NBC's new military-themed drama The Brave debuts tonight (September 25th) at 10pm ET/PT. The series follows a top-secret special ops team that conducts missions under the guidance of the Defense Intelligence Agency. Mike Vogel stars as the Army Ranger who leads the team and Anne Heche plays the DIA director of operations.
During a recent visit to the show's set, creator Dean Georgaris was excited to describe the show he wants to make, one that celebrates the heroism and the tactics of each week's mission and dials down the homefront drama. He also introduced me to former Navy SEAL Mikal Vega, the show's military advisor and the guy tasked with teaching the actors how to convincingly pull off each week's maneuvers.
Mikal is a colorful guy who spent 22 years in the Navy as a SEAL and EOD specialist. As he made his transition to civilian life and dealt with post-traumatic stress, he took up the practice of Kunadlini Yoga and shares what's he's learned through his Vital Warrior organization in Los Angeles.
He just wrote and directed the short film Message in a Bottle through a scholarship from the Veterans in Film and Television's Art of Visual Storytelling (AVS) Workshop. Mikal let me see the in-progress edit and he's got talent. The film tells the story of a veteran struggling with PTS and Vega introduces his lead character to the techniques and principles that drive Vital Warrior, which aims to offer solutions that offer alternatives to drug treatment.
Vega told me some off-the-record stories about the production of and his pretty sizable role in that 4am Netflix stoner classic Navy SEALS: The Battle for New Orleans (original title: Navy SEALS vs. Zombies). What he didn't mention is that he stars in the just-released, sure-to-be-equally-amazing Navy SEALs vs. Demons.
Mikal's a warrior, poet, activist and filmmaker. He's a true Renaissance man who's thought long and hard about his service and wants to share what he's learned with others. He's also got a sense of humor that lets him act in ridiculous but awesome straight-to-video monster movies. Vega's also the military advisor on an action/adventure network TV show that's got to deliver the thrills every week. No pressure.
The Brave takes, well, a brave approach in the era of so-called "peak TV." Rather than tease the audience with a long, convoluted mystery that may or may not reveal itself sometime in season three or focus on the dark moods of an anti-hero lead, the producers talk about a "mission-of-the-week" format that emphasizes tactics and heroism. If they pull it off, a show like that can respect the mission and be something that's also fun to watch. NBC has only released the pilot, but The Brave will be a blast if everything clicks.
I spent a day on the set in New Mexico and had a chance to speak with Mikal several times. We finally sat down for a recorded interview when he had a break and here's how the conversation went:
Mikal Vega and Dean Georgaris on the set of "The Brave."
I think viewers can tell the the difference beyond good tactical maneuvers and indifferent ones whether they know or not. They can feel when it’s right.
You can absolutely feel it even if you don’t know anything about weapons and tactics. On this show, they care about getting it right. Even if like the viewer doesn’t understand tactics, they’ll be able to tell from the movement. “Oh, that's something different.” You can tell the energy that it holds when it’s right, you know when it's a bristling porcupine of weaponry moving through a mall.
Dean describes the show you’re trying to make as one that strips out all the homefront drama and concentrates on the mission. In a way, what you're doing with those guys has to work or there's no show.
That’s the weight they’ve put on it. It’s an incredible blessing for me because I get to pull from all of my life experiences to do this, the creative side, the war side, everything. And I'm not wasting it. Every day the cast is showing me how much they care about it and that makes everything worth it for me.
To make this thing successful, I’ll give them as much as I possibly can of my experiences and my team's experiences as I'm allowed.
Tactical training is no afterthought for Mikal.
On a lot of productions, the tactical moves seem to be an afterthought. “Okay, we've got five minutes to figure out how to get everybody from Point A to Point B.”
It happens a lot with stunt sequences. “We'll get it, if we can, but I've got this many hours to shoot in a day.” For us, each episode is an-eight day shoot. We’re trying to do a lot in eight days. They’ve set the bar really high and so far we're crushing it.
We're three days in, but the stuff I've seen so far has all been tactical movement, tactical situations. Dean likes to talk about a pickup basketball mentality, where a team can anticipate and seem to move without thinking. That’s what combat really is. At the end of the day, you weigh all the planning that you try to do and it's all going sideways on you anyway. You come into it with a plan and then you execute that plan up until you can't execute that plan. Then you're like taking it as it comes and that’s where you get some interesting storytelling. “How are they going to deal with this guy who just went sideways on them after they had all their eggs in that basket?”
