Actor Philip Winchester of “Fly Boys” Makes Time for God and Family

by Edwin L. Carpenter – Associate Editor, The Dove Foundation

Editor’s Note: The Film “Flyboys” has not been approved by Dove for family viewing due to language and violence. It was one of the near-miss films which “almost” received our Dove Seal. The Dove Foundation recently interviewed actor Philip Winchester who plays the character of Jensen in the film. Even though the film “Flyboys” is not Dove approved, we wanted to post the interview due to his outlook on the importance of faith and family in his life.

Actor Philip Winchester, who appears alongside James Franco in the new MGM release, “Flyboys,” told The Dove Foundation in a recent interview that he takes every Saturday to meet with Christian friends to “hash things out” and to be accountable as a believer.

Winchester set out at age seventeen to pursue his acting dream and was accepted at the prestigious London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art. As a student, he was able to hone his craft by acting in numerous theatrical performances including “The Crucible,” “The Master and Margarita,” and “Blood Wedding.” This was after he starred, at age fourteen, with Steven Segal in the 1989 film “The Patriot,” which was directed by the Academy Award winning director Dean Semler.

In 2004 the Belgrade, Montana native landed his first major film role opposite Bill Paxton, Anthony Edwards and Sir Ben Kingsley in the futuristic production “Thunderbirds.” His father took several acting classes at Montana State University when Winchester was growing up, while his mother worked nights at a nursing home. “I grew up in the theatre,” he said. “I was backstage a lot until my mom would pick me up.” He was impressed that people made a living by telling stories and, “I greatly enjoyed it,” he said.

We asked him how he landed the role of Jensen in “Flyboys,” the World War I film about war pilots, and he replied, “I was in Montana doing a play with my father actually, and I was sent the script. I read it. It was just very original. I haven’t seen a World War I movie like this. I think ‘The Blue Max’ (1966) was the last war movie that depicted the flying like this. It was like a modern “Top Gun” with this band of brothers, this group of guys who had their own ideas but had to do it together in a community to make any difference. The Christian value in the middle of it,  the kind of gospel approach, was that there are all these guys who have their own ideas, but the only way they’re going to succeed is if they do it in a community and if they come together. You’re dead out there by yourself.”

Winchester, excited by the script, responded to his agent right away and flew to Los Angeles and “had the meetings with the producer, Dean Devlin, and the director Tony Bill. We got excited about the work together and we looked at different roles—we looked at different possibilities. And the character of William Jensen came up, actually after they had left to go to London. And I talked to my agent about this role, and I said I like Jensen. We did another audition on tape for them. They got it while they were over in London and they said, ‘Yeah, you got it, let’s do this.’ It was a slow process but like most things in Hollywood at the end it got a little frantic.”

We wanted to know what the character of Jensen is like. “He’s a small town kid from Nebraska,” said Winchester, “who comes from a military background. His father’s in the military. I think he takes that responsibility, even though it’s not his responsibility to bear, into the battle. The way I approached the character was, he wanted to prove to his father he was a man and he wanted to prove his masculinity and is stepping out into the world by himself.  He takes up this mission and I approached it as he really saw this through rose-tinted glasses. He gets to this war—he gets thrown into the reality of what it really is, and it completely slaps him in the face, as a lot of things do. It’s terrifying. It is a meaty role. I was really blessed. He had a big character arc. Basically he goes in there with an idea, and he gets it shoved down his throat. And he has to pick himself up, dust himself off and find the strength to keep fighting. His story is just one thread in the tapestry of this movie. It really is about these guys doing stuff together. And the only reason they can do it is because they’ve got each other’s back.”

Winchester commented that the film is rated PG-13, and, “It’s rated PG-13 because it’s violent. War is violent. What they’ve done is a very good job of depicting the reality. Either you’re sitting in a club—or you’re sitting in the bar resting, and you’re almost at death’s door. Life expectancy for these pilots is three to six weeks. There’s a lot of death. It’s violent—there are planes getting shot out of the sky.”

Winchester is excited about the flying scenes which he described as, “absolutely breath-taking.” He said they developed a special effects program for the scenes and took the actors up into the seats of the planes and worked on mock dogfights. “We were in the back of these airplanes,” he chuckled, “holding on for dear life!” He mentioned his admiration for the real pilots at the time which flew in open cockpits without any oxygen in excess of fifteen thousand feet.

