Building the Cast
Waugh was determined to surround himself with a great crew and the best actors he could find. For the leading role of John Matthews, he set his sights on Dwayne Johnson. "He was a spectacular choice," says the director. "I've always wanted to work with him. When I signed on to SNITCH, he just made the most sense. We could give audiences the action component, but we could also present Dwayne in a performance-driven role that stretches his muscles and shows that he's a phenomenal actor."
Waugh's presence at the helm of this film made it easy to attract the top-flight cast, starting with
Johnson. "Ric is an enormously charismatic personality," says King. "He attracts people from the production side as well as actors who really want to work with him. He and Dwayne had been talking about doing something together and this felt right to them. It's very much about things Dwayne cares about. He loves his family and has a genuine empathy for the story, so you believe him as a dad who would sacrifice whatever he had to for his kid. You also believe the action stuff from him. It was a perfect fit."
Jackson says that Johnson was the natural choice to play John Matthews. "He's iconic, but he's also an
amazing actor. He brings that quality of accessibility to the screen."
Executive Producer Trujillo adds that Johnson was extremely dedicated to doing the project despite his hectic schedule. "He was committed to several other projects, but he was passionate about finding the time to shoot this. We worked long, mostly six-day weeks over a relatively short seven-week schedule. Everybody in the crew was invested--we all wanted to make this movie."
Even before he read the screenplay, Johnson knew that if it was coming from Waugh, he wanted to do it. "When Ric comes to me with a script, I know it will have an essential authenticity. There are a lot of elements to this story that I love. It's well written with great characters and a true story at its heart.
"I also love the fact that it deals with the idea of personal responsibility and the notion of a father's love
for his son and how far a man will go to protect his family. I believe that I would do the exact same thing for my family. When it comes to my kids, I will lie, I will cheat, I'll steal, I'll kill to protect them."
Johnson says he also has a deep respect for the work ethic Waugh brings to the set. "Ric comes from a long line of successful stunt men, ground breakers and pioneers," he says. "He made his bones in the stunt world and has been on movie sets all his life. We're always saying 'onward' to each other. He's the type of guy who is always moving forward. When you're on Ric's set, you can be sure he'll be cracking his whip."
This role comes at a critical juncture in Johnson's career, says Waugh. "He is by far the biggest action star
in the world right now, but in SNITCH, he's not playing an action hero. I wanted to take the most formidable guy in movies today and put him into a world where all the action is realistic. If you take a bullet, you die. If a crowbar hits you in the head, you're in a coma. He's an everyday human being who has to defy the odds to stay alive. It's real- world rules, so muscles and size don't matter. It's all about heart, conviction and how far will a parent go to get his son or daughter out of harm's way.
"It's really unusual for a professional athlete to truly cross over like he has," Waugh continues. "He's
become a superstar, because he's real. He's the most grounded, honest human being I know and that honesty informs his performances. That's why his core audience loves to watch him. He's the real guy with the heart of a lion who will fight for what he believes in. He's the genuine package, a true movie star and a true actor."
The role is the most emotionally demanding of Johnson's career, according to the actor. "There's definitely a more dramatic feel to this than any of my past work. Characters in the action genre are written in a certain way. The hero has to kick ass and get everybody else motivated. In a movie like this, there are no action heroes. John Matthews doesn't say or do all the right things. He is in way over his head and there's no clear sense that he's going to get through this."
"Dwayne is the emotional center of this movie," says King. "He is a very genuine person and I think that
comes through on screen. That's why people relate to him so well. But until now he hasn't had a chance to show this side of himself, the vulnerability and the acting chops."
On his way to becoming a major player in the movie industry, Johnson has also become one of the most
respected and well-liked people in the business. His colleagues in front of and behind the cameras attest to his commitment and generous spirit.
"He's one of the most attentive and gracious men I've ever met," says Waugh. "When you're in a conversation with him, he is present and that translates into everything he does. I trust that he's going to take my direction and keep it one hundred percent believable. I feel like we are brothers for life -- and I'm probably one of a hundred million brothers he has."
Waugh and the producers promised Johnson they would surround him with the finest actors available in
supporting roles. They scored a home run when they secured Academy Award winner Susan Sarandon to play the key role of U.S. Attorney Joanne Keeghan. "Susan Sarandon is one of the greats of American cinema," says King. "She was the first person we went after, even though that part was originally written for a man. When Ric and Matt and I started talking about who we wanted to see in the role, Susan Sarandon was the choice for all of us."
The character is a by-the-book prosecutor who believes in law and order. John Matthews approaches her to try and work out a deal for his son by offering to help the DEA arrest a real drug dealer. Given the government- mandated sentencing laws, Joanne Keeghan technically can't help John Matthews.
