Keith Bernstein/Warner Bros.
Clark Collis
November 21, 2017 AT 12:00 PM EST

Clint Eastwood’s The 15:17 to Paris depicts how passengers on a French train in August 2015 overwhelmed an armed terrorist, preventing a probable mass shooting. It’s also a grand experiment for the 87-year-old filmmaker, who cast many of the real people involved in the incident to play themselves, including three young Americans (Anthony Sadler, Alek Skarlatos, and Spencer Stone). Did anyone suggest he think twice about that decision? “Oh, yeah,” he says. “A lot of people suggested that.”

Above, see an exclusive image of Eastwood on set with Stone and Sadler, and below, read more from the Oscar-winning filmmaker about shooting in the actual locations, why it became important to include those involved, and whether we’ll ever see him in front of the camera again.

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: What attracted you to this story?
CLINT EASTWOOD: It was a tribute to the common man. These were just young men going on a trip, and when this terrorist got on the train, they jumped into action and potentially saved a lot of lives. The terrorist happened to have two guns, an AK-47 with almost 300 rounds of ammunition, and a Luger. He obviously wasn’t up to any good.

How did you come to cast the actual people as the film’s leads?
I looked at a lot of very good actors who could possibly have done the job. But I kept looking at the faces of these young men — “boys,” I call them. I thought these faces were unique. It just struck me that it would be an interesting experiment. It could be bold or reckless, depending on how it comes out. [Laughs] Anyway, they were enthusiastic about trying it, so we went with them, and I think people will be a little surprised. But as we got going, I started looking at other people who were involved. I thought, I wonder if they’d all like to come back? One thing led to another.

You shot at the locations where the events happened?
We shot at the exact locations. One couple, Mark and Isabelle [Moogalian] — he had been shot in the neck and almost died. I think it was a catharsis [for them] to come back and revisit it with all the people. It probably was a catharsis for everybody.

The gunman, Ayoub El-Khazzani, originally said he planned on robbing passengers but has since been linked to an Islamic State terrorist cell. How much does the film detail his background?
Well, you don’t find out anything about him. It wasn’t his story.

You’re not in this film yourself. Will we ever see you in front of the camera again?
I’m sure, when the right thing comes along. A valuable character that would suit me — I’d go for that. If not, I’ll stay right in the back. [Laughs] A man’s got to know his limitations.

The 15:17 to Paris arrives in theaters Feb. 9.

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