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Theo Rossi: “Emily the Criminal would be the same story ten years ago”

Emily the Criminal star Theo Rossi tells The Digital Fix about working with Aubrey Plaza and Zack Snyder, and what attracts him to playing so many villains

In Emily the Criminal, what starts as a cut-and-dry thriller movie becomes something more intricate. Emily, played by Aubrey Plaza, starts taking oddjobs in credit card fraud to make ends meet, where she meets, and eventually falls for, ringleader Yousef, portrayed by Theo Rossi.

Mixing work and pleasure is rarely a good idea, and Emily and Yousef’s have conflicting ideas about where their life is going. Given this is all based in illicit activity, nothing goes particularly well. Written and directed by John Patton Ford, the drama movie is a quiet look at what drives people to crime, and how hard it can be to say enough’s enough when you’re on a winning streak.

In conjunction with the recent UK release of Emily the Criminal, Theo Rossi gave us some of his time to discuss making the dance work, what the film says about our current moment, and being involved in Zack Snyder’s Netflix movie Army of the Dead. He also tells about what a rarity it is to be involved in a production that made it all feel effortless.

TDF: Hi, how are you doing?

Theo Rossi: Doing well, how are you? What’s up?

I’m doing grand, thank you, I’m here to talk to you about a pretty cool movie!

It is a pretty cool movie. Yeah, we just got word that Aubrey got nominated for a Gotham award out here. Well, I’m not in New York, I’m in Austin. But yeah, we’re pretty happy that more people are starting to see the film, which is good. That’s what we want.

It’s an intriguing film, and your character is actually intriguing. You think that maybe he’s just a career criminal, but there’s a lot more depth to him. Can you tell me about making and keeping the character genuine?

You know, I was just saying the whole point of the business of film, making movies and making television, is bait and switch, right? You want people to believe one thing, and then you’re kind of trying to trick them, like a magician. So what I’ve always tried to do is where you’re gonna go in thinking someone’s one way and then be surprised when they’re another way, right?

What we don’t like is when we see something, and we go, ‘Oh, yeah, that’s exactly what I thought’, right? That person is the good guy, and that person’s the bad guy, and the bad guy’s unlikable, and the good guy’s likeable and OK, I’m bored already, right?

Theo Rossi in Emily the Criminal

I want to add humanity to the ones that you think might be bad. And the twist in this is you got Emily, who’s supposed to be this innocent outsider who’s having her problems, and well, maybe she’s the bad one, right? So it’s like this switch, this dance that we’re doing throughout, she starts here, and he starts here, and then it intersects, and then they go that way, right? And to me, that was the dance. We had a very short time to figure out this dance.

With Yousef, it’s like, OK, when you first get introduced to him as an audience member, even if you don’t know my work prior to it, you’re like, ‘he’s the bad guy’. She’s good, and he’s bad. OK, cool. I got it. And then all of a sudden, you watch it and go, ‘Oh, wait a second’. Oh, his mom. Oh, he wants to buy this place. Oh, he’s a nice guy. There’s the switch, right? So the only way you can pull that off is with the relationships between the two. So that was something Aubrey and I really, really worked on, and people seem to dig it.

It’s a very diggable movie! The first act sets it up as a heist or general crime movie, but then it becomes more romantic. Was that something you were surprised by when you got the script?

No, I think that it pushes towards that third-act narrative of needing to raise the stakes. So if you make them have feelings for each other, and there is now a relationship that’s built on more than just a crime business, where there might be actual caring in it, that’s going to raise the stakes. What you’re trying to do in a very short time, it’s only a 90-minute film, what you’re trying to do in a short time is you’re trying to raise the stakes, so you can get a payoff, where it does mean something when the confrontation comes with Khalil.

So to me, the relationship was needed because you needed to add more intertwining between them too because then you get things like that mom scene, you get the conflict with Khalil. That all comes from that relationship between Emily and Yousef, which, if you didn’t have it, they wouldn’t mean as much as she was in danger.

Some of the best scenes are just yourself and Aubrey talking. What was it like shooting those moments? It looks very minimal.

Yeah, it was super minimal, and the biggest thing we worked on was our relationship with each other. I just talked to her an hour ago, we filmed the movie over a year ago. Very rarely in this business, it really is a bit of a unicorn thing where you find people that just everything works, right, the dance works without much rehearsal. Sometimes the dance doesn’t work at all, everybody’s stepping on their feet, and it’s ugly, and the music’s bad, and it just doesn’t work. But sometimes the dance works.

Aubrey has something that very, very few people have: she has an incredible likability right away. She is relatable right away, like right away, as not just person to person but from the audience to person, right? When you see her, you go, ‘There’s something there that I want to watch’, and that’s a rarity. Most people blend in with the wallpaper, but for others there’s something that sticks out.

