I spoke with Joey Luthman about his role as PSC Jonathan Riddell in National Geographic Channel’s The Long Road Home, his appreciation of the military, his experience working the cast, the challenges of the series, feedback from military members and their families, Arnold Schwarzenegger’s set visit, his appearances on The Goldbergs and Chicago Med, his next projects, his work with Starlight Children’s Foundation and Ronald McDonald House, and so much more. The Long Road Home, which premieres on November 7 at 9/8c on National Geographic Channel, also stars Jeremy Sisto, Michael Kelly, Noel Fisher, Jason Ritter, Carter Redwood, Sarah Wayne Callies, Kate Bosworth, Patric Schwarzenegger, Thomas McDonell, Roland Buck III, E.J. Bonilla, Jon Beavers, and Kenny Leu.
Lena Lamorary: You were great in Chicago Med and The Goldbergs, a couple of my favorite shows. What was your experience like working on those shows?
Joey Luthman: Fantastic. I’ve actually never been to Chicago before. Well, that’s not true because I was in Chicago but I have very little memory of it because I was like four. It was very fun. I loved working with every single person on set. Chicago Med—they were very on top of their stuff. Everything was to a T. We were ahead of schedule most of the time. Everything flowed very nicely and everyone was very nice. The Goldbergs was the same deal. Everyone was always trying to make a joke at any given moment. It was pretty great. [Laughing]
You are staring in The Long Road Home on National Geographic Channel. It’s based on the best-selling book that re-examines the events that led to the ambush in 2004 that became known as Black Sunday. Can you talk about that series and what you discovered through your portrayal of PSC Jonathan Riddell?
Joey Luthman: The whole experience was very eye opening because I have never been that close to military anything. It was an incredible experience to be hands-on working with our main soldier military advisor. His name was Mike Baumgarten. He was Special Ops in Afghanistan and served in Iraq as well. He had firsthand experience and was explaining to us exactly how real this story is and how important it is to get it right. He pretty much broke down our concept of guns, and just the way to handle them, so that weren’t not scared of them. He wanted us to be comfortable holding them, walking around with them, being ready to fire, and just all that. That was a very interesting and my first time experiencing that. It gave me a new appreciation for military, in general, because of how much they have to think about when they are on the battlefield. When we were doing a lot of the scenes in the show going through Sadr City during the ambush, it was very intense. Mike Baumgarten had told us that an urban environment is one of the most difficult war zones because of all the nooks and crannies, shadows, and just every little space that you could fit a barrel the enemy was hiding. That made it that much more intense, stressful, and dangerous. During the ambush, we did many different takes and many different angles. It’s all acting but it was not too difficult to be scared during that situation because the firing was coming from every direction and because of how much smoke there was from explosions and ambient fire. All you could really see was muzzle flashes. You couldn’t really see anybody. You could just hear and see muzzle flashes. It was very intense.
As far as Jonathan Riddell, my character, it’s his first time in war. It was the first time for all of us going to war. We went through training and this is the first time that most of the guys in this platoon were seeing war firsthand and especially for my character because I come from Portland, Oregon and I’m just a farm kid. This was a really maturing situation. Over the course of even the first three episodes, I go from having a lot of innocence to breaking that innocence very quickly. It was an experience for both my character and myself because this was actually the first time I had ever fired a gun—live rounds, blank rounds, anything. I’ve never fired a gun ever. We only fired blank rounds, and they were very safe about that, but even still there were safety precautions in all the scenes. Mike was showing us in training that blanks can do a lot of damage at not too far of a distance. You don’t have to be point-blank shooting someone but you don’t have to be too far away to do a lot of damage. He demonstrated shooting a water bottle and it put a hole in the water bottle. He was like five feet away from it. We still went through all of the safety precautions but even so I’ve never fired a gun in my life. In many respects, I was very similar to Jonathan Riddell in that I came from Dayton, Ohio being a very open countryside kind of state and especially smaller city. In a way, I relate to Jonathan in that I have the innocence of being a country kid and going to war firsthand. There were emotional parts that we didn’t really have to try too hard because it was so emotionally grueling on all of us; that all of us as brothers coming together during these moments of war and just treachery was just therapeutic. We didn’t have to try too hard to be in that moment of grief and think as one unit, that’s definitely something that I would say. This show has given me a great appreciation for military and all that they’ve done for our country.
