10 questions with Kevin Kent: From Navy SEALs to Jack Ryan
Kevin Kent is one of the most experienced and trusted military advisors in Hollywood. With over 20 years as a U.S. Navy SEAL, specializing in evasive driving, air operations, diving, & weapons handling/ instruction, while traveling to hundreds of countries, he definitely has the experience to back it up. He currently works as a director, producer, actor, stuntman, personal security specialist, weapon's instructor, and a Military/ Police & Technical Advisor in the film industry, as part of Global Studies Group International. WATM sat down with Kent to learn more about his background, his experience in the Navy and how it all translates to the big screen.
- Can you share about your family and your life growing up?
I am the youngest of three boys. My father was a 22-year Army veteran and served in Vietnam. I was born in Greece and my brothers were born at various spots around the globe. My mom is a nurse and I had a disciplined childhood. My father retired from the Army when I was about five years old and we moved back to northwest Tennessee in the late 70s where my parents had grown up. My parents were very goal-oriented people and that education was important. We were driven to do our best and learn something. My grandparents had a farm where I grew up hauling hay and cutting tobacco, so it was hard work. I played baseball and football growing up. I am an Eagle Scout and was heavily involved in scouting. Both of my brothers are Eagle Scouts. We camped a lot and spent much time outdoors.
Accountability was a key family value that was stressed. Being in the military reinforced some of those values taught as a kid. Holding yourself and others around you accountable. Don’t succumb to peer pressure. If you screw up, own it. Write down goals and set out a path. You never think your parents are as smart as they actually are until you grow up.
- What made you want to become a SEAL and what was your experience like?
I did not want to go to college while in high school where I was more hands on and desired to build something or travel. I couldn’t see myself sitting in a classroom. I was given guidance but come from a small town where a lot of the industry had dried up. The town went from 20,000 people living there to about 10,000 because of the industry drying up. The military was the best thing for me and my father gave me the advice to join the Navy instead of the Army for EOD school. He shared that the Navy owns the school and will get dive training out of it. The Navy is a better fit for who I was. I didn’t care for the Navy uniforms at the time, Cracker Jack guy. My mom was happy about me joining the Navy. My oldest brother was in the Army as well. You couldn’t be an EOD tech until you were an E-5, so it was a long road. You couldn’t get orders to the school until you were an E-5. The EOD school is technically hard, similar to Navy Nuke school.
Before leaving for bootcamp I was informed about the SEAL program. I had some knowledge of the program and knew it was going to be tough. I joined the Navy a few months after high school and went into a dive program to train for BUD/S. All of the guys in the program were in my bootcamp company. I went to bootcamp in Orlando, FL. You had to pass your first Physical Screening Test with a certain score and times for the program. You had to pick a source rating (Navy Fleet MOS) if you washed out of BUD/S. I ended up with Gunner’s Mate and had to do a six-month long course. I reported to Great Lakes, MI and was part of a galley detail to prepare food for the rest of the base, so my class didn’t start up for another two months. That was my first taste of the military’s “hurry up and wait."
After graduating A school, BUD/S was backed up so the Navy was sending candidates to dive commands. It was so weird because I ended up at the EOD school in Indian Head, MD which is the same one my dad went through. I spent six months at the command getting ready for BUD/S. I went to BUD/S in 1994 and graduated in 1995 where I was sent to SEAL Team Five in 1995. I went to Jump School on my way to my unit. I made E-4 right before “Hell Week” and checked into SEAL Team Five with nothing much going on. I was assigned to SEAL Tactical Training upon arriving at my unit. It used to be where each team would run its own STT training that tailored it to the unit’s missions. SEAL Team Five used to be a colder weather unit.
