Interview The Cast and Crew Talk American Assassin (Exclusive)
Actress Sanaa Lathan stars in director Michael Cuesta and producers Lorenzo di Bonaventura and Nick Wechsler’s action thriller, ‘American Assassin.’
Photo Courtesy: CBS Films

Courageously subduing an intense and domineering need to seek revenge following a personal tragedy, and instead working with newfound allies to secure the greater good, can be a challenging process for many people. But in director Michael Cuesta‘s new action thriller, ‘American Assassin,’ the initially troubled title protagonist is compellingly becoming a clandestine warrior on the frontlines of the Age of Terror. As he’s finding contentment with his fate, he’s also learning how to turn his blistering rage into fuel for hunting those who are willing to destroy innocent people’s dreams.

Based on the 2010 novel of the same name by the late author, Vince Flynn, ‘American Assassin’ was produced in part by Lorenzo di Bonaventura and Nick Wechsler. The movie adaptation is set to be released in theaters on Friday by CBS Films.

‘American Assassin’ follows the rise of Mitch Rapp (Dylan O’Brien), a young new CIA black ops recruit who’s placed under the instruction of Cold War veteran, Stan Hurley (Michael Keaton). The pair is then enlisted by CIA Deputy Director Irene Kennedy (Sanaa Lathan) to investigate a wave of apparently random attacks on both military and civilian targets.

But as the trio begins to truly work together, they discover a pattern in the violence. That finding leads them to embark on a joint mission with a lethal Turkish agent, Annika (Shiva Negar). The new allies must stop a mysterious operative, who’s known by the nickname of Ghost (Taylor Kitsch), who’s intent on starting a World War in the Middle East.

Several of ‘American assassin’s key crew and cast members, including Cuesta, di Bonaventura and Wechsler, and Lathan, generously took the time recently to participate in exclusive phone interviews. Among other things, the director, producers and actress discussed how they’re fans of the book series, and how they appreciate having such extensive source material for the movie, which positively influenced their analysis of the characters. The filmmakers and performer also expressed their gratitude for the military consultants who were available to speak to them during the film’s production, and guide them in how to best create the character’s physicalities and emotional arcs.

Cuesta began his conversation by explaining why he was interested in directing ‘American Assassin,’ and how he became involved in working on the the crime film. “I was last, other than the actors,” to join the project, which was “in development for a few years before I even knew about it. I hadn’t read the book series” before he signed on to direct the movie, the helmer admitted. “So when they sent me the script, I obviously became familiar with Vince Flynn and ‘American Assassin.'”

There had been several scripts for the drama that had been developed before the final version was completed, Cuesta also disclosed. “But I didn’t connect with (the screenplay) until the studio and producers developed a draft that really got the audience on our main character’s shoulders. (The final shooting version of the script) began the film with his trauma, and the attack on the beach. So really understanding his story, and how he became who he is, was the thing that really brought me in,” the director explained. It was this idea of the personal reaction to, including losing someone during, a horrific terrorist event, and how people deal with it,” that initiated Cuesta’s interest in the drama.

“What also intrigued me, which I continued to develop in the script after I joined the film, was the shadow arm of the CIA. I wanted to understand what they’re about. We really dug into the psych profiling of it all…they profile trauma. So this idea of revenge and retribution, which is deeply personal to people, was something to start with,” the helmer revealed. “I found that to be really interesting, and we haven’t really seen that” in the action thriller genre.

Lathan also first delved into what interested her in becoming involved in the crime film, and why she was drawn to portray CIA Deputy Director Irene Kennedy. ‘American Assassin’ “came to me after I finished (the FOX ten-part television drama series,) ‘Shots Fired’ last year. I was in North Carolina, and I was exhausted. I didn’t have any intention of working” again so soon after production on the show wrapped, the Tony Award-nominated actress revealed.

After Lathan finished filming the television series, “I only had a few weeks before I had to fly to London to shoot the movie. I really didn’t want to work at first, but when I then read the script (for ‘American Assassin,’) I thought, there’s no way I can say no to this!” She also mentioned that she then found out that the film’s based on the novel, which is “this huge, international best-seller that’s beloved by so many people, and that intrigued me even more.”

