After decades of working in Hollywood, Theo Rossi has boiled down the essentials of the business and acting into kernels of truth. Luckily for us, he’s generous enough to share his wisdom. The actor has a wide array of experiences to pull from — he was a part of the popular show Sons of Anarchy, and more recently, he was Shades in Luke Cage, part of Marvel’s expansive universe. He’s also now collaborating with Zack Snyder, the director behind huge films like 300 and Watchmen and the mind behind the newly-released edit of Justice League.
Rossi was eager for the chance to work with Snyder on Army of the Dead, taking on the role of Burt Cummings. In post-apocalyptic Las Vegas, Cummings fights zombies and humans alike as the large ensemble cast races to scoop up millions sitting in a vault. Rossi describes Cummings as both laughable and horrifying, a character who is both a part of the group yet still an outsider. But be it intrigue, action or gore, Army of the Dead has it all — just like Rossi himself. Schön! spoke to Rossi ahead of the release for some insight into the film and his life on and off screen.
How have you adapted your approach to acting as the industry changed since you first got into the business?
I believe no matter how much this business changes and evolves, what goes down between action and cut will always remain the same. That is the search for the truth. Trying my absolute hardest to make every single beat and second on screen as absolutely honest and real as possible. We might get less takes to do it, and I do feel the pace has accelerated in certain projects, but the search for that truth will always remain the same for me.
You mentioned elsewhere the importance of character actors. What would you say to young aspiring actors who don’t really understand what character acting entails?
All actors are character actors. It’s just a matter of if they truly want to fully explore it or not. I’m not a person that ever gives advice, because this life is an absolutely unique journey to the person who is on the ride. All I would say is: commit. Fully commit to whoever you’re fortunate enough to embody in whatever project it is. You owe it to yourself and those that are giving their precious time to watch you. It might not work all the time, but commit. It’s your job.
Between the heist plot and the zombies in the film, which factor was it that definitively made you want to be a part of Army of the Dead?
The scale of the world for sure, but Zach [Snyder] first and foremost. The incredible cast second. The first step in me being a part of anything is the people involved. Life is too short for any other way. Sometimes it’s unavoidable, especially in a business as strange as this, but there are those rare times everything clicks. This was one of those times.
Even when you’re part of an ensemble cast, you play the character who is kind of the outsider. This was especially true for the later seasons of Sons of Anarchy, and it seems to be true for AotD now. How do you start to zero in on these shifty, conflicted characters’ mentalities?
I’m an outsider by nature. I’m so detached from the machine that is Hollywood in many, many ways in my life. I’ve also always had the dual nature of someone who never feels like they truly fit in yet at the same time tries to see and analyse where everyone is coming from to understand them more. I’ve been studying the act of human behaviour since I can remember, focusing my sight on others. For me it all bases down to two emotions: fear and love. When you realise everything we do in this life spawns from those two emotions, we are all outsiders.
When you’re part of a project with a director who has a signature style, a project with a huge budget — and huge expectations that come along with that money — how do you find room to add your own ideas to a character?
With someone like Zach, it’s the easiest thing in the world. It’s his world, and he knows every single solitary thing that is going on and happening but at the same time has zero ego about it. So when we got to dancing on this one it was “let’s try this, let’s try that.” We had so much fun finding and defining in the moment this guy who could have easily just been this horrible character who you hate. Ultimately, we add humour at his expense and start to define him more through creation in the moment. That’s only possible with someone as collaborative as Zach Snyder. You’re just playing and creating with the safety net of people who you know have your back. Most of the character was created in the moment.
What else is there to your character, Burt Cummings?
While he is just an incredibly silly version of a human being, he’s also absolutely terrifying. I say that because he’s the definition of abuse of power. Someone who apparently got through the screening process and is in a position where he can greatly impact what happens to someone. He’s the guy with the little package and the yellow sports car who happens to have a badge. Those to me are the most nefarious motherfuckers who cause the most damage — those types are acting fully out of fear, and we get to poke fun at that for a beat and show how ridiculous he is.
