Interview: David Shields On Playing Major Everett Blakely In Masters of the Air

By Olivia Emily

4 months ago

Masters of the Air is streaming now on Apple TV+

Everyone is talking about Masters of the Air, Apple TV+’s brand new, star-studded WWII drama. We sat down with David Shields (who plays Major Everett Blakely) to get the inside scoop.

Interview: David Shields

Hi David! You’re currently starring in Masters of the Air – can you give us an elevator pitch for the show?

I’ve never been good at the hard-sell, but this one makes it easy. It’s the story of ‘The Bloody Hundredth’ – a group of American airmen who found themselves in one of the most horrific theatres of battle in the whole of the Second World War. It charts the story of their journeys, their day-to-day lives while back at the airbase and on leave, the combat they engaged in, their trauma and their heroism in the face of huge psychological, physical, and emotional challenges.

You play Major Everett Blakely – how would you describe him?

He’s the most G.I. of G.I.’s. An exceptionally disciplined and skilled pilot, in a company of men who, sometimes, lack those things. But he also knows how to get on well with his crew, cut loose, and have a good time. To use that (annoying) phrase, he works hard and plays hard I suppose.

What was it like playing him?

We were told quite early on to treat it like a Robert Altman piece, to make offers wherever and whenever we wanted. I certainly ran with that, and so a lot of my stuff was improvised or worked out just before we started rolling. That was a lot of fun, to have that freedom to play him like that.

How did you get into character/prepare for the role?

Fortunately, there was a lot to draw on from both Donald L Miller’s Masters of the Air, and Harry Crosby’s A Wing and Prayer, as well as interviews Everett’s son Jim conducted with him. Those were especially useful in trying to capture some of his spirit. That’s where I first really got a sense of his humour and demeanour.

You star alongside Barry Keoghan, Austin Butler, Callum Turner and Anthony Boyle – what was it like to be on such a star studded set?

Four absolute smoke-shows, aren’t they? I tried my best to avoid appearing in shot next to any of them. But they’re at the top of their game right now, so it was great to be able to watch and learn from them. But to be honest, because we’d all done this boot camp together, that had kind of removed any of that ‘star-status’ thing that can sometimes be more of a hinderance than anything. They all fell in as just another one of the guys, and we became a tighter group because of it.

What is the cast dynamic? Who was your fave person to work with?

I think everyone will say you became especially close with your crew i.e. those on your plane. For me that was Anto Boyle, Elliot Warren, and often Ed Ashley and Callum. I’m sure the boys who were in groundcrew or ended up in the POW camps would say something similar.

Any fun stories from rehearsals or filming?

Because you were often rigged up in a cockpit, stuck in position, in sweltering conditions, in boots, helmet, sheepskin jacket, and everything underneath, for a 4/5 hour stretch at a time, you were sent into a delirious state. I remember we told each other riddles to pass the time. One of those riddles has made it into the cut. I like it when that happens. When something simply from what’s happening around you organically finds its way into the show.

Are you still in touch with any of your co-stars?

No. They all hate me. I have no friends. Of course. All those mentioned above and others. Because the show was such a mammoth undertaking, done in the heart of COVID, with all the challenges that that presented, I think it forged bonds that would be hard to break.

David Shields

© Lee Malone

You’ve also starred in the likes of Doctor Who, Black Mirror and The Crown, but what has been your favourite project to date?

Black Mirror was a lot of fun because the character was just so incredibly grim and evil, the writing was so good, and you’re a part of such a clever and much-loved show. Masters was like that, too. I get a kick out of being in something which comes with the added pressure of living up to what has come before. You know you’re going to get compared, and so I feel it makes everyone on set, both cast and crew, extra sharp.

Any roles in the pipeline that you’re excited about? (If you’re allowed to tell us!)

I just shot a detective series out in Amsterdam. I can’t tell you much more though I’m afraid. The bitterballen were excellent.

Who has been your favourite actor to work with in the past?

I don’t know if I have favourites, but someone who I worked with very briefly recently was Matthew Goode, and seeing how much fun he could have on set, even when dealing with quite serious and cerebral material, was inspiring.

Which co-star did you learn the most from?

I’m gonna sound like a broken record here, but Anto Boyle. Watching him perform takes with the amount of freedom he does is a joy. He’s got a kind of Robin Williams-esq quality about him where you feel like anything could happen at any time. Trying to lock into that kind of stream-of-consciousness groove he can find, is something I try to work on.

What’s your dream role?

At the risk of sounding pretentious, Richard II. He’s a wonderful combination of supremely witty and articulate, but also full of foibles, and has to deal with the ultimate fall from grace, from King to captive. He would be fun to play.

What’s a genre you’d like to do more of?

Out-and-out comedy. I feel I am often finding the humour in dramatic material, but it would be nice to go back to something less balanced and more proudly comic.

What did you want to be when you were growing up?

A soldier (I liked the uniforms/films) or a barrister (I liked the theatre of the courtroom/wigs). Fortunately, for the sake of national defence, and potential clients of mine, I decided against both.

If you could give advice to your 15-year-old self, what would it be?

Buy a shedload of Bitcoin.

Anything fun in the pipeline – professionally or personally?

I’m sitting on a plane to LA right now for the premiere of Masters. But I shall also be meeting some of the relatives of the character I play, including his son, which will be a real honour and a privilege.

David Shields

© Lee Malone

David Shields Recommends…

I’m currently watching… The Bear (late on it, I know)

What I’m reading… Rain by Barney Campbell – an exceptional book that needs adapting.

The last thing I watched (and loved) was… The Zone of Interest by Jonathan Glazer – a singular film.

What I’m most looking forward to seeing… Poor Things

Favourite film of all time… Impossible to say, I love This is England though.

Favourite song of all time… Again that’s tricky, but ‘Temptation’ by New Order

Band/singer I always have on repeat… Currently The War on Drugs

My ultimate cultural recommendation… Billingsgate fish market

Cultural guilty pleasure… Below Deck Mediterranean is sensational

What’s next for me is… Half a Zopiclone


David Shields stars in Masters of the Air, streaming now on Apple TV+ with new episodes weekly.