‘Masters’ of the Skies

Mara Reinstein

March 28, 2024


Article taken from Television Academy

Masters of the Air stars Austin Butler and Callum Turner reveal how they were cast in the epic WWII limited series.

While making Masters of the Air — the third WWII limited series from executive producers Steven Spielberg, Tom Hanks and Gary Goetzman — actors Austin Butler and Callum Turner forged a friendship under the weight of their roles. “It’s an honor to represent these people and what they did, who they were and what they sacrificed,” Turner says. Seconds Butler, “These young men fought for our freedom with their blood. There was a feeling of wanting to do them justice.”

A joint Zoom interview with Austin Butler and Callum Turner had all the makings of a heartwarming long-distance reunion. The actors had finished shooting Masters of the Air almost two years ago. They’d been working nonstop ever since on major projects across multiple continents. Turner lives in his native London, some 6,000 miles from Butler, who’s based in Los Angeles. Their red-carpet Masters premiere and emmy photo shoot were still days away. So, it must have been great to see each other again … yes? Turns out the pair had hung out at Butler’s pad and watched the Golden Globes one night earlier. Just the two of them. No glamorous girlfriends, no entourage befitting two major stars on the rise.

“We were just going to go out and have dinner, and then we decided to do something relaxing at the house,” Butler says. “So we ordered food, lit a fire and had a romantic little night in.”

This moment of impressive male bonding is brought to you by Masters of the Air, a nine-part epic on Apple TV+ executive produced by Steven Spielberg, Tom Hanks and Gary Goetzman. The series serves as a companion piece to the team’s Band of Brothers (2001) and The Pacific (2010), and like those groundbreaking, Emmy-winning projects for HBO, the saga thoroughly and thrillingly explores real United States service members who risked their lives for the country. “Tom and I believe we can never run out of or stop telling these stories so that future generations understand that democracy is worth fighting and — as was the case of the Greatest Generation — dying for,” Spielberg tells emmy via email. Here, the spotlight is on the Eighth Air Force’s 100th Bombardment Group, known as the “Bloody Hundredth” for its high number of members killed, wounded and missing in action during the war. (Per the source material, Donald L. Miller’s 2006 book Masters of the Air: America’s Bomber Boys Who Fought the Air War Against Nazi Germany, 732 airmen were shot down on bombing runs.)

The series also includes a subplot about the Tuskegee Airmen, who were the U.S. military’s first Black fighter pilots. “Steven’s dad was in the Army Air Force, and he was always kind of asking when we were going to do the air war in Europe,” Goetzman explains.

The team is led by two close friends with similar nicknames and contrasting personalities. Butler plays Gale “Buck” Cleven, a reserved but unflappable straight arrow who doesn’t drink or gamble, while Turner’s John “Bucky” Egan is a wisecracking New York Yankees–loving extrovert. Over the course of the series (set from 1943 to ’45), they show their mettle both in the skies — piloting B-17s amid rampant enemy gunfire — and later, as prisoners of war in Germany. (Barry Keoghan, Anthony Boyle, Rafferty Law, Ncuti Gatwa and Nate Mann round out a cast that includes more than 250 speaking parts.) “There’s always pressure on a job to be good and to be true, but this role was more of an honor,” Turner says. “It’s an honor to represent these people and what they did, who they were and what they sacrificed.” Adds Butler, “These young men fought for our freedom with their blood. There was a feeling of wanting to do them justice, and honor them through the process and do it as authentically as possible.”

Per the reviews, they succeeded. Upon the limited series’ January 26 premiere, critics raved about harrowing in-flight sequences and stellar acting. The Guardian even joked that “sales of aviator jackets are about to go through the roof.” In fact, Masters has soared to become Apple TV+’s most-watched series ever, according to the streamer. Though Butler and Turner had not yet read reviews at the time of this interview, they spoke with the confidence of knowing they had succeeded in their mission, both on and offscreen. “Listen, these two were best friends, and what they did was extraordinary,” Turner says. “When we committed, it was like, ‘It’s just you and me.’ We dove in and didn’t look back.”

First, they had to get there — which was a challenge in itself. Around Thanksgiving 2020, Butler found himself at a metaphorical crossroads after taking on the demanding and all-consuming title role in Elvis. With the biopic finally underway following a Covid hiatus, he fretted about what would come next. “I didn’t know what I was going to feel like after working for so long on something I was obsessed with,” he says. “I had a fear because I didn’t know where that energy would be transferred.”

He expressed these feelings of trepidation during a dinner with Hanks — “Colonel” Tom Parker to his Presley in Elvis — and Elvis producer Patrick McCormick. The Oscar-winning star advised him to find something else to do right away, Butler says, “Or else I was going to lose my mind.” McCormick half-jokingly instructed Hanks to give him something to do. “Tom said, ‘Well, I got this World War II thing that I’ve been working on for a while,'” Butler recalls. Despite that A-list connection, Butler still had to send in a tape and audition like every other hopeful.

Turner had his own kind of inside line. That September, he’d submitted his tape and gone off to work as Theseus Scamander in Fantastic Beasts: The Secrets of Dumbledore. One Monday, costume designer Colleen Atwood — who had just been hired for Masters of the Air — reported good news. “She said, ‘I think you just got another job,'” he remembers. Three months passed before he got the official word, during which time he reluctantly gave up hope of getting the show. “World War II was always something that fascinated me, and what these guys were able to achieve together excited me,” Turner says. “I had to find some sort of deep spiritual surrender to say goodbye to it, and then luckily it came back.”

Fun fact: It wasn’t until this interview that the two learned they were originally tapped for each other’s roles. “I never questioned it when I was asked to play Cleven instead,” Butler says. “It was just, ‘Whatever you guys think.'” Turner adds, “I just wanted to be on the show.” Actually, the rationale was simple. “We fell in love with them before we were buttoned up on the show,” Goetzman explains. “We just knew they were both incredible actors and solid citizens. That’s helpful in our world.”

Script developed by Never Enough Design