I did nine deployments overall and was initially with SEAL Team Five for ten years. At the time there were SEALs that had been with one team for twenty years. My first deployment I ended up in the Persian Gulf after Desert Storm. In that deployment we were involved in recon and ship boarding in the region. My first deployment into Iraq in 2003 was eye opening to see how people can be oppressed, especially women by the Baath party. We were digging up mass graves in countries where people were getting closure on their lost relatives. It is insurmountable with forensic people laying out countless human bones on mats to where Iraqis are waiting to see if their family member(s) are among the bones. We took over a dam in the early part of the invasion that was in the eastern part of Iraq. The dam was near Tikrit and further east. We had dune buggies to traverse around the areas. We had a lot of helicopter supporters and two C-130s on station for support. Once we got on the ground, we secured the dam.
The next day we were driving around scouting everything where there was a village close to the dam. It was amazing seeing some of the kids where they were blonde haired and blue-eyed Persians. It was like something out of Alexander the Great and being from another time. We found a lot of anti-aircraft guns loaded close to the dam that were unmanned. If someone had been on one of these guns when we came in via helicopter we would have been shot out of the sky. We turned over the dam to a Marine Corps unit later on. The Iraqi people in the village welcomed us with open arms. People from the village also showed up to the dam for work where we had to turn them away.
- What are you most proud of from your service in the Navy?
I’m most proud of the group of men that I was able to stand side by side with and do great things for oppressed people in the world, such as those in Iraq and other places in the world. I believe that this Country is the greatest in the world and having our presence in many places brings hope to those individuals who might never have any type of freedom or individual rights. I’ve stood at the edge of mass gravesites, while looking mothers, fathers, sons and daughters in their eyes, as they hoped that the large excavating machine would reveal whether or not these people’s loved ones were buried there many decades prior to our occupation of their home. Just so they could get closure.
- What values have you carried over from the Navy into Hollywood?
Harry Humphries has been my mentor and has trained me well. I have brought over “Train like you fight” from my service, especially when instructing the technical part of the role. I cut my teeth on “The Last Ship” for five seasons with Harry, which was a constant cycle of work. Actors would come to pitch me ideas on the show of what to do tactically, where it added a lot of realism to the show. Credibility is key and we want to make sure the actors are training and doing rehearsals. The camaraderie aspect of the work I do is great. We had a tight knit group in the most recent season of “Jack Ryan." For season two of the show I was in Columbia by myself as an adviser. We got so close working together down in Columbia it kind of felt like I was in a platoon again. The actors want to remain authentic as military-types and they want to do a good job.
- What was one of the toughest lessons to learn coming from the service to Hollywood?
One of the better lessons learned was in Season Two of “The Last Ship” where I was working with Keith Woulard where he sees me talking with some actors. As a note, my last two years in the military I was a BUD/S instructor as a third phase weapons chief, so I could be intense. Keith comes up to me and asks, “What am I doing?” He gives me tips such as tell the actors they are doing something right first and then telling them where they are messing up. So, I may have been a little hard on them where they are actors and not SEALs.
- What was it like working on projects such as Twelve Strong, Bumblebee, 13 Hours, Kong: Skull Island, Tom Clancy’s Jack Ryan, The Last Ship, Da 5 Bloods and the like?
All of the directors on those projects were professional where I would work with them again if the opportunity arose. Each project offered a different challenge as shared with “Jack Ryan." 13 Hours with Michael Bay was great where he was such a huge influence on me. Bay puts us in a place to succeed where he wants military guys a part of the production and in the cast. 13 Hours set me up for success on “Jack Ryan” with John Krasinski where John wants to make everything look better. Twelve Strong was my first opportunity working with Jerry Bruckheimer where it was eye opening. Bruckheimer is a machine when it comes to producing. Bruckheimer and Ian Bryce were just phenomenal to work with.
We were surprised when we went to Thailand to work with Spike Lee for Da 5 Bloods. Lee is so organized and knows exactly what he wants. Lee was okay with me training the actors every day where on other productions that would not fly. The stunt guys were getting so many repetitions where it definitely showed in the finished product. He knows everybody’s job on set to where after a take he would ask me what we thought about a take. He would encourage me to go give people notes if needed. Lee filmed the flashback sequences on 16mm film, which was the first time we have ever seen film on a set before.
