One of the most eagerly anticipated action thrillers of 2017 has to be the new flick American Assassin. Directed by Michael Cuesta (Kill The Messenger, Homeland) the movie tells the story of Mitch Rapp who becomes a counterterrorism agent after his girlfriend is killed in a terrorist attack.
One of the things that is making the film so eagerly anticipated is the pairing of its leading men. On one side, you have star-on-the-rise Dylan O’Brien, who has a made a name for himself in The Maze Runner franchise of films and the Teen Wolf television series. On the other side, you have the man who has seen one of the great career resurrections over the past few years, Michael Keaton. Since his Oscar nomination for Birdman, Keaton has just gone from strength-to-strength in powerful dramas like The Founder and Spotlight, and his recent performance as the evil Vulture in Spider-Man: Homecoming.
When talking about his character of Stan Hurley in American Assassin, Keaton admits that he is a character that is going to divide audiences. “His intentions are correct, but how he goes about them they are not correct or incorrect,” he explains. “They are what needs to be done. He’s not a bad guy, and he’s a good guy in the sense of what is the ultimate goal, with what they are trying to do here, so he is certainly a good guy in that regard – he is heroic, and he is beyond brave. He is rebellious in his way – he has his way of doing things. When he comes across Dylan’s character, that is not going to fly, as they say. You have to be able to say: ‘this is the plan, and we are sticking to the game plan’, and when this kid doesn’t stick to the game plan, you can imagine how that would drive him crazy. Well, you know, not only for the mission but for putting everybody’s lives at stake. It was also really interesting how Michael Cuesta amplified the whole ghost back story. You know that makes a big difference in this movie, a huge difference. It is kind of what makes it work in a lot of ways – my relationship with him and my history.”
So how does the relationship between Michael Keaton and Dylan O’Brien’s characters come about? “He is pitched to me,” he explains. “I am told that he is a weapon and that I want this guy. He has a cause, and he is going to be very hard to beat because he has a very clear cause – it is very hard to beat somebody like that. If their cause is stronger than yours, then they want it more than you – they are going to win. I think that he doesn’t even know that he sees something when he first meets him. There is a spark, just a little one. The first time he meets him, he goes, ‘I’ll have this kid out of here in twenty minutes, and then he’s like, eh, maybe tomorrow morning.’ Obviously, you have to have that scene to justify why he doesn’t just dump the kid and say I don’t have time for this.”
Keaton explains that it is here that Taylor Kitsch’s character of Ghost plays an important part. “Ghost sees himself as the prize student, which he may or may not be. Well, this character is truly capable of what the Ghost character was but I think there is also a father-like relationship there as well, there was a huge letdown there because he never lived up to what he could have been. So there is an enormous, beyond enormous grudge there.”
When it comes to his character of Mitch O’Brien, he says it is the back story to his character that makes it, so he isn’t just another Hollywood assassin. “Often, it’s a traumatic experience that has set them on this path, and that has driven them to this point,” he explains. “You know, that’s what is cool in this story in this first film is that we are used to seeing this kind of assassin character, these CIA spy characters before, but we never really see how they come to that. It’s cool to see a kid in his mid-twenties and be there with him as he experiences the tragedy and then goes forward with him on the path that he leads. It is interesting to be able to explore that human aspect of a tragedy and to see someone that is so personally affected by a moment in his life and that loss that he experiences. It completely changes him obviously – to see him go on this path, then isolates himself from the world, start training himself and teaching himself this language so he can try and infiltrate these terrorist cells. I think he is a cool character because he is this really smart kid who starts to train himself to be an assassin on his own and balance that with the kind of emotional trauma he is experiencing – it’s a really interesting journey.”
O’Brien says his characters’ relationship with Keaton’s character is a learning curve for both characters though. “I think both Mitch and Hurley teach each other something,” he says. “I think Mitch is this caged animal when we first meet him, and he realises through the training with Hurley that he has got to try and focus on ‘it’ is just that: he has to strip it of any emotion. Mitch tends to go off the grid and do his own thing and the think by the end he has shown Hurley that there is room for that as well. You can’t always be going by the book, and you can’t always be taking an order when you are given one. I think by the end he has shown Hurley that there is room for that.”
O’Brien says he certainly wasn’t over-awed getting to work with the great Michael Keaton. “I think when you are working with an actor like that it helps you get into a groove,” he explains. “It seems so seamless when you are in a scene with him. He is so far into the scene that you can’t help but be in the scene with him. I feel that there are a lot of similar ways that we like to go about our work as well which has been interesting to see. I just loved working with him.