Righteous Kill: How Jon Avnet Assembled a Dream Cast

With Robert De Niro and Al Pacino signed on, the producers knew the film would attract a high-caliber cast, but they weren't prepared for the onslaught of attention it received. “When we first started casting the movie, all of Hollywood heard about it,” says producer Lati Grobman. “We had every agent in town calling us. But we all only wanted what was right for the story, and we ended up with the perfect cast.”

Avnet: Actor's Director

Avnet is known as an actor's director, having worked with some of Hollywood's most respected stars including Robert Redford, Michelle Pfeiffer, Kathy Bates, Jessica Lange, Richard Gere and countless others.

“I love the process,” says Avnet. “I love trying to create an environment where actors are free to create. I hired Nancy Klopper as casting director having worked with her many times in the past. She was great.

“I listen very carefully to actors, and even though I plan almost all the shots in the movie before I shoot, I'm much more interested in how they would perform it than how I may have conceptualized it. I am the safety net for the actors. I want them to stand on those marks and look their fellow actors in the eye and, as James Cagney said, tell the truth.”

Avnet's collaborative spirit impressed De Niro. “He is a very respectful director,” says the actor, who has himself directed two acclaimed films, “The Good Shepherd and A Bronx Tale.” “He knew what he wanted to get from us, and, at the same time, gave us enough room to be creative. You have to have that in order to get the best out of people.”

“Jon Avnet loves actors,” says Pacino. “That's very helpful. He's with you 150%. I would describe his directing style as fast and furiousbut he knows what he's doing.”

In addition to De Niro and Pacino, “Righteous Kill” dazzlingly diverse cast includes veteran actors and newcomers, plus a few unexpected choices, including Curtis Jackson (a.k.a. 50 Cent) and skateboard champion Rob Dyrdek.

“I think I treated everybody exactly the same,” says Avnet. “Donnie Wahlberg and John Leguizamo are no different than Al and Bob, in the sense that I say to them all, 'Do you have any other ideas' It is very typical for me to work with actors over and over again.”

Carla Gugino

Carla Gugino plays crime scene detective Karen Corelli, whose dark personal life complicates her work relationships. “She is a person who's such a perfectionist at work and then has this penchant for what you might say is rough sex,” says Gugino. “I wondered how realistic that was and what was fascinating was in talking to these people in this field, it became clear to me that it was actually something that was completely understandable.”

Gugino describes herself as pretty tough, but says she had never seen anything as disturbing as some of the crime scene photos she saw while preparing for the role. “The pictures really gave me some perspective,” she says. “I think that if you have to deal with that kind of horror on a daily basis, there's a part of you that has to shut down in order to just survive and look at it very clinically.”

The actress was initially dismayed to find that all of her intimate scenes were scheduled in the first two days. “Those two days were pretty brutal, but having to delve in like that introduced me to the shadow side of the character.”

She calls her castmates “an extraordinary group of people. Al Pacino and Robert De Niro, I mean it's incredible. I remember the first time I saw them both standing there together, I think we were doing the camera test and they were talking. It was amazing because their voices are so iconic. To see them together in one frame was very powerful. “And also Brian Dennehy and John Leguizamo and Donnie Wahlberg,” she continues. “I always feel you want to work with the most incredible people you can work with to bring up your game, so to have the opportunity to work with all of these guys was definitely exciting. There was no walking through it; everybody was in there really digging in trying to figure it out.”

Brian Dennehy

Tony Award winner Brian Dennehy plays the head of the homicide squad, Lieutenant Hingis. “I had to fight my way into this picture,” says the actor. “Most of the picture is Bob and Al playing off of each other and that is literally a once-in-a-lifetime event to work with two actors, two stars of this caliber, which is why I wanted to be there.

“Both Al and I are tremendously involved in the theater, which gives us a kind of a shorthand communication,” Dennehy says. “And Bob was just so open and friendly and accessible. I had met him before over the years, but never worked with him. You can't help but feel a certain amount of intimidation when you're confronted with these two legends.”

