“Be about the work.”
Those are the words Taylor Kitsch left me with at the end of our interview about American Assassin, the new espionage thriller starring Dylan O’Brien (The Maze Runner) as Mitch Rapp, a revenge-driven agent of the American government, and Kitsch as Ghost, the revenge-driven enemy. In many respects they’re playing the same character with only one key difference: Ghost was betrayed by their mentor, Stan Hurley (Michael Keaton), and Mitch hasn’t… yet.
It’s an interesting role for Taylor Kitsch, one of the few truly “bad” guys on his resumé, even though it’s yet another opportunity for the Battleship and John Carter to stretch his action muscles. Still, Kitsch sees Michael Cuesta’s adaptation of the Vince Flynn novel as just another interesting character to play, in a career more full of intriguing acting choices, and with fewer blockbusters spectacles than most people realize.
I sat down with Taylor Kitsch to talk about his career, his craft, and one of the most violent scenes in American Assassin. (Minor Spoiler Alert.) We also spoke about some of his earlier acting choices, and what – in the end – he learned from the experience of playing Gambit in X-Men Origins: Wolverine, one of his biggest earlier roles, back when he was “crazy green”.
American Assassin is in theaters now.
Crave: So I was watching the film, and I was trying to figure out who the “American Assassin” is…
Taylor Kitsch: Nice, right?
It’s both of you, right?
Yeah. Me more than Dylan, obviously. No, I’m just kidding…
Well, it could be. You’re kind of playing the same character through different circumstances. When you were talking to Michael Cuesta about that, did you try to mirror Dylan’s look, his approach, or his performance in any particular way? Or did that all come out organically?
Organically. I don’t think you ever want to mirror someone else’s performance. But I think with Mike, we had this long Skype when I was doing Only the Brave, and we really planted the seeds in regards to where or how I was going to prep for Ghost. I don’t know, I think you kind of hit it on the head, in the sense of how this trauma… or how one circumstance can change a whole outlook, perception or motivation. That’s what I really latched onto, is the personal side of it.
It’s kind of a film about the dangers of taking anything personally.
I almost wonder if that’s useful for us in the audience, or if that’s only useful for people in this line of work.
That is a great point…
What does that mean to you, to be in a film that has a theme that’s so specific to a certain type of people?
I love the triangle of it. I love that it is against the grain, you know what I mean? That it isn’t just your stereotypical villain or bad guy, or that it is these circumstances come to haunt themselves. You know, a “be careful what you wish for” kind of thing. And that it’s just not paint-by-numbers, and that was a big reason why I came on board.
But you get to have the fun and games of it…
I mean, you get to jump onto a flagpole and ride the flag down to the ground. You really did that, I assume…
Yeah, twice. Yeah. Drunk!
You did get to torture someone.
What is that like as an actor, trying to access that? Because that’s like the most inhuman thing you can do…
It was… wow, I mean it was easy for me, actually…
What’s it like being able to say that?
I know, right? Well, that’s what kind of made me back up for a sec. Because I was like, once you ground yourself in his backstory, that is absolutely reasonable. So during that I was antsy to get into it, because I had gone through it so much to begin with, that we hadn’t even scratched the surface. You know what I mean? So with the electrocuting and the burning and stuff like that, that was… I mean, obviously I can’t really light the torch when Mike [Keaton] is there, but even the action of that is really, it’s intense.
You get to pull off a fingernail…
Was that a practical effect?
Yeah, it was. It was obviously a synthetic one that they put over, but even that action is plenty.
What sort of rapport do you develop with an actor when they’re chained up and you get to gleefully hurt them?
I know… a lot of trust goes there. I like that Mike is game for improv, and just literally going and switching the energy and throwing it on its head, and I think that’s why that scene worked as well as it did, in the sense that you don’t know where it’s going. And I love that. That’s the integral part of Ghost [that] comes out in that scene, his motivation, what actually happened, why I’m doing this.
