American Assassin is the first film based on Vince Flynn’s hero Mitch Rapp. American Assassin was the origin story of Mitch Rapp, published in 2010 after 11 years of Rapp books. Dylan O’Brien plays Rapp in the film American Assassin. After his fiance is killed in a terrorist attack, Rapp devotes his life to fighting terrorists. He’s rogue at first but ultimately Irene Kennedy (Sanaa Lathan) introduces Rapp to Stan Hurley (Michael Keaton) for proper training.
Nerd Report was at the press conference for American Assassin with O’Brien, Keaton, Lathan, Shiva Negar, Taylor Kitsch, director Michael Cuesta and producers Lorenzo Di Bonaventura and Nick Wechsler. American Assassin is in theaters Friday.
Q: How is American Assassin the first Vince Flynn movie adaptation?
LD: Listen, Nick and I worked on this, I think it was 11 years. We were determined. In part, because we love the material but also because we became very friendly with Vince. Vince was very much a part of this process. We would run by almost all of our big decisions with Vince and make sure, if we were deviating from the book, why were we deviating, etc. So it was a great collaboration. To our disappointment, Vince passed before this movie got made and just made us all the more determined to do it.
Q: Michael Cuesta, what was it about American Assassin that made you come back to film from television?
MC: That opening sequence is how he became what he becomes. I love action movies but when you don’t care, you disengage despite the fact that there’s so much action. So I think that opening sequence and you could see how this man’s world is completely flipped upside down is the thing that grabbed me. At that point, you can take me anywhere as a viewer. I’ll do anything and trust almost anything he does, even if it may be sort of the wrong thing, you’re still with him. You empathize with him and Dylan just really captured that so, so well. So I would say it was really reading the first 10 pages of the script. These guys brought it to me much later in the process. They were involved with it for many years as he said. So I was the newbie that came in. I came onto that, to see how a movie deals with terrorism and deals with tragedy like that in a personal way was really the thing that grabbed me.
Q: How many days did you shoot the opening sequence and where was it in the American Assassin shooting schedule?
MC: Ironically, we shot it at the end so Dylan was able to cut his hair and eat pasta or whatever, gain some weight back. It was at the end of the schedule in Thailand, Phuket which was a fun way to end because we were in a beautiful place. It was about a week, a week and a half including prep but that sequence, the one take, the whole run from the bar to him reaching out to her took about two days.
DO: I’m a grown-up.
Q: What was it like for you to play a man so consumed by rage and revenge?
DO: The way I always thought about it was he’s obviously consumed by those kinds of things, immediately in the aftermath of what he goes through, his whole life getting flipped upside down like Michael said. Part of the arc of his character that I always loved was that kind of learning curve. He always thinks the revenge factor, the vengeance will be the answer and that’ll ultimately be what heals him. I think a big thing for me over the course of the film with his arc of the characters that he has to, at some point, decide or learn about himself that this thing he went through is never going to leave him. It’ll always be a part of him and nothing’s going to wipe it away. I think when he goes through that, he ends up seeing this other side of it where he can be an asset for his country and can kind of protect this from happening to other people. Ultimately, I think he realizes that he’ll have to learn how to cope with this, learn how to live with this thing the rest of his life, but serve and protect. That’s the right answer.
Q: Michael Keaton, you’re a very politically engaged guy. Did American Assassin speak to you on that level?
MK: It was a concern, actually. I think the result is good. I was a little nervous about how it leaned, frankly. I’m not one thing or another. I don’t really think most people are one thing or another. In terms of the terrorism issue, I would call myself a hardliner, to say the least, but maybe not so much in other areas. So I was okay with what the goal was in the books and in the movie. That said, I think I said this a bunch, Dylan and I and probably other people sitting here, one of our main concerns when we first read the script or were talking about making this movie, was that it wasn’t simplistic black and white. You didn’t go down the traditional, I would say stupid, path of these kind of people from this part of the world or these kind of people who are only these things and those things aren’t complicated. To Michael and Stephen [Schiff]’s credit, and whomever else was involved, they not only took our notes but I think Michael was a step ahead of us. What I thought he did, this always sounds superior when you say this, he created nuance. His idea just to create people, like the mercenary idea is just a great idea. People who don’t really have a philosophical or religious stake in things just makes it more interesting, for one thing. So I thought they really did a good job of making it a little more complicated, more interesting, not as cliched. It was more palatable to me once they accomplished that.