"She understands the facts and she believes in what she does," says King. "She also knows she has little room for discretion and she has mixed feelings about that. Even though her intentions are initially about her own success, I think she starts to feel for him and his family."
But Joanne is running for public office and trying to make a big bust in order to bolster her support,
explains Sarandon. "John gets the brilliant idea to go undercover himself, but every step of the way, she ups the stakes," says the actress. "He gets in deeper and deeper. She's not exactly playing fair, but because she's running for the Senate and wants her numbers to go up, she'll do anything."
Playing the antagonist for a change was a great deal of fun for Sarandon. "Joanne is not overly burdened by empathy," says Sarandon. "I gravitate towards parts that I've never done before. It is a very specific genre and not one I'm often asked to do. The thrill of acting for me is that you get to say and do things that you never do in
real life. To play a conservative Republican prosecutor in the South was just really fun."
Sarandon was bowled over by Waugh's passion and enthusiasm for the film. "I am an unlikely person to have in the midst of this, but I'll always take a chance on somebody who is passionate about what they're doing. That is Ric. He was excited to make a different kind of movie and help Dwayne go to a different place."
Sarandon was more than familiar with the issue of mandatory minimum sentences. Well known for her social activism, she had previously participated in a documentary that dealt with the laws and their consequences.
"As far as I can see, they just don't work," she says. "They tend to penalize the people at the bottom and fill up our jails with first-time offenders -- women, for instance, whose boyfriends had drugs delivered to their homes. You're not stopping the problem because the guys at the top aren't getting busted. It wastes an enormous amount of money and it doesn't stop the flow of drugs.
"I thought this was a good opportunity to educate people in a very entertaining way," Sarandon continues. "Movies ultimately must be entertaining, but at the same time I think films can help reframe issues. I hope people will stop and think: What if it was my kid? If you don't have Dwayne Johnson to help you, you could end up in trouble for a long time."
Playing opposite Sarandon, Johnson knew he had to bring his "A" game. "I've admired Susan for years," the actor says. "It was great to get in there with her. Our scenes are very combative. She's the state attorney and she stands by the law. Bottom line, Jason's going to jail for ten years. As a father, I'm saying, I know he did something wrong, but I'm asking for some leniency here. He's not a rapist. He didn't kill anyone. If he did, he might get a lighter sentence. So just talk to me like a human being. Those scenes honor both perspectives, which was great to work with."
Sarandon speaks equally highly of Johnson: "Dwayne has an amazing sense of humor. He's not only very
charismatic, he's beautiful. I asked his makeup person what they did to make him so glowy!"
Keeghan assigns veteran DEA agent Billy Cooper, played by Barry Pepper, to keep an eye on Matthews as he carries out his sting operation. "We all knew and loved Barry in a million movies from Saving Private Ryan to True Grit," says King. "He is a real actor's actor, a chameleon. Ric and Barry crafted an authentic character here, a law enforcement agent who understands the world he lives in and has managed to thrive."
"Barry embodies the role," says Jackson. "He understood that DEA undercover work is very specific work. Blurring the line between being in a gang or being in law enforcement is part of the role of an undercover operative."
The character was modeled on real DEA agents who have gone undercover with motorcycle gangs.
Cooper has lost himself in his undercover world, growing a scraggly Fu Manchu moustache and dressing in dirty jeans and battered motorcycle boots. "You'd expect that a DEA agent would be much more buttoned down and officious," says Pepper. "But Billy has full tattooed sleeves. He just shoots from the hip.
"It's a unique and refreshing look at that world," he adds. "That's really who these guys are. They become part of the world they are involved in, whether it was the Hell's Angels or the mob or whatever. Living undercover affects the DNA. These agents don't really ever return from it. It's almost like a soldier returning from war. They experience a form of post-traumatic stress disorder that forever changes them."
But as jaded as Cooper believes himself to be, he can't deny he is affected by John Matthews'
determination to save his son. "He's somewhat desensitized to the people around him because he has seen atremendous amount of violence in his career," Pepper says. "He tries to keep people at arm's length, but
something about this guy touches him. As a father, I certainly could identify with the storyline. It's heartbreaking to think about."
Waugh's background as stunt performer gave Pepper confidence that the action scenes would be impeccably handled. "What I didn't expect was that he would be so focused on the performances. He knew the individual nuances of each of these characters so precisely. He's such a well-rounded director."
The scenes Pepper shared with Sarandon were highlights of the experience for him. "She's effortless," Pepper says. "It just seems like she's writing her own lines as she goes, because they come out so naturally. That puts everyone in the scene at ease and heightens all the performances."
