VANITY FAIR – The director and Glen Powell team up for this noir action-comedy based on a true story about a man with many personas.
Texas Monthly’s October 2001 piece “Hit Man” found an immediate fan in writer-director Richard Linklater, captivated by the story of Gary Johnson, a supposed contract killer in Houston who was actually working with law enforcement. The colorful piece by Skip Hollandsworth portrays a man who was a master of disguises and creating characters in order to convince his clients that he was a cold-blooded killer for hire. “I love this character, but I wasn’t sure of the movie,” Linklater, a Texas native, tells Vanity Fair. “We’ve got a great character, great incidents, great moments, all these great characters, but I didn’t know if it really went anywhere.”
Linklater, who previously adapted another Hollandsworth article into his 2011 black comedy, Bernie, starring Jack Black, loved the strange, funny situations Johnson would find himself in, but he wasn’t ever able to figure out a third act for the story. “I’d had meetings on it over the years and stuff, but it just never really went anywhere,” he says. “It just didn’t cohere as a story.”
Then, during the beginning of the pandemic, his friend and Everybody Wants Some!! star Glen Powell asked him if he’d ever heard of the “Hit Man” story in Texas Monthly. They started spitballing ideas and had their epiphany: The story could go a new, fictional direction based on a small moment toward the end of the article. Finally, they had their third act, and built a genre-bending film that is at times noir, comedy, romance, and thriller. And with a complicated character at the center of it for Powell to dig his teeth into as a leading man, Hit Man also explores deeper themes. “It seemed to be all about identity,” says Linklater of Hit Man, which will debut at the Venice International Film Festival on September 4. “He’s playing these characters, he’s undercover. Who is he?”
“In law enforcement circles, he is considered to be one of the greatest actors of his generation, so talented that he can perform on any stage and with any kind of script,” Hollandsworth writes in his article. He describes Johnson as a chameleon who is able to shift his characters based on the type of client he’s meeting. The sting was simple: Johnson would meet with a potential client and get the client to verbally confirm they were hiring Johnson to murder someone. Their entire conversation would be recorded, and used as evidence. After Johnson left the meeting, the client would be arrested.
For Powell, who cowrote the script with Linklater, the dark comedy, which is set in New Orleans, was an opportunity to play a character who was often playing a character. Sometimes “there was just a whole blurry line between Gary and Ron, which increased over time,” says Linklater.
In the film, “Ron” is one of Johnson’s personas that he uses when meeting a potential client. He’s Ron when he meets a beautiful woman (Adria Arjona) who wants her controlling husband killed. But Gary feels sympathetic toward her, and advises her to leave him rather than have him killed. From there, Gary—still pretending he’s Ron—is pulled into a complicated ruse when he continues to interact with the woman and their lives get more and more entangled.
Ron, a charismatic, confident man with a dark side, couldn’t be more different than Gary, a mild-mannered teacher in his real life, when he’s not moonlighting as a cold-blooded killer. “Glen, the thorough professional he is, was reading books on body language and he thought Ron would walk a little different than Gary, and he also had a lot of fun with the accents,” says Linklater. “Every movie needs something that’s kind of difficult to pull off or something that seems especially challenging.”
As research, Linklater and Powell listened to the recordings of Johnson’s sting operations, meeting a cast of unbelievable characters who felt almost too strange to be real—and perfect for film. “We could have done a lot more of those,” says Linklater of capturing the wide range of clients hoping to take out a hit. “There’s an alternate movie that’s just all these people at that moment. These rich society ladies, with their nice dresses, sitting down in a nice hotel room talking about how to kill their rich husband they’re sick of.”
Linklater found the conversations fascinating because the clients were having these life-and-death discussions “so matter of factly,” he says. “It’s almost like they’re all acting in their own little crime movie when someone’s suddenly working with a mobster. I thought it was all so dark and funny in the strangest way.”
