturday. Great Lakes is not too far from Highland Park. This will be our 4th or 5th time at Great Lakes. This will be the 3rd year at Cantigny.
Q: For those who have never attended one of your shows, what can they expect?
A: Fun! It’s a lot of fun. We play a lot of songs that people know. It’s a cover band. It’s something for everybody. I put the set list together for the troops and these are sure-fire tunes that the troops enjoy and it’s a little something for everybody and songs that people will recognize. It’s a good group of musicians. You can go to Ltdanband.com and you can hear some stuff and see what we’ve been doing.
Gary on Acting:
Q: You were hooked on acting by the closing night of “West Side Story” in high school. What was it about acting that drew you in?
A: I just loved the camaraderie of it. Pitching in. I loved the performing, the audience and everything about it. I just fell in love with it when I did my first play. I haven’t stopped ever since.
Q: Your dad was a film editor? Did that influence your career choice in any way?
A: No, not really. I never thought I’d fall in to acting. I just kind of fell into it by accident and there it was. I just fell in love with it and just wanted to do it all of the time. (laughing)
Q: Among all of the acting and directing you’ve done, do you have a favorite among the shows you’ve been involved with?
A: Hard to say. Of Mice and Men is a special project to me. I acted in it as well as produced it and directed it, so it was kind of a personal mission to get that made, so that was a special one. I also, one of my favorite projects that I ever worked on was when I played “George Wallace” the Governor of Alabama in a movie directed by John Frankenheimer, which incidentally, after 11/12 years of never being on DVD, they’re finally going to put it out on DVD in October and I’m thrilled about that because I think it’s one of Frankenheimer’s best movies. One of the best things I’ve ever done.
Q: How does filming for CSI work?
A: I’m usually off about 11 weeks in the summer and then we go back to work. I go back to work Aug. 11th. I’ve been off since June 10th. I left on the 27th to go overseas.
Q: What is your favorite aspect of playing Detective Mac Taylor on CSI: NY?
A: Steady employment (laughter).
Q: That’s always a good thing, right?
A: Steady employment on a quality show. Let’s couple that. I’ll say 3 things. Steady employment on a quality show with a great cast and crew. That’s all good stuff.