They definitely put together a phenomenal cast with you, Jeremy Sisto, Michael Kelly, Noel Fisher, Jason Ritter, and I could go on and on. What was your experience like working with them?
Joey Luthman: Absolutely! I worked with with E.J. Bonilla and Jon Beavers, Patrick Schwarzenegger, Thomas McDonell—I worked with them very closely. Roland Buck III, I didn’t work directly with him but he was in the same episode with me because he reoccurs on Chicago Med. We were actually in the same episode together, and I didn’t even realize it until we worked on this. Michael Kelly, Jeremy Sisto, Noel Fisher, and Jason Ritter are all part of the rescue, so there’s not a lot of context between us except for maybe at the very end. There’s a few scenes between Jason Ritter and Mike Kelly when we are going back out into battle after we are rescued. They are a part of the rescue mission coming into the city to rescue us from the rooftop that we are pinned down on. They are trying to find us. We don’t have a lot of interaction with them firsthand until after we are rescued. From when I have worked with them, they are incredible actors and we hung out with them all the time. Regardless of working, we hung out with these guys playing a board game called Settlers of Catan. It’s fascinating. It’s a strategy game and we all play it—Jeremy, Noel, Jason—we were all playing that all of the time. They are all great people.
Who won the most?
Joey Luthman: Oh man, E.J. won the game the most because it’s all about trading with people to get resources and things. I was always very hesitant to trade with anyone because I felt like I was just going to give them the advantage and I would end up losing ultimately. E.J. and Jon Beavers won most of the time.
E.J. and Jon Beavers are master strategists. [Laughing]
Joey Luthman: Yes. [Laughing]
I saw a post on your Instagram that Arnold Schwarzenegger stopped by the set to visit his son Patrick. Did he offer you guys any advice?
Joey Luthman: First of all, that was incredible. [Laughing] That was so unexpected and amazing. We were in the van and we already had Carter in the back, Thomas was in the front, and then I was in the first row and we got up to the unit and he wasn’t even outside yet. Arnold was just standing out by the car. He was smoking a cigar and having a good time. [Laughing] That was absolutely incredible. When he was in the car with us, he was talking about his time filming all of his things and he was really congratulating us on our great work that we were doing. He just said that we have to have fun because it’s all about that. Having a good time, while also doing great work, is part of it. He said enjoy it while we have it and it will be fun. From what he’s seen, and from what Patrick has told him, we are all doing a good job. That was really cool to hear coming from Arnold Schwarzenegger. [Laughing] He’s a cool guy. He’s not intimidating, he just has a presence to him. I just can’t get over how cool that was.
What were some of the challenges that you faced filming the series?
Joey Luthman: Probably just the strength and emotion, but mostly physical strength. We didn’t have the full weight that would be in a Kevlar vest, which is the plates that actually stop the bullets. Those would be in pockets that are on your chest and then your back on your vest. The gun itself is about forty pounds and the weights that would go in the vest, that we didn’t have, add an extra fifty pounds to everything else. The helmets, I don’t know exactly how much they weigh, added a decent amount of weight because they have to be strong to stop bullets—they added a decent amount of weight on top of your head. We had on heavy boots, especially when it was raining on us and we were trudging through the mud, which would weigh us down. That was another element that we didn’t expect. There was a lot of elements at play, especially heat. We filmed in Fort Hood, Texas. There were days where it was very hot. Getting to the end of the shoot, we had fire all up and down the street in Sadr City. The fire, plus 100 degrees and humidity, made it very challenging. Also driving a metal enclosed no airflow Humvee, there were a lot of very hot days and elements at play, on top of everything else. I think it was a lot of physical action. We were doing night shoots and our schedule was to wake up at 3 in the afternoon and then go home and go to sleep at 5 in the morning. Throughout those nights, it was a lot of kneeling because we were on top of a roof and a lot of it was covering our sectors. We had knee pads but it was still very weighing on you. At the end of the day, there were lots of bruises, sores, and creaking bones. That was probably the biggest challenge—the physical aspect of it all.
