National Geographic’s “The Long Road Home” Tells Story of War, Love and Loss
This November, National Geographic and Nat Geo Mundo premiered a gripping, intimate look at the human toll war takes on both soldiers and their families in “The Long Road Home”, an eight-part global event series and the latest scripted project from the network.
Based on the New York Times best-selling book by internationally acclaimed journalist Martha Raddatz, “The Long Road Home” tells the story of April 4, 2004, when a small platoon of soldiers from the 1st Cavalry Division out of Fort Hood, Texas, was ferociously ambushed in the teeming, mazelike Baghdad suburb of Sadr City— a day that would come to be known in military annals as “Black Sunday.”
No soldier fights alone. The soldiers in this story are no exception. The scripted series offers viewers an intimate window into the experience of war as seen through the eyes and the hearts of the soldiers themselves and the families back home. It is an adrenaline-fueled and heart-filled journey that follows the action of the battle on two simultaneous fronts — the chaotic, terror-filled streets of Sadr City, where a group of inexperienced young soldiers face an unexpected and unimaginable attack with bravery they never knew they had, and the homefront at Fort Hood, where family members, desperate for news of their loved ones and fearing the worst, discover their own bravery as well. The eight-part series, which lasts the exact amount of time the soldiers were pinned down, tells the story of not only these men, but also those in the three desperate rescue missions launched to save them.
I got to sit down with one of the series’ cast members, Jorge Diaz, (best known for his role as Rogelio’s assistant, J.D., in Jane the Virgin) who plays Specialist Israel Garza. Below, Jorge Diaz shares how “The Long Road Home” shares an important part of American history and relates American soldiers to everyday civilians.
Q & A With Jorge Diaz
Q: What character do you play in “The Long Road Home”?
A: I play specialist Israel Garza, who was part of the rescue team when the platoon got pinned down on April 4, 2004. He is a loving father, son, best friend and a husband. He is married to Lupita Garza, played by Karina Ortiz in the series.
Q: Why did you want to get involved in this production?
A: Well, as an actor, you audition for different projects all the time. And – I’ve actually never said this – but I’ve always wanted to be a part of a story for the military. I found out (“The Long Road Home”) was based off of a real-life event after my audition. After my first audition, I read the book, and it’s a page-turner. It is so riveting, it leaves you in tears… it’s incredible. You just see what these guys went through, and after that, I was like, “this is amazing.” Thankfully, a couple weeks later they called and offered me the role for Israel Garzas. It’s just been such a unique experience and just a blessing all around because everyone came in with such a great level of respect for the story we were telling and so much love was poured into it.
Q: Was meeting with the actual soldiers a part of your prep process?
A: It depended on the actual soldier. I got to meet Israel’s wife and his children. The character John Beaver was portraying was actually one of our military advisors on the shoot. We got to hear the stories coming from the guys themselves. After hearing these stories you’re left speechless. And even some of the extras… when we originally started shooting, I thought they were just local hires from Texas, you know, local actors. The guy that was literally next to me on the open-bed truck during shooting – we had been shooting already for like a week – and he starts telling me about being there! And I’m like, “wait, you were there?” And he said he was 19 at the time. He said he’s a fire-fighter now in San Antonio and heard about this call, and it’s so surreal. It’s incredible.
Q: It’s a pretty intense role and a pretty intense series. Are there any special, physical preparations you had to take?
A: All the actors had to go through three weeks of boot camp. They wanted us to feel completely comfortable with the rifles – I had never worked with a rifle that size. We went through military training, and we had these two rangers train us for full days for weeks. We learned how to clear rooms and just how to work with the different systems that are in the army and work as a group. It was so that we could at least feel comfortable with that and hopefully, that would click in when shooting certain scenes – which actually happened, to our surprise too. It became kind of second-nature.
Q: How is the character you play similar or different to yourself?
