Ron Livingston on Telling The Stories of Servicemen

By  · Published on July 10th, 2010

Many fans know Ron Livingston as cubical crusader Peter Gibbons in Office Space, or as fellow swinging, Vegas Loving buddy Rob in John Favreau’s Swingers. Over the years, however, Livingston has put in time acting out and telling the harrowing stories of The Greatest Generation’s experiences in WWII over sixty years ago.

In 2001, the award winning Band of Brothers was aired on HBO, Livingston playing the part of Captain Lewis Nixon of the famous Easy Company, of the Army’s 101st Airborne Division. Five years later, he hosted the History Channel documentary, Brother’s In Arms: The Untold Story of the 502, and three years later narrated the voice of injured serviceman Lt. Charles Scheffel in WWII in HD, another History Channel documentary.

Ron had a quick moment to sit down with me and talk about his involvement in WWII related projects, and what they mean to him.

So, you’ve done Brother’s In Arms, WWII in HD last year, and of course – Band of Brothers. What keeps bringing you back to this place in history and telling these stories?

Yeah, you know – Band of Brothers was sort of a ticket into it. I had both of my grandfathers in the service, my cousin Josh got back from Iraq a couple of years ago, some uncles in the service. I didn’t have a lot of exposure to it as a kid. I never served myself, but I think when I was in college I got interested working with some veteran’s groups. At that time, it was Vietnam guys. PTSD was sort of a new diagnosis, and it was a few years after all of the Vietnam movies. Platoon had just come out, and the Vietnam guys had just started talking, going to support groups, and telling their stories. I think before that, they had been kicked around so much, they were just laying low.

Right, yeah.

In college I actually did some work on a documentary project talking to Vietnam vets about the images of war, and how it changed. When they grew up it was like Sands of Iwo Jima and there was this, you know – after Vietnam, there was a whole different way of looking at war. I think that helped a little bit going into Band of Brothers, having a chance to sort of interact with a lot of veterans, hear the stories, and see how the dealt with these things twenty years later. I think you get a good idea of how that experience affects somebody, and how they process it.

And some veterans simply never do actually process it.

No, a lot of the don’t. Though, it seems like – hopefully we’re in a better place now to deal with that. The challenges are a little different, there are the brain injuries and such. It used to be, your chances of making it back were not as good once you hit the combat line, but – the combat line was the combat line. When you had a break to go back to the rear, you got a little time off. I think the way war is being fought now, people never really get that break. The rear is the combat line as well; servicemen never really get to let their guard down. I think that wears on people in a different kind of way. I think people are surviving injuries now that would have killed them before. So, they’re seeing new sorts of injuries, and recoveries, and they’re trying to deal with that.

Right, and I think it’s one of those things where – you can only hope to sort of give the general population just a fraction of an idea of what these men really dealt with and the relationships that they forged in these incredible conditions. It’s a massive undertaking. They’re stories that definitely need to be told.

I think there is sort of a disconnect in this country between people that served in the military, understand the culture of it and what it is, and the people who only know what they see on the news and read – and they don’t really get a feel for the culture. I feel like those of us on the civilian side are brought up where, even if we don’t understand it, we respect the ultimate sacrifice which is – these people might get killed. I don’t think, though, there is a lot of comprehension of all the small sacrifices. All of the mundane things, like, “Oh, guess what…you’re going to leave your wife now for six months,” and you can’t just pick up the phone and call your loved ones whenever you want. The sacrifices the families and spouses have to make that sort of go along with it. These are things that people in the military and their families may carry with them for the rest of their lives.

Definitely. You know, that’s something I really appreciated about Band of Brothers and the documentaries. Even through all the spectacle, they were still making a point of bringing humanity to those men. They had kids at home, jobs they loved, wives; entire lives that they longed for. It was great that you were a part of something that really treated these experiences with honesty and again, sort of made the spectacle of the thing a partner to the personal lives of the guys fighting.

It’s something that, once you’ve spent a lot of time looking into it, it’s hard not to not have some sort of affinity for it and want to help translate. They’re stories you want to tell.

In the short time I had with Ron, I talked with him about his upcomging film, Dinner for Schmucks, which I’ll be writing about here in a few short days, as well as his part in the upcoming film Going the Distance with Justin Long and Drew Barrymore. I’m glad, however, that we had an opportunity to explore his contribution to the telling of these heartbreaking, incredible stories of a generation fast fading from our collective memory due to the passage of time. Keeping the memory of The Greatest Generation alive is something worth doing, and it’s reassuring to know that there are folks like Ron Livingston willing to use their platform in the entertainment industry to do so.