'13 Hours': U-M alumnus stars in new movie about Benghazi

By Kurt Anthony Krug
Legal News

Matt Letscher has portrayed plenty of historical figures.

Letscher, 45, of Los Angeles, has played Capt. Harrison Love, leader of the California State Rangers, in 1998’s “The Mask of Zorro”; Mike Love (no relation to Harrison Love) in 2000’s “The Beach Boys: An American Family”; attorney Larry King, ex-husband of tennis pro Billie Jean King (not to be confused with the TV/radio host of the same name) in 2001’s “When Billie Beat Bobby”; Sen. Ted Kennedy in 2001’s “Jackie, Ethel, Joan: The Women of Camelot”; Col. Adelbert Ames in 2003’s “Gods and Generals”; defense attorney Paul Ford in 2013’s “Devil’s Knot”; and Joseph P. Kennedy, patriarch of the Kennedy family in a 2014 episode of “Boardwalk Empire.

“Living or dead – especially if they’re still living – you want to approach them as respectfully as possible,” said Letscher. “Even if it was Charles Manson, you want to approach their life as something that’s real and exists in the course of history; their actions had impact on other people, other family members – they held their place in the course of life. You want to respect that they’re not a cartoon, not a caricature… If they’re living, I definitely try to get their input with whatever situations we’re dealing with in the story.”

Recently, Letscher played J. Christopher Stevens – the U.S. Ambassador to Libya who was killed when the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi was attacked September 11, 2012 – in the film “13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi,” which was released January 15 and placed No. 4 at the box office its opening weekend, grossing $16.2 million.

“When I was working on Chris Stevens, I went to YouTube and studied his speeches. I’d found the memorial website his family had created and dozens of people who talked about the nature of his character, his work. You try to take all that in,” explained Letscher. “At the same time, you have to recognize in all these cases that you’re usually telling a very specific story, you’re usually capturing a very specific point in time in these people’s lives. It’s your job as an actor to serve the story; it’s not your job as an actor to serve your character.”

Based on the 2014 book “13 Hours: The Inside Account of What Really Happened in Benghazi” by Mitchell Zuckoff, the movie chronicles the story of the security team that defended the U.S. Consulate when terrorists attacked. Stevens was pronounced dead as a result of this attack – which lasted 13 hours – on September 12, 2012. He was the eighth U.S. Ambassador to be killed in the line of duty.

“I think (Stevens) is a real hero and a patriot. This is a movie telling the Benghazi story from a specific perspective,” said Letscher. “It’s really… I wouldn’t say apolitical because it can’t be completely devoid of politics, but it’s not a story told with a political event. It’s a very straight-forward narrative on this one night. The more research I did on this man, the more impressed I was with him and the bigger the loss I felt. It felt like a great story and a great opportunity.”

The oldest of three, Letscher grew up in Grosse Pointe. He graduated from Grosse Pointe South High School in 1988 and the University of Michigan in 1992 with an undergraduate degree in theater/drama. His interest in acting began with an ultimatum from his parents.

“I hit a point in high school where I wasn’t playing sports anymore. I just didn’t have a lot of other things occupying my time. There reached a point where my parents said, ‘You need to find something to do with your time or we will.’ That’s when I – for whatever reason – walked in for an audition with the theater group at school. Yeah, so once I started going, I just really never looked back; it felt very much like home to me,” he recalled.

His first professional role was in “The Tropical Pickle” in 1992 at the Purple Rose Theatre Co. in Chelsea run by Jeff Daniels. This led to a small part in 1993’s “Gettysburg,” which co-starred Daniels. “It was the summer after I graduated, which was the second official season of the Purple Rose,” said Letscher. “It dovetailed very neatly with graduation.”

After moving to L.A., Letscher guest-starred on several TV series before landing his first role in the 1995-96 sitcom “Almost Perfect,” starring Nancy Travis and created by Ken Devine, David Isaacs, and Robin Schiff.

“Ken and David are legends; they worked on ‘M*A*S*H’ and ‘Cheers’… So to be chosen to be on their show was Sitcom 101 – it was like going to school,” he said. “It was very educational. Apart from that, I never imagined myself as a comedic actor per se or one who was necessarily adept at comedy, but I really fell in love with the multi-camera format because it so closely parallels theater. You have a week of rehearsal and then you build to show-night and do it in front of an audience – I just loved it. I loved it all. It’s always sad when one of those shows ends because it’s such a great rhythm to be in.”

Throughout his acting career, Letscher has gone back and forth between TV and film. If he had to pick a favorite role, he said that four or five come to mind.

“Oftentimes you confuse the role with the circumstances surrounding the role: the cast that’s supporting you, the story that’s being told, the experience you had on that particular project – all that informs your memory of whether that role was a favorite one of yours,” he said.

Narrowing it down, he picked Dr. Nathan Stone, older brother of the titular character played by Jonny Lee Miller on “Eli Stone,” ABC’s 2008-09 legal dramedy.

“Being in a family with two brothers, I felt that the relationship between them was written so honestly and was so heartfelt. I really responded to the material and felt that I understood their relationship immediately. When I started working with Jonny – one of my favorite actors – that only intensified. He’s a very sensitive, intelligent actor and we just responded to each other really well. As soon as I read it on the page, I just felt a connection to it,” said Letscher.

Created by Greg Berlanti and attorney-turned-writer Marc Guggenheim, Eli is a successful lawyer suffering from an inoperable brain aneurysm. He has hallucinations that can be perceived as precognitive visions, making him a modern-day prophet. Eli interprets his hallucinations as signs, helping people in accepting lawsuits with little monetary value but achieving a greater moral good.

“It was a very unusual, very well-written show with a great premise and great cast. You were always looking forward to the next script,” said Letscher. “Unfailingly, you had something really honest and juicy and personal to dive into every week. My working experience on that show has been good as it’s been on anything. There are a lot of other roles I could name but in terms of the overall feeling in my heart, that’s the one I always go back to.”

Though it was critically acclaimed and had a small yet devoted audience, “Eli Stone” was cancelled after 26 episodes that were spread across two seasons. One of the factors that hurt it was debuting during the 2007-08 Writers Guild of America strike, Letscher stated.

“There were enough wild cards that came together to make it difficult for the show. I loved the show. I wish it could’ve gone on. I don’t have any great explanation of why it didn’t catch on with more people or why we weren’t taken better care of. Sometimes, it’s just a sad confluence of events that leads to a demise of a show,” said Letscher.

Guggenheim praised Letscher. “Matt is a gentleman and a scholar and an actor’s actor. He’s also phenomenally collaborative and a genuinely sweet guy,” said Guggenheim. “It also doesn’t hurt that he’s enormously talented.”
Currently, Letscher’s web-series “One and Done” – which he created, wrote, produced, directed, and starred in – launched at the beginning of 2016. He’s also slated to reprise his role as the villainous Reverse-Flash later this season on “The Flash” – Berlanti’s super-hero drama – despite dying last season.

“At one point in time, I died. I obviously can’t speak to how I return, but I can tell you that last season I died. But they’ve found a way to bring me back… I will say that the return makes sense within that world; it’s not something strained or unusual. I think when fans see it, they’ll understand it,” said Letscher. “(Berlanti and Guggenheim’s) shows always resonate with emotional truth even if it’s a super-hero show. They tend to focus on relationships than the whiz-bang special effects nature of it. They focus on the fact that (the super-heroes) are humans before they’re super-humans… What draws people long-term are those kinds of relationships and watching things play out. I love working with them. Their sets in my experience have been close tight-knit sets. I’d work for them anytime.”

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