Linklater was also able to speak with Johnson on the phone while working on the script. For being an undercover hit man, he was surprisingly well-known, attending court proceedings and being featured in news articles. “It was like two different worlds,” explains Linklater. “People that are doing the hits aren’t reading the paper.”
Linklater describes Johnson as “the chillest dude imaginable” who had no issues with his story being told in a film. “He was just the most nonplussed guy,” he says. “We would talk about baseball or something, but he was a man of few words actually.”
When Linklater was about to start filming, he tried to reach out to Johnson again to let him know it was finally happening. But when he couldn’t get in touch with him, he found out from Hollandsworth that he had died.
But Johnson’s story lives on, even as fiction. With Hit Man, Linklater is able to go beyond a quirky framing device to look at how one individual gets lost in the many personalities he takes on, and may be able to change for the better because of it. “How much can we change? Can you change? Are we fixed as people?” says Linklater. “At times, I felt I have changed a lot. No one seems to notice.… But I think that you kind of can change. You can be better. It’s worth trying at least.”
Hit Man will debut at the Venice International Film Festival on September 4 and the Toronto Film Festival on September 11. It is currently seeking US distribution.
We’ve got a doozy of an episode for you this week. We talk about the news that Michael Shannon turned down an undisclosed Star Wars role, and come up with a pretty good guess as to what that role may have been. We then dive into the 1980 “Stars of Star Wars” episode of The Muppet Show, when Mark Hamill and others stopped by to sing and dance on the popular variety show. But those are just the appetizers to fun and frisky chat with our guests — Andor stars Denise Gough, Kyle Soller, and Adria Arjona. It’s a super fun conversation you don’t want to miss.
L’OFFICIEL – In-demand actor and Tiffany & Co. ambassador Adria Arjona considers the view from atop a major moment.
What do you do when you’re stressed? Do you call a friend, or meditate, maybe go for a walk? If you’re Adria Arjona, the 30-year-old megastar on the rise, you might instead jump out of a plane. If frequent skydiving doesn’t fit your image of an in-demand ingénue, well, that’s what we like to call a “you problem.” Arjona decided long ago that she was going to carve her own path. “When I first started, there weren’t many careers of Latin American women that I could model mine after,” the Tiffany & Co. ambassador tells L’OFFICIEL over martinis in LA in early September. She elected to use the blank slate to her advantage. “My biggest fear was always to be put in a box. I went to acting school; I went to a conservatory. I’ve danced with different sides of myself in different genres. I’m not going to let Hollywood tell me, ‘This is your genre.’”
That defiance of film industry pigeonholing is partially why Arjona’s credits for 2022 alone run the gamut: there’s a big-budget Marvel film, Morbius; a Latin-cast adaptation of the classic romantic comedy, Father of the Bride; a prestige HBO series, Irma Vep; and now Andor, the newest Disney+ addition to the Star Wars universe. (This year’s projects that haven’t been released yet include an indie film she executive-produced about the AIDS crisis in Cuba called Los Frikis; Zoë Kravitz’s hotly buzzed-about directorial debut Pussy Island; and the latest from multi-Academy-Award-nominated director Richard Linklater, Hitman.) The idea is to do as many different projects as she can. “That’s become my thing,” Arjona says: “‘Does it challenge me? Does it move me further? Does it scare me?’”
Another reason for her busy dance card is the pressure she puts on herself to clear a path for other Latin American actors to be whatever they want to be—on screen or off. “It’s a pressure that actually moves me forward,” Arjona says. “It doesn’t stop me. It doesn’t pull me back. It’s the reason why I wake up and I’m like, ‘I’m fucking tired, but I need to work.’ Because I am only trying to open doors. I’m only trying to be the Guinea pig. I’ll be like, ‘I’ll be the Guinea pig. Pick me. I’ll do the work. I promise you won’t regret it.’” No one has yet.
Below, in between Andor’s Los Angeles premiere and packing for her next film set in New Orleans, Arjona catches up with L’OFFICIEL about shooting a Star Wars project, breaking down barriers, and staying grounded even as she’s flying high.