Aubrey Plaza and Theo Rossi in Emily the Criminal

So when you have those scenes of them just sitting and talking, when you have those scenes of them in the office, when you have those scenes of them in that new apartment, and we did even more that weren’t in there, those scenes that it’s just two people talking, that immediately is something that an audience member who’s been in any type of relationship could relate to. So it’s just two people talking, and for us, it was two people talking in character, and we’re just having a conversation.

You’ve enjoyed quite a bit of success of late. You were in one of my favourite movies of last year, Zack Snyder’s Army of the Dead. Unfortunately, your character meets quite a grim face, but I’m just wondering, what’s it like to be a zombie in a Zack Snyder movie?

A lot of makeup! [Laughter] Zack is probably one of my favourite people in this business. He has such enthusiasm and a love for what he does, and you’d be amazed at how rare that is. Most people in this business are trudging through it, you think, ‘We’re making films, how great is this’, and he has this zest for filmmaking that is so incredibly contagious.

When we were doing that film, it was such a large film and such a long shoot, and there’d be so much time in-between takes because there’s so many characters, his enthusiasm ran through, beginning to end, it never wavered. I think that it all starts at the top right. So he and I just had a blast.

We were just creating things on the fly: how do you make Burt Cummings worse than the zombies? How do you make him more despicable than zombies that are eating people? We can make him really horrible, and we did because he’s a horrible character. So when he does get caught, his demise is like, ‘Yeah, that’s what I wanted’. So we did that because we needed a bad guy in the zombie movie.

Theo Rossi in Army of the Dead

One of my favourite of his movies is Dawn of the Dead, so I was very excited for him to return to zombies.

Me too!

I’m excited to see that franchise blossom. Just looking further back in your career, I’m a fan of Sons of Anarchy too, and you were a big part of that show. It seems to be that you’re attracted to criminals, but ones that have a greyness to them. Is that something that you actively seek out, or is it something that’s more what you’re offered?

It’s a little bit of both, but you know, it’s starting to change. That’s definitely what I was being offered for a long time, and what I had to do in doing those characters was to bring humanity to them, to bring likeability to these criminals. In the case of Juice, Juice did bad things, but he really was a good person, who just was in a bad situation, and I tried to do that. Because you have to work with what you have, right?

It’s very hard to just play a straight-up despicable character. If you think of some of the ones on-screen, Hannibal Lecter, at face value, is one of the most despicable characters, but yet, when Anthony Hopkins plays him, you go, ‘I kind of like this guy. I could see why I would go to dinner with him’. That’s the trick that you’re pulling. That’s the game.

I couldn’t have asked for a better way in because, to me, villains are way more interesting than heroes because they’re bound by nothing. It’s why the Joker is so much better than Batman. I love Batman. But I like Batman when he’s bad when he does horrible things. I like Batman in Year One or the Dark Knight, you know when he goes rogue. But I love the Joker all the time because I don’t know what’s going to happen.

I get this ability where I go on things like the thing I’m doing now, Carry-On, I’m free, where nothing I can do is out of bounds. Whereas I have a film coming out with Sadie Sink, where I’m playing her dad, and you can’t go too far, because you’re someone’s dad. So you can’t just do these things that people would go, ‘Whoa, I didn’t see that coming’. It’s more structured. So while that’s fun, it’s really fun to play someone that nothing’s off limits, and I’ve enjoyed that, and I think it’s helped me for sure.

Emily the Criminal reflects some very relevant struggles at this point in time. What do you think it says about US and society at large?

Yeah, listen, I mean, capitalism is crazy, right? I mean, it’s ultimately set up for this. We’re living through this experiment of what’s going on here, right. At the end of the day, as things get more into the haves and have-nots, you start to see what people are capable of. I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again, no criminal ever wants to do crime; they just sometimes get pushed into it.

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No one wakes up and goes, ‘You know what I want to do? I want to put my life on the line, I want to go rob a bank and see what happens, and I might go to jail for the rest of my life’. If you would tell them you can get money another way, I’m pretty sure those people would take that every day of the week.

I think that to understand criminals, you have to have been in a position where your back’s been fully against the wall. The true mettle of a human being is when their back is against the wall. What what are they capable of? And I think what Emily begs the question of is, what is someone capable of when there are no other alternatives?

As someone who was strapped with student loans for a long time, I didn’t pay them off until Sons of Anarchy, so you’re talking ten years later, and the amount was four times the original by the time I got it, because of the interest in fees. That’s really difficult when you’re 18 to 24 or 25, right? That’s not a way you want to go out into the workplace. It’s something that needs to be figured out.

I’m not sure exactly how. I’m way too stupid to do that. I can barely act. So I look at it like, ‘We’ll see’. Everything’s an experiment at this point. I think we’re all just sitting back and watching it unfold. The artist’s job is to reflect the times. I think if Emily the Criminal came out ten years ago or came out ten years from now, it would still be the same story. It’s just the way it is.

Emily the Criminal is out now on VOD.