‘Masters of the Air’ Star Nate Mann on Playing the Show’s Most Talented Pilot

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When a World War II drama series about airmen features the likes of Austin Butler, Barry Keoghan and Callum Turner, it’s reasonable to presume that one of them would be playing the story’s quintessential hotshot pilot. Instead, that honor belongs to Nate Mann, who portrays Lieutenant Robert “Rosie” Rosenthal, one of the most decorated real-life B-17 pilots to serve in WWII, on Apple TV+’s Masters of the Air. Rosie had already established a successful career as a lawyer in New York until the attack on Pearl Harbor eventually led him to Laredo Air Force Base, where he developed his crack piloting skills.

Knowing full well the significance of Rosenthal both on the screen and in real life, Mann refused to gloss over the details of the B-17 and the many responsibilities that a bomber pilot has before, during and after a flight. So he took the words of Masters’ technical advisors to heart and educated himself inside the on-set cockpit and through a flight simulator during his downtime.

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“I knew it would be important for me to learn as much as I could about the plane and the cockpit. That was the only way I was going to feel like I was doing justice to that aspect of it. He’s not just a pilot; he’s a really good one,” Mann tells The Hollywood Reporter. “So that familiarity really helped me when we were shooting these scenes for hours at a time.”

Mann graduated from Juilliard in 2019, and because he’s a spitting image of young Liev Schreiber, his first job out of school, fittingly, was as teenage Ray Donovan in a few episodes of Schreiber’s Ray Donovan. Then he spent a couple weeks on the set of Paul Thomas Anderson’s Licorice Pizza, working alongside Benny Safdie and Alana Haim, which gave him further confidence en route to the Steven Spielberg, Tom Hanks and Gary Goetzman-produced Masters of the Air and its year-long production.

Rosie was part of the Eighth Air Force’s 100th Bomb Group, which, due to its high number of losses, had the unfortunate nickname of the “Bloody 100th.” Consequently, all of the airmen developed intense bonds in a short period of time. Mann and his co-stars certainly didn’t have the same life-and-death stakes on their England-based set, but they, too, connected on a deeper level given the weighty material.

“We spent so much time together, and so I developed a close bond with some of the friends I made on this project. Our time together feels like more than just making a TV show,” Mann shares.

Below, during the first of a two-part conversation with THR, Mann also discusses his research into the real-life Rosenthal and how a surprise birthday celebration gave him some invaluable insight into his heroic character.

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To set the stage for Masters of the Air, you played young Ray Donovan before joining your first film in Licorice Pizza. Besides the validation of being cast by Paul Thomas Anderson, was there a moment on his set where you gained further confidence that you then carried into Masters?

Paul is a hero of mine, and to be able to watch him work and contribute to his vision was more inspiring than the simple fact of getting to be there. I learned so much about the way he works, the way he makes his movies, the way he sets up his scenes and the way he trusts his actors to bring his stories to life. That was confidence boosting, because I felt like I could take that with me into the next project. I still think about moments from those couple weeks I spent on that movie. I still think about little moments here and there that really just clarified things for me in terms of how I want to work and how I like to work.

Masters of the Air
Nate Mann in Masters of the Air

When Masters came up, did you have to jump through quite a few hoops during casting? 

We were still in the pandemic environment, so none of it was in person. It was all over Zoom, and there were a lot of tapes. When I first read, I think I got four scripts through from Lucy Bevan, who’s just a brilliant casting director. And there was something familiar to me about Rosie and who he was. In the first email that I sent back, I even said that he reminded me of my own grandfather in certain ways. That generation’s values and his moral framework felt familiar to me in relation to my grandfather. So, because of that personal way in, [the tapes] were really satisfying to work on. And when I eventually got the call, I was just thrilled to be able to be a part of it.

How deep did you dive into the real-life story of Robert “Rosie” Rosenthal and the 100th Bomb Group?

I tried to sink my teeth in as far as I could. A couple of us were lucky because there was a pretty decent amount of material on our guys. For example, there were a couple of interviews that Rosie did with his son, and he talked about his life, not just during the war, but growing up in Brooklyn. He talked about his relationship with his sister and his mother, playing music and football, becoming a lawyer and what was happening in Brooklyn as the war was approaching in the late ‘30s. He talked about the rise of antisemitism at the time, and witnessing it and feeling it even on the streets of Brooklyn. And when the war started, he had just gotten a job at this great law firm in Manhattan, but then Pearl Harbor happened and he enlisted. So little bits and pieces made their way into the show, and it was marvelous to hear his first-person account of some of the things he went through and why he made some of his choices.

Another amazing thing about the footage is that there were little moments in between these stories where he really comes to life. There’s this amazing video of him receiving an award in Colorado, and he was an older man at this point. There were several speeches before him in front of a military audience, most of whom were young soldiers, and when he accepted his award, this man came out at the end of his speech and said to the crowd, “Ladies and gentlemen, this isn’t just an honor that we’re giving out today; it also happens to be Mr. Rosenthal’s birthday.” And then they brought him a cake and everyone in the crowd sang “Happy Birthday.” So it was a very vulnerable moment for this man to have to stand there with this cake, and you can see this crack in his humble personality. He was like, “I don’t know if I can stand to be the center of attention like this for the next two minutes.” So little things like that were gems. You don’t always get those on every project, and they really ignite you and keep you fueled up throughout a shoot.