L’OFFICIEL: You’re having the busiest year. What was it like shooting Andor?
ADRIA ARJONA: It’s crazy. There were definitely points where you’re like, “Holy shit, I’m in Star Wars. Oh, no. Oh, my God, what did I do?” I would try to forget, like, “be cool about this.” I was fine, and then you get a prop or see a creature actor and you’re like, “Oh, my God. I’m in Star Wars.”
L’O: Were you a fan before?
AA: I was. I’ve been really wanting to be a part of this world for a long time. Last time, I got really close to a movie I won’t mention. I was right there. It was going to be me or someone else and I didn’t get it, obviously. I remember being so upset that I went skydiving, and on the plane, I was like, “You’re going to leave this movie here. If Star Wars is for you, you’re going to get it.” I just left all that energy on the plane and jumped off, and a couple of years later, I got this. That’s a thing I do though.
AA: Yes. When there’s something shitty going on, I’m like, “You know what, I’m just going to leave this on the plane.” I jump off, and I’m a new person when I land. It’s kind of great. You should try it. I do it a lot.
L’O: Wow. When did you first do it?
AA: I did it with my dad [multi-platinum Guatemalan pop star Ricardo Arjona] the first time. I’m terrified of airplanes. I have a phobia of airplanes. I don’t do well on airplanes.
L’O: That makes this even more incredible.
AA: No, because you jump off a plane. I am not on the plane. I’d rather be off a plane than on a plane.
L’O: You feel better falling from a plane than being on the plane?
AA: I know I’m safe, but I don’t like being on the plane. I just don’t. The first time I went [skydiving] I remember the airplane door. You know how you go to the public bathroom, and it has those little metal latches? That’s what was holding that door together. We take off and that thing starts moving. The guy that my dad was jumping with goes like this [crosses herself] and I’m like, “Oh, my God.”
L’O: “Don’t do that!”
AA: It’s because they’re scared of the plane, though. If the plane falls within 1,000 feet, we’re all screwed. It needs to be at a level so we can open the parachute on time to land. It made my experience so much better because I was so nervous, but then the plane made me more nervous; so when I jumped, I was like, I made it off the plane! It was the best experience of my life. I’ve never felt anything like it before. I felt so free, like all my worries went away. The fear is right there before you jump. I have this little trick: one, two, three, jump. I asked the guy to jump on two, because I’m like, “If you call three, I’m going to push back.” Bungee jumping, I’ve done that a couple of times, too. If I hear one, two, three, bungee—if I hear bungee, I’m never jumping. I need to jump on two. I guess it’s my sense of control. I’m a little bit of an adrenaline junkie. But I think the older I get, the less of an adrenaline junkie I am. Also, I have to sign all these papers that tell me I can’t do anything. The more I work, the less I get to enjoy this side of myself.
L’O: All the projects you’re doing are amazing, but they’re all really different. What do you look for in a role?
AA: I always look for a little bit of a challenge. I want to do things that scare me a little. Star Wars scared the shit out of me.
L’O: Which part?
AA: It scared me that it’s got this huge fan base, and you want to please them. Then you have this amazing, complex character in this crazy universe and you want to do right by her, and by the story, and by Tony [Gilroy, Andor’s writer/director]. It scared me, so I was like, “Yes, I want to do that.”
L’O: How do you get into character?
AA: I think the script is the first thing, and I think being honest with myself. Sometimes there is a really great project, but you read it and you’re like, “Right. I can’t really do this. It’s not connecting with me.” And you have to let it go and let someone else be the conduit to that character. And then when I do read something, I’m like, “Oh, I really want to do this.” It’s unexplainable. You’re like, “Oh, I need to play her.” You just get a feeling. Then I get a visual. I go for a run. When I’m running, I always go to a place where there’s nothing, then I start envisioning this woman a little bit and that’s where I start creating. Then I think it all starts as very visual for me.
