On the surface, the latest hardboiled thriller from S. Craig Zahler (Bone Tomahawk, Brawl in Cell Block 99) is all about the cop characters played by Mel Gibson and Vince Vaughn. However, once you see the film, it quickly becomes evident that Henry Johns, a small-time con played by Tory Kittles actually challenges the audience’s interest in this skilfully designed multi-narrative.
“He is a great writer,” says Kittles when we speak to him on the phone from London where he is performing in a play. “The screenplay reads like a novel, but you can see it as well. He paints this picture, but it is very poetic in a lot of ways. In some ways, more gruesome, like the way he details the violence. But it’s always specific, he’s not doing it in a gratuitous matter. He’s doing it to tell a story.”
Unlike Vaughn and Gibson’s corrupt cops, Kittles’ character is sympathetic from the very first scene, returning home from a stint in prison to find his drug addicted mum entertaining a john, and his disabled, neglected younger brother seeking a role model.
“In a lot of ways, I could have been him,” says Kittles. “I grew up in the mid ‘80s. I have three friends that were killed in the same year. It was just decisions that sent them down that path. Not that I’m holier than thou, I could have easily been them, it’s just that luck was on my side in a lot of situations. What I understood was that he is a good guy at heart. He’s flawed for sure, but underneath it all I thought he had a very heroic nature. And I thought that he was really intelligent and patient. It is almost like he was playing chess the whole time; he was seeing ten moves ahead of everyone else.”
Kittles has come a long way since growing up in a small town in Florida, “several hundred people, one stoplight.
“I was just a kid who fell in love with the pictures. I didn’t think coming from where I came from that, that was an option for me. I didn’t know anybody who dared to try to be in pictures or television or plays or any of that stuff. It wasn’t part of my environment. Everyone that I knew were factory workers, or my mum was a nurse. My dad worked in a factory and my grandmother was a teacher. Blue-collar working-class people, all of them had wonderful lives filled with a lot of love but I just fell in love with the pictures. I knew that I wanted to pursue it, I just didn’t know how.”
Studying physical therapy, business and communications in college, Kittles did some extras work on the Kenan & Kel show for Nickelodeon, which is when the acting bug hit. “I just knew that this is what I was going to do.”
His big break came with Joel Schumacher’s Tigerland. “I had a featured mark, but it wasn’t really major. Joel kept adding things for me to do. He would say ‘Why don’t you take this or add that’ and then one day he comes up to me and goes ‘Why don’t you write a song for the movie’, and it was very serendipitous because we were shooting the movie on a base that my grandfather was stationed at during World War Two.
“I go over by a tree and I write this song in like five minutes. It just sort of came. I go back to Joel and I say ‘Hey, I wrote something’, and he said, ‘sing it for me’. I sang it for him, and he said, ‘Let’s film it, let’s put it in the movie’, and he did, and after that he goes ‘What are you doing after this movie is over?’ I didn’t have a clue. He said he’ll help me out.”
Since then, Tory Kittles has appeared in various films (Get Rich or Die Tryin’, Stop-Loss, Olympus Has Fallen, The Sapphires) and TV shows (Sons of Anarchy, True Detective), but his biggest, and most eye-catching role comes in Dragged Across Concrete.
He snagged the role after Zahler saw him doing Shakespeare on the stage. “I read the script, it was one hundred and sixty-five-pages. I read it in one sitting and I just thought that this was incredible because this type of stuff is not getting made anymore. I knew that character it just spoke to me from the page. The next day I get on the phone with Zahler and he was familiar with some of my work. And actually, Vaughn had lobbied him on my behalf. He was like ‘You have to check out Tory Kittles’.
“We talked on the phone maybe 30-40 minutes. And we have some similarities. He’s from Florida, I’m from Florida and I just said to him that ‘I know this character, I know this guy and I can do this for you really well’. And he said, ‘Okay, I’m going to offer it to you’. And it happened just like that, but I credit doing the play and not being able to audition. Sometimes when you go and audition it doesn’t really work out. I really appreciate directors like that with vision. It may not be the obvious choice for everyone else in the industry, sometimes you want to go with a bigger name or something like that, but he was like ‘No, you’re going to be my guy’ and that doesn’t happen often.”
Dragged Across Concrete is in cinemas August 29, 2019