The performer added that “I’m also interested in what goes on within a character, and what their history is. It was intriguing to imagine what it took for this woman to climb up through these ranks, and contend with all of the hardships she probably endured, with all of the inner strength she had to have to lead this top secret, black op groups. These groups are morally ambiguous, as they are assassins. But they kill in order to save lives, and I was attracted to all of that.”

Wechsler and di Bonaventura also initially discussed how they both became involved in making ‘American Assassin,’ and why they were inspired to serve as producers on the crime movie. Before the duo signed on to produce the film, “We were fans of the books, and were surprised at the time that they hadn’t already been optioned,” Wechsler admitted. “So we got in to the series as readers. We love the character of Mitch, and how he has an uncompromising sense of right and wrong, which is what you want in a hero.

“We’re also fans of the contemporary nature of the books. They really reflect on what’s going on right now. This book was actually set in Lebanon, but it’s the same situation that’s going on today in Syria,” the producer added.

“The ‘American Assassin’ novel was set in the late ’80s,” di Bonaventura explained. “But when we decided to pursue this book in the series, we decided to set it in a contemporary world. We thought it would be more enjoyable, entertaining and relevant to an audience that way.”

Further speaking of how the movie is based on Flynn’s novel of the same name, Wechsler pointed out that since they had read the book series, they “had a better understanding of the characters and their limitations. So we knew how we could try to fix the things that aren’t quite as deep as we wanted, as well as fully exploit the things that are clearly evident.” So having the book series as the source material for the movie “really affects your analysis of the characters…and what they’ve done, and what it is about them that we really relate to. So having the books helps you, because they really inform you. Having the series makes it more than a one-book experience.”

Before the duo decided to pursue ‘American Assassin,’ “we had read quite a few other books, in which Mitch was in his 40s, and already a fully-formed man,” di Bonaventura disclosed. “So when we then decided to switch to ‘American Assassin,’ and pursue that (story) as the first movie to make, it was a really interesting process. We could look at him as a young man, and know how he’s going to be, 20 years down the line. I’ve never been in that experience before, in that you know more about the character than the character in the film knows about himself,” the producer revealed.

“So we started making adjustments that helped build his character, because we knew where he was going to go. So that gave us a little bit more of an advantage than having a movie that’s based on a one-off novel…We were ahead of the audience, because we knew the character so well,” di Bonaventura also pointed out.

Lathan also further discussed her familiarity with the Mitch Rapp book series. “There are 16 books, but by no means did I read all of them,” the actress admitted with a laugh. “Our movie is based on the origin story, but it wasn’t the first book in the series. I did read that book, which we updated and modernized.” She added that “I’m happy to report that Vince Flynn’s wife is very happy with (the movie.) Unfortunately, he’s not here to see it, but we’re really proud of it.”

Cuesta also commented on how having the book series informed the way he approached telling Mitch’s story. The director mentioned how closely he wanted to stick to the book’s plot, while also making the film’s plot its own unique story. The movie is based on a story that can fit into Mitch’s world, but isn’t completely rooted in all of the details that are included in the ‘American Assassins’ novel. “The book takes place in an earlier time, and we’re more contemporary. So when the script came to me, it already had the story of this disgruntled old recruit, who’s played by Taylor Kitsch, who wants to get revenge on America,” the director shared.

What really connects the movie to the novel “is Mitch Rapp, who’s our main character. He breaks a lot of rules, and marches to the beat of his own drum,” Cuesta admitted with a laugh. “That’s at the core of what Vince Flynn created (for the Mitch character), as well as the Stan Hurley character, who’s played by Michael Keaton, and the CIA Director, Irene Kennedy, who’s played by Sanaa Lathan. They’re in the books.” Some of the actions the characters take in the film “are pulled from the book, but not a lot.”