Q: What about the sequence where you torture the physicist in the trunk?
MK: Well, there’s that too. [Laughs] I love the way you ask me and go, “Yeah, right.” Yeah, there’s a scene where I torture a guy in the trunk of a car.
Q: Do things like the virtual reality training system seen in American Assassin exist in today’s world?
NW: Augmented virtual reality is used in training. I think we added the element of the electric shock and we added the element of using this as a way to f*** with his head and see what he’s made of and maybe trying to break him. That was just us putting our heads together and trying to do something cool. Training sequences have been seen in a lot of movies and we just tried to do a fresh approach to them so that they would not feel overly familiar.
SL: I wasn’t really concerned with that. I love the complexity of their relationship. This is the kind of thing that I know that the producers and Michael Cuesta brought to the script, that layering. I know from just hearsay that she was kind of two-dimensional in the first script. I knew there was a deepening of her arc. Irene is in all the books, all 16 books so she is major. One of the things that I want to bring light to is the fact that she’s white in the books. I love the fact that they did nontraditional casting. Being a black actress in this business for 20 years, it’s kind of crusade of mine to see film start to reflect the world that we live in. TV is getting there. Film has a long way to go so kudos to you guys for hiring me. I love her. I love Irene and I love their relationship. I love the fact that he knew her as a little girl and that here she is giving him orders. It’s complex. It’s a thing that you don’t see in this type of genre, in this type of movie and I think that’s what sets this apart. There’s a depth that not only was I on the roller coaster as an audience member. I literally got chills. I got tears in my eyes at points because it was just so right on in terms of what’s going on in our world today
Q: Shiva, what do you remember about shooting your emotional scenes with Dylan in American Assassin?
SN: There’s a roller coaster to her. One of the things I fell in love with Annika was that there are a lot of layers to her. She sort of goes on this crazy ride. I loved her strength and I love the fact that she is in a field where it’s mostly dominated by men, but she’s right there getting down and dirty with them and she gets to play the same role as the men do. But at the same time, everyone has secrets, but at the same time she has a mystery to her. You can see the compassion in her, especially with Mitch. It’s almost like she’s been there, she’s been doing this and they sort of have a similar past. She understands him so that when you see that side of her come up, where she’s trying to make him feel a little more comfortable because he’s so guarded. She tries to get through to him and you also see her feminine side when it’s needed. She’s smart and she just knows when to use what card to get her way. I just love that. There was something very empowering about that
TK: I think that was the first day of shooting too, for Ghost. You may as well just come in swinging, no pun intended.
Q: Did any scenes in American Assassin come too close for comfort?
TK: Never. No, I think it’s a heightened reality but to Ghost it is a matter of fact. Especially with everything that he’s been through, I think that’s what separates him from obviously where he was with the mentor father figure of Hurley to where he is now. That’s the scary part, that it was a matter of fact, that he does believe so thoroughly that this is the only way to go. So I love that motivation there and how personal it was.
Q: When you do physical scenes with a chord around someone’s neck or dealing with fingernails, do you laugh it off after cut or have to stay in that place?
MK: I went and had my nails done.
SN: I couldn’t snap out of it right away. They were like, “Cut. So, what’s going on?” [Panting]
SL: And I’m over there staring at a green screen. That was really tough. Actually, it really was tough. It was like such an acting exercise and thank you, Michael Cuesta, who had all these amazing tricks, I guess because you had done movies like this before, to get me through it and get me to those high stakes.
