Movies

The Cheerleader Behind Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk

How Sydney Durso brought Texas authenticity to director Ang Lee's film adaptation of Ben Fountain's acclaimed novel.

Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, the 2012 stunner by Dallas’ own Ben Fountain, the dust-jacketed “Catch-22 of the Iraq War,” Entertainment Weekly’s 54th greatest novel of all time, the story that Academy Award-winning director Ang Lee brings to the big screen this month, is more than just an anti-war book. It’s an anti-religion, anti-consumerism book. Even more radically, it’s an anti-football book. Really, then, it’s an anti-America book—but in the funniest, smartest, most vulgarly patriotic way possible.

billylongwalk1Sydney Blaine Durso, an attractive young woman from the South Texas town of Mission, is more than just a bubbly, flat-tummied former Dallas Cowboys Cheerleader who served as a consultant and choreographer for the movie. She’s also a Christian who claims to have never once in her 26 years uttered a swear word, an entrepreneur who has sold a not insignificant number of t-shirts that read: “Girls who love football are rare. Wife ’em up.” And: “Raised on Jesus, sweet tea, and the SEC.”

Me, I know a little something about Jesus and football. My freshman year at Notre Dame, we won a national championship, thanks to Lou Holtz and Tony Rice and Rocket Ismail and Michael Stonebreaker and little Reggie Ho, too, to name a few of the saints from 1988. But mine is an Old Testament God more inclined to anger, whether manifest in famine or sarcasm, than the lovey-dovey unconditional stuff Jesus brought to town. Also, after living in Dallas for 40 years, I have determined that sweet tea sucks. Sun tea, no sugar, all the way. See you in Hell.

sydney-cheerleaderThus do Durso and I each bring our baggage on a recent Tuesday afternoon to State & Allen, an Uptown restaurant not far from her home. She arrives for our lunch on time, wearing a form-fitting turquoise cold-shoulder dress and matching dangly earrings. Her blond hair is perfect, her makeup flawless. Her orderly teeth are an enviable shade of white that leads me to wonder if a sip of red wine or coffee has ever passed her lips. I tell her that she smells good, hoping I don’t sound creepy. She says that she wears Euphoria, a Calvin Klein perfume, because she remembers as a little girl attending a family wedding in California with her mother, who wore the fragrance. When Durso puts on Euphoria each day, she says, the scent reminds her of being with her family on a chilly November day in Carmel-by-the-Sea.

“I’m gonna be honest with you,” she whispers, “I’m not a virgin. I’ve had three boyfriends, but they were all long-term relationships. I’m not casual with my body, I just want you to know that.”

He nods and dips down for a whiff of her neck. Beneath the floral scents of perfume and soap he discovers a dense, rooty smell like sweet potato paste. Her smell. He can’t remember ever being so happy.

Oh, sorry. The preceding two paragraphs come from the midway point of Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, at the conclusion of a scene in which the eponymous Billy Lynn, a celebrated, deeply conflicted soldier soon to return to an Iraqi FOB with his Bravo Squad, has been surreptitiously dry-humped by a fully clothed Dallas Cowboys Cheerleader named Faison at a press conference held before a Thanksgiving Day game at Texas Stadium. I can see how that might have been confusing. I mean, do I harbor some thoughts of immodesty while lunching with Durso at State & Allen? Of course I do. I’ve read the book twice. And Durso is a former Dallas Cowboys Cheerleader who helped Makenzie Leigh, the actress who plays Faison in the movie, dance and talk like a cheerleader. And she smells good—platonically, objectively. There are too many connections. So the scene from the book wedges its way into my lunchtime thoughts unbidden. But it’s a literary thing, I promise. I’m thinking about the book.

BETTER HALF: To help bring realism to his adaptation of Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, director Ang Lee relied on Durso’s experience as a former Dallas Cowboys Cheerleader. She joined the production the day after she left the DCC. But the film also leaned on Durso’s experience as a Texan: she worked with star Makenzie Leigh to help the Plano native regain her accent.
BETTER HALF: To help bring realism to his adaptation of Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, director Ang Lee relied on Durso’s experience as a former Dallas Cowboys Cheerleader. She joined the production the day after she left the DCC. But the film also leaned on Durso’s experience as a Texan: she worked with star Makenzie Leigh to help the Plano native regain her accent.

For Durso, the road to Ang Lee went like this: as a dance student, she was the first amateur, at age 15, to play the Sugar Plum Fairy in the Rio Grande Valley Ballet’s annual production of The Nutcracker after professional guest artists had danced that role for the previous 30 years. She graduated high school early, went to the University of Texas–Pan American, and joined a team from the Danzforce Academy. At a dance competition in Denton, in 2008, a woman approached Durso, who was then just shy of her 18th birthday.

“I love the color of your skin,” the woman said. “Is it natural?”