If zombies are metaphors in films, what do you think the zombies are in AotD?
I would say it’s either those who have woken up or those who are still sleeping. Either way it’s dangerous.
How did you feel when you learned AotD was going to be one of the first movies to return to theaters in a pretty big way? Was that something you expected from a Netflix project?
Absolutely did not expect that but it could not happen to a better project or group of people. Right now most of the people I speak to are just looking for a little escapism for a beat, and I hope the ride of Army of the Dead offers that to them. It’s been such a trying time for so many for so long, and anything that can alleviate that, even if only for a beat, is welcome.
In your experience being on set and shooting, what is a similarity and the biggest difference between a lengthy cable drama, a superhero streaming series, and a huge action film that is going to be a big blockbuster hit?
I would say it’s all the same between action and cut, just the surrounding worlds are different. Some it’s the sheer size and others it’s the level of emotion. But all and all it’s always about the collaborative effort of not just those making it but the ones who ultimately view it. When entertainment is good, it’s just another way to show how we are all intrinsically linked. The person who watches is as important as the actor saying the words. In that case all of the projects, no matter the genre or size, are all the same.
In other interviews, you talked about how difficult it was to get started with your career because casting directors didn’t know what roles to cast you in on account of your race. You also said that representation is getting much better now that people of colour are writing more and more stories. How do you hope the industry keeps growing and improving?
Tell the stories and show the faces of all those that are paying their hard earned money and offering their precious time. What makes our world so beautiful is how absolutely unique and different every single thing that exists in it is. The power of entertainment is that when it’s good it can stick with you forever. It can shift your perspective. It can bring out every emotion we are capable of, and most of the time, joy. Shouldn’t everyone be able to see themselves reflected in that?
When being from Staten Island and hustling during your early career was so formative to your work ethic, how do you show your kids the value of hard work in Austin, Texas, and after your success?
By teaching them that they did not come to this earth but they came from it. They are no different from the trees that grow out of the ground or the birds that fly above us. They must work just as hard as every other thing is working to make sure our world is a better place after they are gone. If I can wish one thing upon my two young sons before I depart it would be awareness. Awareness of others, awareness of their strength, awareness of how beautiful this whole journey is if you just work with it, not against it.
You’ve spoken so positively about the grind involved with pursuing an acting career, learning to make obstacles your assets, negatives into positives. Do you have any words of advice to get us through the (hopefully) last weeks of lockdown?
Stay in the pocket. Stay exactly in the moment you’re in right now. Read this line and only think about this. Read the next and so on and so on. Feeding yourself is not just done through food and drink but also through what we ingest in our mind and time. This whole thing is over in a blink: be kind to yourself. If you aren’t how can you expect others to be?
What’s something you’re excited to do now that the States is starting to open back up? Are there any other projects in the works, be it acting, producing, your business ventures or philanthropic work?
Very fortunate on the acting, producing, etc. front that we have a very large slate of projects dropping this year all the way into next. Same with our other businesses and ventures. While that’s all great and I truly am so appreciative, it all means absolutely nothing to me if I can’t continue to try to be the example, not just to my young sons, but also to who I was yesterday. I’m just trying to grow as a person at all times. Learn more, love more, live more. I’m a seeker of trying to understand as much as I can before I hit that deepest sleep. Like I said, if my world and those around me are even a degree better when I go, then my job was accomplished. The career stuff is great, but it’s irrelevant if I can’t do that.
Army of the Dead is currently in cinemas and streaming on Netflix.
photography. James Pereira
fashion. Nicholas J Sauer + Emma Sauer
talent. Theo Rossi
grooming. Joanna Pensinger @ The Wall Group using Bumble and bumble
casting. Alabama Blonde
8mm bts. Ryan Schaefer
film, development + scans. Last Good Film Lab
words. Dayoung Lee