by Brittany Boddington
Interviewing R. Lee Ermey, aka The Gunny, in his home was a rare and wonderful opportunity. I did my homework on him, and the night before our interview I watched videos of him online. Those I saw had him yelling at people and forcing them to do push-ups, so needless to say, I did not sleep much that night. What had I gotten myself into?! I was timid walking up to the door, but The Gunny came out to greet me and shook my hand with a warm smile. I instantly felt at ease around the man who has commanded so much fear in the movies and boot camps of yore. The Gunny has a strange way of reading people.
He knows if a person is looking to be screamed at in order to be able to tell their friends about the experience, or if they simply want to know the real man under the scary facade. Walking into his house an hour or so north of Los Angeles, I was immediately love-struck. No, it wasn’t The Gunny himself – or his guns or trophies. There were two tiny, four-week-old puppies on the couch, wiggling and squealing to be petted! The Gunny explained that he and his wife had found them the day before at an antique market and simply couldn’t leave them behind. Supposedly from the same litter, the puppies looked nothing alike and were an unrecognizable mix of breeds. The Gunny compared the looks of one to a bat, and already the softer side of the man was shining through. THE GUNNY’S HOME is exquisitely decorated with antiques, and there is very little evidence of his passion for guns or hunting in what he calls his “wife’s part of the house.”
Then we entered his man caves. I was amazed to find that The Gunny is even more of a treasure collector than I am! He has pieces from every corner of the world. He has an amazing collection of antique carved ivory tusks an an Asian-style dragon – even a rare
narwhal tusk. He says he was offered the opportunity to buy it from the Smithsonian Institution because they needed funding, and of course he jumped at the chance. The second room of The Gunny’s man cave is full of gifts from the numerous Marine Corps Birthday Balls he has attended and spoken at over the years. One truly unique gift is a map of Iwo Jima, Japan, with handwritten notes from the World War II battle there. The map was found in a desk many years after the war and gifted to The Gunny by the
Marines, in which he served during the Vietnam era. He tells me that when he is gone, the map will be donated to a museum. On the same wall are giant frames holding all the
treasures he found while in the Middle East, each with its own backstory. Here I thought I was the only one who collected items based on their stories. Next stop was The Gunny’s, well, gun room. And yes, it’s a room, not a safe. Knowing he likes weaponry – he hosted the History channel show Lock n’ Load with R. Lee Ermey – I’d been expecting a giant gun safe or even a gun vault, but The Gunny has an entire room dedicated to his love of guns. The entry is barred like an Old West jail cell – yes, it actually comes
from an old western hoosegow – and he jokes that if anyone wants to get in his gun room, they had better bring a chainsaw and a whole lot of dynamite.
Inside is a red felt-covered pool table, and against the wall is the largest collection of rifles I have ever seen. Each section of rifles is covered by another set of jail-like bars, but the overflow currently rests outside, on the bars themselves. He estimates that he has more than 200 guns in his collection. The other side of the room is for his handguns. The Gunny has them in a glass case, neatly displayed but with
zero dust, which shows that he uses them often. Indeed, The Gunny is still active
in shooting competitions and loves his antique M1 Garand match rifles. Medals all over the place prove he can hold his own – not that I ever doubted it. He has exactly one “black” gun and calls it his space gun, but he admits that he needs it for certain matches in order to stay competitive. I know it sounds strange, but the way The Gunny lights up while talking about the unique pieces he has reminds me of a child showing someone their most prized possessions. Some of his firearms are truly one of a kind.
THE NEXT STOP was the trophy room – or “petting zoo,” as The Gunny calls it. The first things you see as you walk through the door are two massive American bison. One, a bull, is a full mount and stands over 7 feet tall! It is one of the best mounts I have
ever seen. The rest of the room is divided up by country – the long wall features animals from Africa; those on the shorter walls are from New Zealand and North America, with some miscellaneous mounts mixed in. As The Gunny started to explain to me what a Himalayan tahr was I startled him by saying I’d already shot two. And though he didn’t know until then that I too hunted, I was excited to talk to him about hunting and his
BRITTANY BODDINGTON What is your dream hunt?
GUNNY My dream hunt is Siberia, and I’m going to do it next year. Good Lord willing and the creek don’t rise, I’m gonna go to Siberia and I’m gonna hunt the largest moose in the world. They claim that they have the largest moose in the world and the
largest brown bear in the world too. I’m talking 14-foot-tall brown bear. I will hunt the bear and the big moose, and that is definitely my dream hunt, Siberia. I’ve been trying to get there for three years, but my schedule keeps getting in the way. I have people depending on me to make their paychecks. I’ve gotta think about my guys that I take care of. I just can’t go running off. But I told my manager that this year the dates are set and those dates are sacred.
BB Where did you get your interest in hunting?
