Richard Linklater first met Glen Powell when the actor was 14 and auditioning for a small part in the director's polemic comedy Fast Food Nation. He can't remember his first impression of a young Powell, but, "I cast him!" Linklater chuckles. "There's that! I met a lot of kids — a lot of young actors who wanted that part — and so, I tell people, 'Well, I cast him!'"

It was 2006, and Powell was only on set for a couple days. "There was something special about him," Linklater reflects, "but you don't know with an actor that age. If you heard they quit acting and went to law school or something like that, you go, 'Yeah, okay.' You don't know how much they want it. So, when I heard Glen had moved to L.A., I was like, 'Okay, he's going for it!'"

Ethan Hawke cast Powell in 2006's The Hottest State, and then Denzel Washington cast him in 2007's The Great Debaters. Powell was beginning to make a name for himself, but his breakout role wouldn't come until he reunited with Linklater for 2016's Everybody Wants Some!!

"That's when I met the Glen of today, the charismatic, smart, funny, charming movie star," the Oscar-nominated filmmaker says. "He had grown up. He had had to work hard. He had forged something, and he was all in. So, good on him. I think that's when we bonded for life. I'm glad it's worked out that we've worked together even more."

Hit Man marks their fourth collaboration, and their most collaborative one at that. (In addition to Fast Food Nation and Everybody Wants Some!!, Powell lent his voice to Linklater's animated Apollo 10 ½: A Space Age Childhood.) Inspired by Skip Hollandsworth's 2001 article in the Texas Monthly, the movie centers on Gary Johnson (played by Powell), a mild-mannered professor who moonlights as a faux hitman for the local law enforcement. When Gary, pretending to be the sexy, confident hitman Ron, meets Madison (Adria Arjona) and she asks him to off her no-good husband, the entire ruse gets way too real.

For Powell, who co-wrote Hit Man with Linklater in his screenwriting debut, the film is both a full-circle moment for him and a childhood dream come true. Even before he was cast in Fast Food Nation, Powell looked up to Linklater. "I started writing screenplays in my creative writing class freshman year, and I was studying Richard Linklater movies," he recalls. "That's the weird thing about this business, at its best. If you're lucky enough to do this job for a long time, you end up working with the people that inspired you to do this job in the first place. Rick has really been that for me."

In conversation with A.frame, Linklater and Powell wax poetic on true crime, chemistry, and the secret to their creative partnership: "People know Glen's having a moment," Linklater says. "It's the summer of Glen and all that, but anyone who's worked with him and who's known him the last 10-plus years isn't surprised."


A.frame: Do you remember the first time you two discussed Hit Man? Who brought it to the table?

Richard Linklater: Well, it's funny. I get a call from Glen in 2020, saying, "Hey, I read this article about this undercover hitman in Houston." I'm like, "Glen, I read that article in 2001 when you were in 7th grade." I'd thought about it a lot. I talked to the author, I read everything about it, but I said to him, "Here's why I don't think it works as a movie..." It was a frustrating thing for me, because I've never been so intrigued with a character and an environment, but the movie wasn't presenting itself to me.

Glen Powell: When you read the article, there is no doubt that there is a character there that is fascinating. You're like, "Whoever this guy is, I want to spend time with him." The problem is the article stopped at a great character. But there was a paragraph within the article that, basically, talked about this woman that Gary Johnson met. She was trying to hire him to kill her husband, and it was the first time that Gary was like, "I don't think this person is a killer." All these other people were trying to get money, or find a quick fix to life's complicated problems; this woman was actually in danger, and he saw the difference. That became the thread that Rick and I kept pulling at: What if we take a guy who is very simple and binary and who is not really experiencing life, and he became stuck in the identity of someone who is really complex, and whose life gets really, really messy? What if we forced him into the same crazy scenarios that those people sitting down across from him are in?"

Richard Linklater: I was like, "Well, s**t. If we do that, then she could get back in touch with him..." We started having all these ideas, and it really became the movie. That's when it really took off creatively for us. This whole movie's about artifice and it's all fake anyway, right? He's a fake hitman. They don't exist. It's all myth. But it was always grounded in this real guy, this real job, this real personality. Glen's a great creative partner that way. We push each other. We make each other laugh.

Beyond a great character, what was it about this story that most intrigued you?