L’O: You can see yourself in a role, or you see what the character sees?
AA: I see something else. I’m like, “This is how this person’s going to dress. This is how the hair is. This is how she moves.” Then based on the story you start almost from the outside in. Even the one that I’m doing now: I’m doing a movie with Richard Linklater [Hitman]. With this character it was like, I need the shoes. I got the shoes. I went to pick them up today. I just got them all stretched out so they look worn. I just hope that the costume designer likes them. I have a thing with shoes and characters. In Star Wars, I was so nervous. I tried on this pair of boots in the costume fitting, and I was like, “These are it. These are the boots.” The costume designer kept trying, the whole show, like, “Maybe you should change boots.” I was like, “No, I’m wearing the same boots all show.” I think I wore a different pair of shoes in one scene, and it was because I was sitting down. I said, “Okay, I could do it if I’m sitting down.” Any shoe makes you walk differently.
L’O: Oh, tell us about Pussy Island! Another very exciting addition to your very busy career at the moment.
AA: Zoë [Kravitz] is so cool. She’s so incredibly sweet. She’s an amazing director. I read the script, and I loved it. That was another great experience where it was a big assembled cast and we all got along so well. We have this group chat that won’t stop, and it’s called Pussy Island. Every time my phone comes out, it’s like: Pussy Island. I was in a meeting yesterday—a serious meeting—and my phone was on the table just blowing up: Pussy Island, Pussy Island, Pussy Island, Pussy Island. I was like, “…So I’m in this movie Pussy Island.”
L’O: You’re like, “This will make total sense in six months. Don’t think about it right now.” Can you say anything about what it’s about?
AA: It was an amazing experience. I think the movie is really cool. It’s really smart. It’s through the eyes of Zoë. I learned so much from her and from Alia [Shawkat], and from Naomi [Ackie]. I got to be surrounded by really cool women. Liz Caribel [Sierra], who is a Dominican actress, is incredible. I think we all got together and had a really great female experience creating this, but it’s pretty fucking dark. You can tell that my brain’s going: “What can I say?”
L’O: Is there any role that you’re dying to do? You’re like, “God, I really want them to ask me to play a skydiver.”
AA: A skydiver. Yes. I want an athlete. The mentality of an athlete fascinates me. I’m into something that might be a little bit more physical. I also think that we’re missing a good ‘90s thriller-style film like Body Heat, or Basic Instinct. A film about Lolita Lebrón is the one that I really want to make. I have it in development right now. She was a Puerto Rican revolutionary fucking badass. She’s a real-life character. She was politically active in the early ‘50s, and she was a woman that did not understand the word no.
L’O: Do you feel a lot of pressure representation-wise as a Latin American actress in Hollywood? Is that a lot to deal with?
AA: I think I’ve solely added that pressure to myself. I don’t think that pressure exists. I think it exists in my mind, because I need to do a good job so that I can prove to the world and to many executives that we are capable—that we are smart enough. We are more than just what they think of us. That to me is inspiring. Hollywood has this whole stigma that there’s only space for so many Latin actors, and that’s not true. It only creates competition and negativity within that community. I’m like, Oh, I see what you’re doing: You’re trying to break us while we’re going up. That’s not cool. I’m not buying that. I’m buying that there is space for everyone, and we’re here to stay. Now I get more and more upset when people ask me, “How does it feel to be a Latin American actor in Star Wars?” I’m like, “The problem is your question.” The problem is that it shouldn’t be any different. Are you asking an English actor or a Scottish actor how it is to be in Star Wars?
L’O: The fact is that every year this country is becoming increasingly diverse; you’d think increasingly diverse casts of actors playing increasingly diverse characters would also make great business sense.