So for me, it was a three day shoot for me, so it was a big three days in the sense of, this is who he is. You learn everything, literally everything about him. One, through they’re talking him up at the beginning of the film, but also when you get to see him, and you get to sit in with him now. That was everything to me.
I became a big fan of you through your one-two punch of hero roles: John Carter and Battleship. I really like both of those movies a lot.
Now you’re playing the bad guy and it looks like you’re having a lot of fun. Is it more fun to play the bad guy? I know it’s a stereotypical question, but…
I think so. I don’t know why…
Can you go back [to being hero] after this?
Oh, sure I can, if it’s the right thing. But I’m playing real-life heroes, like Mike Murphy in Lone Survivor and stuff like that, and Chris MacKenzie in the firefighting movie [Only the Brave].
So yeah, I don’t know, maybe it’s when you grow up your always more infatuated with these guys, and they’re just I think a bit more flashy or, whatever it is, more interesting because they’re a bit off their rocker. You know what I mean? They’re not doing the right thing, and that’s maybe a bit more infatuating, because… why not? I’ve been brought up and been told by teachers and everybody, counselors and your parents, to just do the right [thing]. It’s always like, well, what does that mean if go left here?
“Ha ha! Now I can torture Michael Keaton!”
Yeah, exactly! Yeah. [Laughs.]
And get paid very well for it. I was watching the film and there’s a still of you with your Navy uniform on. It was a younger you. A part of me was like… did they take that from Battleship? Is that a left over production still?
I’ll tell you what happened. You want to know the real story?
So I lost a bunch of weight to play Dave Koresh [in the TV movie Waco], and then we came back and did this photo. So he looks tiny. And then I shaved, and if I shave I still look pretty young. So that’s why he looks so young in that.
What is next for you? You’ve got what you might call a career trajectory…
Yes. How do you see it?
You did a couple of blockbusters and now you’re doing more character-centric mid-range dramas and genre films. Is this more satisfying? Is it an interesting phase right now?
The thing is, it’s like… if you really watch, you’ve got Bang Bang Club, and then you’ve got Tim Riggins [on Friday Night Lights]. We were told weren’t going to be [in it] after the first season, and he was like the tenth lead on that show. And then we did the two [big budget movies], then you go into Savages, you got Normal Heart. So we were always playing these character-driven [productions], and then you throw in those crazy big ones that, you’d be stupid to not do those with the opportunity at the time. With Pete Berg, and Andrew Stanton, who just came off of a few Oscars.
And you had Gambit in the middle there.
Gambit, yeah, right after Bang Bang Club. Yeah, so I’m very, very happy with where we’re at right now, and just the storytelling and being able to throw curveballs, and playing such different guys.
Look back at playing Gambit, again, you were really just starting out…
I know. Crazy green.
Look back at X-Men Origins: Wolverine. What do you remember about it now? What was important to you?
I remember the most I got from that was Hugh Jackman, in the sense of the work ethic, and how relentless he was, and what it took to be a lead, and what it took to really do it justice. And just the type of guy that he was at that level, and still is. How humble he was. How accommodating and ego-less he still is. So that was my biggest take from that.
Is that the secret? To be cool? To be someone who’s good to work with?
Be who you are?
Well, “be who you are,” but some people are jerks.
So you want to be someone who can work with people.
Yeah. I think the best, too, is when you want to work with someone again. You know? But yeah, I mean he’s very grounded and has a sense of self, so I would like to think I have the same thing. So it’s nice to just go and work hard and do your thing, and be about the work rather than what it’s going to mean, or what’s going to happen, or the ripple effect. You know, be about the work.
Top Photo: Christopher Polk/Getty Images
William Bibbiani (everyone calls him ‘Bibbs’) is Crave’s film content editor and critic. You can hear him every week on Canceled Too Soon and watch him on the weekly YouTube series What the Flick. Follow his rantings on Twitter at @WilliamBibbiani.