Glen Powell: We always compared it to the Tootsie format, which is someone who is teaching identity and teaching passion, but not experiencing passion. He puts on the mask of someone who represents passion, and the human complex, and therefore, ends up becoming a much more incredible human and complex human on the other side.

Richard Linklater: I always saw it in really darkly comedic terms too, because eventually Skip Hollandsworth, he gave me boxes of his research — the surveillance tapes, the recordings, the transcripts. These people are making a deal to kill someone, and they're acting like they're in a crime film. Of course, they're just signing their own prison sentence, but there was something very banal about it. So, it's strange, funny, weird, sad — all these things — that I thought were really, really complex. But at the core, it's a film about the power of cinema. Cinema invented the notion of this "lone killer," this hitman with ice in his veins who kills professionally and will eliminate your problem. That doesn't exist, not at a retail level. To me, it feels like a consumerist dream that you could purchase the death of another person so easily, and not even that expensive! It's just crazy. That absurdist notion lent itself to dark comedy, all the way.

Were there unique or different strengths that you felt you each brought to the writing process?

Richard Linklater: We never broke it down. We never said, "Hey, you're good at this, and I'm good at that." I feel like we were just finishing each other's sentences and working off what each other was bringing. I think we push each other, which is good. That's important, to play out an idea to the nth degree, see if it works, see if it fits into our story, and always looking to be funny and weirder and see what we could get away with.

Glen Powell: That was always the thing. It was just how much we could entertain each other, how much we could make each other laugh, and really paint Gary into corners and situations — some which were real, that we took from debriefs and some of the research material, and some that we just got to make up. The fun part about this movie is it operates as a thriller, and a noir, and a screwball comedy, and an erotic thriller. It's sort of everything. It's got all these different elements to it, but it takes a filmmaker like Rick, who has played in all these different sandboxes to make sure all those different tones and genres fit in one movie.


Glen, Gary Johnson feels so different from the characters you're better known for — Ron is the sort of character you're more associated with. When you were crafting the character, knowing you're also going to play him, were there different sides of yourself you wanted to reveal or muscles you wanted to flex in this role?

Glen Powell: I think the interesting part about creating Gary and Ron is that this is not The Nutty Professor, right? These are not separate people, and I'm not playing separate people. It's a guy who is putting on the mask of all these different people, so actually the hard part, for me, is not playing Gary, or Ron, or any of these other characters; it's playing Gary who puts the mask of all these other characters. Because the performance should not be perfect. You want the audience to see the seams a bit. You want to see him as Ron, and then, all of a sudden, something crazy happens, and you see Gary underneath. I think that was the interesting part of layering all of these different things on top of Gary. In a very short amount of time, you have to have the audience go, "Okay, that's Gary. I know how Gary walks, I know how he talks, I know the way he thinks, I know his insecurities, and I know the way his operating system works," so that when I start layering all these other things on top of it, the audience can still see Gary, and still be engaging with Gary.

How many of the hitmen personas were crafted on the page, and how many did you come up with as you in production and bringing the movie to life?

Glen Powell: There were only probably a couple on the page. The fun part about Gary is he did this for three decades, so there was a lot to pull from in terms of the real sting operations that he did. That's the fun and games of this movie. Gary Johnson would psychoanalyze these people and go, "What do they think a hit man is? What do they want to see across from them at the table? And what's going to fulfill that fantasy?" So, we were really reverse-engineering it, and then working with the hair, makeup and costume departments. These three incredible women, Ally Vickers, Juliana Hoffpauir and Tara Cooper, who ran those departments, really put a lot of their brains in these characters as well. But I never got a chance to perform any of these characters for Rick until the day. He didn't know what I was doing with those characters until I stepped out and I started talking on camera.

Richard Linklater: I was feeling a little insecure, just because I hadn't fully seen everything. And then Glen would step out of the van as this freak, and everyone would just die laughing. Each hitman got its own response, right? It was really fun. But Glen certainly went off the deep end, and you couldn't be too over the top, really. Because it's all make believe. So, we found out there wasn't any top to go over. It was all believable in its own crazy way to the client, to what this person would think a hitman would be.

Which hitman got the biggest reaction?

