Widow of real-life American sniper is moved by actor's portrayal
Taya Kyle fretted over the idea of someone playing her late husband, Chris Kyle, a larger-than-life character who became the most prolific sniper in American history before his tragic death two years ago near Fort Worth, Texas.
How could a two-hour Hollywood movie come close to squaring myth and reality — the war hero with the husband and father who struggled to find his role back home?
In the end, it was something as small as a sniff, a subtle facial tic, that actor Bradley Cooper does as he peers through the scope of his weapon. When Taya Kyle saw it on the screen, she nearly forgot she was looking at an actor and not her husband.
“It’d be almost like a tell in poker,” she said. “In a stressful situation, Chris would do that.”
Based on Chris Kyle’s 2012 autobiography, “American Sniper” tells the story of how the Odessa native went from being a rodeo cowboy to a Navy SEAL-trained sniper credited by the Navy with a record 160 kills.
Kyle was honorably discharged in 2009 after 10 years of service, including four combat tours in Iraq, and settled down to postwar life with his wife and kids in Midlothian. On Feb. 2, 2013, Kyle, who was 38, and his friend Chad Littlefield were killed at a shooting range in Erath County, southwest of Fort Worth, allegedly by a troubled Iraq war veteran Kyle was trying help. Eddie Ray Routh, a former Marine, was charged with murder and remains in jail on a $3 million bond awaiting trial, expected to start next month.
Before filming, Cooper and Clint Eastwood, the director who adapted Kyle’s book to film, came to Texas to visit Taya in Midlothian, about 25 miles south of Dallas.
When she first saw Cooper, she started crying. “Bradley,” she recalled saying, “I have no idea how I’m supposed to tell you all the layers and things about this man who was so complex and yet so simple at once. How do I do that in so short amount of time?”
Taya Kyle didn’t want them to make a caricature out of her late husband. “I didn’t want them to stereotype him — the stereotypical cowboy or the stereotypical SEAL,” she said, referring to the Navy SEALs, a highly trained, special operations unit to which Kyle was assigned.
Cooper reassured her. “He just said, ‘You don’t have to. We’re getting everything we need just by being here.’ ”
For two days, the three of them sat around and talked. She showed them his baseball caps, cowboy boots and the clothes still hanging in the closet.
Cooper played with her children in the backyard and rolled on the ground with her dogs. “It felt like I had a couple of friends over,” she said. “They were very respectful, kind and warm.”
Cooper, who grew up around Philadelphia, had a voice coach help him with the Texas accent. To match Kyle’s burly physique, he lifted weights while listening to Kyle’s own workout music, which Taya provided him.
More difficult to portray was Kyle’s inner motivation and struggles. He tried to keep things simple. As he saw it, the United States was the greatest country in the world. His country was under attack, and his duty required him to join the fight.
As a sniper, he could see the people he killed. But in his mind, he was saving his countrymen by killing those who were trying to kill his fellow soldiers. Still what happened in Iraq haunted him, including the men he couldn’t save.
The opening scene, in which Kyle is forced to train his sights on a boy carrying a grenade toward soldiers, sets up the moral dilemmas that Kyle faced, Taya said.
“I know that he had a choice in that moment. And it was either let these guys die or take out somebody you should never have to take out. In a million years, you don’t prepare for that,” she said.
The movie is also about Taya Kyle, who is played by Sienna Miller. Newly married at the time of the 9/11 attacks, she struggled with his absence as a husband and a father.
She credits scriptwriter Jason Hall with creating an accurate portrayal of the tension in her marriage caused by Kyle’s multiple combat deployments and his inability to leave the battlefield behind — even when he was home.
Hall spent “hundreds of hours with me,” Taya said. He talked to her at all hours of the day and night.
“I give him so much credit. Writers are often overlooked in Hollywood, but truly he was available, even when it was 1 o’clock in the morning before I could finally talk.”
Because of those long conversations, she said, “we had a really authentic film.”
In the end, the film is a “beautiful gift” to her family, Taya said, but also a gift to all military families who have experienced war.
“If you go to combat and you have people who love you at home, some version of this story is your story.”
©2015 The Dallas Morning News
Visit The Dallas Morning News at www.dallasnews.com
Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC