What It Takes to Convincingly Play a Navy SEAL on Television

Neil Brown Jr. on the art of acting with 40 pounds on your back

October 4, 2022 6:54 am
A still from the television show "SEAL Team," in which special ops forces enter a room with high-powered guns.
"SEAL Team" has some of the most realistic action sequences on television today. Brown Jr. credits a writers' room that regularly collaborates with real-life specialists.
Erik Voake/Courtesy of Paramount Pictures

Neil Brown Jr. grew up idolizing his father, a Vietnam-era Marine.

At one point, that admiration was so strong that he’d set his sights on a career in the military after school. But life had other ideas, diverting him into the world of entertainment. Still, Brown Jr. was able to honor his roots through the acting opportunities that rolled his way, appearing in the action film Battle: Los Angeles and the war drama Sand Castle. Following a number of great supporting performances, the role of his career arrived in the form of Navy SEAL Ray Perry, whom he plays in the Paramount+ series SEAL Team.

We spoke with Brown Jr. about the unique challenges of portraying a special forces operator, the gym sessions that get him action-ready and what it’s like to film those iconic battle scenes.

Before you became an actor you wanted to join the military, correct?

My father always credited the military for making him the man that he is, so it only made sense that I wanted to go in that direction too. I ended up in the Air Force Junior ROTC, and had a lot of friends who were in the Sea Cadets. Those programs helped build a great foundation for me in my youth. I cared how my uniform looked. My creases could cut cheese and you could see yourself in my shoes. I loved everything about being a part of a team like that.

Even in college my sights were set on joining up in the US army, going to 1st Ranger Battalion, and eventually making it into Special Forces Operational Detachment-Delta. I was so devoted to it that I even got my wife, who was my girlfriend at the time, to look into a career in the military. But our plans changed after my wife got pregnant. My dad personally didn’t ever want me in a uniform, and he didn’t want me in the military. That didn’t stop me from wanting to be just like my dad, and I still want that. I am lucky that I get to do that in some form with the series and by playing Ray Perry.

What’s it been like portraying an operator in the Navy SEALs?

I’m not going to lie, I enjoy getting to jump out of planes for work, and I like blowing stuff up like any guy would. There is heart in all of these roles of course, but there is also the badass action. I’m still a kid in my soul. I have to admit these shows have helped me become a better man. I’m proud to represent the best of us in many ways, and showing that courage is doing what you need to do in spite of fear, not in the absence of it. I love going into experiences that I can learn during, and that is what this show has been: an opportunity to learn.

How do you go about learning everything that you need for the authenticity of the show?

There is plenty of on the job training on SEAL Team. The beauty of our production is that there are tons of special operators around at all time. They are ingrained in the show from top to bottom. They’re in the writers room, on set, and working as tech advisors throughout. There are even veterans acting on the show, like Tyler Grey and Scott Foxx. Then there are other actors in the background, like Remi Adeleke, who I also used as a resource when getting ready for Ray. So if I have any questions, all I have to do is look to my left or right and ask someone. 

How realistic is the gear that you’re wearing and carrying around?

On set pretty much everything that we have on and that gear that we are carrying is real. The only thing that we really swap out are the plates in our vest carriers. On occasion the NODS, aka the night vision, that we’re wearing might not be real. But really the majority of it is. There is somewhere between 30 to 40 pounds of gear on your person at all times and it takes a little while to learn how to maneuver with everything. I will say it’s the best way to learn, diving in like that, and it didn’t take long between we were moving pretty well as a squad. 

SEAL Team is a pretty physical show — did you and the rest of the cast go through any kind of boot camp to prepare?

I will say that everyone in the cast was already pretty in shape when we arrived. There was a small course we went through to fine tune how we were using the weapons and put on the gear. For the gym sessions, I have been working out in some form or fashion since I was four years old. Not just in the gym — I’ve trained in boxing, Muay Thai, Shotokan karate, and many others. I’ve gotten a belt or dabbled in almost every marital art there is.

I started lifting weights young, probably a little too young, but hey, lifting is life. The thing about lifting, especially when you are doing it young, is your body adapts to it very quickly. Getting ready for this show changed my life in a lot of ways; I discovered a heart condition that I wasn’t aware of before. That forced me to find new ways to train, instead of just lifting massively heavy weights for low rep counts. I quit caffeine, and had to learn how to train intensely with no pre-workout. But I love bodybuilding and I found a way to push my limits despite that.

How did you take your training to the next level for the latest seasons of SEAL Team?

