“They’re Still Our Boys”

SACRAMENTO REGION, CA  |  Story and Pictures by Susan Maxwell Skinner
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Carmichael Neighbors for 20 years, Heidi Hansen (left) and Joyce Eskel are moms to Paris train heroes Alek Skarlatos and Spencer Stone. Together with friend Anthony Sadler, the young men are stars of a new Clint Eastwood movie, in which they play themselves.

Heroes, and Now Movie Stars 

SACRAMENTO REGION, CA (MPG) - In August 2015, the lives of three young Sacramento men changed forever. Travelling from Amsterdam to Paris by train, Spencer Stone, Alek Skarlatos and Anthony Sadler foiled a terrorist attack and saved countless lives. International fame, a book -- and now a movie -- followed the adventure.

Life will never be the same for their moms, either. Joyce Eskel and Heidi Hansen have a hard time believing their sons -- together with their Rosemont friend Anthony -- are the stars of “15:17 to Paris.”

Directed by film legend Clint Eastwood, the movie opens nationally on February 9. Stone, Skarlatos, Sadler and their families enjoyed a private screening last weekend in Sacramento. “The boys had seen the movie once before,” explained Joyce Eskel. “They were extra nervous this time because we were all there. We were anxious too: we were seeing our lives exposed for all the world to see.”

“The boys are still in awe that they’ve made a movie with Clint Eastwood,” says Heidi Hansen. “He’s their hero.” The screen legend befriended the boys after he presented them with a “Guy’s Choice” award in 2015. The irrepressible 22-year-olds suggested he should make a movie from their book. Eastwood read “15:17 to Paris” and struck a deal. His casting people considered many actors to portray the heroes but Eastwood liked Stone, Skarlatos and Sadler as is. “He loved the connection between them and felt it might translate well to screen,” explains Hansen.

Gobsmacked, the boys asked if they should get acting lessons. “Clint said no,” says Eskel. “He wanted them to be themselves. He took a risk but he was right; the boys did a great job. The way they interact on screen is exactly how they are together. They hardly had to act at all.”

The 90-minute drama leaps from their childhood to August of 2015. Then Sadler was at college in Sacramento; Skarlatos was in the Oregon Army National Guard; Stone served the US Air Force at Travis.  Spencer and Alek had been inseparable since grade school. They battled war games in Schweitzer Grove and played in the Del Campo High football team. “The script explains how they grew to trust each other; how they always had each other’s back,” explains Eskel. “Though Anthony Sadler and his family lived further away, the three boys had been friends most of their lives.”

Carmichael scenes were restaged in an Atlanta neighborhood. Actors played the two moms and Anthony’s dad, Pastor Anthony Sadler. “They never met us or got a chance to get to know us,” says Eskel. “Heidi and I are always laughing.  The two screen moms are so serious. But the movie’s a drama and actors have to play the script they’re given.”

The reenacted train attack was painful for all the parents. “It brought back how August 21 could have been the worst day of my life,” explains Hansen.  Watching the same scene, Pastor Sadler reached for his son’s arm.

“I was aware of the violence from what the guys had shared with me,” he said. “It was challenging to watch. I really felt how close we came to losing Anthony. Our pride in him is secondary to our gratitude to God for saving his life.”

“The moment when the attacker lifted his gun to Spencer’s face and pulled the trigger was overwhelming,” says Eskel. “Even though I knew the gun malfunctioned. It was awful watching all the other weapons come out and seeing my son being slashed. It was a miracle everyone survived. I was worried when the boys told me they were taking that train to Paris. I was uneasy; I asked God to watch over them.”

The morning after the film screening – as often before -- the young men attended Pastor Sadler’s Shilo Baptist Church in Sacramento. All three were raised in Christian homes and have good reason to believe providence shaped their lives. Before Alek served his 10-month National Guard tour in Afghanistan, his mom invoked divine protection. “I prayed and felt God telling me Alek would be all right in Afghanistan,” says Hansen. “But He also told me that something very exciting was in store for him. I told Alek this.

“After the train attack, Joyce and I flew to Paris and met the boys at the American Embassy. I remember running up the embassy stairs, holding my son and saying: ‘this is what God was talking about.’ Alek just smiled.”

Both now 25, Alek and Spencer are honorably discharged from military service. Alek placed third in Dancing with the Stars and Spencer bounced back after a stabbing incident outside a Sacramento restaurant; he now lives in Southern California. Alek has returned to Oregon and Anthony (also 25) has graduated from CSUS with a degree in sports medicine.  All three are interested in acting careers and for now, are committed to weeks of promotional touring for their movie.

“They’re living exciting lives and it’s thrilling we get to share it,” says Joyce. “But our sons are still the boys they always were. When they visit, they sleep in their own beds. I still tell Spencer to pick up his room.”

“Alek leaves candy wrappers around,” reports mom Heidi. “America may see them as heroes and movie stars but to us, they’re just our boys.”