GUNNY Oh, I started with a Red Ryder BB gun at about age seven. I grew up on a farm in Kansas about 18 miles west of Kansas City. I went to a little country school called Horn of School, and it was just a little two-room schoolhouse made of natural rock. It was gone the last time I went back – a shame. I thought it would be a landmark for sure, you know, historic! Just because I went there! But no, I’m kind of like Rodney Dangerfield,
nobody shows me any respect, so they tore my damned school down! Just kidding, but sad nonetheless. I grew up hunting sparrows and graduated to rabbits. And we trapped
– we had wooden traps. Every now and then the traps would be tripped and we would pull it open and here’s a nasty old skunk lined up on you, or a possum growling, or a raccoon
growling at you, but we tried to catch rabbits because we had a freezer to fill. There were six boys in my family. My mom grew a garden and we had cattle, and the only time we ever had to go to the supermarket was basically for flour and salt. Everything else we grew. Six boys, you had to feed those boys. We grew up hunting, we had a chest freezer, and we boys kept that freezer full. If it was duck season, we were putting ducks in
there; if it was pheasant season, we put pheasant and red squirrel in there
– we put in a lot of red squirrel. Hell, I could kill red squirrel with my Red Ryder BB gun, that’s how good I got with it. Fishing and hunting, we grew up doing it. I never knew anything but hunting.
BB And trophy hunting? Was that post-Vietnam or before?
GUNNY I couldn’t afford it before the Marine Corps. Only in the past 20 years have I been able to afford to actually go hunting and not worry about whether I’m not actually hunting because I’m hungry. I’m hunting to put that trophy on the wall,
and also to eat the meat. In quite a few cases, I donate the meat.
BB I read in your profile on your website that after you left the military, after you were medically retired, you chose to go to school in the Philippines. Why did you choose to go to school there?
GUNNY Because I couldn’t afford to do it in the States. College is taught in
English in the Philippines.
BB Full Metal Jacket, I’m sure you hear it in every interview, but do you ever
get tired of talking about it?
GUNNY (Laughs) No, no, it’s OK. Everybody loves Full Metal Jacket. I was on film number five for me, and I basically accepted the job as technical advisor solely to get my foot in the door, so I could score another role, and I had done that four other times on movies, so I knew I could do it. It worked in the past, and it worked again.
BB So you went in there with a plan – it wasn’t accidental?
GUNNY You’ve got to have a plan, you can’t just go in there half-cocked. You’ve gotta have a plan and follow through with it.
BB Did Full Metal Jacket radically change your life?
GUNNY Absolutely, I haven’t stopped working since. Before that, I was what you would consider a struggling actor. After Full Metal Jacket, I was no longer a struggling actor – the only struggling I was doing was trying to keep up with my demanding schedule, and it has been like that ever since.
BB I’m sure you intimidated your fellow actors as Gunnery Sergeant Hartman in Full Metal Jacket, but were you ever intimidated working for director Stanley Kubrick?
BB Nice guy?
GUNNY Demanding; I mean, I worked hard. But when you’re prepared, you’re prepared. I mean, you work hard, and you prepare yourself, and that gives you the confidence to step in front of the camera and do your thing. If you don’t work hard and you don’t study and you don’t pay your dues, then when you step in front of the camera, you’re nervous, and it’s obvious you can’t do the job. I can spot a nervous actor in a minute when I go watch a movie. Mrs. Gunny [Nila Ermey] and I watch as many as we can.
BB I can relate from my experience with public speaking – the same rule applies.
GUNNY I like to screw up because then it’s challenging for me, then I get to
back up and say, “Whoopsy daisy, somebody screwed up,” and I can turn it into a fun experience for everyone. I purposely screw up sometimes just to back up and have a little comedic mood-changing moment with everyone. Everybody worries about screwing up; I think that is the worst damned way to go up on a stage in front of a thousand people – worried about screwing up. I look forward to screwing up because it gives me more
ammunition to play around with. It’s good for me, I like that, and it doesn’t bother me at all.
BB When you do public speaking, do you write yourself a speech?
GUNNY No, I do not. I might write down bullet points so I don’t forget something. That’s the only reason I do it.
BB I’ve done the same, I just started doing public speaking engagements, and the first few times I did bullet points and that worked great, but then one time I wrote out a speech just to be extra prepared and I ruined it! I got lost and couldn’t find where I was and then panic set in.
GUNNY I’m one of those guys; I just put key words down. I write down names of people that I want to thank and important information like that. BB That is good advice! In movies like Seven, how was it to work around such well-known actors like Brad Pitt and Morgan Freeman?
GUNNY You have to understand, Brad Pitt was very fresh, he hadn’t really
done anything prior to that. Morgan Freeman and I got along just great. He and I shared a table at the Golden Globe Awards. Great guy, but he and I were the old guys on the set. The young people were coming to us for advice; it was nice, I liked that. I’m
always one of the oldest guys on set these days. For me it’s complimentary when the young guys come to me for advice, and I’ve done 60-plus movies, so it’s not like I’m just getting started. I’ve had the experience of all of those movies, and for a lot of those I’ve also rewritten my roles so that they fit me just perfectly.
BB What’s next? More acting? Do you have another movie planned?
