Dylan O’Brien sheds his teen heartthrob status to take on a more adult role in American Assassin, playing a man, driven by revenge to kill terrorists, who is recruited by CIA to join a special black ops unit.

Based on the series of novels by Vince Flynn, O’Brien portrays Mitch Rapp, who witnesses his fiance being shot down by terrorists while they are on vacation at a beach resort. He then becomes a self-trained killing machine, infiltrating the terrorist cell group in order to annihilate them. Rapp is immediately tagged by the CIA, and director Irene Kennedy (Sanaa Lathan) sees potential in giving him real training to join a special black ops unit, run by veteran Stan Hurley (Michael Keaton). Rapp accepts and soon is immersed in a new world of trained assassins, as he and Hurley end up trying to take down a former member of the team, now rogue agent (Taylor Kitsch), who has a lot of resentment against Hurley (and some serious baggage).

At the recent press day in Los Angeles, we got to sit in on a discussion about the film. Here are eight things we learned.

On getting into the mindset of revenge and anger:

Dylan O’Brien: The way I always thought about it was he’s obviously consumed by those kinds of things, immediately in the aftermath of what he goes through, his whole life getting flipped upside down. Part of the arc of his character that I always loved was that kind of learning curve. He always thinks the revenge factor, the vengeance will be the answer and that’ll ultimately be what heals him. I think a big thing for me with his arc is that he has to learn about himself that 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. I think when he goes through that, he ends up seeing this other side of it where he can be an asset for his country and can kind of protect this from happening to other people. Ultimately, I think he realizes that he’ll have to learn how to cope with this, learn how to live with this thing the rest of his life, but serve and protect. That’s the right answer.

On the politics of combating terrorism:

Michael Keaton: It was a concern, actually. I was a little nervous about how it leaned, frankly. I’m not one thing or another. I don’t really think most people are one thing or another. In terms of the terrorism issue, I would call myself a hardliner, to say the least, but maybe not so much in other areas. So I was okay with what the goal was in the books and in the movie. That said, Dylan and I, one of our main concerns when we first read the script or were talking about making this movie, was that it wasn’t [a] simplistic black and white… To Michael [Cuesta, director] and Stephen’s [Schiff, screenwriter] credit, and whoever else was involved, they not only took our notes but I think Michael was a step ahead of us. What I thought he did, he created nuance. The mercenary idea is just a great idea. People who don’t really have a philosophical or religious stake in things makes it more interesting. They really did a good job of making it a little more complicated, more interesting, not as clichéd. It was more palatable to me once they accomplished that.

On learning Arabic for the role:

O’Brien: Don’t be too amazed by it. It’s one of the most difficult things I’ve ever had to do for a movie. Going into it you always think too that you’ll be spending months on it. Whenever you see other people doing that kind of thing in a film, you’re like, “I gotta probably get started on that now.” I think we were in preproduction at one point and I was like, “When am I doing a dialect session?” So it was challenging to try to get down at the last minute — even though obviously he’s not fluent in Arabic. The idea that we sculpted into the film is that we thought it’d be cool to add he taught this to himself as part of his mission in this past year and a half. I thought that was a cool thing, enough so to believably infiltrate these terrorist cells. I didn’t have to be perfect with it but I still wanted to be pretty damn good with it because it had to be viable that this guy was being trusted by these people. It was tough. I worked with several coaches. Whoever we could get to set on the days that I had to do it and always just tried to practice as hard as I could and had them record on my phone a little bit. I recorded them saying it so I could always have it in my ear, in my head and try to get a good ear from it. That’s about it.

On bringing diversity to the table:

Sanaa Lathan: I loved the complexity of their relationship. This is the kind of think the producers and Michael Cuesta brought to the script, that layering. She was two-dimensional in the first script and there was a deepening of her arc. Irene is in all 16 books. She is major. And one of the things I want to bring light to, is that she is white in the books. 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, so kudos to you guys for hiring me.

On that torture scene (between Ghost and Stan Hurley):

Taylor Kitsch: That was the first day of shooting for Ghost [his character]. So you might as come in swinging. [As for the stunts], it’s a heightened reality, but it’s matter of fact, especially from everything [Ghost] has gone through. I think that’s what separates him from where he was with the father/mentor figure of Hurley to where he is now. That’s the scary part because it is so matter of fact and he believes in it so thoroughly that this is the only way to go. I loved that motivation and how personal it was.

Keaton: We discussed that torture scene quite a bit. Michael worked on that because he didn’t want to come up with anything we’ve seen before. And in terms of that, I think mission accomplished.

On learning a thing or two from Keaton:

O’Brien: I think the biggest thing I can take away from working with Michael was working with someone who I’ve been watching as an iconic figure since I was a little kid. It’s even more so iconic when that’s how you were first introduced to somebody. They’re kind of always printed like that in your head in a way. Then working with a guy who’s been doing it for so long, and then when you meet him, he’s a cool, normal, smart guy who does the work and goes home. That’s ultimately the biggest thing I can take away from it. I’m still young in this industry and I’m still working my way up, working with guys who’ve been doing it forever, since before I was born. To see that a guy who has had this long career and is still, I’m sure, the same cool guy that he always was…

Keaton: Cooler, actually.

O’Brien: He’s just gotten even cooler. That’s what I took way.

On Mitch Rapp being the new Jack Ryan:

Producer Lorenzo di Bonaventura: I think he’s such a different character, I didn’t think of him replacing Jack Ryan. Rapp essentially is the first hero to be formed in the post 9/11 world, so it seemed like a very contemporary character. He is molded by real world events, obviously in a fictional way. That brought a different distinction on how he was going to operate, how he’s going to see things. He’s seen a lot of tragedy, including what happened to him. We try never to talk about sequels because it’s bad luck, but you can’t deny there’s a lot of books out there. There’s a lot of things we can explore if we get lucky enough for a sequel.

On signing up on the potential of a franchise:

Keaton: Do you mean, like in cartoons, did I get those dollar signs in my eyes? [pause] Kinda.

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