Sanaa Lathan Takes Us Inside Her Role as a ‘Total Badass’ in ‘American Assassin’

What Tom Clancy was to the 1980s espionage thriller – plying the raw material of the Cold War and the darkest recesses of American spy operations to craft fiercely entertaining stories – Vince Flynn became to a new millennium. As the world shifted into a dizzying, post-9/11 maze of menaces that were nearly impossible to see coming, Flynn shifted the spy novel with it. He steered away from an era of cool, East-West-divide techno-thrillers and into a brave new world of spontaneous, red hot threats that can come from anywhere. He saw early on that the global rise of terrorism against civilians meant the CIA would need a fresh kind of recruit. With terrorists emerging from diverse backgrounds and regions, intelligence agencies would put a new premium on spies capable of climbing inside the pitch-black minds of those motivated not so much by political aims, than by a desire to light up the world with their fury.

That’s why he created the addictive Mitch Rapp series, focused on the unrelenting skills of one man – a man who uses his anger, idealism, pride and deeply personal venom to respond in kind to the vengeful, morally rootless threats that increasingly define these times.

In 1999, Flynn first introduced Rapp. He was already a veteran CIA asset reserved for the most precarious missions in “Transfer of Power,” in which a terrorist attack turns the entire White House into a hostage situation, with Rapp sent in as the last-ditch commando to save the very same U.S. government that rankles him. It was an instant hit, praised by Publisher’s Weekly as offering “endless intrigue.” The book then set off a rapid-fire series encompassing 13 Mitch Rapp novels written by Flynn – as well as more subsequently written by Kyle Mills, chosen to keep the series going after Flynn’s untimely death.

American Assassin” introduces film audiences to one of contemporary fiction’s most popular heroes working in the shadows: CIA super-agent Mitch Rapp. When Rapp’s promising future is torn apart by a shocking burst of violence, it ignites his career as a clandestine warrior on the frontlines of the Age of Terror. Now he must discover how to turn his blistering rage into fuel for hunting those who would destroy others’ dreams – in a world where clarity isn’t easy to come by.

“American Assassin” traces Rapp’s origins from heartbroken fiancé to cunning renegade to off-the charts CIA trainee to his first must-not-fail mission on the trail of 15 kilos of stolen plutonium. The film brings Dylan O’Brien (“The Maze Runner”) together with Michael Keaton as legendary CIA trainer Stan Hurley. Seeking to right his own devastating mistakes, Hurley prepares Rapp to join Orion, the most deeply concealed network within the CIA. But even as Hurley teaches Rapp that spy work can’t be personal, Rapp makes personal connections that help him penetrate a web of mercenaries, arms dealers, extremists and an angry ex-agent not unlike himself, all colluding to spark a new World War.

Vince Flynn populated the Mitch Rapp books with a running cast of palpably real characters from throughout the CIA and U.S. government circles, several of whom come to life in “American Assassin.” Key among them is Irene Kennedy, the Deputy Director of the CIA who decides to take a huge risk by recruiting Rapp, hoping to create an unassuming-looking agent with killer instincts.

Bringing a new vision of the character who grows throughout the series to become head of the CIA is Sanaa Lathan (“Love & Basketball,” “Nip/Tuck”). Lathan was instantly drawn to Kennedy as an unusually commanding female character – one who has to juggle the gung-ho nature of her agents with the cautious political machinations of Washington D.C., as she responds to both in her own uncompromising way.

“I think Irene is a total badass. She’s a patriot who understands all the immense subtleties and the importance of her job, and yet she will stop at nothing to get justice. I know that the producers and Michael brought a layering to the script. I heard that in the first script, she was kind of two-dimensional. I know there was a deepening of her arc. She’s in all 15 books so she’s a major character. Something I wanted to shine a light on is that she’s 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 for film to actually reflect the world – and it’s getting there. Kudos to them for hiring me! I love Irene and I love her relationship with Hurley (Keaton). I love that he knew her as a little girl. Now here she is giving him orders. It’s complex. There’s a depth that you don’t always see in this genre. Not only was I on the roller coaster as an audience member, I literally got chills and tears in my eyes at one point because it was really spot on in what’s going on in the world today.”

While Irene is white in the books, the producers just wanted to find the right actress, regardless of color.

“From what I understand, I think they were just open. I don’t think they were necessarily looking for a person of color. There were actually offers made before me to white actresses. I guess the part was just mine. You can’t lose something that’s not yours. You can’t get something that’s not yours. I’ve had a lot of theater roles in classic plays that weren’t written for a woman of color so this was nothing new necessarily.”

As proven with roles in “Blade” and “Alien vs. Predator,” Lathan loves to be a part of the action. And with the success of a certain female superhero this summer, she hopes that more women can be a part of the action.

“This film is such a testosterone – such a guy world. Even the books are all testosterone. I was listening to the audio book and it sounds like this [uses a stereotypical tough guy voice], “Mitch Rapp went around the corner.” Look at “Wonder Woman.” “Wonder Woman” is a game changer. That was one of my favorite movies of the year so far. One of the things that was exciting about that, and also kind of surprising, was that you hadn’t seen that yet.

There have been so many superhero movies but I hadn’t felt those emotions about a female superhero before. The fact that little kids are going to be able to watch that and grow up with that, I think it’s going to create a whole new paradigm in their brains. Hollywood is all about making money so if it makes money, they’re going to make more. I think it’s a great time for women. A lot of female filmmakers are having success. I just want more of it so it’s equal.”

While the Tony-nominated actress has played her share of serious roles, when asked, she admits she’d be more than willing to don a cape and spandex to fight the forces of evil.

“Absolutely. I always joke that there’s so many superheroes now, I don’t want to be on set for six months and show up for one scene. I want a character arc. I don’t want to be a superhero for superheroes’ sake.”

Though portraying a superhero is a job Lathan would relish, a job with the CIA isn’t appealing to the actress at all.

“I wouldn’t want to do that job. I don’t know anybody who would. How did she come up through the ranks to do this job? Obviously she had a great heart because she’s compassionate. Anybody in those CIA or FBI kind of jobs, you have to think they start with a love for humanity. This film is kind of a homage to those people who don’t get recognized. They’re out there and they’re fighting for our safety and they don’t get recognized. That interested me in that who is this woman in this world and what did she have to go through to get there? I’m a flower child. I couldn’t kill people. It’s so morally ambiguous. They’re assassins and they have to kill people. The goal is to keep people safe, but to have to think about that every night…”

The film also proved to be a crash course for Lathan in government intelligence.

“They had a guy on set who was ex-CIA. I was like, “this doesn’t happen” and he was like “yes.” Then I would say, “that couldn’t happen” and he’d say yes. It was really great to pick his brain about what that world is like. Maybe I don’t watch enough movies, but I wasn’t even aware that they have these private organizations that even the CIA doesn’t know about. That really blew my mind that that’s happening right now. They have to stay secret for their safety. I also asked him if it was plausible for a black woman to be in this position. He said, “actually, the CIA is one of the agencies that’s really open to a lot of different ethnicities and women. You just have to have a specialty in something. It’s not a bunch of old white men like our government.”

American Assassin” opens in theaters Sept. 15.