Dennehy, a huge fan of Avnet's acclaimed drama “Fried Green Tomatoes,” says of the production, “It's been a great experience. There are a bunch of people involved in this thing that have made it rather special and unique. You know, these things just don't happen that much.” Avnet had already worked with Dennehy on Broadway when he produced “Inherit the Wind” this past year. “I like him as an actor. His theatrical background allows him to find the character in an economical manner.”

Donnie Wahlberg

Rounding out the homicide detail are Donnie Wahlberg and John Leguizamo as partners Reilly and Perez, two up-and-coming cops competing with the older detectives to solve the mystery. Wahlberg and Avnet had become friends while working on the television series “Boomtown,” in which Wahlberg starred and which Avnet executive produced and directed.

“Donnie is very talented, very gifted improvisationally, as well as being able to stay on book,” says Avnet. “I always get a very, very fresh performance from him. A lot of our work took place months before we started shooting and it continued into rehearsals and shooting.”

Wahlberg says he would have been willing to sweep floors for the chance to work with Pacino and De Niro. “I actually got to go toe-to-toe with those guys, which was just tremendous fun, much more fun than I ever would have expected,” he says. “The only moment of nerves I had on this whole movie was during the softball game scene.
“I was pitching and Jon told me to make sure I was throwing strikes,” recalls the actor. “I said, 'Don't worry, I'll throw strikes.' But then Robert De Niro steps into the batter's box, and as I'm about to pitch, it occurred to me, if this pitch is inside, I'm going to hit Robert De Niro. But if it's outside, I'm going to have Jon Avnet screaming at me in front of everybody. I felt like I was trying to throw the last strike in the World Series. What are you going to do I'd rather have Jon yell at me than hit Bob De Niro in the head, so I threw the pitch about six feet outside. Then I heard Jon Avnet screaming over a mega, 'Donnie, you idiot, throw a strike!'”

John Leguizamo

Like so many others in the cast, Leguizamo calls this film a career highlight. “De Niro and Pacino have truthfully been my heroes,” says the actor, who grew up in New York. “When I saw De Niro in Mean Streets I thought, 'I'll never be that good, nobody could ever be that good.' The same for Al in Dog Day Afternoon.”

“They both live in New York, you know,” Leguizamo continues. “There is something about being a New York actor that's very different than being an actor from anywhere else. There's a sense of reality, an edge. I tried to stay in New York for that very reason, to try to stay real and try to keep it together.”

Working with Jon Avnet, he says, has been something of a surprise for him. “Jon's a much more gentle, paternal type director than people think,” he says. “He really takes care of everybody. He's like a coachhe comes back and he says that was good, we got what we wanted, we got to push hard, we got to do it a lot of times. He's a real morale booster.”

Curtis Jackson: Music Star

For the role of drug dealer Spider, Avnet went with his instincts when he selected Curtis Jackson, a superstar in the music world, but still new to acting. “This is a smart guy,” says Avnet. “He read with me, rehearsed with me and then showed up at the reading with everyone and held his own. He wanted this. He knew that to stand up there with De Niro and Pacino, is not easy.”

Jackson admits to being anxious when he first met the pair. “It was at the table read. My legs were shaking underneath the table. They've been in so many movies that I've enjoyed that just being in the same room as them was exciting.” “Being in scenes with De Niro and Pacino, I found myself picking up their habits and working like them,” he continues. “It felt like they were actually leading me through the scenes.”

Pacino has high praise for his co-stars. “Brian Dennehy is a consummate actor with a lot of experience and very easy to work with. Carla Gugino is extremely gifted and enjoyable to work with as are John Leguizamo, Donne Wahlberg and Curtis Jackson.”

Avnet also took a chance when he cast Rob Dyrdek, a professional skateboarder, in the small but important role of Rambo, a street pimp. “I thought I could get something fresh,” says the director. “The idea of a skateboard pimp, it felt right to me.”

Screenwriter Gewirtz says that he never imagined having a cast this accomplished for his film. “Of course I never imagined the cast of Inside Man either,” he says. “I have been unbelievably lucky in the kind of actors who've responded to my writing. I guess now I've become accustomed to having dream casts.”