When he learned to fly a B-17 in Laredo, Texas, was it true that his squad flew in their underwear due to the heat?

The underwear thing is true. It’s funny because I didn’t come across that until John [Orloff] wrote it in the script. That was one of the only stories that I wasn’t familiar with until I saw it written. I was like, “John, where’d you learn that?” I don’t remember where he picked it up, but yeah, they actually trained all over. So they would be in Louisiana, Texas, Tennessee, and it’d be so hot that they would strip down. (Laughs.)

Masters of the Air
Mann in Masters of the Air

Your character didn’t pop up until episode four, but did you still enroll in boot camp with everybody else? 

I did! I flew over for that and I met all the guys. Again, this was still during COVID days, so it was a really jolting experience to quarantine for a while and then be with a couple hundred actors in uniform, marching together. It was really invigorating, actually. We were led through a bootcamp process with Dale Dye, who’s a legendary military advisor, and we were in replica cockpits. We learned how the gauges and everything worked. So that was invaluable, not just because of the experiential aspect of it and meeting the guys, but also getting to spend time in those planes and learn what life on the base was like.

Did a brotherhood between actors form pretty quickly like it did for these characters?

A lot of these guys knew each other. It’s mostly English actors in this project, and some of them went to drama school together or grew up in the same town. So I was one of the few Americans who was plopped in among these guys, but everyone was so wonderful. We spent so much time together, and so I developed a close bond with some of the friends I made on this project. We worked for a year on it, so our time together feels like more than just making a TV show.

So when did it begin to dawn on you that you, Nate Mann — not Austin Butler, not Callum Turner, not Barry Keoghan — were playing the most talented B-17 pilot in this story?

That’s a very good question. I didn’t know just how great a pilot he was when I read the first few scripts, but through my own research, I started to piece together that he was special. And then I was thrilled to learn that episode five was going to feature the Münster mission, because that was one part of Rosie’s service that really blew me away. So I knew it would be important for me to learn as much as I could about the plane and the cockpit. That was the only way I was going to feel like I was doing justice to that aspect of it. He’s not just a pilot; he’s a really good one. So the only way I could make his maneuvers, instincts and choices feel connected was by spending as much time as possible in that cockpit, which I did.

Another one of our brilliant technical military advisors was a guy named Taigh [Ramey], and he is one of the few people in the world who’s flown these planes. So early on in that bootcamp process, I talked to him about how everything worked, and he was like, “You should download a flight simulator. They’re amazing these days” So I went home for a month and did that, and it was so helpful. It teaches you everything that has to be done from start-up to lift-off, and it won’t work unless you figure it out and start the engines and all of that. So that familiarity really helped me when we were shooting these scenes for hours at a time. It’s all designed to feel like it’s all really happening in real time, and I needed to be able to rely on the fact that I knew where and when to reach, and what to look for to make it feel as lifelike as possible.

Normally, these stories are built around the hotshot pilot, so I just find it so interesting that this story’s ace showed up halfway through. 

Yeah, people were coming and going from these bases all the time, whether they liked it or not, and he showed up to a “party” that had already started. So he had to find his way quickly.

Masters of the Air
Mann in Masters of the Air

There’s a running point in the show about not telling new pilots what to expect in the air, and your character inquires about advice when he’s first introduced in episode four. Buck (Austin Butler) and Bucky (Callum Turner) then give him an ominous non-answer. Would you want to know the truth ahead of time?

I can’t help but think that you can intellectually make sense of the odds. You can piece together what it’s like, but as the series really focuses on, you simply don’t know until you’re up there. So there’s really no answer those guys could have given him that’s ever going to piece together the experience of what it’s like to be 25,000 feet in the air and have an enemy fighter trying to shoot you down. There’s just no thought that can communicate that at that point in the process. So episode four was about showing up and meeting these officers and itching to get up there, and then being sobered by the devastation of what the mission really is.

I brought this up to Austin as well, but what’s so frightening about the flight sequences is that so many things can go wrong before they even encounter enemy flak. Your navigator could get air sickness, your gunners could be too cold to shoot effectively and the plane may malfunction for any number of reasons. It’s truly a miracle that anybody survived these missions.

We tend to think of these planes as antiquated now — and in some ways they are — but at the time, they were really state-of-the-art and pretty remarkable little tanks. And when they purred along, it was alright. But, of course, they were extremely complicated. One of the things that the series couldn’t quite go into is that for a couple months at any given stretch, they wouldn’t be able to fly at all because of weather patterns, clouds, et cetera. So they were stuck there in England, awaiting orders. It was such a complex effort and system that made it possible to even get up there, let alone to be able to put the bomb on Hitler’s doorstep, as they say. So it was pretty miraculous.

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Masters of the Air is currently streaming on Apple TV+.

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