American Assassin follows super-agent Mitch Rapp – and his trainer Stan Hurley – as he joins the most deeply concealed network within the CIA. Stars Michael Keaton and Dylan O’Brien talk to Georgia Humphreys
For a big Hollywood star Michael Keaton is surprisingly, well, un-Hollywood.
His film repertoire is impressive and of late he’s starred in two multiple Oscar nominated films - Birdman and Spotlight - so he would have every right to have airs and graces.
But ask him if audiences will like the latest character he’s morphed into on screen and Keaton doesn’t seem quite so convinced whether or not audiences will thaw or not.
“I don’t really believe in begging the audience to love me: I think that’s not the job,” he says matter-of-factly.
Both Keaton and his co-star, Dylan O’Brien, were aware there would be a certain responsibility when they signed up to spy thriller, American Assassin.
Based on the mega-bestselling book series by the late Vince Flynn, American Assassin follows CIA super-agent Mitch Rapp (O’Brien) who, after his promising future is torn apart by a shocking burst of violence, begins a career as a clandestine warrior on the frontlines of the Age of Terror.
Twenty-six year old O’Brien admits one of his first sentiments was about just how thematically on point the film, which points to the theme of terrorism, is right now.
“It was my first concern, it was the first thing I brought up to [director] Michael Cuesta when we met,” he says, adding: “And I was happy to find out too, that I think Keaton had a lot of the same concerns.
“It was more about making the most grounded and realistic portrayal of something that is, yes, unfortunately sort of, ubiquitous right now and is very real and very current.”
Keaton, now 66, plays legendary CIA trainer Stan Hurley preparing Rapp to join Orion, the most deeply concealed network within the CIA, while also teaching his protege that spy work can’t be personal. But the Batman star says this isn’t a “cliche” spy movie.
“Michael (director) is really intelligent and what I admired most is that he wanted to create a spy thriller that’s more nuanced and reflective of the world as we know it today,” reasons Keaton.
“I didn’t want to do something that would be another cliche spy movie with the usual kinds of bad guys and Michael did some smart things to avoid stereotypes and not over-simplify really complicated things. The film reflects just how complicated the world is right now.”
“I was really taken with the arc, I was really taken with the potential of this to be something,” O’Brien says when asked about the lure of playing Rapp.
“If you see a character like this, the assassin or operative characters we’re used to seeing, you don’t usually see how they got there, that’s something interesting to see, how this guy kinda goes down that path is really compelling and realistic and emotional.”
The film has some harrowing scenes, including one in which Hurley is seen being barbarically tortured by his ex-student.
So just how tough is Keaton’s character - are we talking more so than, say, Liam Neeson’s portrayal of a retired CIA agent in thriller Taken?
“I don’t know, that character’s pretty tough,” laughs the Pennsylvania-born actor. “If you asked me who’d win in a fight, I don’t think I could say who. I think Stan would outsmart him though. Stan’s very smart.”
Throughout the film, as Rapp makes personal connections that help him penetrate a web of mercenaries, arms dealers, extremists and an angry ex-agent, all colluding to spark a new World War, viewers witness one white-knuckle action sequence after another.
But the physically demanding stunts and training behind the scenes is something that both actors embraced - particularly O’Brien, who found the role “hugely helpful” in his recovery from an accident on the set of The Maze Runner: The Death Cure.
“I’d never taken part in fight choreography and training with a martial artist and learning that stuff, it’s really intense, it’s really good for your mind. I really enjoyed that stuff, even the days where I was waking up not able to move.”
He continues: “It (the role) ended up being a really big thing in recovery for me, it was really scary and good all in the same boat.”
American Assassin opens in cinemas this week.