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‘Masters of the Air’ Is Making the Next Generation of Hollywood Stars

Photo Illustration by Thomas Levinson/The Daily Beast/Getty/Apple TV+
Photo Illustration by Thomas Levinson/The Daily Beast/Getty/Apple TV+

(Warning: Spoilers ahead for Masters of the Air.)

Rewatching Steven Spielberg and Tom Hank’s World War II epic Band of Brothers, you will see multiple instantly recognizable men of the moment before they hit the big time, including Tom Hardy, Michael Fassbender, Andrew Scott, and James McAvoy. Masters of the Air looks set to carry on this tradition, with one actor taking TV and stage by storm in 2024 and another already capturing Paul Thomas Anderson’s eye.

Masters of the Air casting directors Lucy Bevan and Olivia Grant already hit the jackpot, nabbing Austin Butler and Barry Keoghan right after they finished filming Elvis and The Banshees of Inisherin (for which they were both Oscar-nominated), as well as Callum Turner, who is currently making waves in the industry with his roles in the Fantastic Beasts films and The Boys in the Boat. However, the harsh reality of aerial warfare depicted in Masters of the Air means all three have already been knocked out of the fight while the series continues. Keoghan’s Lieutenant Curt Biddick dies in combat, and at the end of Episode 6, Gale “Buck” Cleven (Butler) reunites with John “Bucky” Egan (Turner) in a Nazi POW camp.

Now, the 100th Bomb Group turns to alternative figureheads to lead the way. Step up Anthony Boyle as the series’ narrator, navigator Major Harry Crosby, and Nate Mann’s unflappable pilot newcomer, Major Robert “Rosie” Rosenthal. Considering the fifth episode ended with only Rosie’s plane returning to the airbase, this week takes a much-needed respite from the unrelenting battering that led to the Bloody Hundredth’s nickname.

“I feel like I won the role lottery. Everyone was going off to POW camps or having very intense experiences, and I was going to parties in Oxford and having a lovely time with Bel Powley—it was an absolute dream,” Boyle tells The Daily Beast’s Obsessed. Powley, fresh from starring in National Geographic’s A Small Light, guest stars as Sandra Wingate, who attends the same Allied nations conference as Crosby.

Rosie gets a break from the B-17s when he and his surviving crew are sent to an idyllic manor house known by the airmen as a “flak house.” There, they ditch their leather bomber jackets for off-duty attire and luxury digs. Think Saltburn but without the naked dancing and hedonistic parties. While Rosie bristles at being taken away from combat, Mann relished the opportunity: “To not have the uniform anymore, but to be in this different kind of environment brings a level of richness to it and shakes things up on our end in such an interesting way.”

Tony-nominated Boyle might be familiar to Broadway audiences from his role as Scorpius Malfoy in Harry Potter and the Cursed Child. The Northern Irish actor has been slowly building his TV résumé, with roles in the 2020 HBO limited series The Plot to Destroy America and Derry Girls. Masters of the Air is only the beginning of Boyle’s monster year, which will find him moving from playing an American hero to starring as the ultimate historical villain, John Wilkes Booth, in Apple TV+’s Manhunt (which debuts the same day as the Masters of the Air finale). In the summer, he is starring in the FX adaptation of Patrick Radden Keefe’s Say Nothing. As if that is not enough, he returns to the West End stage this spring, appearing alongside Brian Cox, Patricia Clarkson, and Daryl McCormack in Long Day’s Journey Into Night.

Raff Law Breaks Down That Devastating Episode of ‘Masters of the Air’

Mann also has a new series debuting the week Masters of the Air concludes. He plays a supporting role in Peacock’s Apples Never Fall based on a book by Big Little Lies author Liane Moriarty (and starring Annette Bening and Sam Neill). During the auditions for Rosie, executive producer Gary Goetzman rang PTA as Mann dazzled in Licorice Pizza, and clearly, he got a glowing reference.

Boyle and Mann spoke with Obsessed about the physical challenges of starring in Masters of the Air, surprising moments based on real events, and more.

A surprising meet-cute

While Masters of the Air is adapted from Donald L. Miller’s book, Harry Crosby’s memoir, A Wing and a Prayer, provides extra material, underscoring why Crosby is the show’s narrator. The memoir also gave Boyle insight into his character. “His humor in it was so self-deprecating. It opened up the role for me. I was like, “Oh, this is who this guy is!’ His writing is so funny,” says Boyle.