Practice, practice, practice.
There are a lot of special ops teams in the movies that feature guys like Steven Seagal or Chuck Norris. You usually you don’t get the team vibe. The star is surrounded by some younger actors who give up face time to the star. What I’ve seen so far from “The Brave” feels more like a real team operation onscreen.
It is different that way. Dean is a very sharp cat and that’s definitely by design. The more I get to know him, the more I'm impressed. I keep telling him he’d make a good CIA agent. He does everything in such a casual manner, but it’s very powerful at the same time. He preps the battlefield, so to speak, and he lets people operate within his parameters. He just moves things around and orchestrates this.
Dean brought me in and gave me everything I needed to create that team, to help that team gel. I got to merge my understanding of the creative side of film and television and my life experiences on teambuilding within the SEAL teams. I mash that all together into something that allows me to walk that razorblade's edge of being the guy that’s like, “No, it's gotta be this way,” and having the understanding that there must be some Hollywood aspects to a Hollywood show.
We do our best to get those tactical pieces into the show. In my experience, you show a few of those per episode and even the most staunch military guy is going to be willing to overlook a couple of things. You’re always going to get the guys who say, “Oh, I caught that thing there, blah, blah.” You're never going to please everybody.
No one ever wants to see a movie about their job. A person who works in any profession can always find something to complain about. You're not making a documentary.
There's a very fine art to building a foundation of a show so the regular viewer can follow a long story arc and, at the same time, a new viewer can sit down and watch it and be entertained just as much as the person who has been in it for eight seasons.
Mikal the operator.
Can you share your military career experience with our readers?
I joined the military when I was 17 years old. I wasn’t a sports star. I was a bullied glee club kid. Top hat, pink vest, cane, Puttin' on the Ritz. That’s me.
You sure don’t look like that kid now.
I originally joined the Navy in 1989 and I went into the EOD community, Explosive Ordinance Disposal community. That’s your bomb squad. I became a senior EOD tech and served in support of the SEAL teams and the EOD mission in Haiti, Zaire and Albania. I also was local area response for the entire east coast for improvised explosive device response and ordinance pickups. I did presidential security detail with the United States Secret Service. For that period of time, it was one of the jobs of the EOD tech.
From EOD. I went into the SEAL community and was in BUD/s Class 224, went straight to SEAL Team 8 and pretty much stayed there the whole time because it was during the surge for the war in Iraq. I kept increasing in rank, so they kept being able to plug me in. I was there almost ten years.
My first tour in Iraq I was hit by a roadside IED that low ordered and caused a bunch of issues, cervical trauma and mild traumatic brain injury, all these things that I didn’t know at the time. I have vestibular damage affecting my balance. I didn’t know and none of us put two and two together at the time.
I came back, trained for six months, deployed again for a second tour, and was able to do lots of great, great, great work. The west coast guys were over in Ramadi and we were doing some other stuff in Baghdad. That mission is one of the most successful SEAL deployments in history with the amount of captured, killed and detained. Our target personnel and our target sets were rated upwards of 96 percent.
One of the things that you don’t get to see on TV news is all the beautiful things of war. When you come up and you’ve liberated a town and you have people coming out in the streets crying, thanking you and trying to give you anything they can, hugging you, and all the love that's involved in that.
It's a result of the sacrifice that these men and women do on a day-to-day basis that’s never broadcast. I think this show does some of that and that makes me so excited to be a part of it.
Sharing some knowledge on set in Morocco during filming of the pilot.
When did you decide to make the transition to civilian life?
I was eventually medically discharged as a result of those injuries as they manifested themselves. I started having neurological symptoms develop. I lost all my grip strength in my right hand, couldn’t lift my arm without using my back, that type of stuff. They did neurosurgery in 2009 and I was subsequently discharged in 2012 when it didn’t come back online as it should.
You can't really jump out of airplanes at night if you're getting dizzy. That’s a neurological sign. I was afforded the opportunity to heal and serve out my time training other guys on the west coast.
Once I was discharged, I continued to pursue the healing and the creativity, exploring where all that would go. And I started a nonprofit organization called Vital Warrior. You can find that on VitalWarrior.org if you want to learn more about that. It's a non-pharmaceutical system of modalities that I put together that helped me recover from the aforementioned and continues to help me really catalyze the experiences of my life and integrate them into a creative outlet.
