Warning: Taylor Kitsch’s character in his new movie 21 Bridges is absolutely brutal – and, for that, insanely watchable. The Friday Night Lights actor stars as Ray, an outlaw on the run from NYPD detective Andre Davis (Chadwick Boseman) in a film that nods to those pulpy cop movies of yesteryear – but operates at a far more thrilling pace.
Ray and his best friend Michael (played by Stephan James) are small-time thieves whose latest heist involving cocaine is interrupted by a bunch of police officers. When the only option to escape is to kill all the cops in their way, the boys are wanted men as Davis orders the city of Manhattan to be closed at every portal: all 21 bridges, three rivers, four tunnels and every train that leaves the island. “Loop the subways. Then we flood the island with Blue” says Andre.
A live-wire and maybe even a little bit psychotic, Ray keeps audiences on the edge of their seats for the entire film. Here, 38-year-old Kitsch talks to ICON about how his training with Navy SEALS helped inform Ray, how he kept his body in shape for the role and how he got into the head of a wild man.
ICON: A lot of the film was shot in Philadelphia and you came back and forth to New York to shoot. But it’s not your first time in Manhattan. You studied there when you were younger. What was your first experience with the city?
TAYLOR KITSCH: “Man, I come from a tiny town so I couldn’t believe how this little island of so many people worked. I love the energy, especially when you’re in your early 20s. That city tests you, man. It can either really beat you up and test you or elevate you. And I love that challenge that that city brings. From the people to running into so many different artists to people grinding, I loved it. I went there to study and it’s got its own energy, it’s an infectious city.”
ICON: There were NYPD offices on the set of 21 Bridges. How did their teachings marry up with your own Navy SEALS training to inform how you played Ray?
TK: “There’s these close quarter gun fights and they really helped ground that stuff. For me personally, it wasn’t so much in the weapons training but just the logistics part of it. Like where you would go for cover and the type of communication I would have with Stephan. That’s where they really left an impression on us. As you’ve said I’ve been trained by Navy SEALS so I was very comfortable with it.”
ICON: You can tell that you are. I feel like most of your scenes are shooting and running. How did you physically prepare for this role?
TK: “You try and come into a movie in your best shape. And then when you’re shooting during the night for seven or eight weeks, it can be really tough. This sounds like I’m playing the violin but when you’re going to work at 4pm and going to bed at 8am every day, six days a week – and then you wake up at 2pm and have an hour and a bit before you go back to set – it was more just upkeep. There wasn’t a tonne of gym time for us. Or maybe I’m just fucking busy and I didn’t go much when we worked! You know, you’re going to work to run around and have that high energy so you just try to go to work in the best shape possible.”
ICON: Can you give us a breakdown of one of your most challenging scenes in 21 Bridges?
TK: “The thing is with those shoot-out scenes, we film them across five or six days. It takes that long because it’s super technical and you’re going through these safety meetings. I love the way [director Brian] Kirk shot this, it’s very engaging cinematography which I love – he’s right there with you. On day four of the same scene, you just have to keep that energy up. It’s life or death for 12 hours every night, you just have to find the energy to keep it going.”
ICON: Did you and Stephan get to bond before filming?
TK: “I got the job less than a week before we hit camera. I got on set on a Monday and I was on camera on Thursday so I didn’t really have any time. We got a day or two to go through the script with Brian and we went to the shooting range in NYC and hung out there a tonne and just chatted over lunches.”
ICON What was it like working with Chadwick Boseman?
TK: “I have one scene with him. He’s a really gracious guy, he’s very humble. He listens really well which is a great trait for any person on or off camera and he was always there if you ever needed it.”
ICON: Novelty question: How long do you think Tim Riggins would have lasted in this narrative before he was chased down by Andre Davis?
TK: “Oh man. Rigs knows how to use a gun. So I think he would be alright. I think he would last for a while and if it’s just him, probably pretty good. I’d give him good odds.”
ICON: Ray would literally do anything for Michael. Is there someone in your life that you would go to this level of extreme lengths for?
TK: “No. [Laughs]”
ICON: No one at all?
TK: “Oh of course. Probably a family member.”
ICON: [Laughs] I hope they read this. What were the long days on the range like? You were shooting 500 rounds in the lead up to filming.
TK: “We had live fire which keeps you honest. Again, it was just like a refresher. Not to act like I’m some kind of armoury who knows exactly what’s going on with every gun out there but it was a refresher for me. There was a bit of, ‘Don’t point your gun at my face while we’re just chatting’ while working with Stephan [Laughs]. Just those little things, you have to remind each other. I just trained a buddy in Texas with a Glock and when they’re talking, they’re just like moving around and the muzzle is like crossing your body – and they are just unconscious about it. It’s important to be aware of where the gun is pointed at all times.”
ICON: When audiences go and see this film, what do you hope they take away from it?
TK: “This is a fictional, fun ride action film that’s kind of an ode to the ones I grew up with. I think there’s some really cool twists, the cast is amazing and the pace of this is a fast pace film with a lot of humanity in it too. To be blunt, I hope you’re just entertained and maybe it’ll get your heart racing a bit.”
ICON: Is this the genre that you want to stay in?
TK: “No. I love any and all, man. As long as the character and filmmaker are good. You never want to peg yourself into any genre, at least I don’t.”
ICON: What’s next for you?
TK: “I just finished an eight hour limited series called Shadow Play. It’s about detectives in New York City who come to Berlin to track down my brother who is killing a bunch of Nazi sympathisers six months after WWII. It’s a beautiful series, man. I also just signed onto to lead Neil Blomkamp’s next movie [Inferno].”
ICON: What did your training regime look like for 21 Bridges?
TK: “Eat as many cookies and milkshakes and fries as you can. Sleep, eat late, right before bed. Don’t do any running or weight-lifting. If you can get a pizza down in the middle of the night, that will serve you will. [Laughs]”
21 Bridges is in Australian cinemas now.