Traitor (2008): Don Cheadle, Guy Pearce, Jeff Daniels

The political thriller Traitor, which Overture Films released August 27, 2008, stars Don Cheadle, Guy Pearce, and other gifted actors.

Don Cheadle

Don Cheadle, one of Hollywood’s busiest and most respected actors, plays Samir Horn, a former military intelligence operative and the mysterious figure at the center of Traitor’s international race against time.

“Don is one of the most talented actors around, and he’s also an incredibly smart man,” says Nachmanoff. “For me, as a first time writer and director, to have a star and producing partner like him is an incredible gift. He exudes intelligence, which is central to the character, and he was up to the physical challenges of the role.”

“But Don is more than just an actor,” Nachmanoff continues. “He really thinks about the whole movie. In fact, he was a big part of the entire process including my decisions on casting the other roles.”

Don Cheadle was the only actor who had to learn Arabic for the film. “It was definitely challenging but it was necessary for this character, who was steeped in his faith and steeped in this world,” he says. “I worked with dialect coaches and language professors who helped define the proper way to talk. It’s a very rich language and there are many different dialects. Our default was trying to go to classic Arabic, the Arabic that the Koran is written in. Trying to find the exact word was difficult sometimes. If you asked five different people, you got five different answers.”

Guy Pearce

Counterbalancing the story of Samir Horn is that of Roy Clayton, the FBI agent who pursues him. The filmmakers turned to Guy Pearce to play Clayton, whom they envisioned as an FBI agent unlike any previously seen in films. “We wanted to depict Clayton as a non-traditional FBI agent,” says producer Jeffrey Silver. “Somebody who did not rely on the old culture of the FBI, but came to it fresh from academia.”

Nachmanoff was aware of Pearce’s abilities from his memorable performances in critically acclaimed films such as Memento and L.A. Confidential. “Guy is one of those actors who is hard to take your eyes off when he is very still. He has a way of holding the screen with a tremendous intensity. When you see him on screen, you can see the wheels turning in his head and a certain intelligence in his eyes. He makes scenes come to life without doing a lot of flashy action work.”

Pearce observes that the conflict in the film is rooted in a lack of communication. “It’s that old saying about not being able to see the forest for the trees,” he says. “You’ve got these giant organizations that are either answering to the government or trying to dictate to the government. And somewhere along the way, the simplest form of communication between one person and the next collapses. We have the CIA doing one thing and the FBI doing another, which is probably representative of how protective all those organizations felt they needed to become because of what happened on September 11th and its aftermath.”

Pearce says he enjoyed working with Cheadle, although their scenes together were actually quite brief. “It was almost like two film shoots, with two different stories,” he says. “Don and his team have an objective, and part of that objective is to not be caught by us. We turn up in another country in every scene, because we’re always right on their tails.”

As for his director, Pearce says, “Jeff Nachmanoff may be the most confident person I’ve ever met in my entire life. He’s a very intelligent guy and clearly put a lot of thought into this story. He had every base covered. He didn’t miss a beat. And he gets where actors are coming from, which allowed us all to concentrate on the emotional part of it.

Neal McDonough

Clayton’s partner, Max Archer, is an old school law-enforcement type. For the part, the filmmakers selected an actor with a distinctly different energy from Pearce: veteran character actor Neal McDonough. “Neal gave a completely different reading from anyone else I saw,” says Nachmanoff. “He had a certain humor about him that I thought was really needed for the movie. He brings a strong presence, but he also brings a lightness to the role.”

“I’m the old FBI, Guy’s the new,” says McDonough.”There’s a great scene in the film that defines the two trains of thought. Clayton and Archer are interrogating Samir and they differ about how to get information out of a guy. There’s Guy’s way, which is talking about it, and there’s my way, which is punching it out of him.”

But Archer isn’t just a stereotypical “bad cop.” He’s also the character who articulates the questions that will be on the minds of many audience members. “He’s the one who asks, ‘Why don’t we just throw all the Muslims in jail'” says Silver. “He says, ‘Look at the trouble they’re causing in the world. Look at honor killing. Isn’t that a terrible thing Doesn’t that besmirch the name of all Muslims’ Neal, being the fantastic all-American actor that he is, asks those questions in a sharp way, in a humorous way.”