Cuesta was further able to ‘American Assassins’ its own unprecedented story through the agreement he made “to get a pass on the script…I worked with Stephen Schiff, the last (screen)writer who worked on the project. We worked very closely together for about three months. We continued to work together, even during pre-production,” the helmer disclosed with a chuckle. “I got my consultants together, as I wanted to work on ideas.”

Lathan also chimed in on working with the advisors on the action thriller, and noted that “We had amazing ex-military and ex-CIA consultants, who really lived through what the characters were going through. So I was able to pick their brains about what (Irene) would go through, and what kind of person she would be to be in this job position.” The actress surmised that her character “has a doctorate, and is really intelligent. But there also has to be a toughness in her. I don’t know a lot of people who have that kind of toughness. It’s a very male-dominated world, so for her to rise up within that environment is fascinating.”

As Cuesta and his fellow filmmakers initially worked with their consultants on the concepts they wanted to include in the film, the director admitted that “we weren’t cast at all. During my first phone call with the producers, Lorenzo di Bonaventura and Nick Wechsler, there was a list” of actors who were being considered for the action thriller.

“But I didn’t have a set idea in my mind of who should play Mitch. But I knew that it couldn’t be someone who we’ve seen before. We needed to create a new millennial, (Jason) Bourne-type guy. It was important that we have someone who’s young” play the role of Mitch, Cuesta noted. He emphasized “that it was important that we get the sense that he is a boy…I think that Dylan fits in perfectly” into that category.

The director then admitted that during his first phone call with the movie’s producers, “I didn’t know who Dylan was. I had heard of his ‘Maze Runner’ series, but I’ve never seen it. The (producers) threw out some names, including Dylan’s, while I was on the phone with them, so I brought up a picture of him. As soon as I saw Dylan, I thought he was right” for the role of Mitch in ‘American Assassin.’

Cuesta laughed as he added that O’Brien “reminded me of my youngest son’s older friends. He’s the boy next door who has this innocence; he represents any young American guy. He’s also incredibly charming and likable.” The helmer let out another laugh as he added, “I knew he was right for the role just by looking at his pictures. But I then also watched some of his work, to make sure that he could say his lines!”

After he saw O’Brien’s work, Cuesta met with the actor. The filmmaker also divulged that “Dylan was really curious about what I wanted to do with the movie. Once I pitched him on how I saw the character, and how the script was going to go, he signed on.”

In addition to meeting with O’Brien, Cuesta also met with Keaton a few times. “There were a lot of people who we considered for the role of Stan, and Michael was on that list. But it as clear that he was perfect for the role,” the director shared.

“One thing that’s exciting about the movie is that the casting isn’t the typical casting in this genre,” Cuesta pointed out. “Keaton’s unpredictability makes him menacing, but he’s also incredibly watchable and likeable at the same time. So I met with Michael a few times, and we talked about the script.”

In terms of the rest of the crime thriller’s cast, the filmmaker disclosed that Kitsch “signed on later, while I was already in pre-production. I always saw his character as the good soldier and American, and Taylor fit that image well. His work on the second season of ‘True Detective’ was really interesting. He showed that he had a darkness and perplexity to him,” Cuesta noted.

di Bonaventura added that he and his producing partner “were completely involved in the casting decisions. We’re fans of all of the actors that we picked.” Not only are the producers fans of O’Brien’s work, they also praised Kitsch’s “sense of physicality. **SPOILER ALERT** We also liked the idea of having a guy who looks like an American hero be the central villain of the piece. So the idea of pitting an American hero against an American hero seemed like a cool idea.“**END SPOILER ALERT** Wechler also emphasized that “Keaton had never been in a movie like this before, so he immediately added a freshness to the genre.”

“Every movie needs a discovery,” Wechler then chimed in. “Lorenzo and I were conscious of how that element helps make a successful movie. Dylan, in a sense, is our discovery, because he’s now going to be perceived as being a man as he does more of these kinds of movies, as opposed to a being a boy.”

Lathan “had never done this kind of movie before, even though she had been cast in all kinds of things. (Irene) is a very important character in the book series, as she eventually becomes the head of the CIA, and that’s something that appealed to Sanaa,” di also Bonaventura also divulged.

