The Cast and Crew of ‘American Assassin’ Discuss Bringing Vince Flynn’s Story to the Screen

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Mitch Rapp is a character that has enticed fans of Vince Flynn’s novels for over a decade and now the character finally makes the leap to the big screen in American Assassin, the action film starring Michael Keaton and Dylan O’Brien and directed by Michael Cuesta. At a recent press conference in Los Angeles, Keaton, O’Brien, and Cuesta were joined on stage with producer Lorenzo di Bonaventura and Nick Wechsler and costars Sanaa Lathan, Shiva Negar, and Taylor Kitsch.

Sadly, before the film was in production, author Vince Flynn passed away following a battle with cancer. “Nick and I have worked on this, I think it was 11 years,” di Bonaventura said of the film’s lengthy development and making the film as an homage to Vince Flynn and his creation. “We were determined in part because we loved the material but also because we became very friendly with Vince, and Vince was a part of this process and we would run by almost all of our big decisions with Vince and make sure that if we were deviating from the book why were we deviating, etcetera. It was a great collaboration. To our disappointment, Vince passed before this movie got made and it made us all the more determined to do it.”

“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,” director Michael Cuesta said of what brought him onto American Assassin. “I think that opening sequence and see how this man’s world is flipped completely upside down. At that point, you could take me anywhere as a viewer.”

“The way I always thought about it was he’s obviously consumed by [revenge] immediately in the aftermath of what he goes through and his whole life getting turned upside down, as Michael said,” O’Brien said of playing the famed character of Mitch Rapp. “Part of the arc of this character that I always loved was that learning curve for him – he always thinks that the revenge factor, the vengeance will be the answer and that will ultimately be what heals him. I think a big thing for me over the course of the film with this arc of the character is that he has to at some point decide or learn about himself, too. 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.”

The political nature of the ongoing fight against terrorism did give Michael Keaton a bit of pause. “It was a concern, actually,” the longtime actor said. “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 think most people are one thing or another. In terms of the terrorism issue, I would call myself somewhat of a hard liner. So I was okay with what the goal was in the books and in the movie. That said, and I’ve said this a bunch, Dylan and I and probably other people sitting here, one of our main concerns when we first read the script and talking about making this movie was that it wasn’t simplistic, black and white.”

Sanaa Lathan is Irene Kennedy in American Assassin, and the character will be familiar to anyone who has picked up one of Flynn’s novels. “Irene is in all the books, all 16 books,” Lathan said. “She is major. One of the things I just want to bring light to is that she’s white in the books and I love the fact that they did non-traditional casting. Being a black actress in this business for 20 years it’s kind of a 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.”

“There’s a rollercoaster to her,” Shiva Negar said of her character Annika. “One thing I feel in love with Annika is that there’s a lot of layers to her. She goes on this crazy ride. I loved her strength. I love that she’s 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 roles as the men do.”

As the film’s mysterious villain, Taylor Kitsch is in the role of Ghost, a former associate of Michael Keaton’s Stan Hurley that has shunned the country he used to serve. “It’s a heightened reality, but for Ghost but it is a matter of fact, especially with everything he’s been through, that’s what separates him from where he was with the mentor, father figure of Hurley to where he is now,” Kitsch said of his villainous role. “That’s the scary part: that it was a matter of fact; that he does believe it so thoroughly that this was the only way to go. So I love that motivation and how personal it was.”

With 16 books and a potential franchise on the horizon, did Michael Keaton start to think of the endless possibilities that could arise from American Assassin? “Like in cartoons, did I get those dollar signs in my eyes?” Keaton asked rhetorically. He then pauses for a beat. “Kind of.”

Comparisons to Tom Clancy’s creation Jack Ryan aren’t exactly welcome for director Michael Cuesta. “I think he’s such a different character I never really thought about him replacing Jack Ryan, the director said. “What grabbed us was that he’s the first hero to be formed in the post-9/11 world, so it seemed a very contemporary character that was molded by very real world events, if you would, obviously in a fictional sense. That brought a different distinction to how he’s gonna operate, how he’s gonna see things, how absolutely he can look at things. Absolute in the sense that he’s seen a lot of tragedy, including happening to him. So when we talked about it. First of all, we never talked about sequels because that’s bad luck. You can’t also deny there’s a lot of books out there and he’s a great character and there’s a lot great things along the way we could explore if we got lucky enough.”

“Plus look how cute he is,” Keaton added about Dylan O’Brien. “My sisters heard these guys were in the movie and they said, ‘I’m goin’ to that movie.’”

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