Jeff Daniels

It falls to Pearce and Cheadle’s characters to answers those questions, says the producer.
“Archer is your traditional FBI agent who comes at it from a law enforcement perspective,” Silver says. “He is out there to fight crime, and he sees crime, and he’s going after it. He does the job that we expect the FBI to do.”
Jeff Daniels plays one of the film’s most mysterious and morally ambiguous characters, Carter, a shadowy independent contractor for the CIA and the person closest to the truth about Samir Horn.

“I think one of the central themes of the movie is devotion to a belief system,” says Nachmanoff. “Carter recognizes that sometimes you have to cross the line of right and wrong for a greater right. Jeff Daniels has a sort of world-weariness that’s wonderful for the part of someone who lives in a gray area where some things can fall through the cracks and oversight can get a little bit difficult.”

Daniels relished the opportunity to explore his character’s apparent contradictions. “There’s the book on how to do it, and then there’s the book on how Carter does it,” says the actor. “In his book, sometimes what the government doesn’t know won’t hurt it, especially if it’s for the same common goal. Carter is one of these guys that you don’t read about because they are doing things that aren’t necessarily what people on either side of the aisle would deem proper. He’s one of those guys that will do whatever it takes to get to his goal.”

Having the writer the writer serve double duty as director allowed the actors special insight into the characters and story, says Daniels.”It’s good to have someone in charge who knows the three or four or five layers going underneath what we’re saying. Jeff has done all the research. He can literally just tell you, ‘Look, on the 27 books I read about extremists, here’s how I know Carter exists and why.’ That’s very helpful. It’s like having Cliff Notes on set.”

While both Silver and Nachmanoff acknowledge that plenty of talented non-Arab Hollywood actors have played Arab roles convincingly, Silver says,”We didn’t want to go that way. We wanted to go out into the Arab community and find the actors. We got Aly Khan, we got Sad Taghmaoui and we cast many individuals from Morocco. The truth that they bring to the role as Arabs, many of them as Muslims, imbues the film with a quality that you can’t direct.”
French-Moroccan actor Said Taghmaoui, who recently appeared in both The Kite Runner and Vantage Point, was cast in the pivotal role of Omar.”Omar was one of the key roles I had to cast,” says Nachmanoff.”He’s a character who represents something I think most people in the American audience will find reprehensible. On the other hand, I wanted the character to be likable. So, it was a tricky balance trying to find an actor that could pull those two things offthe intensity and threat that Omar needs to hold, but also the humanity and the charisma that pulls the audience in so they can identify with him just a little.”

Silver says that what makes the character both believable and sympathetic is his complexity.”We try to look at him with the same lens that we look at anybody fighting on behalf of any cause. Does he choose the right path No. But there’s something relatable about the cause.”
Taghmaoui, who grew up Muslim just outside of Paris, believes his background gives him valuable insight into his character.”Omar is definitely not a brain,” says the actor.”He’s more like a weapon. He’s totally devoted to the cause. He and Samir are like two soldiers on the battlefield, fighting for the same cause.”
Although relatively new to Hollywood films, Taghmaoui has been a star in France since his 1996 Cesar Award nomination for Most Promising Actor for his role in Mathieu Kassovitz’s La Haine. Working with Nachmanoff, he says, has been uniquely rewarding.”Jeffrey has that amazing quality of listening, of hearing what people say and trying to integrate that into the movie. He gave us a lot of space for creativity.”

Aly Khan

Aly Khan, who plays the mysterious money man Fareed, appeared in the film A Mighty Heart playing real-life figure Omar Sheik, one of the models that Nachmanoff used to create the character of Omar.”I was so struck by his performance, I immediately inquired about him,” says Nachmanoff.”He’s such a refined and powerful presence. He’s a terrific Fareed: hard to dislike, because he has such charm and charisma. The character is one of the less sympathetic in the movie, but Aly makes it work.”

If the producers thought that casting Arab actors in these parts would simplify the language issues, they were mistaken.”In each of the areas in the film, people speak a different dialect of Arabic,” says Silver.”Since the film is shot in Morocco, most of our speakers are Moroccan Arabic speakers. We thought at first they could speak a more classical Arabic, the style of which is spoken in Yemen, but in a pragmatic sense, that’s difficult for an actor. It’s like asking somebody to speak in an accent. In the end, each of them spoke in their native dialect.”

Because the film features scenes in which all the dialogue is in Arabic, Nachmanoff found himself directing actors performing in a language he does not speak. “My first AD is an Arabic speaker, but I would still have to be there as both writer and director, really just trying to feel it and sense if a scene was playing the way I wanted it to. It’s an interesting experience; you’re removed one step.”