CBS Films Casts Sanaa Lathan To Play Irene Kennedy In ‘American Assassin’ (Plus My Take On The Movie)

Derek Blanks/CBS Films

Yesterday afternoon, Deadline reported that CBS Films has cast Sanaa Lathan to play the very important role of Irene Kennedy in the film adaption of Vince Flynn’s bestselling novel, American Assassin

Today’s announcement is hardly the only recent news regarding the film. Last month the studio confirmed that Taylor Kitsch signed on to play the movie’s villain. Before that, it was announced that Dylan O’Brien would be playing Mitch Rapp, Flynn’s fictional counterterrorism operative who stars in fifteen novels (two of which have been penned by Kyle Mills, who took over after Flynn died in 2013). 

American Assassin is the first book (chronologically speaking) in Flynn’s series and tells Rapp’s origin story. The first portion of the book is dedicated to his joining the CIA and the training he underwent at the hands of Cold War veteran operative, Stan Hurley. Michael Keaton has been tabbed to play the gruff, tough, and foul-talking Hurley. 

From Deadline

“EXCLUSIVE: CBS Films and Lionsgate have set Sanaa Lathan to play the role of CIA Deputy director Irene Kennedy in American Assassin, the Michael Cuesta-directed adaptation of the bestselling Vince Flynn thriller novel series. She joins Dylan O’Brien, who plays CIA black ops agent Mitch Rapp, Michael Keaton and Taylor Kitsch. Stephen Schiff wrote the script and Lorenzo di Bonaventura is producing with Nick Wechsler. The novel starts off a hoped-for film franchise with Rapp as a CIA recruit who is schooled by Cold War veteran Stan Hurley (Keaton). They are tapped by Kennedy (Lathan) to investigate a wave of seemingly random attacks on military and civilian targets. All this leads to a joint mission with a deadly Turkish agent to stop a mysterious operative (Kitsch) aiming to start a World War in the Middle East.

The Kennedy character is to the 15 Flynn novels what M is to James Bond, rising to the post of CIA director as the novels progress. She is white in the books, but Lathan shone above a large number of actresses who tested for the job as an actress who could grow in the role as her character rises from running strike teams to the heights of power. She got the part. Last seen in Now You See Me 2, Lathan is repped by ICM.”

My Take

Throughout the series, Irene Kennedy is the most prominent and beloved character after Rapp. A fan-favorite for more than a decade, Irene plays a vital role in each novel, both as Rapp’s boss and a close friend. Therefore, book fans who are excited about the movie have been anxiously awaiting news about her casting. In that regard, today’s news was a huge step in the right direction as production is set to get started later this month. 

On the other hand, diehard fans of the book series seem to question the direction of the film’s plot and the casting choices. Unhappy “Rapp assets” have made their opinions known on Twitter and in a closed Facebook group. The overwhelming majority of them are less than thrilled with the casting of both Rapp and Kennedy and take issue with just how far the movie seems to be straying from the book. 

While book fans argue that Dylan O’Brien doesn’t look enough like Rapp, often suggesting actors like Scott Adkins (40), Gerard Butler (46), or Eric Bana (48), it’s important to note that Flynn characterized Mitch as an all-star collegiate lacrosse player and a world-class triathlete who stands around 6’1″ and weighs one hundred and ninety pounds. He has jet-black hair and dark eyes. In the novel, Rapp is just twenty-three when he joins the CIA and begins his training. 

It’s ironic that overly critical long-time fans of the series seem to suggest actors nearly twenty years too old for the role, but don’t want to give O’Brien, who, by all accounts, is the right age and look–though he might need to bulk up just a tad–a fair chance at channeling Rapp. 

Fans’ issues with Irene Kennedy being played by Sanaa Lathan seem to be a mixture of two things. First, in the books, Irene is white. Secondly, she’s only eight years older than Mitch. While O’Brien is just twenty-five, Lathan is forty-four. That age gap doesn’t seem to be sitting well with fans. 

On one hand, I totally get where some of the book fans are coming from with the casting of Mitch. But, to be fair, everyone has their own take and vision for how each character should look. It would be impossible to please every fan while casting any book being made into a movie. 

For fans picturing a big and bulky Rapp, it’s not the movie studio or director’s fault for not casting someone who fits the way you see the character. That’s on you for not picturing Rapp the way the author described him. Same goes for the fans who picture an older Mitch Rapp and are lobbying for one of the actors listed above. If they were making one of the more recent books, where Mitch is indeed in his forties now, I would see your point. But for American Assassin, Dylan O’Brien is, according to the source material (Flynn’s novel), the right age and look.

Part of what makes Irene Kennedy such an important character in the books is that she has a sibling-like relationship with Rapp. Will that still be the case in the film? We’ll find out eventually. 

In defense of CBS Films, and because I actually do like the casting choices so far, I think it’s important to point out that Lathan is a great choice for what the film needs. Unlike in the book, where she played a less high-profile position in the CIA, Kennedy will be the Deputy Director of the world’s most notorious spy agency in the movie. Therefore, it makes sense to have her played by an actress in her forties. Deal with it. 

As far as casting an African American actress to play a character who is Caucasian in the books, those fans need to get over it. I have nothing to say to that and don’t support that narrative. Frankly, Irene’s skin color is not what makes her such a terrific and important character. It’s her instincts, elite-level poker face, and uncanny ability to think one step ahead of her enemies that make her essential to the outcome of each story. Period. 

When you get down to what really makes Irene special, there’s every reason to believe Sanaa Lathan will crush this role. Besides, think of how awesome it will be to see her butting heads with Stan Hurley (Keaton) on-screen! 

In regards to casting Keaton, well, the man can play anything. I’ve got it on good authority that Vince’s wife preferred him over everyone else. There is a crazy side to Stan Hurley, and I can’t wait to see Keaton bring that to life. 

Also, to the book fans, I would say this: What did you expect? Books are always changed and modified when being made into either a movie or a television show. Matt Damon has made four terrific Jason Bourne films, each of which was nothing like the books written by the legendary spy novelist, Robert Ludlum. 

Speaking of Damon, fans of Ludlum’s books originally weren’t thrilled with his casting, either. Actors transform themselves into the characters they are playing. It’s their job. Newsflash, Johnny Depp doesn’t walk around town looking like Jack Sparrow. My point, simply, is that until we see set photos of Dylan in costume, it’s unfair to judge his portrayal of Mitch Rapp. 

As for the changes to the plot, I suggest giving it a chance before deciding one way or the other. If Dylan O’Brien pulls off playing Rapp, and I for one think that he will, that’s the most important thing of all. If Rapp feels real and authentic, the movie will be good no matter what. So pump the brakes, take a deep breath, and let it all play out. 

Lastly, if you love Vince Flynn’s books, try to see this entire situation for what it really is: a no-lose scenario. If the movie comes out and you just can’t get into it, fine. Because the one thing fans and critics have agreed on is that Kyle Mills has done an amazing job stepping in for Flynn and continuing the franchise. No matter what, there will always be the books!

Speaking of… 

The next Mitch Rapp novel, Order To Killis, in my opinion, the best book in the series since Consent To Kill, which is widely regarded as one of the best spy thrillers ever written. Mills hasn’t just continued the Rapp saga, he’s taken the entire series to new heights. Order To Kill blasts its way into bookstores on October 11th, and Mills is signed on for at least one more novel after that.

In the end, some of the concerns book fans share are valid. However, all things considered, there’s plenty of reason to get excited about the American Assassin film and every reason to think it will be a huge hit whenever it does finally make its way into theaters. 



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