Before he gave his best blue steel modeling for Abercrombie & Fitch, and before he rose to stardom as the brooding, hunky Tim Riggins on NBC’s Friday Night Lights, Taylor Kitsch took his fair share of hits.
He—along with his two older brothers—were raised by their mother in a trailer park in his native Canada after their father deserted the family when Kitsch was one, and a devastating knee injury during his teenage years dashed his dreams of hockey stardom. Years later, after the modeling gigs dried up in New York, he found himself homeless, spending his nights sleeping in subway cars and sneaking into gyms to shower; after moving to L.A. to try his hand personal training, he spent four months living out of a tiny hatchback, with one of its windows replaced by a clear plastic sheet covered in duct tape.
“Any time you can go through life and get hit or knocked down, it should help,” he says. “The journey of getting here was a pretty darn good test, and I’m still being tested each and every day.”
Kitsch’s latest test comes in American Assassin, with the 36-year-old actor playing his first onscreen villain. He is Ghost, a shadowy international terrorist attempting to get his hands on a nuclear weapon in order to exact revenge on the U.S. We later learn that he was a former black ops agent who was left for dead overseas by his boss Stan Hurley (Michael Keaton), an ex-Navy SEAL who specializes in asymmetric warfare.
Ghost serves as a foil to Mitch Rapp (Dylan O’Brien), a young man who, after losing his fiancée during a terrorist attack in Spain, attempts to single-handedly penetrate a terror cell and kill those responsible—only to then be recruited by the deputy director of the CIA (Sanaa Lathan) and trained by Hurley to kill for the red, white and blue.
“I loved it,” Kitsch says of breaking bad. “I hope to do it a lot more, to be honest with you. It’s nice to create this guy and have free rein to make him how you saw. It strays away from ‘cliché’ bad guys. He is an American, it’s an attack that’s beyond personal for him, and on a certain level you kind of understand him—which I loved.”
Assassin is gloriously over the top, and nobody seems to be having more fun than Kitsch and Keaton, who appear to be playing their own personal game of Who’s More Grizzled? In what is without question the film’s finest sequence, Kitsch removes his shirt to reveal the spoils of war before brutally torturing Keaton, yanking off his fingernails one at a time. “I got nine more! I like this!” Keaton barks back.
The cinematic implication of a scarred villain torturing the two-time Caped Crusader was not lost on Kitsch. “I definitely saw it,” he chuckles. “You know you’re in good hands going to bat with Keaton, and the work he’s been doing of late has been just terrific. It was a big part of me signing on, and driving a scene like that with him was a lot of fun.”
With a title like American Assassin and a truly bonkers normal-guy-hunts-terrorists premise, many feared that the film would succumb to crass jingoism at a time when a hawkish strongman with an itchy Twitter finger has the U.S. on the perpetual brink of global war. But Kitsch insists it’s “not just violence for the sake of violence” and far from fetishizes combat.
“We show you the worst, most unglorified part of being an assassin,” he says. “Obviously it’s fictional, but you see the trauma that Dylan O’Brien’s character goes through personally, and you see the trauma that being in war brings. We take you down the worst part of that. It’s not like Bond, where you’re going, I want to be Bond! Nobody’s going, I want to be Mitch Rapp—this tortured, psychologically scarred young man out for vengeance.”
With roles like Ghost, Bruce Niles in The Normal Heart, and the closeted Paul Woodrugh on True Detective, Kitsch has seemingly weathered the blockbuster storms of John Carter and Battleship and returned to his character actor roots. Just don’t expect to see him in a revival of Friday Night Lights.
“I think there are still rumblings about that,” he says, laughing. “Pete [Berg] knows the answer loud and clear. We’re having dinner tonight, and even at dinner, I think he would more or less joke about it than ever be like, ‘Hey, let’s go back ten years and relive this moment that ended perfectly.’ You know, there’s just no point.”
“Earlier on, even if you wanna start with Riggins, I was told, ‘He’s going to last just one season,’ and ‘you’re not a priority,’ so I’ve always been drawn to these character-driven guys,” he continues. “Bang Bang Club was an incredible story and still something that I’m very proud of. Then you take these big swings with winners like [Andrew] Stanton at Pixar and Pete [Berg] with Battleship, then you go into a Murphy [in Lone Survivor] that was a beautiful tribute to these guys. I feel incredibly happy with the work I’ve done—not just making the most of them, but staying scared and keeping myself off-kilter.”
In that vein, Kitsch will next embark on perhaps his most difficult role yet: portraying David Koresh in Waco, a miniseries about the Waco siege set to premiere on the Paramount Network early next year. The show’s all-star cast includes Michael Shannon, Melissa Benoist, Andrea Riseborough, John Leguizamo, and Rory Culkin, and will run over six one-hour episodes. But Kitsch will be front and center as the charismatic cult leader of the Branch Davidians.
And it sounds like he’s done his homework. “I met the nine guys that survived the last siege. After I read [survivor] David Thibodeau’s A Place Called Waco several times I got in touch with him and hung out with him a lot, and then spent a lot of time learning what Koresh believed in,” shares Kitsch. “Singing and learning guitar took up a lot of my time too, as did losing about twenty-five to thirty pounds to play him. I listened to hundreds of hours of Koresh phone conversations with the FBI, with the ATF, with child protective services, with his mom to watching sermons and videos of him growing up. It’s really the key to anybody—the past, and how he grew up.”
He adds, “I will say that it’s going to bleed a lot of truth into what actually happened. What the media gave people at the time was incredibly one-sided, and they wouldn’t let the Davidians talk to the press or release anything. They’ve still withheld a lot of these FBI tapes. We’re going to shed light on what actually happened.”