I found this warrior meditation called Kundalini Yoga. It's taught by Yogi Bhajan and it really cuts through all of your subconscious garbage and just dumps it out in a healthy way. Since I've been practicing that, everything creative has come into the space that I've tore that other garbage out of. Yoga has helped me flex the creative muscles and helped me be able to help others find that thing for themselves.
Noah Mills, Hadi Tabbal, Natacha Karam, Demetrius Grosse, Mikal Vega and Mike Vogel in the training room for "The Brave."
Aside from the tactical training, what's your role on "The Brave"?
On this show, they’ve put a lot of weight on the tactical aspect but they’ve also used the stories that we've shared with them. A lot of episodes are based on real events. Not completely, but they use pieces of events to create their stories.
I come from a team of guys. I wasn’t CIA, so if we have a CIA-type story, I have people I can call and go, Hey, what's the deal and what do you want me to send back on this one so that we're serving the guys, so that we're telling the proper story?” Not just so we'll have a cool show, but so that we're honoring the guys out there still doing it. We want to do it in a way that they'd be proud of.
One thing I’d say to anyone who’s been in the military who’s stuck dealing with an experience is that you’ve got to find your purpose again. You have to. If you don’t find your purpose again, you're gonna continue to feel empty and you're gonna continue to fill that emptiness with booze, drugs, women, men, whatever it is or you're gonna keep banging your head against that wall.
I just directed a film about it. called Message in a Bottle. It's a short. I just finished it as a part of the Veterans in Film and Television Scholarship Program for the Artists Visual Storytelling in LA. I got a scholarship for it. And just finished the film. I still have to do sound design and color correction and everything.
Let me put it to you this way: I didn’t even have time to put credits in, because you have to write it, direct it, and edit it in three weeks. Miles Watkins runs the course. I did that with my buddy Darren Ross. He's phenomenal. He’s not a veteran, but heavy veteran supporter.
I wrote the script and I never had written a script. I directed this film. You always get stories about the guy who has combat-related stress and either kills himself or does something terrible. It gets to the point to where people say, “Okay, another guy with PTSD. I get it, I get it.” And they're rolling their eyes.
This one is different because it shows how to get out of it. It shows the whole thing and I think it’s extremely powerful.
Since I didn’t have time to put the credits in, I sitting in the room with an audience and the movie plays and it goes to a dark screen. Nothing, just silence. People sat in that dark room for like two minutes. You could just hear them crying.
When I looked at the registration email, I was nervous as hell. Should I do this thing? Then the whole story came in while I was meditating. So I submitted for it. They were like, “Of course, you got it.”
Then I went and made the film despite the fear and apprehension. I don’t know why I was afraid to do it. You get that tightness inside and it's different, it's new. Do I have time finish it? Is it gonna be good? All those things.
I have a lot of talents. I draw, I sing. I told you, the whole kid thing. And I have those experiences where I was blessed with being the senior enlisted advisor for SEAL teams in combat operations in Iraq and I had incredible guys out there doing amazing things.
We talked about this at lunch a little bit. Let people do their job. It makes your job easy. You’ve just got to make sure that the left and right flanks are covered, keep the big picture, and make sure you’re getting your vision across. When I stepped into that director's chair, when I put that mantle on, I was always asking, “Should I be an artist, should I be the singer, should I be the actor? What am I supposed to do?” When I finally sat down and directed it, I realized I'm using all of that at once.
I felt that same type of thing on this show, where I've been with the actors and they ask, “Would I have my weapon like this, that, or this other way?” And I respond, “You'd have it like this because of this.” They're super sharp, all of them. I find that if you explain why they're doing something they’ll retain it so much better.
Hadi Tabbal, Mike Vogel, Natacha Karam and Mikal Vega on a night shoot for "The Brave."
To do that, you have to cast smart actors, something a lot of shows aren't willing to do.
Again, I'm come back to Dean. The more I learn about that man, the more I know that none of that was an accident. He put me there, he put them there, he looked at personalities, he looked at all of those things. As they usually do in shows, but not just on a chemistry-type basis, but on a “what drives you” basis. Why do you want to be a part of this show? And it’s just through casual conversation that he just took the information.