Durso’s family is of Italian extraction, and she grew up playing on the sun-soaked beaches of South Padre Island. Yes, that was her natural skin color.

The woman turned out to be a scout for the Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders, aka DCC. Durso was invited to try out and given a pass to the semifinal round. She advanced to cheerleader training camp, a three-month slog, and because she was told not to move to Dallas until she’d made the final cut, she rented a room at an extended-stay hotel in Las Colinas. Her mom and her English cream golden retriever Brady kept her company for the duration. Durso got a job, as required by the DCC. For those three months, her life went like this: rise for work at Hollister, DCC practice (full hair and makeup) from 5 to about 11,
bed, repeat.

durso_cowboys_game_halftimeAt one point, the DCC bosses called her in to the office and told Durso that she was boring. “You have to be fun for the younger crowd and for the women,” Durso says. “But you can’t be too sexy. You have to be appealing. So it’s, like, a million things in one, and I was 18 and I was like, Whaaaat? I didn’t know.” A friend, a veteran on the team, gave her some advice: dance in front of a mirror and flirt with yourself. That’s how Durso learned to be a cheerleader for America’s Team.

When I was a kid, my grandfather would take our clan to one Cowboys game every year. I remember sitting in Texas Stadium with binoculars, waiting for the action on the field to migrate toward a point where my line of sight included the cheerleaders. That way I could focus in on those tiny white shorts (why did they require belts?) while appearing to my family members like I was watching Tony Dorsett. I was probably 11 or 12 years old. I wasn’t sure why I enjoyed watching the cheerleaders so much or why, exactly, I knew that my binocular-aided enjoyment was something to be hidden from my family. But, yeah, as a member of the younger crowd, I sure thought the DCC were fun.

I make the mistake of sharing this memory with Durso before we’ve even ordered our meals. The wildly unrealistic expectation that a Dallas Cowboys Cheerleader should be simultaneously sexy and wholesome, the unfairness of asking an 18-year-old to walk that line, the million things in one—I want to acknowledge all that. Pretty sure what I communicate instead is that I was a horny 12-year-old with voyeuristic tendencies.

Durso cheered with the DCC for seven years, through the 2014 season, making her the most senior member on the team when she retired. Which memories will she always cherish from her tenure? Her parents had front-row seats at Texas Stadium, so Durso got to high-five them at nearly every game. She’ll never forget those high-fives. And the hospitals. “The Christmas hospital visit was the best day of the year,” she says. “We’d go with the players and bring fun gifts.” And the USO tours. In her third year with the team, she made the DCC Show Group, the elite troupe of a dozen cheerleaders who get to travel overseas. Her first trip was to South Korea, and she got to bring her pompoms to Kuwait, Bahrain, China, Japan. “We performed for the military, which was the best,” she says. “We would not only visit with our troops and boost their morale, but then we would boost their families’ morale. We would go over there and give back.”

Almost word for word, this is what Faison tells Billy Lynn she most enjoys about being a Dallas Cowboys Cheerleader, right before they dry-hump at the press conference. It’s like Ben Fountain created Sydney Durso.

“Have you read the book?” I ask her.

“Yeah, I have a copy the author gave me,” she says. “We’re actually very good friends now. Ben is so nice. I love him. He’s so cool. So he signed my book for me.”

“But wait,” I say. “I asked if you’d read it, and you just said you had a copy.”

“No, I haven’t read it yet,” she confesses. “I read a portion of it. It’s hard, because I read the whole script. So it’s weird. But I’ll read it.”

As for the “wife ’em up” shirt? The Today show, Seventeen, the Huffington Post—they all hammered her for it last summer. She woke up one morning, and her phone had 200 notifications on it. “Every single tweet had the F-word in it, something profane,” she says.

Fountain has written for D Magazine, and I’ve had the pleasure of drinking the occasional beer with him when he can be talked into leaving his house. I suppose it’s my fault that he hasn’t signed my copy of his book. When I later tell him that his good friend Sydney hasn’t read it, he is unfazed.

“It doesn’t surprise me at all that she hasn’t read the book,” he says. “I think I would be surprised if she had.” Those words on the page might look mean, but he freights them with nothing heavier than kindness and understanding. He watched her work on the Billy Lynn set, in Atlanta’s Georgia Dome, and knows well what she’s capable of. “On set, she was viewed as a very valuable person,” he says. “She was respected. That was the sense I got. I heard a lot of compliments about her. People were very impressed with her.”

By her telling, Durso essentially fell into the gig. Through a mutual friend, a woman with the production crew contacted Durso. “We’re working on a film with cheerleaders in it,” she said. “We want your help. I need your insight on a few things.”

