Every actor has their light bulb moment, an inflection point in which their passion for a career in the performing arts is solidified. For Kai Alexander, it came at the age of 13 when he did a TV commercial for the cereal Honey Waffles. He had done a few school plays up to this point—bodyguard two was one of his best roles—but he hadn’t done anything quite on this scale or that really allowed him to experiment. A five- to 10-minute improv session with the commercial’s director Garth Jennings, in which he was instructed to hide a giant bear, was all it took. Alexander was hooked then and there. He enrolled in drama school shortly thereafter and started auditioning and booking steady work, and now, he’s a part of one of the most anticipated TV series of the year—Masters of the Air. His 13-year-old self would be ecstatic.
Something to know about Alexander is that the UK native loves to enter uncharted territory. The more unknown a subject matter or character is to him, the better. When the audition for Masters of the Air came in and was entirely different from any of his previous work (he had recurring roles in Amazon’s Catastrophe and Netflix’s The Stranger and played a young Richard Branson in Danny Boyle’s 2022 FX limited series Pistol), he was totally game. It also didn’t hurt that industry legends Tom Hanks and Steven Spielberg were attached as executive producers.
Based on the 2007 nonfiction book by Donald L. Miller, Masters of the Air serves as a successor to the miniseries Band of Brothers and The Pacific and tells the story of the 100th Bomb Group of the United States Army Air Forces during World War II that went by the bleak nickname the Bloody Hundredth. It is an exhilarating war epic with a heart-wrenching narrative of perilous high-flying missions and brotherhood accompanied by stunning cinematography. The Apple TV+ series, which premiered its first two episodes on January 26, also features a noteworthy cast of Hollywood’s most promising male talent. Alexander is starring alongside Austin Butler, Callum Turner, and Barry Keoghan, to name a few.
While Alexander was excited about the opportunity to be a part of such a big project, he didn’t initially consider himself a shoo-in for the role of Sgt. William Quinn. With his slender frame and long hair at the time. he didn’t quite look the part of a military soldier. “I think you always have this stereotype in your mind of what an army guy might look like, and when I looked at myself in the mirror, I didn’t see that,” Alexander tells us over Zoom. Regardless, Alexander was up for the challenge, so he slicked back his hair and channeled a tougher vibe for his self-tape.
In the end, it wouldn’t matter. “I didn’t realize, but you learn later on that these guys are actually skinny and are quite light because they were just thrown in. They didn’t have time to train and get muscular and built up,” Alexander says.
Still, the cast participated in a mock boot camp in preparation for filming. The intensive training program was led by Captain Dale Dye, a decorated Marine veteran turned technical advisor for film and television who also led the boot camps for Band of Brothers and The Pacific. “I just remember thinking, ‘Oh my god, what are we in for?'” Alexander recalls. He was rightfully nervous after watching videos of Dye at work on other projects, but the experience would end up being an incredibly positive and valuable one in the knowledge and camaraderie it provided. In addition to communal exercise, which Alexander admits was less physically demanding than he originally expected, they partook in lectures about the mechanics of the planes, learned about flight logs and real-life missions, and participated in parachute-jump training and tutorials about how to handle bombs. “We all felt the responsibility of why we were there, and we were all very keen to do our most accurate portrayal of these guys,” Alexander says.
Stepping into the metaphorical shoes of Sgt. Quinn meant Alexander got to shed light on a very remarkable, little-known piece of history. Quinn’s story, which could be its own series, centers on the resistance organization known as the Comet Line. When his plane is shot down during a mission, Quinn is forced to make an emergency parachute landing in occupied Belgium and runs into members of the group. Made up of the largest network of volunteers, most of whom were young women, the Comet Line was responsible for escorting allied soldiers and downed airmen south through occupied France and into neutral Spain before arriving safely home via British-controlled Gibraltar.
“I knew nothing about it,” Alexander tells us of his knowledge of the resistance group going into the project. “I immediately went into research mode to understand what it was. … It was just fascinating to me that, when you did land, your guides were 70% women, and they were staring death in the face closer than we were at that point. Over the course of it, they arrested, I think, 700 women [working with the Comet Line], and I think 300 or 350 were executed. For them to be putting themselves behind enemy lines and leading these downed Americans and downed British airmen back to safety, back to the UK, is an incredibly noble thing to do. We often associate WWII, all wars, as a very male-centric thing. … I think most people who I spoke to don’t really know a huge amount about [this piece of history]. All of a sudden, you land, and the guys who are going to save you are women. It was an incredible piece of history to read about, and I feel very honored to bring a little more light to that aspect of WWII.”
Another part of Alexander’s prep for the role included adopting Quinn’s Spokane, Washington accent. The cast worked with various dialect coaches and were encouraged to use their American accents as much as possible during the second week of boot camp. Knowing the weight of the role and the opportunity in front of him, Alexander decided to keep with his American accent throughout the remainder of boot camp. On the first day of filming, he noticed an impact. When the show’s creator John Orloff mistook him for an actual American, it proved to Alexander that it was working. He decided to keep with the American accent through the entirety of filming, but when four months of shooting turned into a year, it almost worked too well.
After he wrapped his final day on set, the crew encouraged him to go back to his British accent, but he couldn’t find it. “It was really weird because I was trying to do it, and I think I referred to Dick Van Dyke, who’s incredible. Everyone loves him in Mary Poppins. That was what I was channeling. That was the British I was channeling at that point,” he chuckles. Luckily, spending some quality time with his family shortly after he wrapped helped him relearn his original accent. “It was the hardest thing to get into and the hardest thing to get out of,” he says.
Up next, Alexander will lend his voice to the Disney animated musical series Rhona Who Lives by the River. For now, he’s just excited for what the year ahead will bring, and hopefully, it will involve more uncharted territory: “The excitement of getting something for the first time that you haven’t really seen before and creating something new, that’s ultimately what I love doing.”
New episodes of Masters of the Air are now streaming on Apple TV+.
Photographer: Nick Thompson
Stylist: Clare Richardson
Groomer: Charley McEwen