With Dwayne Johnson's action thriller Snitch coming to Sky Store, we spoke to his co-star Barry Pepper.
Johnson plays John Matthews, who offers to go undercover for the Drugs Enforcement Agency when his teenage son is busted on a minor drug offence and is suddenly looking at decades behind bars.
He plays a Hell’s Angel looking law enforcer who becomes the government’s conscience as the nightmare of Matthews’ situation becomes dangerously real. Pepper told us about what it was like laying down the law to The Artist Formally Known As The Rock, holding his own against Hollywood legend Susan Sarandon (playing a ruthless District Attorney) and the hard graft that goes into making a gritty Hollywood thriller.
Sky Movies: What can audiences expect from Snitch?
Barry Pepper: The story is based on a true story that took place in the 90s and was featured on a TV show called Frontline. A young teenager was caught with a small amount of drugs and was sentenced to 10-15 years, and his father went to the prosecutor and asked what he could do, saying his son was not a drug dealer and this would ruin his life.
The prosecutor told him he needed to offer up another drug dealer. Where the film takes off is our father, played by Dwayne Johnson, works with the prosecutor and tries to entrap a drug dealer and offer information to the court in exchange for his son’s freedom.
SM: When I saw the trailer I wasn’t sure if Dwayne Johnson would be able to play a regular Joe in an extraordinary situation, but when I saw the film I thought he did an excellent job.
BP: It was a great choice by (director) Rick Roman Waugh to go with someone as big and intimidating as Dwayne, because he wanted to make a statement. Here’s a powerful looking guy, but this is the real world and it doesn’t matter how big you are, you have no chance when you enter the drug trafficking world.
In the first 10 or 15 minutes of the film, we see Dwayne’s character John on the ground getting beaten up by drug dealers and that drives home the point this is a very real world, not Hollywood.
SM: The character you play was interesting. Could you tell me about him?
BP: I play Agent Billy Cooper, a DEA team leader, and his back story is he would’ve spent four years in Iraq or Afghanistan and then transferred into federal law enforcement as an undercover agent. The back story I created was that he worked with the Hell’s Angels, so when you meet him he’s covered in tattoos with a big beard, a very nomadic looking character. Not your typical law enforcement agent look.
SM: Did you work with real DEA agents to get that authenticity?
BP: Director Rick Roman Waugh had worked as a parole officer in prison for his previous film, Felon. He built up relationships with drug offenders, Hell's Angels, the military and DEA and a lot of other interesting contacts and he brought them to Snitch.
My driver on the film was a DEA agent so I was able to talk to him on the way to set and then work with him all day long. He also brought in military specialists and the guy who worked with me throughout the film was ex-Delta Force, who shaped my mindset to put together who Agent Cooper was, coming from a military background into law enforcement.
All the actors in my character’s team were active and ex-military. It was total immersion and an amazing way to work as I never had to look outside the set for information.
SM: Have those specialists seen Snitch and what did they think?
BP: Yeah, and they thought it was exceptionally authentic, which is what they were looking for and why they worked with Rick. Rick delivers that level of authenticity.
SM: You’ve been in more films similar to Snitch than Dwayne. Was he asking you for advice on ways to approach his performance?
BP: We had minor rehearsals before we started, but it was more fleshing out the script, going for that authenticity. We didn’t get the scenes up and running until the day and in that situation it becomes obvious in the room if you’re not up to speed.
But, Dwayne was fantastic. I thought he did a tremendous job and he wasn’t off-note the entire piece. I was impressed with his versatility. He dropped a lot of weight for this film, but also had a big wrestling event and G.I. Joe around the same time. He was massive for both those projects, but for Snitch he had to become less imposing and small, nervous and out of his depth.
We had scenes where my character had to lay into him and put him on his heels. Now I’m 170lbs and he’s 250, and he was able to make those scenes real because he put himself in that weaker role.
Dwayne doesn’t have to do these kinds of film; he’s successful and extremely wealthy because of his action films and his wrestling, so doesn’t have to challenge himself as an actor in films like Snitch. But I think it raised the bar for him as an actor and showed his audience he is much more versatile than what they’ve seen before.
SM: When we first see your character, we’re not sure if he’s a good guy or bad guy, but in a way becomes the conscience of the film. The film’s based on a true story and seems to say there is a certain unfairness to the process that puts people like John Matthews into this position.
BP: Absolutely, you’ve hit the nail right on the head. In a previous operation my character lost an informant, they died on his watch. So he’s jaded and unable to connect with another informant, and when John comes into his life he holds him at arm’s length.
So like you said, when you first meet Cooper you’re not sure what he’s thinking and feeling and you’re not sure if he’s a good guy or bad guy. But, he just doesn’t want to open himself up like that again. And when dealing with Keegan, Susan Sarandon’s character, Cooper has to be the moral compass in the field.
From the top down there’s a complicated web of lies and coercion and you have to be judge and jury, navigating around these conflicting agendas. It’s easy for Keegan, because Cooper’s dealing with real lives in the moment, making split decisions and living with the consequences, whereas she’s living in a bureaucratic world of numbers and convictions rates.
Cooper is only in the film for a brief chapter and I would have enjoyed exploring him even further. You realise these guys are in a very difficult position.
SM: I think you should speak to Rick and pitch for a spin-off.
SM: And why was he the guy for the job of helming Snitch?
BP: Rick’s background is stunts and his father is a legendary stuntman, so Rick followed in his footsteps. Through being in that stunt world he’s met a series of interesting guys and earned a real level of respect in that community.
He was able to bring that to the action side of the film to make it feel real, with the best of the best stunt teams who could pull of the big spectacles like the end freeway chase on a lesser budget than most directors could achieve.
But, he also knows what actors need to create a role and as I said opened up all his resources to me through the people he knew. And after providing these tools he steps back so you can work with them and is supportive with any experimentation to bring a scene to life as authentically as possible.
SM: Were there moments of levity on the set?
BP: The work was intense, but the personalities on this film, Rick, Dawyne and Susan, were all real easy to be around. Dwayne is this remarkable guy, full of life and energy with this 1000 megawatt smile, really lifting the set in those darker, heavier moments. The conditions were difficult, shooting a lot of nights and the weather was cold and miserable. So, a guy like Dwayne in a picture like this is a blessing, to keep it fun and enjoyable.
SM: Final question. You’re an actor who, if the part demands it, is willing to grow pretty impressive facial hair. I’m assuming it’s all your own
BP: (Laughs) Yeah, sometimes they’ll add a little piece because often you don’t have a lot of time to prepare for a role because you’re off doing something else clean shaven. In those instances you have to get the glue, but I prefer to grow my own because you can work with it, pull on it, eat and whatever and it stays on.
SM: Can we expect to see you clean shaven in a movie in the near future?
BP: Yeah, I just played a US Federal prosecutor in a film with Jeremy Renner called Kill The Messenger and in that I’m clean shaven, cropped and in a fine suit!
Snitch is available to rent on Sky Store from Monday 28th October.