A: There’s a lot of sweet and funny scenes, and Israel was a big jokester. I naturally gravitated toward the sense of humor depicted in the writing. After meeting Lupita, Israel’s wife, and after hearing stories from her, and laughing with her, and crying with her, I felt his essence. And that’s all I really wanted to do as an actor. To open my heart and do the best job possible and try to show this as authentically as possible. Lupita was able to provide me with so much information and just to bring his essence to life. For example, Lupita would say he never took anything seriously. That he was such a funny guy – everything was a joke. So I just tried to have as much heart and fun with the role and in honoring the story.
Q: For people who haven’t watched “The Long Road Home”, who do you think is going to love this show?
A: It’s such a riveting story, that if you’re a fan of television and film, I feel like you could just tune in. I did an interview with an outlet, where the writer was screened the first episode – she was a journalist from Italy – and she said she didn’t watch war films, that she wasn’t drawn to that. But she connected to the characters on “The Long Road Home” at such a deep level – right away she was rooting for them. She had only seen the first episode and she said she couldn’t wait to see the rest of the series. I hope people take that from the series, that they’re able to connect with it on a profoundly human level. Where you realize that this could be your brother, this could be your mom, your father, your son, your next-door neighbor who’s in the military.
Sometimes on TV we see numbers of soldiers in battle, or casualties, and click the channel and move on. We forget that there’s a human being behind that. But everyone has a different story on why they enlist. I didn’t come from a military family but suddenly, I related to these people on such a human level and realized,” wow, these guys are just like me.” This show gives us a better understanding of military families. It puts a face and a heart to these people we may just know through images on the screen, and hopefully better understand them.
Q: Given the topic, I can imagine that there are probably some episodes that are a little darker and go over hard subjects. How do you get through those types of scenes and remain positive?
A: They wanted to tell this story as authentically as possible, and war is a very harsh reality. It’s a lot to take in sometimes. But at the same time, that’s part of life. I feel like if we’re able to understand people at a level where you realize it’s human beings out there, you have a greater respect for what they’re doing. While I’ve always supported the troops, now I truly see why people fight for Veterans’ rights. It’s no wonder how soldiers coming back from war often have such a hard time adjusting back to life.
I feel the American public should really understand that in-depth, even though it may be hard to swallow sometimes. It’s so important to share that message and to tell these stories. Basically, you just try to do it as authentically as possible and connect to the human beings that lived it. And hopefully, as a biproduct, the emotion will be there.
Q: I watch “Jane the Virgin” and I’m a big fan. Obviously, that’s a very different role. So how does this role compare to past roles you’ve played?
A: I’m so grateful for this role because I do a lot of light comedy. I’m a pretty animated person and I love fun sets. But as an artist, my heart always wants to tell real stories. I try to make everything as real as possible. Even if I’m doing something light-hearted, as an actor, you accept it as real. This was kind of the opportunity of a lifetime to live on Fort Hood, the biggest military base in the world, to have this type of training, to connect with the beautiful human beings I’ve grown to love and respect so much… I don’t know if I’ll ever get the opportunity to work on something like this again. This is such a special project and I’m so happy to be able to share it with the world because you don’t come across these roles often enough.
Q: What was it like working with National Geographic?
A: They’ve been so supportive with everything. I feel like Nat Geo has built a reputation of always telling the truth and giving us stories about humanity and Mother Nature. “The Long Road Home” really goes along with that. You’re really seeing the human face of war. Also, everyone on the set has so much humility and such a great respect for the story we’re telling. I’ve been able to count on them for everything so I’m really appreciative.
Q: Do you know what your next project is going to be after this?
A: I’m working on a lot of animated projects. I’ve got “Elena of Avalor” for Disney. I’m also working on an Amazon series called “Lost in Oz,” and there’s two other projects with DreamWorks I can’t speak about yet that are launching in 2018. And I also have a digital series with Warner Brothers showing at the Sundance Film Festival next month.
Tune into “The Long Road Home” on the National Geographic channel. To watch a preview of the series, go the “The Long Road Home” on the National Geographic Channel website.