Richard Linklater: They got different reactions. The redneck who's shooting skeet, that got no reaction, because people thought he was a real guy! They didn't know it was Glen. I think people thought he was just somebody's friend, some crew member or someone from this area of Louisiana. That was amazing. So that was the least response, because no one even knew it was him. And then I think the other extreme was probably Dean, who's the orange-haired, freckle-faced psychopath. When the van door opened and out stepped this freak, it was like, "Oh my God!" [Laughs.] It was the last day of shooting, and I just could not believe what was coming my way. What's so crazy about that scene is the guy he's acting with, Richard Robichaux, is hilarious, but I don't think anyone is noticing what funny, crazy s**t he's saying, because they're just staring at Glen's crazy character.

Glen Powell: It was such a blast, but we didn't want it to overstay its welcome, because, at the end of the day, the movie really starts when Madison walks in the door. That's really what the movie is about. It's just where the musical chairs, luckily, stops. If it stopped on [the freckle-faced psychopath], if that's the fantasy that he brought to Madison, it would be a very different movie. But the music stopped on Ron, that's the identity that he chose for her, and that's the one that he gets stuck in. That's the one that brings all this wonderful life out of him.


Richard, as a filmmaker, was there something you got to do on Hit Man that you'd never had the chance to do before?

Richard Linklater: I think what I don't do so naturally — but for this it was absolutely necessary — is a lot more plot twists and turns. My twists and turns have been very subtle. They've never had the life-and-death stakes of this and the true danger. I wanted it to be a comedy, but then it gets really real, really dark, and you fear for our couple. I wanted it to be that kind of thrill ride.

Glen Powell: This movie has it all, including the first sex scene in a Linklater movie. I think there's sexual elements, obviously, in some of his movies, but I believe we are the first Richard Linklater sex scene. And these are pretty hot and heavy scenes. I think sex is really hard to do in movies, because you've seen every version of it, right? But that section is so crucial. You have to be in the POV of Gary, you have to be really falling for Madison and experiencing this degree of passion so that you're leaving logic at the door and, on the other side, you can clearly see he's going to do things very out of character for Gary. This sex scene has to operate as a magic trick within our movie, and we talked a lot about, "How do we do that? How do we give audiences something that feels refreshing and doesn't make them disengage with the movie, but actually makes them engage?"

We did this thing where Rick, Adria and I, we would find paintings, or sculptures, or magazines that made us go, "Ooh, this is sexy." It didn't have to be something dirty, or lascivious, nothing like that. It could just be a profile of someone's neck. It could be the posture of two people intertwined in a way that, in an instant, in that frame, you saw exactly what it represented. It was actually tasteful, and Adria was so vital to that process, because this had to have the female gaze as well. Females have to engage with this, and be like, "That is the sexiest montage ever!" In my opinion, I think the scene really works in a way that sex hasn't worked on-screen for a very long time, because it feels new, it feels fresh, and it feels more inspired.

Glen, when I think about your body of work, I feel like you could have chemistry with a cement wall. What, have you found, is the secret to good on-screen chemistry?

Glen Powell: It's casting. Chemistry really is not an easy thing to find. I think that I've had the benefit of working with some really amazing co-stars that make that job really easy, and Adria is just — she is far from a cement wall, I'll tell you that much. [Laughs.] She was very easy to have chemistry with. I think chemistry, for me, comes down to comfortability, and trust, and play. If someone is down, if you trust them, if you're comfortable with them, and they're down to play, you can find that trust. Then that electricity is there, because it's the funnest job on the planet! As long as people aren't awkward, and you've talked about it, and you trust that no one is there for the wrong reasons, it's the hilarious day on set. It really is. The way you shoot sex scenes is very different from what it looks like on the screen. But, at the end of the day, it still has to be intimate, in its own way. There has to be trust there, and fun there, and I think that's the thing that I've benefited from, from anyone I've shared the screen with is we trust each other, and we're down to play.

Richard Linklater: Adria and Glen are amazing, and that's a sexy couple, man. It was so weird when we premiered it in the fall, because the actor strike was going on. So, I would show up at a festival and say, "I've made a sexy couple movie, but I don't have my sexy couple... So, enjoy the film!"

Richard, I've interviewed Ethan a couple times in recent years about his directorial efforts. With him, and now with Glen, do you feel like you have a sense of which actors are destined to step behind the camera too?

Richard Linklater: I would say, yeah, I used to have that inclination, but you don't really know. You don't know if people want to take that leap. With Glen, I wouldn't be surprised. I could see him at some point saying, "You know what, maybe I'll direct this one." He doesn't seem driven necessarily quickly to do that, so I don't know.

Glen Powell: We'll do it at some point. Not anytime soon, but at some point.

By John Boone


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