Nerd Report: Stan Hurley is one tough mother, almost like if Carter Hayes were a good guy, but unlike any character I’ve ever seen before. Was there a line you felt you couldn’t cross, even for an extreme character like Stan?
MK: There were a couple things. There may have been one moment where [I said] I can’t, no. There might’ve been something. Honestly, all kidding aside about the trunk scene, I’m not a believer in playing somebody who, for simplicity sake, if you’re playing “the bad guy,” like Ray Kroc. What Ray Kroc did at the end of The Founder, the agreement that John [Lee Hancock] and I made was, I said I’m interested in one thing, we don’t pull back. I’m not a believer in if you’re a certain kind of person, I’m not a fan of justifying that it’s actually kind of lovable. I think it’s not the most courageous thing as an actor. He is what he is but also work within the framework what’s this story? What’s the picture? What are you trying to accomplish? By the way, there’s a lot of Stan Hurley I like a lot and I probably agree with. So when you say the trunk scene for instance, right then and there, that’s what this person, it ain’t me, is doing. That’s what he’ll do so you commit totally to that. I just don’t believe in the other. So I would say we discussed that torture scene quite a bit and Michael worked on that over and over again because he didn’t want to come up with anything that we’d seen before. I thought in terms of that, I think mission accomplished.
MC: Also when you show Mitch the video. What he shows was, I think originally it was maybe some cell phone footage but we always left it a blue screen. We knew it was that event but honestly in post, we committed to the actual proposal which is cell phone footage from the beginning of the film. That, for me, seeing that’s so necessary but mean as hell.
MK: That’s actually harder to take than some physical action. That’s deep.
Q: Where did you start then with Stan Hurley, if you had hesitations about what American Assassin was going to be?
MK: Honestly, sometimes it’s not very complicated. To me, in this case it wasn’t really complicated. After talking to these guys down here at the end of the table and Michael, they were pretty clear on basically what kind of movie they wanted to make. So once you sign on to say I’m in that type of a movie, then you say okay, I’m all in. It’s foolish as an actor or anybody else in any department to say, “I’m going to make my own movie here.” You sign on for the movie, we’re all telling the same story. Right then and there, things get real simple for me. For instance, I did read the book. I didn’t think I was going to read the book because a lot of times I like to say I’m reading the text. The job’s here. This is the blueprint. It’s just the way I believe in working and also it’s just really practical. But, toward the end I said, “You know what, I’m just going to read this book because I want to get the essence of it.” It was actually quite helpful. So if you say, “How does this character function? What’s his function in the movie? What kind of movie are we making? Let’s be honest.” Then you do the basic work. Where does he come from? What’s his background? Really fundamental stuff honestly.
Q: Did you sign on to American Assassin with the idea of a franchise?
MK: You mean like in cartoons, did I get those dollar signs in my eyes? Kinda. [Laughs]
SL: Have you seen that face?
LD: I think what grabbed us was he is the first hero to be formed essentially in the post-9/11 world. So it seemed like a very contemporary character who’s molded by real world events if you would. Obviously in a fictional way, but that brought a different distinction I think to how he’s going to operate, how he’s going to see things and how absolutely he can look at things. Absolute in the sense of he’s seen a lot of tragedy, including happening to him. So I think we talked about, first of all, we try never to talk about sequels because it’s bad luck. But yeah, you can’t also deny there are a lot of books out there. He’s a great character and there’s a lot of great things along the way that you can explore if we got lucky enough to do that.
MK: Plus, look how cute he is.
DO: I’m a grown-up.
MK: My sisters heard these guys are in the movie, they went, “I’m going to that movie.”
SL: I didn’t know who he was and I told my little sisters and they died. I was like, “Well, damn.” They wanted to come to London. They were like, “Please, can we come.”
SN: I got death letters from fans. “Stay away from him.”
DO: Well, we’re in a scene together. It’s not going to happen.
Q: What did you learn from working from each other?