Sarandon says of her cast mate: "Barry Pepper is very, very good in this movie. His work ethic is very serious, which can make things very funny. At one point, he and Duane were in a scene screaming at each other, and I was trying to get them to be quiet. I got punched in the jaw, and I thought what am I doing in this movie with these chest-bumping, testosterone-loaded guys?"
With no experience with drug trafficking, John wades into murky moral territory trying to find a target. In order to gain entry into that world, he turns to one of his employees, an ex-con who is just starting to get his life back on track. Daniel James, played by Jon Bernthal, is a two-time loser who is trying to stay on the straight and narrow long enough to get his family out of a gang-infested neighborhood before his son is swallowed up by it.
"Daniel is an interesting character," says King. "Like John, he's a family man, but he's no choirboy. He
already has two strikes and if he gets in trouble again, he'll go back to prison for life."
Daniel initially refuses to help, but John offers him a life-changing amount of money without telling him the truth about what he is doing. "Heartbreakingly, he gets sucked back in," says King. "The money is irresistible to someone like him who is just trying to transcend his circumstances. But he knows how dangerous it is, just as John knows this could result in his death, with his kid being thrown away in prison and Daniel probably getting arrested
"The two families are on parallel tracks," says Jackson. "There are socioeconomic differences, but they both have their futures at stake. When John coerces him back into the drug world, he's knowingly putting Daniel in jeopardy, but Daniel takes the offer. It's up in the air whether one or both of these families is going to survive."
The character of Daniel has a certain moral ambiguity that was one of the main reasons Bernthal was
eager to play the role. "I was not really interested in playing a sympathetic, wonderful guy who's just doing it for his family," the actor says. "There's a reason why he's been locked up twice. Daniel is a guy who's screwed up a lot in his life He's the type of guy who looks at the risks, weighs them and makes a decision.
As Bernthal points out, there aren't a lot of opportunities available to someone with Daniel's history. "There are very few jobs that are actually open to an ex-con. He's really aware that this is his last chance. And then the very guy that's given him this opportunity comes to him with this offer. Daniel never in a million years would have seen it coming and he's caught off balance. He looks at this as something he has to do.
"He is pulled back into the life that he swore to his wife, to himself, and to his son that he would never go
back to," adds Bernthal." "It absolutely eats him up. A third strike will send him away forever, so what he goes through emotionally is really, really tough."
The actor has enormous admiration for Waugh, whom he refers to as "a soldier of authenticity." "He really tried to get to the core of these people. He always knew exactly what he wanted and he went after it fiercely. He's unbelievably meticulous in his preparation."
Daniel introduces John to Malik, a player in the local drug world. "Malik is a very powerful drug dealer," says King. "The character is played by Michael K. Williams who also played Omar on one of the greatest TV shows of all times, 'The Wire.' He is so extraordinary."
John plans to turn Malik over to the U.S. Attorney in order to get his son out of jail. To lure him into the trap, he offers to let the cartel use his company's trucks to move their merchandise. "Malik may be middle management in the hierarchy of the drug world, but he's plenty menacing," says Jackson. "He is also very ambitious. He wants to go to the next level and sees an opportunity to advance in the transportation end of things. John's a legitimate businessman who won't necessarily attract the attention of law enforcement. For Malik, having access to those trucks is just too attractive to say no to."
To Williams, Malik is just another businessman trying to make do with the hand he has been dealt. "He just wants to make his money doing the best he can," says the actor. "Malik starts to think this could be some real serious paper for him if he brings John to his boss. Unfortunately, he's the bait. At the end of the day, I'm not condoning what he does for a living but he's not out there starting beefs. He's pretty much a stand-up dude who lives by his code, and I identify with that."
He's also a man who lives by his wits, which comes in handy when facing off with Johnson. "The
techniques Malik uses to intimidate John are all mental," says Williams. "Look at him, then look at me -- they would have to be! Malik knows he can't go toe to toe physically with someone of that stature. But if he gets into John's head, he's won the fight before the first blow has been struck."
Williams was impressed by the amount of research that went into making the film. "I love the fact that
this is based on true stories," he says. "Knowing that people will tell you anything you want to hear to get their sentences reduced makes me wonder how many cases like that exist in real life."
Unfortunately for John, when Malik introduces him to his boss, the bigger fish becomes the ultimate target. "The big fish is Juan Carlos," says Jackson. "He is a Mexican oligarch, a lieutenant within a cartel organization. From the standpoint of Keeghan and Cooper, he's the prize. Malik is small potatoes next to him."
