NORFOLK, Va. — David Meadows was binge-watching episodes of “True Blood” inside a drab Florida hotel room when his life’s purpose came suddenly into focus.
“It was so profound,” Meadows said, reflecting on the moment three years ago while viewing the HBO vampire drama. “It was like I got punched in the face. Why hadn’t I thought of that before? Why was this just hitting me as a 28-year-old?”
Meadows had been among the world’s sharpest warriors, a Navy SEAL who had seen combat in Afghanistan. But after five years at Little Creek, the commando life had lost its appeal.
He left the service and took a corporate consulting job, hoping to find his place, but instead discovering a more mindless existence than he could have imagined.
Inside that Tampa hotel room, Meadows allowed his thoughts to drift to the world of vampires filling his computer screen.
Then it hit him.
“I want to do that,” he said to himself. “Why can’t I do that?”
The former SEAL — a guy whose most notable skill involved firing guns, a guy who had never even tried out for a school play — wanted to be an actor.
Meadows reflected recently on the whirlwind that followed his decision before attending a private screening in Norfolk of “Captain Phillips,” the Hollywood movie starring Tom Hanks that opened Friday. Meadows may have been typecast when he landed a speaking role as one of the Virginia Beach-based SEALs who rescued cargo ship captain Richard Phillips from Somali pirates, but he isn’t complaining.
The former SEAL sniper oozes confidence. His resume notes that he’s 6-foot-1, 186 pounds, with “intense hazel” eyes. He’s candid when he says, “I’ve got a very good look for film.” But even he didn’t expect his second career to take off this fast.
“I think people, if we’re lucky, are called to do something in life,” Meadows said. “This is it for me. Without a doubt.”
In only a few years, Meadows went from a guy with zero stage experience to nearly making it into The Julliard School’s prestigious acting program. He was among 40 finalists from a pool of about 10,000 applicants who were invited to New York to compete for a dozen spots. He plans to try again next spring.
Meadows works long hours onstage and off. He’s able to support himself and maintain a flexible schedule as a consultant for defense companies. Acting doesn’t pay the bills, but it’s his top priority.
“I want to be on Broadway, on film or on television,” Meadows said. “That’s been my goal from the start and nothing short of that. I want to be on the SEAL Team 6 of the acting world.”
That night back in 2010, Meadows ordered some Chinese food and started researching what it would take to become a professional actor. He made a list of his skills, a list of his shortcomings, a list of possible challenges.
“I literally did a threat assessment,” Meadows said, sounding more like a SEAL than an actor.
On paper, he couldn’t find a reason not to chase his new dream. He decided that night he wanted to do something to improve people’s lives, and he wanted to do it by acting.
“It’s probably the only magic left in the world,” Meadows said. “We walk around as human beings so jaded and so closed off, because we have to be. Performing artists shatter that. They allow people to drop their guard and feel something. I wanted to do that.”
Back in Virginia Beach, he enrolled in classes at The Actors’ Place, a private acting school on Laskin Road, where an instructor suggested he read a few books and begin auditioning for local plays.
Meadows hadn’t attended a single class when he showed up at the Generic Theater in Norfolk and read lines for a part in “Closer.” The next day, the director called and offered him a role.
“Uh, do you have the right number?” Meadows remembers saying, before agreeing to take the supporting part.
Later that year, he landed a role in “Witches.” Then another in “Taming of the Shrew.”
“Things just got bigger and bigger and bigger and bigger,” Meadows said.
He befriended classically trained actors, hired an agent, devoured books on the craft and attended a summer acting program in New York City.
In becoming an actor, Meadows had to unlearn much of his military training, tearing down the emotional walls required to make it through the infamous “Hell Week” during basic SEAL training and as an operator. A good SEAL is guarded; a good actor is vulnerable.
In the Navy, Meadows trained to absorb repeated blows to the body and keep fighting. As an actor, he sometimes practices crying for 30 minutes straight to ensure he’s convincing onstage.
“I’ve had to totally reinvent myself,” Meadows said.
He responded to a casting call for “Captain Phillips” in 2012, hoping his former career would help him land a role in the movie that was being filmed off the Virginia coast.
Weeks later, when he called to check in with the casting firm, Meadows learned he hadn’t made the cut. He wondered what he had done wrong.
A day before filming was to begin, his agent called: “Hey, you’re booked for ‘Captain Phillips.’ Filming will last two weeks. You’ll have scenes with Tom Hanks.”
He plays the No. 2 SEAL in command. On-set aboard the guided-missile destroyer Truxtun, he shared screen time with a few other former SEALs who were brought in for nonspeaking roles, but none was pursuing a career in acting.
Director Paul Greengrass told the former commandos on-set that he wanted the film to be as realistic as possible. It took Meadows a few takes to realize, in Hollywood, “realistic” is a relative term.
“They said they wanted it to seem real, but then they’d give me directions, and I was like, ‘We wouldn’t have done that. We wouldn’t have done that,’?” Meadows said. “It was a learning process, and soon I realized those things had to be done for the camera; we had to make a movie.”
On a few shots, Meadows said, one of his lines was the cue to begin filming. With cameras and lights focused on him, and everyone including Hanks looking his way, Greengrass would say, “OK, Dave, whenever you’re ready.”
It took Meadows a couple of takes to shake the jitters.
“Wow,” he remembers thinking. “I’m part of this movie.”
Information from: The Virginian-Pilot, http://pilotonline.com