With the action thriller following Mitch, Stan and their team fighting perceived threats in order to accomplish their mission, the helmer worked with the actors to create the action sequences as authentically as possible. “Dylan was in a delicate place, as he had an accident on the set (of ‘Maze Runner: The Death Cure’), just six months before we filmed (‘American Assassin’). So he was going through some therapy, and he had to heal first, since he was injured” Cuesta somberly revealed.

“So Dylan and I spoke about safety on our set, which was the number one priority for me, since he did a lot of his own stunts. But Dylan had a Zen trainer with him during the entire shoot, who got him ready, and helped him learn martial arts,” the filmmaker also disclosed. “That was important, because I didn’t want Dylan to bulk up-I just wanted him to be panther-like and feral.”

When it came time for Keaton to prepare for Stan’s physicality, Cuesta noted how the Oscar-nominated actor “is in good shape. It was also important that he had really good posture!,” the director shared with a laugh. “That was an important thing for him to have, so that he could stay strong.”

The producing duo also chimed in on the process of creating the action sequences for ‘American Assassin.’ “I think one of the hardest things about making action movies is (differentiating your film) from the ones that have already been made,” di Bonaventura pointed out. “There’s a question of, how do you top what people have already seen?

“We’re happy that people are mentioning the ‘Bourne’ series a lot to us, because they’re certainly amazing films. But one of our concerns was that the ‘Bourne’ movies had almost three times the budget that we did,” the producer also revealed.

“So how could we compete in this genre against those films? We did it by being as visceral and inventive as we could…So we brought in a guy who was really an American assassin,” di Bonaventura admitted. “He was a Navy SEAL and CIA operative. We also had a Martial Arts expert who taught Dylan how to fight. So a lot of the fights in the movie have the physicality that MMA has…That was really fun, because we were able to pit these two guys against each other, and see what they would do to each other.

“In terms of making the actors credible, we were lucky that Dylan jumped in with two feet. He spent a lot of time training. We had a full-time trainer for the fighting and physical regimen. So he had a lot of skill, intensity and physical strength” by the time the movie began shooting, the producer disclosed.

In addition to O’Brien, the other actors, including Keaton and Kitsch, “were into performing the action sequences,” Wechsler divulged. “They were really into it, and wanted it to feel real. They didn’t want people to say, ‘That’s the stunt double.’ We really wanted everyone to feel that these actors were really performing in all of these fights and action scenes.”

“Taylor had to train a ton to film his scenes, as he had long fights,” di Bonaventura quickly jumped in to point out. “You only get to do long fights by really training.”

“I love the fact that we did get to rehearse a little bit,” Lathan admitted when she began discussing what her experience of collaborating with her co-stars was like on the set. “It was always nice that we got to talk about the scenes together. I have always been a fan of Michael Keaton’s, and was excited to get to work with him. I think he brings such an intensity and depth to Stan Hurley.”

The actress also admitted that she wasn’t as aware of O’Brien’s work, “but my little sisters were! They went crazy when I told them that I was going to be working with Dylan O’Brien!” But once she started working her co-star on the set of ‘American Assassin,’ she also truly began to admire his work ethic. “It was really exciting to see how committed he was, and how he wouldn’t stop until he got things right. He really embodied this character. From the first day we started shooting, I knew they made the right choice” in casting the actor.

Wechler also mentioned what the producers’ collaboration with Cuesta was like on ‘American Assassin.’ “I had previously known Michael before we started making this film, because we had almost worked together on a couple of other projects. Lorenzo and I wanted to try and find a director who didn’t have a set, formulaic way of making action movies. So when the opportunity came up for Michael to be looked at for becoming the director of the movie, he had an indie drama background. The drama was a very important element to this movie,” Wechler explained.

The producer also pointed out that Cuesta had also produced and directed several episodes of ‘Homeland’ and ‘Dexter.’ “So we knew that he had the ability to make thrillers in the spy genre in an intimate, contained way. We was an outside of the box choice, but he also brought a fresh approach” to the directing aspect.