- What leadership lessons in life and from the SEALs have helped you most in your career?
Praise in public and chastise in private. Always take responsibility as a leader. It’s easy to be the leader when things are going great, but when Michael Bay comes and says, “What are you doing?”, it is not always that easy. My deployments have given me life perspective and patience in tough situations. I recognize where we are at and what needs done, I stay calm in the intense moments on set.
- As a service, how do we get more veteran stories told in the Hollywood arena?
I feel like most individuals coming from the military are extremely humble about their service and aren’t inclined to tell “war stories” to people they don’t know. In many ways, those actions and stories are sacred to the brothers-in-arms that lived those tales, and many guys feel vulnerable to be judged by others who perhaps didn’t live through those specific interactions or battles. However, if there was a way to get some of these high influence personal, such as Medal of Honor recipients to open up about their specific challenges and victories downrange, while either leading or being led by phenomenal service members, it might lead more people to open up and tell their stories. Even getting these stories on a podcast with guys like Jocko Willink, who has a great platform and could lead to potential books being written or interest in films made about these phenomenal individuals. Obviously, it would take someone with some clout in the industry, like a Bruckheimer or Bryce to develop these stories into something meaningful for the screen. Tom Hanks has done great things with his production team for projects such as “Band of Brothers”, “The Pacific”, and Saving Private Ryan to name a few. I would love to take on a military project as part of a proven team like that and I’m sure the Harry Humphries story needs to be told!
- What would you like to do next in your career?
I want to get into writing, producing and second unit directing. I started the Digital Cinematography program at Full Sail University. It has got me out of my comfort zone and has helped hone my technical skills, especially with editing in Premiere Pro. Harry and his wife Catherine have been very supportive of my education. I really want to stress how great she & Harry have been in bringing me into this industry. I filmed a couple of documentaries and my kids are into acting right now. It would be great to work with fellow veterans as well. One of the things that pushed me in this direction was having worked on “Jack Ryan” where I worked with Dennie Gordon, she did season two of the show. She is phenomenal at her craft and is a great person. We have kept in contact with each other since our time on “Jack Ryan." She would let me set up and block shots for the series. It pushed me to get my stuff together and learn about the craft. I can now talk to the director and the cinematographer about the shots in a technical manner.
I was humbled to meet Patricia Riggen as well on “Jack Ryan” where her and her husband Checco Varese who is a cinematographer. There was a mutual feeling of respect between Patricia and Check where I learned as much from them as they did me. They both pulled me aside and told me how much they want to work with me again and the feeling was the same from me as well. It has been amazing where I am grateful in having people like them and more take time with me and mentor me. It has been great working with so many high-level people.
- What are you most proud of in life and your career?
The fact that I was able to hold my family together. I have been married now for 18 years, I have twin boys that are 15 and a daughter that is 11. I am grateful to be able to teach and mold them into the productive members of society I want them to be. Being deployed so much kept me away where my wife is a saint. She puts up with me being gone all the time and is the glue that holds everything together.
One of my son’s has expressed interest in joining the service when he is old enough. My sons were introduced to acting when they were young by my wife since they are twins. They played Bill Paxton’s son for five seasons on the HBO show “Big Love”, which put me on set to be with them. They did the last two seasons of “Weeds” as the son of Mary Louise Parker. The boys were nominated separately for the same award for the Imagen foundation (https://www.imagen.org/) which is for Hispanics in Entertainment. They did a show called “Room 104” where they were nominated for best young actor award for TV. It is crazy when one of my sons says, “I don’t know dad it might be cool to be a Navy SEAL.” I told them, “They are on a gravy train with biscuit wheels right now, you guys need to stay on this whole acting gig.”