John Carroll grad plays own grandfather in Angelina Jolie's 'Unbroken'

John Carroll graduate Stephen Douglas poses with Angelina Jolie. Douglas briefly portrays his grandfather, Clarence Douglas, in Jolie's movie, "Unbroken."
John Carroll graduate Stephen Douglas poses with Angelina Jolie. Douglas briefly portrays his grandfather, Clarence Douglas, in Jolie's movie, "Unbroken." (Courtesy of Stephen Douglas, Baltimore Sun Media Group)

Stephen Douglas didn't know much about his grandfather growing up. All he knew about Clarence Douglas was the man was wounded in the Army, got a Purple Heart and came home.

But for about a month, Stephen Douglas didn't just learn more about Clarence's military accomplishment, he became his grandfather.


The 26-year-old Jarrettsville native, who moved to Brooklyn, N.Y., after graduating from John Carroll in 2006, was virtually hand-picked to play Clarence Douglas for a few moments in Angelina Jolie's new movie, "Unbroken."

The film, based on the best-selling book of the same name, focuses on the life of Louis Zamperini, who survives after being captured by the Japanese navy after a plane crash during World War II. Clarence Douglas was with Zamperini's crew.


Stephen Douglas, who majored in film at New York's Pratt Institute, first heard more about his family's story in 2010, when his dad gave him Laura Hillenbrand's book "Unbroken," before it became a movie.

"Of course, I sort of shelved it for a few months," Douglas said. "My dad started reading it a little bit more then. He got in touch with the publishers because my grandfather had a big scrapbook, with pictures of him and the crew, and him goofing off in front of the plane, looking like tough guys."

Douglas eventually learned his "claim to fame was he stuck to his gun and took down the last Japanese fighter plane that was coming for them."

"He never really talked about it," Douglas continued about his grandfather, who was wounded by shrapnel in his shoulder and leg during the battle. He died when Douglas was 8 or 9.


Douglas' father, unbeknownst to him, shared the scrapbooks with those involved with the book and eventually the movie. A production designer called Douglas' father, and Douglas ultimately got an e-mail from a producer in the fall of 2013.

The connection set Douglas on a whirlwind trip to Australia, where he spent most of January 2014 learning to shoot a machine gun and be in an Army battle, at least for the silver screen.

For Douglas, the experience barely seemed real until he landed in Australia and met Jolie.

"When Angie got word that I was the same age as my grandfather and fit the bill, she was basically insistent," Douglas explained about how the role came to be. "I told them in a few phone conversations that they were taking a big chance, I don't really have acting experience, I have only been behind the camera."

That behind-the-camera work has been fairly high-profile – Douglas has been part of the crew for shows like "Survivor," "The X Factor," "Breaking Amish" and "Be Good Johnny Weir," as well as the 2011 movie "Tower Heist."

On "Unbroken," Douglas described Jolie as "definitely an actor's director."

"She is very good, if we are not comfortable with anything that's going on... she would ask for a suggestion or say to lose it altogether," Douglas said.

Douglas admitted to being a little star-struck in the first moment of meeting her, but he soon admired her vision and dedication to the movie.

"The way she speaks and the way she holds herself, she is very confident and she is very determined," he said.

Douglas worked with a military advisor, as well as Glen Boswell, a stunt coordinator, who also worked on "The Matrix" movies.

"He and I became very tight," Douglas said.

Besides getting the chance to work with Jolie and a crew he called extremely dedicated, Douglas got an unexpected opportunity to be a little closer to his family.

"My memories of [my grandfather] were pretty much, family Christmases, very small bits and pieces," he said. "When I got the call that this [movie] was really going to happen, when I got home to visit my parents, who moved to Lewes, Delaware, [my father] and I really sat down and that's when he broke out these scrapbooks."

"I wanted to do as much research as I could," he said.

Douglas' father "said his father never talked about the war," he said. Clarence Douglas' feeling was: "Some things are better left unsaid."

"I think that is a generational thing, for that generation of men," his grandson observed, adding that he met some World War II veterans at the Hollywood premiere of the movie. "That is a certain generation that, for the most part, doesn't really speak about what they went through."

Portraying his grandfather – holding a machine gun he may have used and sitting in a plane he may have sat in – was a unique experience for Douglas.

He learned his grandfather was in the Army Air Corps, which flew giant planes that were always open to attack. His grandfather's position "was one of the riskiest positions to be in. It was basically like being in a window on the side of a giant Winnebago."

"You wouldn't believe the bridge positions they had to be in, or how long they actually had to be in the air," he said. "It was kind of a nice thing to be able to come around and share that with my family."

"I think that originally, I was definitely nervous going into it because I really didn't know the man he was at that point in his life, and my father didn't either, so every time I tried to do more research on this or get more knowledge, I hit a roadblock," Douglas said.

"I think the whole situation definitely brought me and my father closer together," he said.

The idea of someone going through an experience like the one in the Pacific military theater, suffering injuries and knowing his crew members were more important, "that says a lot about a person's character," Douglas said.

The role may have been Douglas' first on-screen appearance, but he was not a total stranger to performance. The John Carroll alum starred in a production of "Tom Sawyer" his junior year of high school, played a supporting role in "The Music Man" and did some community theatre work, he said.

He was also a singer for a band called Go Ask Alice while in high school.

"Larry Hensley, head of guidance at John Carroll, he and I are in touch almost constantly," Douglas said, adding he also talks with some other people at the school. Douglas was even allowed to invent an "independent TV study class" while at John Carroll.

"Definitely people are looking out for me from the John Carroll community and Maryland community," he said.

Hensley, who has directed the school's theatre productions for about 20 years, recalled Douglas as a "lovable, kind-hearted and enthusiastic individual," known for a distinctive and punk-rock look, like wearing a big Marilyn Monroe tie.

"Stephen was always an out-of-the-box, unique individual. He did not conform to society's standards," Hensley said. "He has a very good soul; he is a good individual."

Douglas has most recently been working at a bar, as well as other odd jobs, but hopes to do more acting in the future.

"After I got back from Australia, I was really astounded by the dedication of the crew, I got bit by the acting bug," he said.


If it were not for this movie, he pointed out, "I would never have learned how a B-29 bomber works or held a .52-caliber machine gun."


"Acting is one of those crazy things where, with each project, you become something totally different," he said.

With "Unbroken," however, Douglas became something just a little closer to his family.