MK: You know, I don’t believe in you only learn from older people. If something’s got something good to say, I don’t care if they’re 10 years old. I just pay attention. There’s a lot to be learned from, I think, a lot of people who are 90 because they’ve been around. He has a really good work ethic. I was reminded that that’s what you should do. A lot of times you have to mature into that. All these guys, Taylor as well, they were all about work. Since he and I are in the most scenes together, I gotta say we laughed a lot. He’s a pretty fun dude. We had a lot of laughs.
DO: I think the biggest thing I can take away from working with Michael was working with someone who I’ve been watching as an iconic figure since I was a little kid, it’s even more so iconic when that’s how you were first introduced to somebody. They’re kind of always printed like that in your head in a way. Then working with a guy who’s been doing it for so long, and then when you meet him, he’s a cool, normal, smart guy who does the work and goes home. That’s ultimately the biggest thing I can take away from it really. I’m still young in this industry and I’m still working my way up, slowly but surely working with guys who’ve been doing it forever, since before I was born. To see that a guy who has had this long career and is still, I’m sure, the same cool guy that he always was…
MK: Cooler, actually.
DO: He’s just gotten even cooler. That’s what I took way.
Q: How long did it take to learn Arabic?
DO: Don’t be too amazed by it. It’s one of the most difficult things I’ve ever had to do for a movie. Going into it you always think too that you’ll be spending months on it. Whenever you see other people doing that kind of thing in a film, you’re like, “I gotta probably get started on that now.” I think we were in preproduction at one point and I was like, “When am I doing a dialect session?” So it was challenging to try to get down at the last minute. Even though obviously he’s not fluent in Arabic. The idea that we sculpted into the film is that we thought it’d be cool to add he taught this to himself as part of his mission in this past year and a half. I thought that was a cool thing, enough so to believably infiltrate these terrorist cells. I didn’t have to be perfect with it but I still wanted to be pretty damn good with it because it had to be viable that this guy was being trusted by these people. It was tough. I worked with several coaches. Whoever we could get to set on the days that I had to do it and always just tried to practice as hard as I could and had them record on my phone a little bit. I recorded them saying it so I could always have it in my ear, in my head and try to get a good ear from it. That’s about it.
Q: How long was production on American Assassin and did you film on location in Turkey, Rome and Libya?
NW: Not Libya. Malta, but all the London, Rome, Malta, Thailand. I think it was 60 days.
Q: Did you get a warm welcoming from those communities?
NW: Yeah. Everybody was very gracious. There was no spotlight on us. Well, there was spotlight in Rome because Dylan had too many fans that were waiting.
MC: Except the one mom that gave me the finger because I was the one that was keeping him from the crowd. So blame the director. Oh yeah, she saw me. It was just like daggers. I can’t blame ‘em.
SN: Well, that was something I always knew I wanted to do since I was a kid. I was always doing it on the side. I started with music. I was doing theater all through high school and I wanted to take fine arts in university. That wasn’t good enough, coming from a middle eastern family so my mom [said], “No fine arts, just go get a regular degree.” Then I was trying to find something that was interesting to me so I did psychology. I wasn’t planning on becoming on psychologist but it’s something that can apply to a lot of things. That wasn’t good enough also. I had to do a masters degree as well. There was one year of marketing and PR I did. It was kind of like being safe because I knew what I wanted to do and I was doing it on the side the entire time, but I wanted to have these. Once I got my degree, I’m like, “Here Mom, now just let me do my thing. I kept going until I was able to take away from those and pursue acting. That was always something I knew I wanted to do since I was really young. I just didn’t know how to go about it. No one in my family was in the business. None of my friends were in the business. Their goals and dreams were my nightmares. So it took a lot for me to be able to prove myself. Thank God now I think my mom is proud so that’s why the degree has to be a little different than the career.
Q: Michael, Do you have any advice for Ben Affleck about Batman?
MK: No, no, he knows what he’s doing.