Lathan also praised Cuesta by sharing that he “really knows this genre, coming from ‘Homeland,’ which is one of my favorite shows. From what I understand, he really worked on the script (for ‘American Assassin’), as well as directed (the movie). He really took it to another level, in terms of character depth, including Irene’s arc.”

‘American Assassin’ “was a particularly tough acting exercise for me as an actress. A lot of what I had to be doing was in front of green screen. You see her looking at these big computer screens…which have a bird’s-eye view of all the action. But there was literally nothing there (on the screen), which was challenging,” the actress admitted. But because Michael “knows this world, and had previously worked on shows that are like this story, he had some great ways to help me get through that, and keep (Irene’s) story authentic.”

Cuesta then delved into how shooting his movies in the real locations where they’re set is an important aspect to him as a filmmaker. ‘American Assassin’ was shot in such locations as Rome and London, where several scenes are set. “Rome became an important storypoint, but it wasn’t originally a storypoint. Once we discovered that it made sense to shoot in Rome financially, and we decided that we wanted that part of the story to be Mediterranean-based, we decided to film there. We ended up shooting there for a month-and-a-half,” the helmer divulged.

“Setting these types of movies in these places is really important. You want to get that globe-trotting, Geopolitical tone right. My approach to making this film was to keep it grounded and gritty; it’s not an over-stylized spy movie,” Cuesta further explained.

The filmmaker added that “We also shot in London, where we filmed all of the interiors, and built sets,” in addition to shooting all of the exterior scenes in the English capital. “We couldn’t film in Istanbul, though. So we shot the scenes that are set there in the outskirts of London, and made it look like Istanbul,” Cuesta also shared. He also disclosed that the opening sequence of the action thriller was shot in Thailand, instead of Spain, where the scene takes place, due to the weather.

Lathan also spoke about the experience of shooting ‘American Assassin’ in real locations around the world. The actress, who shot several of her key scenes of the action thriller in the English capital, explained that she enjoyed the experience, as “London is so beautiful. I was there in early fall, and I loved it. It always adds another layer of authenticity when you’re in the real space, and not necessarily on a studio lot.”

Since there have been 15 novels in the Mitch Rapp book series, Cuesta expressed some interest in potentially continuing the movie series, and directing a follow-up film. But his willingness would largely depend on whether or not ‘American Assassins’ proves to be a success with audiences. “As a filmmaker, I’ve done a lot of projects in this genre already, so I’m a little burned out on it,” he admitted. In addition to fan reaction to this big screen adaptation, he also noted that his return to the franchise also hinges on the development of the screenplay for the sequel. “Once the script is greenlit, I’ll decide from there.”

Lathan also revealed that she has signed on to reprise her role of Irene in two more film adaptations of the Mitch Rapp book series, should a sequel be greenlit. “So if we do come back, I will be there!,” the actress enthusiastically shared.

Wechsler also expressed his interest in making a sequel, since Mitch “is a cool character, and does a lot of cool things in the books. But usually, if you start thinking about sequels too early, you get punished by the time you get there!,” the producer shared with a laugh. “We haven’t spent too much time talking about it, other than the book that comes right after this one, chronically, would be the most logical one to make. That’s about as much thinking as we’ve done.”

di Bonaventura also conveyed his desire to film a follow-up, but admitted that “It’s up to the audience. If the audience really responds to the movie, and it does well, then we’ll dive into it. We’d love to make another movie.”

Photo ofSanaa Lathan, Michael Cuesta, Lorenzo di Bonaventura and Nick Wechsler
Sanaa Lathan, Michael Cuesta, Lorenzo di Bonaventura and Nick Wechsler
Job Title
Actress, director and producers of the action thriller, American Assassin

By Karen Benardello

As a graduate of LIU Post with a B.F.A in Journalism, Print and Electronic, Karen Benardello serves as ShockYa's Senior Movies & Television Editor. Her duties include interviewing filmmakers and musicians, and scribing movie, television and music reviews and news articles. As a New York City-area based journalist, she's a member of the guilds, New York Film Critics Online and the Women Film Critics Circle.

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