Unlike Rosie, who has inherent confidence, literally entering the series showing off his twinkle-toe dance moves in the Officer’s Club, Crosby is plagued by self-doubt. It doesn’t help that the navigator spends a lot of the flight to the Thorpe Abbotts airfield puking his guts up, almost directing the B-17 over Nazi-occupied France instead of England. “Crosby didn't feel like a ready-made hero. He felt like an everyman. He has to battle air sickness and the Nazis,” says Boyle. “Crosby was like, ‘Am I the right guy for this? Am I the right guy for anything?’ That, for me, is true bravery. He felt like he couldn't do it and pushed through.”

Bel Powley and Anthony Boyle in Masters of the Air.

Bel Powley and Anthony Boyle

Robert Viglasky/Apple TV+

A promotion to group navigator means Crosby is no longer flying into combat, avoiding the decimation of the Eighth in a catastrophic mission over Münster in the previous episode. Survivors' guilt is hard to shake, so the trip to Oxford University is a flak house in a different guise. There, he has a classic meet-cute with Powley’s ATS officer. Upon arrival, Crosby assumes his roommate A.M Westgate is a man and is startled when she arrives while he is practicing his best Spencer Tracy in Test Pilot impression in the mirror.

“Those moments were great to shoot because it was a break from the high-intensity stuff in the air, which was very taxing. Getting to do the cute stuff with Bel was a real respite and a lot of fun,” Boyle says. Until I read the book, I thought Powley’s Sandra was a show invention to inject some femininity and romance into the series, but this is all taken from Crosby’s book—including the roommate confusion. “I felt that was an embellishment from the script also; then reading it [A Wing and a Prayer], I was going, ‘Wow, this is amazing to find it out.’ It was great for Crosby to go off and have a rom-com for a couple of episodes before he goes back to war,” he says.

Whether or not Sandra is a spy for the Brits bubbles beneath the surface. Is she based at Bletchley Park? Or somewhere else? Either way, Powley adds another dimension to the series and lets Boyle tap into his romantic leading man status.

Boot camp

Conveying emotions when wearing oxygen masks at 25,000 feet is a challenge, requiring the actors’ eyes to do all the heavy lifting. A lot of Tom Hardy playing Bane, I think, is what we all did,” Boyle says. Mann jokingly concurs, “Yeah, I mean, essentially, Tom Hardy as Bane.”

Joking aside, Mann says there are so many technical maneuvers to remember that it helped block out the overthinking of his limited facial expressions: “You end up using so much of yourself in those moments because it's remaining outside yourself. That way, you're not self-conscious of, like, ‘Oh, do I need to do more with the two eyebrows I have.”

The Masters of the Air cast follows in the footsteps of the Saving Private Ryan, Band of Brothers, and The Pacific actors, with a boot camp run by the legendary military advisor Dale Dye. Mann became equipped to sit in the pilot seat; likewise, Boyle learned to read navigation charts, and everyone practiced the jungle gym-adjacent method for climbing aboard the Flying Fortress.

Nate Mann in Masters of the Air.

Nate Mann

Apple TV+

They both sound thrilled when I ask about the physical challenge of using their fingertips to hoist themselves through a small hatch of the B-17. “Oh my god, we had to do it so many times! Does it look impressive in the show?” Boyle asks. Yes, yes, it does (seriously, I would require wires to do the same). Boyle says it is a “real abdominal workout every time” while semi-reenacting what Mann calls a “crunch pull-up combo.” (“Being an actor is tough,” Boyle deadpans)

Considering the core strength and gymnastics (while wearing shearling flight jackets), it is unsurprising that when Rosie makes his big comeback at the end of Episode 6, directors Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck focus on how effortless Mann makes it look.

‘Masters of the Air’ Is Good Enough to Be the Next ‘Band of Brothers’

Around the boot camp period of production is also where ’tache or no ’tache decisions went down. Cast members blessed with this ability were asked to raise their hand, and it didn’t have to match the real person, as the real Rosie was clean-shaven. “That one was mine, au naturel,” says Mann about his perfect pilot mustache. Soon, you will see Boyle’s ’tache game as John Wilkes Booth, but Crosby did not go this way. “I very sheepishly kept mine in the pocket because I wanted that secret weapon for Manhunt. I was saving it,” Boyle says.

Whereas Rosie’s arrival isn’t until the fourth episode, there is no latecomer hazing as Mann attended the entire two-week boot camp. So the bonds were already there when he arrived about a month after filming had begun. “Men were coming and going from these bases all the time, and in Rosie's case, he doesn't quite know what he's in for,” says Mann. “But as the series progresses and he gets closer to everyone, it shapes him into who he ultimately becomes.”

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