Lucas Black (left) and Adrianne Palicki in Screen Gems' sci-fi action thriller, "Legion."
It's not every day that a Hollywood actress gets to rock an AK-47. Throw in handguns, grenade launchers, and assorted other weapons, and it's downright unusual.
No big deal, however, to Adrianne Palicki, a Whitmer High School graduate who stars in Red Dawn, the new remake of the 1984 cult classic.
"It was an everyday thing for me," Palicki says, laughing. "I grew up with boys, with my big brother and my cousins. We played war all the time. We used to shoot guns in my uncle's backyard. We'd shoot cans and whatever. So I knew a little bit about guns and knew how to shoot. I'd been to shooting ranges.
"But, honestly, I'd never held an AK-47 until this movie," she says. "I would kind of get giddy. I'd be like, ‘I get paid to do this? Cool!'"
The movie opened Wednesday after nearly three years of delays caused by the financial woes of its initial studio, MGM, Red Dawn unfolds in modern-day Washington state, as foreign forces invade a small town as part of a far bigger operation.
Determined to fight back, some young locals slip into the woods and train to take on the occupiers.
The Wolverines, as they call themselves, include Toni (Palicki), Jed (Chris Hemsworth), Matt (Josh Peck), Robert (Josh Hutcherson), Erica (Isabel Lucas), and Daryl (Connor Cruise).
Speaking by telephone from a Los Angeles hotel, the high-energy Palicki admits that she had not seen the original Red Dawn until the reboot came along.
In fairness, the 29-year-old actress was an infant when Red Dawn debuted and helped make stars of Jennifer Grey, C. Thomas Howell, Charlie Sheen, Patrick Swayze, and Lea Thompson.
"I hadn't seen it," Palicki says. "I watched it after I booked the part, because so many of my friends said, ‘Don't [foul] this up.' There were so many strong opinions about me doing this movie, about the fact that anyone was even remaking it, so I decided that I needed to see this movie that was such a cult hit. I totally understood why it was so popular once I saw it, and you could understand why it was so much more important back in the time when all that stuff was happening.
"The other thing that was so interesting to me was to see this group of young actors in it. For a lot of them it was their first movie, or one of their first movies. You could see where they started, and they grew from there. It was kind of the same thing for us. Chris did this before Thor . This was before Josh had The Hunger Games . It was cool to see our cast in the same light."
Palicki notes that fans of the original Red Dawn will spot some tips of the cap to the cult classic. However, she hastens to add, everyone involved in the remake realized that it could not be a carbon copy.
For starters, this time around the United States is invaded by North Korea, rather than by the Soviet Union, Nicaragua, and Cuba as in the original.
"We tried as hard as possible to pay homage to the original," she says. "The characters' names are the same, the idea of it is the same. But there are new characters, different characters. The relationships are different. The ending is different. There's a different bad guy.
"Also, having Dan Bradley as our director, that was great. He's a genius at what he does as a second-unit director, and this is his first directing gig. For him to do what he does best in this, I think it really added something different to it.
The action sequences are just totally insane." Palicki, a statuesque beauty who stands 5-foot-11, describes her Red Dawn character, Toni, as "pretty tough." More important, she says, she never considered it hard to be a female working amid an on-set boys' club because Bradley ensured that there was no boys club.
"That's the cool part about this movie," Palicki says. "Dan told us that there were no boys and no girls, that everybody would be treated the same, and that was the truth. I love that. Watching it, you don't think, ‘Oh, the girls are getting special treatment.' No, if you don't know how to carry a gun, if you don't know how to protect yourself, you're going to die, and that's it.
"It's the same for the boys and the girls. No one gives a [hoot] if you're a boy or a girl. Toni is this tough cookie, a bad girl, and she, like everybody, goes through a change because their lives get torn apart. All the characters have an arc and grow and have to band together to fight off these bad guys."
A Toledo native, Palicki, upon graduating from Whitmer, informed her parents, Jeff and Nancy Palicki, that she'd rather go to New York and pursue theater than attend college. She later returned to Toledo and worked a bit before heading to the West Coast, where she took acting classes and suffered through numerous rejections while working a variety of jobs, from waitress to manager of a sunglasses store.
Closing in on a decade in the acting business, her drive and determination produced several major and minor roles on TV and film. Best recognized for her long stint as Tyra Collette on Friday Night Lights (2006-2009, 2011), Palicki's other credits include guest spots on Smallville (2004), CSI: Miami (2009), and Criminal Minds (2011), a recurring role on Supernatural (2005-2009), and series-regular parts on South Beach (2006) and Lone Star (2010). She counts among her films Women in Trouble (2009) and Legion (2010).
"I always wanted to be an actor," Palicki says. "I still say the same exact thing: ‘I want to be an actor.' I'm in it to win it. The end game is that I'm working until the day I die, which will hopefully be when I'm 90 or over.
"I just want to work. It's not about being the biggest star on the planet or having the biggest name. It's about doing good work and wanting to do this forever."
Taking nothing away from her accomplishments so far, Palicki is still waiting for that moment when her career goes nova, as Hemsworth's did with Thor or Hutcherson's with The Hunger Games. She has come oh-so-close, though, and obviously has believers among producers and directors in Hollywood.
She co-starred in Aquaman (2006), a pilot that did not go to series. Fox publicized the heck out of Lone Star, but axed the show after only two episodes.
Last year Palicki starred as Wonder Woman/Diana Prince in a pilot written and produced by David E. Kelley. Despite high expectations and the Kelley pedigree, NBC declined to move forward with Wonder Woman as a weekly series.
It's often hard, she admits, to deal with the extreme ups and downs of life as an actress.
"Every day you ask yourself if you want to do this or why you're doing this," Palicki says. "One of those two questions inevitably happens, but it's important to remember — and I have to, too — that, again, this is the only thing I love to do, the thing I love most.
"So I have no choice. I have to just go, ‘OK, today is a new day. I've got to figure out something new to do.' Hopefully it works and, if it doesn't, I have to keep going."
Palicki's next project, G.I. Joe: Retaliation, might be the movie that finally puts her over the top. She's perfectly cast as Lady Jaye, a butt-kicking covert-operations specialist who joins forces with a G.I. Joe team portrayed by, among others, Dwayne Johnson, Channing Tatum, and Bruce Willis. The film will hit theaters in March.
"I hope the movie is going to be huge," the actress says. "It's very cool. The difference between it and Red Dawn, for me, is that I play a Navy S.E.A.L., so she's really trained. It's a completely different film, but after Red Dawn I was a step ahead in my abilities to use guns and run with them.
"The best part is that I'm an action figure," Palicki adds excitedly. "We went to Toy Fair, and there's a little Mini-Me out there and it actually looks like me. It's crazy. My friends are like, ‘It's funny, most actors dream about getting an Oscar, and you really dream about getting your action figure. That's when you know you've made it.' "I'm like, ‘I know ... because I have one!'"