Actor's career takes him across the globe and forms lasting bonds with war veterans
Wednesday, March 12, 2014 11:00 AM
It was more than a decade ago when Peter Youngblood Hills landed an acting role as a young World War II American sharpshooter traveling through war-torn Europe.
Peter Hills talks about his start as an actor and the journey that has taken him deeper into his craft. Hills, who has acted in several major motion pictures currently lives in Madison during one of his periodic breaks from film work (Staff photo by Ken Ritchiefirstname.lastname@example.org)
"I've met some of the most incredible people. Soldiers who have gone through hell and back." - Peter Hills
The cast included a talented core group of English and American actors who met in boot camp and then bonded through nine months of intense filming in London. Behind the scenes, Tom Hanks and Steven Spielberg were signed on as executive producers.
Hills played Staff Sgt. Darrell "Shifty" Powers - a real noncommissioned officer of Easy Company in the 101st Airborne Division - in what is now known as the iconic HBO miniseries, "Band of Brothers," released in 2002.
The series follows Easy Company's descent on German forces on D-Day and its involvement during the Siege of Bastogne, which is part of the Battle of the Bulge. The critically acclaimed series used interviews from the surviving soldiers before each of the 10 episodes.
The series finale, heavily focuses on the Hills' character.
For Hills, the series launched his career but also gave him deep connection with veterans and veterans organizations. Now 36 and living in Madison, he admits he was more or less unaware of cultural significance of "Band of Brothers" while filming, even joking that he was just a "young, punk actor" then.
"I was naive of what I was a part of," he said. "It wasn't until later."
Through cast reunions and his mentor - who is a Vietnam veteran - Hills was put in contact with a veterans' organizations focused on healing former soldiers physically, mentally and spiritually.
"I've met some of the most incredible people. Soldiers who have gone through hell and back. It's a miracle to see them get through life and do it well," he said. "Some of them are double amputees and learning snowboarding."
Hills also has gone on USO tours with veterans and his castmates and spent significant time with the real "Shifty" Powers.
Before filming "Band of Brothers," Hills was invited to stay with Powers and his wife in Virginia. Powers, who died in 2009, grew up in Virginia and was an avid outdoorsman and hunter before the war.
Powers took Hills under his wing, teaching him how to shoot and how to be a soldier.
"I would sleep late, and he would come in and say something like, 'How are you going to win the war sleeping in like that?'" Hills joked.
After the war, Powers worked as a miner. Marcus Brotherton wrote a book about Powers called "Shifty's War." Hills said Powers' story perhaps "represents" those soldiers who didn't have opportunity to share their story or return home from World War II.
While Hills has now relocated in Madison, home for him is a variety of places. He was born in South Africa, but he has lived in Tennessee and London and Los Angeles.
He went to boarding school in London, where he learned the art of street and contemporary dance. At just 18, he was discovered at a night club and began getting cast as a back-up dancer in music videos.
"Suddenly, I started getting these music videos and then these commercials. And one thing after the next," he said. "I started to do some theater."
Following his stint as a theater actor, he made the leap to feature films. His first film was "Hideous Kinky," released in 1998 directed by Gilles MacKinnon and starring Kate Winslet.
That film started a long stretch of productions for Hills, who later joined Leonardo Dicaprio in "The Beach," which was shot and set in Thailand." Dicaprio would later call on Hills for a small role in "The Wolf of Wall Street," a picture that was nominated for several Academy Awards this year.
Hills also played the sidekick in a Wesley Snipes' action film "The Marksman," which was released in 2005.
Early on, the roles came to Hills again and again, but he would later experience one of cruel realities of the business: Having a dream project yanked away after months of preparation.
The role was the lead in a film about the Spanish flamenco dance. For months in Spain, he learned horse-back riding and trained in flamenco dance with some of the best teachers in the world.
It was a perfect gig for Hills, who was eager to tap into his deep reservoir of both dance and acting.
"It was incredible. There were a lot of beautiful things happening, and then it fell apart," he said.
Eventually, Hills took a break and went back to Los Angeles. He became a student, studying acting, healing, massage, meditation and working in spiritual psychology. The journey took him to Native American tribes, as well as several shaman.
"There was an element of me just wanting to ground, take care of the basics and get in touch with reality," he said of the break.
Last year, Hills visited his brother in Madison and decided to move. He's already found inspiration in the history of the city and Ohio River, but he said he's still learning the "unique spirit" of the area.
He said he's open to getting involved in veterans programs as well as spreading his love of acting.
"There are a lot of things I'm interested in here and connecting with the community," he said.