I know that the series hasn’t aired yet, but were you able to get some feedback from military members and their families?
Joey Luthman: Absolutely! That’s what I was so scared of. We all gave the best performances that we could. We would talk about it between takes or when we would play Settlers of Catan. We would all talk about if we were doing the best that we can do because this isn’t for us, it’s for the families that lost sons in this terrible moment—in the war in general, but especially in this day. This was a very quick day but a lot happened and a lot of tragedy came out of it. We were being honest with ourselves and our characters that we were doing the best that we could do. I think that we really did the best that we could do. I was so scared after we finished if it would come across that way. I went to the TCA’s after-party back in July and a lot of military people like Sergeant Berwyn, who was on set with us all the time, saw it and he thought that it was just like it was. He thought it was very well done, which is incredible coming from him and all the other critics and producers. It was especially amazing hearing it come from him. It was a dream come true because he was there that day. He knows what happened and firsthand, saw everything happen that moment, and from then on the rest of the year—the rest of the tour. He saw what happened, so coming from him that he thought it was incredible, very accurate, and well done was exactly what I wanted to hear. That was a big relief that he thought that. I’ve heard from a couple of other soldiers that were there, or served in Iraq, that said that it was very well done.
You and your sister, Elise Luthman, are Starlight Ambassadors. Can you talk about your work with them and some of the other charities that you support?
Joey Luthman: Mainly it is Starlight Children’s Foundation and Ronald McDonald House. I recently attended their Dream Halloween event. It’s pretty much their biggest thing. They bring in hundreds of hospitalized kids and their parents and they have arts and crafts and virtual reality video games, Nintendo, and a whole lot of different things. They even have live performances and a mini trick or treat kind of thing for the kids to go through. We get to play with them, and engage with them, and that’s honestly Starlight’s biggest thing—having the kids be in a position where they can have these experiences and smile, laugh, and play. We get to join in with them and it’s a lot of fun. We do that very frequently with Starlight. I’ve done Dream Halloween for five years and I’ve probably been with Starlight for eight or nine years. It’s been a long time. They are always great people that put on amazing events. They are actually working on putting virtual reality in hospitals for kids to play in hospitals, which is amazing. They are always on top of new technology and virtual reality is definitely the new way of gaming. They did the same thing with the Wii when it came out. Starlight is great and I love Ronald McDonald House. I’m going to be doing a local event at the hospital with them. I’m always involved with those two and St. Jude as well. Starlight is number one on the list, but I love supporting whatever I can.
What else do you have coming up?
Joey Luthman: I just filmed a guest spot on a truTV show called Those Who Can’t. A very quick synopsis of that is that it’s about teachers that are trying to be hip in the world of millennials. [Laughing] It’s pretty ridiculous. I play a YouTube star, YouTube celebrity, that is famous for a ridiculous reason and for pretty much doing nothing. I just do a funny face and say a weird thing and run away. They call me the Wing Ding kid because I flap my arms like a bird and I say wing ding really loud and then I run away. [Laughing] It’s just…I mean when I saw the sides for the audition I laughed because that’s actually something that could be popular on YouTube for no reason. [Laughing] It’s so ridiculous but I did that. That will be coming out soon on truTV.
I did a guest spot on a show called Alexa & Katie, which is a Netflix show as a half-hour sitcom. That will be coming out sometime in 2018. I’m in the seventh episode of that. Lots of fun stuff in the future.
The Long Road Home premieres Tuesday, November 7 at 9/8c on National Geographic Channel.
Photo: Michael Bezjian