Durso says she waited till her contract with the DCC was up. Then, the day after the end-of-season banquet, she flew to Atlanta to meet director Ang Lee. “You can tell he’s really intelligent,” she says. “And he’s soft-spoken.” Lee asked about Durso’s parents, wondering if she looked into the stands to find them the first time she cheered at Texas Stadium. She told him about the high-fives.

Durso didn’t just choreograph the cheerleaders’ routines for the movie. She acted alongside them. On her first day of shooting, she was told not to wear makeup on account of the insane way Lee had chosen to make the film. Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk will be the first feature ever shot in 3D at 120 frames per second (per eye), with 4K resolution. Those specs yield about 40 times more pixel data than a typical setup. In September, a segment of the film—cutting back and forth from a Destiny’s Child halftime show to a bloody firefight in Iraq—was shown in one of the few places in the world that had a data server and projector powerful enough to present Lee’s vision in its full glory. One expert who saw the teaser said Lee had made history and called the movie “a milestone that will stand alongside talkies and color.” Anyway, no makeup for Durso. It would be too obvious at that resolution.

Her part of the project took a month and a half in Atlanta, and it quickly expanded way beyond just choreography. Durso served as a stand-in for Leigh, the woman who played Faison. So she had to learn lines. And she wound up working informally as a voice coach, too. Leigh grew up in Plano but spent time overseas and now lives in New York. Durso worked with her to regain some of her Texas accent. At lunch, Leigh would stop Durso mid-sentence so that she could repeat what she’d just heard, trying to pick up a little twang.

She also taught Steve Martin how to high-kick. He plays Norm Ogelsby, billionaire owner of the Dallas Cowboys. The official line is that Norm isn’t Jerry Jones, but Norm is Jerry Jones. The high-kicking, by the way, wasn’t for the film. Martin wanted a picture of himself dancing with the cheerleaders. “He looks in real life just like he looks in all those movies,” Durso says. “He’s so funny.”

Side Line: Durso began her Live Love Gameday fashion line during her final season with the Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders. “I don’t even know if that name makes sense,” she says. “But it works.”
Side Line: Durso began her Live Love Gameday fashion line during her final season with the Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders. “I don’t even know if that name makes sense,” she says. “But it works.”

At this point in our lunch, about 90 minutes in, Durso checks her phone and sees that she’s gotten 54 emails since she sat down. Most of those would be related to the aforementioned t-shirt business. Well, call it a fashion line. It started during her last season with DCC. As a group leader, she came up with the phrase “Home is where the field is” and had it printed on shirts for the nine girls in her group before the season started. Pretty soon DCC alumni and cheerleaders from other teams around the league were asking for their own shirt. So last year Durso launched her line, Live Love Gameday.

“I don’t even know if the name makes sense,” she says. “But it works.”

She has one shirt that says, “I just want to hold hands & watch football with you.” “I like to mix sports with romance,” Durso says. “Nobody really watches football and holds hands. That would be really lame. But you put it on a shirt? Every girl, of course, wants to do that. So it just makes it so much cuter.”

As for the “wife ’em up” shirt? The Today show, Seventeen, the Huffington Post—they all hammered her for it last summer. She woke up one morning, and her phone had 200 notifications on it. “Every single tweet had the F-word in it, something profane,” she says.

People do seem to enjoy getting outraged. I’m not saying I’d buy the shirt or let my daughter wear it. But whatever. Right? It’s a shirt. At least it
promotes marriage.

sydney-dallas-cheerleader-pom-pomAnd one more thing. I talked to another former Dallas Cowboys Cheerleader who told me that some of the girls looked down on Durso for her decision to become a Mavericks Dancer. She did it for one season, after she’d finished working on the movie. Those DCC girls don’t know what it takes to be a Mavs Dancer. Not that I’m an expert. But just do the math yourself. With the Cowboys, you do 10 games, including preseason. You wear one outfit. With the Mavericks, you’ve got more than 40 games, with several outfit changes at each game. Plus, you have to audition for every game. That’s right. Twenty girls make the team, but only a dozen or so get to work the games. And the dancing style requires way more power and core strength. Just my opinion. Those snooty DCC girls need to chill.

The time finally comes for Durso and me to wrap up our lunch. I pay the check, and we stand to go our separate ways. I thank her for her time and offer my hand in parting. She responds by opening her arms wide for a hug.

When I return to the office, I can still smell her Euphoria on my clothes. The staff photographer for D Magazine, knowing where I’ve been, asks what I thought of my lunch companion, and I say that I really like her. She’s charming.

“Oh, God,” she says. “You’re such a guy. If she’d been a fat, ugly girl selling shirts like those, telling people she never swears, you’d hate her.”

“I don’t think so,” I tell her. “I hope that’s not the case.”

The following week, I get a text from the photographer. She is at Durso’s house, shooting her for this story. The text reads: “I lovvvvve her.”

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