Juan Carlos "El Topo" Pintera is played by Benjamin Bratt with an air of polished mystery and quiet
menace. "He's a man who understands that real power doesn't come from thuggery," says Bratt. "He clearly has a military background. He knows how to handle firearms. Ric did a lot of research, talking to federal agencies and to people involved in the drug trade to make sure we wouldn't be presenting a cartoon version of a drug kingpin.
"When Juan Carlos exerts his power, it's not going to be in a physical way," the actor asserts. "But there's
a veiled threat underneath his calm politeness that's almost scarier, because you're dealing with someone who has no problem pulling the trigger."
Bratt's performance takes into consideration the many subtleties of today's drug trade, according to King. "His character is a very well-educated, sophisticated cartel member from Mexico City. He's taking care of business
on his iPad. He's got amazing designer glasses. He wears a sweater that's like something you'd wear in the military,only cashmere. But when a firefight erupts outside his luxury SUV, he puts down his iPad, and serenely pulls out a massive gun to take care of business."
Bratt credits Waugh with creating the intricate layers of Juan Carlos' personality. "Ric wrote that particular scene to show the kind of spine he has. He's a tenacious fighter, as well as a brilliant businessman and a man of the world."
Bratt has known Waugh since the late 1980s when the director was a stunt player on a television series
the actor starred in. "I knew he would have the action part of this movie down," he says. "But it's very impressive to see that he has evolved into a skilled filmmaker and quite a wonderful writer. I really appreciated that he wrote a script in which no one is black and white. Every character has at least a moment of humanity. When I heard that he had Susan Sarandon and Barry Pepper and Jon Bernthal and so many great people, I knew that with the power of this script, and the humanity he's instilled in it, it would be a movie I'd like to see."
John's family also figures prominently in the movie, especially his son Jason, played by Rafi Gavron. "I
think people will be able to relate to the family dynamics of our story," Gavron says. "The whole ride is exciting, but it's really about a family. I think the way it's portrayed will make it relatable to a lot of people."
The actor has some harrowingly emotional scenes with Johnson, including one in the prison visitors' room in which Jason confides in his father that he has been assaulted by his prison-mates. "Dwayne is possibly the nicest man I've ever met," says Gavron. "I don't think I've ever worked with such a giving, loving person. He made sure that I was always comfortable during the most difficult scenes we had to do. He was there for me."
"During the visitation scene in particular, we were both crying," Gavron goes on. "I really felt my
connection with Dwayne change. He went from an absentee father to a man who really came to love me as a son and it was really incredible."
That scene is in some ways the heart of the film, according to Johnson. "That broken relationship is trying
to heal, he says. "The father is doing everything he can to save his son's life and the son is accepting that love. It was so special. I still get emotional when I think about it, because the scene is so powerful. I know he's been assaulted in jail, and assaulted can mean many things, including rape. My mind is spinning. I'm trying to tell him to stay strong, and at the same time struggling to stay strong in front of him. Rafi did a great job."
Melina Kanakaderes, who plays Jason's mother and John's ex-wife, Sylvie, concurs wholeheartedly. "Rafi's delicious," she says. "The funny thing was that Dwayne and I looked at each other and we looked at Rafi and thought, he could really be our son. He's a terrific actor -- funny and smart. He's got a big future."
With two children of her own, she found the truth behind the story almost overwhelming. "It is beyond frightening," says Kanakaderes. "Can it really be possible that an 18-year-old, a straight-A student with no prior record, can be put away for ten years just for signing for a UPS package?"
The actress enjoyed watching Johnson in an uncharacteristic role and believes that audiences will as well. "Of course everybody salivates to see Dwayne in action," she says. "But he has also created a full, honest character. He will blow you away as a dad who's entirely out of his element. It's kind of interesting to see him as a man who doesn't really fit into that world, but who has the driving force of trying to save his son kick him right over the edge."
Sylvie is a strong-willed woman and a successful businesswoman who has raised her son basically by herself. "When it comes time to fight for his life, she can be proud that he's not willing to set someone else up like he's been set up," says Kanakaredes. "It is a fabulous quality. But it's also frustrating for her as a parent because she wants to just say, no, now's the time to compromise a bit."
She was grateful that she and Johnson had the luxury of some rehearsal time with Waugh. "He's both a
wonderful writer and a brilliant director. He has a great rapport with actors as well as a really fine cinematic sense. You can see immediately how much he loves the work."
According to Executive Producer Trujillo, having Waugh in the director's chair made casting the movie extremely easy. "Ric and his passion for the project were attracting a great cast. He is very much an actor's director. He knows what he wants them to do, but he also understands what they can do and how to motivate
them. I think everyone he met responded to that."
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