GUNNY If the right movie comes up. I’ve done some pretty good shows and I’m 70 years old, so I’m not going to accept a movie that I don’t think is Academy Award material or funny as hell. If I don’t think it is going to kick ass and be a blockbuster, I won’t mess with it, unless the role speaks to me, and I just have to do it.
BB You are going to do it like a trophy hunt, huh? Only worth it if you are going to bring home a trophy?
GUNNY It is exactly that! If it’s not something that I read and it grabs me,
then it’s not worth it. I’m not going to do a piece of sh*t just to do it because it could be my last. I’m pretty locked into my schedule for the year, and my schedule usually consists of events that I do for the military, benefits, working with the veterans, Toys for Tots, Marine Corps Birthday Balls, etc. I stay as busy as I can with the veterans, so if I accept a movie, it would take three months out of my life and I would have to cancel out on the guys. So unless it’s a kickass movie or role, I will maintain my schedule. But I will probably do some more movies. I’m 70, but I’m healthy.
BB What does the Marine Corps mean to you?
GUNNY We’ll put it this way: The Marine Corps retired me in 1972 and I just kept showing up for work, plain and simple. I never went anywhere. If it weren’t for the Marine Corps, I wouldn’t be where I am today. The Marine Corps gave me discipline,
pride, a brotherhood, a reason for being, a partnership, a big fraternity. I wasn’t ready to leave it; it was my objective to stay in the military for 30 years. After my first four years, I reenlisted for six more and then for six more, and I was not prepared to go anywhere. After 12 years I got it cut short, and I was medically retired.
BB Can I ask why?
GUNNY I screwed up my right shoulder; a bunker came down on top of me, so I was having trouble keeping my shoulder in place. That was right at the end of Vietnam, right when, if you had a scratch, you were gonna get retired, or put out of the Marine
Corps because they were cutting down from about 200,000 soldiers to approximately 175,000. So if you were not physically fit, A1, ready to go to combat today, then you were sent down the road. So I was retired, but I continued to march, and I didn’t
walk away from the Marine Corps. I still stay as active and as closely involved with the Marine Corps as I can. I never retired, I’m still there! I’ve been to Afghanistan and Iraq several times. I’m always around – if the commandant of the Marine Corps asks me to go, I go.
BB I’ve heard that you host a golf tournament in Jacksonville, Fla., to benefit veterans. Could you tell me a little about that?
GUNNY It is to help out the veterans, wounded and otherwise. Every penny goes to helping the veterans, unlike some other charities that only give 80 percent or something like that. We give 100 percent to the veterans.
BB So how is your golf game?
GUNNY (Laughing) Sucks! I’ve been too busy to play, I just don’t have time. I played three rounds of golf last week and it was the first time I had played in a month – I was just terrible. I’m headed straight from here to meet the guys to play today too! Golf is a game that one has to practice. When I practice, I suck less.
BB You have lots of pictures with motorcycles on your website. Where did your passion for bikes come from?
GUNNY Hell, I’ve been riding motorcycles since I was a kid! My first motorcycle was a Cushman Eagle; it was a 1947 or 1948. I’m not sure exactly what year because I never did register it. It was just in a neighbor’s barn and I worked for the neighbors to generate a little extra cash for myself. I traded labor for the Cushman Eagle and I was 13 at the time. I’ve been riding motorcycles since I was 13 years old and I’ve never
been without a motorcycle.
BB Do you still ride?
GUNNY Well, what do you think? I’ve got a whole damn barn full. I’ve got one over at the brewery right now, sitting there on display, one in the garage, and three in that barn. I ride as much as I can! I work with Victory Motorcycles. Made in the good old USA.
BB What do you have coming up? Will we see you at SHOT Show?
GUNNY SHOT Show is up next – keep an eye on the website [rleeermey.com]
to see where I will be. I do a lot of appearances. Actually, I think we have the longest lines at SHOT Show; we average a four-hour line. BB I sit at the SHOT Show too, and
I definitely do not have a four-hour line. I think mine is five minutes if I’m lucky. (Laughs)
GUNNY (Laughing) Well, people know me. Hell, I’ve been doing this for so long. I don’t hide, I don’t lock myself away. People come up and it’s like they know me. It’s kind of crazy, but they feel like they have known me for years. I joke around with people and
take shots at them. I can feel out a guy and see what kind of personality he’s got and see if he can take it. I love the guys who can take a shot right back and just be witty. I couldn’t imagine standing there for eight hours a day taking pictures, shaking hands and kissing babies without having some fun.
For me, if I joke around and play around a little bit, time will fly, it’s over and it seems like I just got there. I just love connecting with fans. ON THAT NOTE, we got up to see some more of his treasures and soon afterwards wrapped our interview up. The Gunny shook my hand, and in his hand was his personal Challenge coin from Glock, with his face on it. I got to give the puppies some more love on my way out. It was hard to leave those little ones, and it felt very much like I had just made a new friend. I left The Gunny with a final wave and promised I would come by and say hi at SHOT Show. It’s no wonder there is a four hour line to visit with The Gunny – all his fans are his friends. WSJ