I first discovered Y3T from Neil Hill online, while looking for new ways to break my body. I’ve always been a fan of bodybuilding. I looked up to bodybuilders growing up and wanted to be the Incredible Hulk. I was a big comic book nerd. I saw out how brutal the programming was with the rep range and I was blown away. I started to do every program of his that I could find online and they were wrecking me. I can now attest that they are just a taste of what he’s able to do in the lab. 

Thanks to the success of the show I was able to actually connect with Neil Hill on social media, and we started working together over the phone. The sessions he had me do were insane, but I was quickly seeing a change in my body composition. Before working with him I thought 10 was a high rep count, but now I’m doing “century” — 100 with considerable weight. I used to do progressive resistance and pyramid up in reps. But Neil is a little more diabolical and he’ll have me pyramid down. That’s starting with the heaviest weight that you can handle. That sucks.

I keep my body at about 20 pounds below what it wants to be, in order to look lean and move around with some agility. I’m over 40 and in the best of shape of my life now because of SEAL Team

What does your home gym situation look like?

We used to have a pretty sick gym situation on set, but sadly that had to go away. On the bright side I was able to focus on finishing up my setup at home, which I have called endearingly started to call the “Pain Palace.” The squat rack and bench were the first things that I just had to have. Neil told me that we had to have legs. Now I work legs more than anything, which has worked out great, because my wife loves my thighs. The best part of having a home gym is that I can train anytime of the day, which is good because there are quite a few times when I’m not done filming until two in the morning. And that’s when I’m going to get a lift in.

SEAL Team has a good number of large scale action sequences, and there was an especially big one at the start of this season. What is it like doing those with the whole Bravo 2 crew, especially David Boreanaz, who plays Jason?

Those scenes are a lot of fun, because they’re so big and there’s so much going on between the squad. We’re playing off of each other from different locations. David might be 100 or 200 yards away from me, doing his own work on the ground. They’ll yell action for each of us to do our thing in that moment. Meanwhile there are explosions are going off, and even if they aren’t real, they feel real. Gunfire is going off everywhere. It’s hard not to feel genuine emotions amidst that chaos, while you’re trying to focus on your acting, of course. 

There are so many things to coordinate while these explosions are going off, and the team has become very good at noticing when something’s off. We have the best stunt guys and armorers around. Everybody knows where everyone else is going, at what pace, and where their weapons should be pointed. Every element is actually happening, which is maybe why it can feel so hectic and chaotic, and I think that’s what makes those action scenes hit so well. Filming can feel like a blur sometimes, and on occasion I’ll see the show pop up on the television and can’t believe how cool some of the sequences look.

Do you have any scenes that have been especially physical for you?

We get pretty smashed on the cardio front. Ray’s on the sniper rifle, which means I have to be on the move a lot, hiking around. David [Boreanaz] has enjoyed punishing the cast on the occasions where he’s in the director’s chair, I’ve noticed. He’s my brother…but damn. If he finds a random hill that looks badass to run up, he’s going to make us all run up it. I remember David was trying to get something extra out of me, and it was starting to get to me. I wanted to take the stock of my gun and smack it in his face. I know he felt it too, because he ran up to me and told me to give him a hug. 

The kidnapping storyline that Ray went through was uniquely draining. The experience was completely exhausting, both mentally and physically. I felt like I was not doing the scenes justice if I wasn’t going to a place that took something out of me. There’s a moment where they’re putting a drill through Ray’s leg; I had a lot of people tell me that that scene affected them. It was also rough being away from my castmates, doing that kind of material on my own. 

The team is sporting a couple great beards.

I had one from the very beginning. I’d just finished up on a movie called City of Lies with Johnny Depp and I’d grown my beard out for the role. I remember getting told about the pilot for this series, which was called the SEAL Show at the time. One of the first scenes was between me and Max Thieriot’s character Clay. My agents were telling me that I should shave off my beard before I went in, but I kept it. I wanted to go in there bearded up and ready to roll. It was probably the first time that I have shown up to audition not clean-shaven. I remember the producers told me after the audition that I said the words exactly like they had heard them in their head. That was a great sign I was on the right track.

What’s it been like creating the character of Ray Perry?

Ray Perry was really on the page when I stepped into him. The writers, like Ben Cavell and Spencer Hudnut, did an amazing job of putting his character together. Then Spencer — our show runner and head writer — really opened up the developmental door, for me to bring things that happened to me into Ray. I understood Ray from the first time that I started reading the scripts, because I feel he’s very much like my father and the kind of person that I strive to be. I believe that Ray’s a better person than myself, in all honesty. But I’m trying to get closer to that every day.

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