AA: Art recreates life. That’s what makes it so beautiful. That’s what makes us want to watch it. That’s what makes us empathize with it. The only way to really be creating art truthfully right now is by mirroring what we’re seeing in our world. We have a lot more color and flavor in our real life than we do in Hollywood. Yes, we have to applaud progress, because we have a long way to go, but I also invite other people to start getting used to it. I just started seeing videos of The Little Mermaid [an upcoming live-action remake of the animated Disney film, starring Black actress and musician Halle Bailey] and how little girls are watching. I started crying out of happiness because that is what representation does. I feel like it puts a face to what I know Guatemalan girls or little Puerto Rican girls are doing when they get to watch Star Wars.
L’O: You’re going to inspire so many Halloween costumes.
AA: Oh my God. I would die.
L’O: Did you always want to be an actress?
AA: No. I don’t think anyone does. That’s all bullshit. I guess there are people that know earlier than others, but for me it was more like, I wanted to do everything. They were like, “This kid either has a problem or she’s an actor.”
L’O: Because acting allows you to do a little of everything, right?
AA: Yes. I watched Ice Princess, and I was like, “I want to be an ice skater!” I’m very lucky that I grew up with a father that was like, “Okay, I will get you an ice-skating class.” I took ice skating classes for two weeks before I was like, “I’m bored. I want to be a teacher.” They also thought I was deaf as a little kid for the longest time. My teachers were like, “I think she has a hearing problem. I think she’s deaf.” We went to the doctor. My dad’s a musician, and his hearing was pretty bad from years of performing at concerts. My brother’s was good, average, normal. My mom’s was good, average, normal. Mine was perfect. The doctor was like, “I got to break it to you, but she’s ignoring all of you. She can hear you. She’s just in her own imagination.” I still do that. I’m home and my brother will be like, “Adria. Adria. Adria.” I am somewhere else. I’m very dreamy. I lived in my own little world when I was a little girl. I guess through that I started acting, and feeling like, this is why this thing—my imagination—exists. From then on I always wanted to [act], but my dad was like, “No, you need to study.”
L’O: That’s good, though. That’s good parenting.
AA: My dad is a musician; he’s an artist, so he understands. “This life, you don’t want it.” He’s like, “It’s crazy out there. You really need to think about this. You want to live your life. You want a normal childhood.” I did that. I had a wonderful, normal childhood. And then I dropped out of college, and I went to New York when I was 18. I made the best of friends. I went to a conservatory program for acting. I just loved it. I knew that this is what I’m meant to be doing.
L’O: Have you ever gotten really good advice from someone?
AA: My funniest advice is from Gloria Estefan. We were at dinner while shooting Father of the Bride, and she makes the meanest cosmopolitan of all time. There’s no one that does a better cosmo than her. She’s taking a sip of her drink and I’m like, “Gloria, I’ve got to ask you.” There’s me and Isabela [Merced], another actress, and we’re right next to each other. “What is advice that you would give the both of us?” She looks at both of us, and she goes, “Keep that ass up girl.” She meant like, keep up the hard work, keep fucking going, you got this. But in the moment it felt very literally that she’s telling us to squat more. [Laughs.]
L’O: That is amazing.
AA: My grandfather has a saying that I constantly repeat because I think it’s so beautiful. It’s: No estoy aquí para ver si puedo; porque puedo, estoy aquí, which means I’m not here to see if I can, I’m here because I can. It’s a really good reminder any time you have a little bit of self-doubt, whether it’s the fact that you have school the next day, or you have a big exam coming, or you have a big meeting at work. There’s a reason why you’re put in that situation and because of that reason you are able to get through it. It’s a good reminder every time I have a red carpet or anything that makes me a little nervous: I’m here because I can. I’ve worked hard, and I deserve this. I’m going to have fun doing it. And when I get a little bit sucked into this world of social media and comparison—where we’re all constantly being compared or we’re constantly comparing ourselves—my mom always tells me to look at my feet. She’s like, “You’re here. Look at your feet. You’re here. Tap your feet. You’re here.” Whenever I’m like, “I’m stressing out. I’m doing it again.” She says, “Look at your feet.” I’m like, “Okay, I’m here. I’m alive. All right. Good. Just checking.”