When it comes to finding unmined cinematic talent, who knew to look in a Baltimore high school principal’s office?
Such was the case on how the production of White Boy Rick found fresh face Richie Merritt to play notorious 1980s Detroit drug kingpin and undercover law informant Rick Wershe Jr. after casting a net throughout U.S., UK and Australia.
“‘How about you talk to him?'” Merritt remembers his principal saying to the White Boy Rick casting team.
“But it was his first time getting into trouble,” says Matthew McConaughey winking to the camera at Deadline’s TIFF studio.
Pin it to Merritt’s authenticity and similarity in background to Wershe as the reasons why Studio 8 and Sony rolled the dice on the untested Merritt. From the onset in auditions, it was clear to director Yann Demange that the teenager became the anchor which McConaughey could pivot around in scenes.
“He’s not necessarily trying to emote like a trained actor,” says Demange, “He doesn’t have an actor’s instinct where he goes ‘This is where I go for my big moment…He’s always trying to find his own truth.”
Demange, who previously helmed the Belfast riot film ’71, was drawn to the script due to the young protagonist being “tribe-less, which is something I could identify with personally being of mixed race, and never really having a sense of tribe, always being an outsider wherever I go.”
As such, the movie sets up an interesting family dynamic which White Boy Rick segues between: His own crazed, loose cannon Wershe clan and the calm Curry drug runners which he infiltrates. For McConaughey, his part as papa Rick Sr. was a Fredo Corleone role of sorts from The Godfather.
“He (Rick Jr.) becomes the breadwinner, he’s my hero, he’s my champion,” says McConaughey on how Rick Sr. remained indebted to his offspring.
“I’m a guy in between a bullet and a target, in between the times, in between the future and the past,” says the Dallas Buyers Club best actor Oscar winner about Rick Sr., “He’s stuck and paralyzed and he’s living on a dream, and he figures if he can keep preaching and saying it enough times, it must just happened — it doesn’t happen. His heart is in the right place, but ill-equipped everywhere else.”
White Boy Rick opens today, forecasted to make between $8M-$10M this weekend.