We asked Winchester what it was like working with James Franco. “James Franco is a phenomenal actor,” he said. “He’s one of our generation’s better actors. It was just great to be a part of an ensemble that had him as kind of the key player.” Winchester enthused that all of the actors were passionate about the work and he believes it shows up in the finished product. “It’s a very well-crafted movie with a lot of great acting in it. It’s a blessing. I just thank God.”

We asked Winchester, a devout Christian, if it was difficult to maintain his faith in Hollywood. “I think it’s hard to maintain your Christian faith anyway. We’ve all been called to do different things. I think that one of the things that God has given me is a heart for Hollywood. He’s blessed me in such a way that I can deal with things that other people can’t deal with. In some sense, there’s no way I could possibly do an office job and deal with some other things that people deal with. We’ve all been given certain talents and certain gifts, and callings. I mean, I can’t do this by myself, man! I’ve got an amazing group of guys which I meet with on Saturday mornings. We’re all professionally involved in the business, either we’re actors or agents or working in production offices.”

Winchester said they discuss what’s going on in their lives, and what God is doing and how the business is getting to them and why it’s not getting to them. They pray for each other. “Hollywood is a tough town,” he said. “It really is. The only way I’ve been able to survive is because God’s blessed me with this group of guys, my band of brothers here. These are my flyboys right here. I’ve got them here in Hollywood which is amazing.”

We asked Winchester about his devotion to his family and he said, “The process of getting a job is kind of the most tiring. When you get the job it’s a relief. You get the work, you go on location and you film and it’s exhausting. You’re in a different country. I always allow myself a couple of weeks to go back to Montana and to spend time with my folks and my grandparents and my brother. It reminds me of where I’m from. It reminds me of who I am.”

“Hollywood is as fake as the sets they shoot the movies on! What is Hollywood? It’s a zip code.” He further commented that although it is just a geographic location, there is a spiritual attack which is present in the area and, “It can be kind of draining sometimes. Outside of the Saturday morning group, it’s great to go and see friends. My folks—I’m really thankful that they’re flying down for the premiere. We’re just going to hang out and I’m going to show them a bit of the world that I live in. And a lot of my roots are back in London because that’s where my spiritual journey began. That’s a home for me too. My mother is English and I spent so much time there.”

When asked about challenges in making the film, Winchester laughed, “Honestly and ironically enough, I’m not a big fan of flying!” He said he is used to long flights as he was in Spain this summer and has been to London recently, and to Montana. “I just don’t like it!” he said. When he learned he would be in the small planes and dropped from the sky, “I was just terrified,” he said. “After doing it, it became kind of a passion,” he said. “Now I really enjoy it—just the fact that I conquered that fear of flying.”

The film opens on September 22 but Philip will get to see it at an early screening on the twentieth. “Just to let you know, I have been to some sneak previews and screenings just so I would basically know what I was talking about when I sat down with you guys!” he said with a laugh. “The finished product is much different from what you have in your head.”

We asked if he had a favorite scene in the film. He reiterated he enjoyed the flying, then added, “There’s a scene toward the end of the movie with me and Franco which I think just turned out really nice. It just kind of depicted the crux of these characters. It was nice for the characters and I think you kind of understand where Jensen is coming from.”

As we finished up the interview we asked him about favorite roles and he said, “This is one of my favorite roles because of the arc of the character. I did a play a couple of years ago with my father and it was a modern allegory of the Apostle Peter and we just had such a great time. I would really like to put that into production here in Los Angeles. It’s a really powerful, kind of controversial story.” He mused about the variety which acting has given him. “One day I’m a policeman, one day I’m a pilot, one day I’m an astronaut.” He chuckled gleefully and it is obvious that he enjoys acting a lot.

“The film shows you what war is. I’m proud of that. I’m proud it’s not a propaganda film, that it’s not a pro-war or anti-war film. It’s just a movie about what happens in war, what happens in these guys’ lives. The themes of sacrifice and redemption really come through. That’s a big thing for a Hollywood film.”

Winchester just finished filming, “The Heart of the Earth” in Spain this summer. “In My Sleep” is an independent project which he will begin filming October 2. “It’s one step at a time,” he said.

It was nice speaking with a young actor who sets aside time for his faith and his family. Winchester hopes that “Flyboys” will do well at the box office. It is obvious that his family and spiritual life is already soaring.

Read Dove’s Review of “Flyboys”