Interview O’Shea Jackson Jr talks Den of Thieves

We spoke to the Straight Outta Compton star about starring in an action thriller without getting his hands dirty.

This month, Gerard Butler returns to the action arena with his London Has Fallen director Christian Gudegast for Den of Thieves, a heist thriller with enough muscle to give you gym envy.

Den of Thieves follows a notorious, elite crew of bank robbers as they plan a seemingly impossible heist on the Federal Reserve Bank of downtown Los Angeles… right under the noses of the State’s most feared police unit.

DIY spoke to Jackson Jr. about what it was like to star in an action thriller where he doesn’t actually get his hands dirty, being a constant punching bag by the cast throughout the film and working with the action veteran, Butler and more.

We last saw you in Ingrid Goes West and your character Donnie couldn’t be any more different, what was that one defining element that really made you want to get this role?
I felt I needed an action movie. I wanted to show my range as an actor. After Ingrid Goes West, I felt like Ingrid was such a big jump from how people normally see me from Straight Outta Compton. I needed to step back into that darker realm. A crime action drama, you can’t get darker than that.

When I met with Christian Gudegast [Director], Den of Thieves is his baby. I saw how passionate he was about it. What with both of us being film students I kind of felt that same way I felt back in school. I really wanted to see it through with him. On top of me wanting to show my range and to see all the opportunities a character like this presented to me, and just how passionate the people behind the film were.

The plot comes across as a straight up heist thriller with lots of gun fighting but it has a clever twist. What was your reaction on reading the script and seeing the action unfold?
It made me excited. To be a part of a film where people think they know where it’s going but we can flip it on it, a good twist can make you a classic film. It caught me by surprise just as well. I really hope that audiences are blown away by it. Personally, I like the film [laughs].

Your character, even though we don’t see as much of you say as Gerard Butler, is integral to the plot but you never get your ‘hands dirty’. How much did you want to join in those shoot outs?
Oh man! I was always complaining that in Straight Outta Compton I never even got to shoot a gun, I never got to do nothing cool. Yeah, it was my Dad [Ice Cube] and I got to perform classics but I got into movies to do stuff I don’t normally do [laughs], that was the main goal. I was dying to get in and do some rough and tough stuff.

I went to the boot camp with the guys. We had special forces training and weapons training with our instructor Paul — he didn’t have any last name for me to give you — It was fun to be there with the guys but I’m not going to act like I wasn’t complaining after a while. I’m the driver; I’m not here to do all the shooting, I’m here to wait in the car for you guys.

Now there is a sequence where you could have been auditioning for the sequel to Edgar Wright’s Baby Driver – did you actually get to spend any ‘real’ time behind the wheel?
Christian let me drive that Mustang a little bit; I got to punch it a little bit in the party scene where he first gives me the keys. He made sure I was completely safe. It’s definitely a cool side of my character; you can’t help but love being a bad ass.

We get an element of comedy out of it as well, especially with Donnie. No matter what side, either the crew of bank robbers or the police you took a few beatings. That had to be frustrating?
Oh my God! You know I complained about that. I’m all about looking cool, that is the main thing with film, with me, Shea has to look cool… and I don’t even get to look cool this whole movie [laughs]. Everybody’s like getting a piece of Donnie, everybody’s kicking Donnie’s ass. But, you know hopefully, Donnie will be able to prevail in the end!

Gerard Butler couldn’t take his hands of your face on your first encounter and seemed to take much pleasure out of slapping your face. At any point did your reflexes want to slap him back?
Gerard is super chilled, super professional. In that beginning choking scene, he was trying to figure out the best way to do it without actually choking me. I had to let him know that I’m a pro wrestling fan. I’ve been fake fighting my whole life; I have an older brother, I’ve been choked before [laughs]. It was definitely alright to just go for it. I had to push that big arm of his up a little bit, just to let him know: “Dude, I’m fine.” After a while, when I started to see everyone’s faces in the room and asking me if I’m alright, I started to think I might do this acting thing more [laughs].

Did you get hurt at any point?
Oh yeah! Oh My God, that scene where I’m on the bridge and I’m walking and we had just pulled a heist off. They pick me up in the truck, wrestling me into the truck. There is a scene where Gerard has to punch me in the back seat. He had these rings on, and we connected one time and we ruined the take. [Doing his best Gerard Butler gravelling voice] “Oh my God, are you OK?” That was definitely one time of connection.

Most of the male cast are a lot larger in bulk than you, could this be a bit intimidating or were they just big teddy bears?
I definitely wanted to be the sore thumb; I didn’t want anyone at all to expect this guy… I didn’t want to fit in the crew; I wanted to come across as the obvious weak link until….. [Spoiler omitted]

A lesson my father taught me is to always win the mental warfare, so once I meet you I’m in your head already [laughs]. I love seeing people super serious and being able to break them. When you’re on camera with me the best thing to do is to just remember that I’m sparring with you the same way you’re sparring with me.

Butler teams up with his London Has Fallen director Christian Gudegast again for Den of Thieves, how much of this relationship helped the filming process?
Oh, they were definitely buddy cops the entire time [laughs]. Christian is hands-on with all of us. Any information we needed, any kind of thing we wanted to talk about as far as our characters went he was open to it. He is the type of director who wants you to have his number, so you can call and talk to him, whether it’s on the day or the night before. He is the type of director you would love to work with because of how hands-on he is. Him and Gerard, having a history, he had his back along with all of ours.

Butler is an old hand at action movies and he is a producer on this as well, did he give you a few helpful nuggets of advice?
Yeah, pace yourself because you never know how many takes you’re going to have to do [laughs]. Gerard and I had a couple of cool moments on set. He let me know when I was killing it; he kind of let me know I was number 301. Which obviously means that I win, because in the 300 you all day, so 300-1 that guy survives? So you know I was definitely into that [laughs].

Does this know make you want to do more action or are you happy to keep mixing it up?
I definitely want to keep mixing it up, but it certainly has given me the appetite for action because almost immediately after we finished Den of Thieves I had to go back to Atlanta to do Godzilla: King of Monsters. I play a soldier in that film. So I was able to use some of the Special Forces training that Den of Thieves gave me. As an actor, I will let every actor know that you need some space between these action movies because you might kill yourself.

Den Of Thieves is out in UK cinemas now.

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