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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  1. I dont have a problem with the casting of the big three: Rapp, Kennedy, Hurley; other than what you had mentioned about the age difference between the actors playing Rapp and Kennedy. That being said, Taylor Kitsch has been the weakest link in every movie he’s been in. True Detective (Not all his fault. That was doomed from the start), John Carter from Mars, Lone Survivor. He is the one factor of the film I question. Scripts deviate from books and as you also stated: the Flynns have a lot of say who is cast. But unless Kitsch is playing Victor, I’m concerned.

  2. Very well written, Ryan. I consider myself the 2nd biggest Mitch Rapp fan, behind only “The Rappologist” and I’m excited for the film adaptation & have no issues with their casting choice.

    Keep an open mind & give these professional film makers a chance.

  3. I don’t mind the pragmatic adaptation approach. It worked for the original Bourne film trilogy, it worked for the first three James Bond films and there’s no reason why it shouldn’t work here.

    Good on you Ryan for hitting the nail on the head with how too many fans are still stuck in the mindset that Mitch should be in his 40’s, when he’s only at the start of his career and just out of University.

    If they wanted an older actor, they should have just supported Tom Cruise for the role! (LOL, just kidding, and the man’s dance card is full with three films later this year and in 2017)

    Regarding Irene, I distinctly remember a passage in “Term Limits”, where she and FBI Agent Skip are chatting about their backgrounds. Kennedy mentions that her mom was Jordanian. Now I’m not sure if Vince retconned that passage when he moved onto the Rapp series but maybe that influenced the casting decision somewhat.

    Also, the original material was set in the 1990’s and tied into Lebanon’s civil war. movie going public has short memories so an update was in order. What’s more, if they picked the “follow book to letter route”, they could only film in either Israel or Jordan because the Lebanese and Hezbollah in particular throw a hissy fit about productions that explore the past that they want to hide under the rug.

    By doing a pragmatic adaptation, they can increase the scope and retain relevance in the age of Daesh, something which from the plot description they appear to be trying to do.

    As for Mr Taylor Kitsch, I’m okay with him. I recall Ian Fleming dismissing Sean Connery as a “jumped up bricklayer” during the filming of Dr No and we all know how that turned out!

    When it comes to films, I take Hitchcock’s view that the director and production team are more important than the actors. Give a good actor bad material to work with and the film will be rubbish.

    But give a moderately competent actor good material to work with and you can work wonders.

  4. Good take on the matter. and well done for pointing out an issue many fans seem to be suffering from. Too many are associating Mitch as the 40 something badass from the later books, which is understandable considering we see him the most in that period of his life. It’s amusing that they forget he’s out of college in American Assassin….do they want a 40 something university graduate as the character?!?!

    Ian Fleming dismissed Sean Connery as a jumped up bricklayer during the filming of Dr No and we all know how that turned out! One needs to wait till the trailers and promotional images come out to form even a half decent opinion of Ktisch as Rapp.

    Gerard Butler would be utterly ridiculous if he had been cast in the role, just as bad as the 50 something Tom Cruise whom so many readers got their knickers in a twist about (not that he’s ever going to appear with a packed schedule in 2017).

    I’m not unhappy with the pragmatic adaptation approach. Original material was set in the 1990’s and tied into Lebanon’s civil war. Movie going public has short memories so an update was in order.

    What’s more, if they picked the “follow book to letter route”, they could only film in either Israel or Jordan because the Lebanese and Hezbollah in particular throw a hissy fit about productions that explore the past that they want to hide under the rug. The opening of the Homeland Season 2 tv show for starters had them frothing at the mouth at Howard Gordon when he portrayed the seedier parts of Beirut, like Vince did in A.A.

    A pragmatic adaptation allows them more flexibility and a chance to expand the scope. It worked for the first three James Bond films, it worked for the first three Jason Bourne films and if done right, there’s no reason why it can’t work here. And as I recall, Vince accepted the fact changes would be made, but did wrangle one request out of the producer, namely to not turn Mitch into a miquetoast and keep him the young talented badass like in the book.

    Regarding Kennedy’s actor. I recall in “Term Limits” a passage where she’s discussing her background with the FBI agent Skip. She mentions that her mom was a native Jordanian. I’m not sure whether Flynn retconned that when moving to the Rapp series but perhaps that explains the casting choice.

    As for Kitsch, I’m not unhappy or upset. He has a good a chance as any actor to make the role something that will gain the respect of readers, and wow moviegoers. Personally, I take a view similar to Alfred Hitchcock regarding films. It’s the production team and director who are the most important parts of a film, rather than the actors.

    You can have a good actor in the lead, but give him bad material and he won’t have much to work with. But give a competent but not outstanding actor good material and you can work wonders. That’s what happened with Sean Connery who had only started his career before hitting it big with Bond, and if the writers do a good job, and the production team manage to make what happens on the screen compelling, that’s 3/4 of the work done.

    • Oh dear. Because this is the first time I’ve commented here, I didn’t realize that it takes a lot of time for posts on wordpress to appear. Very sorry Ryan, didn’t mean to spam the comments section. Could you lend a hand here and delete one of the two detailed and large comments I made and this one? Either one can make the other redundant. Thanks, and good article!

  5. Good analysis Ryan. But I personally don’t want the Rapp franchise to be misinterpreted by the fans who watch only the movies, which are so different, plot-wise from Flynn’s masterpiece. The book turned out so good only due to the civil war setting in Beirut, where Rapp goes undercover, i.e gets captured to rescue Hurley from torture which is too vivid. The intro of Kitsch’s character into the plot seems unnecessary and there is no world war 3 plot in the book! Flynn wouldn’t want his work to be perverted by extra plots. Stay true to the book. Its too good as it is. The reason I don’t want the movie to be too different from the books is that-none of my friends at college have even heard of Rapp, and I don’t want them to know him in the version painted by the movies which shadows the books like the Bourne series. Since the Bourne series has been perverted in the movies, the majority of the audiences know him as portrayed in the movies and haven’t even heard of the books. Tom Clancy’s work is still read as his books haven’t become mainstream movies in a serious aspect. Flynn’s legacy mustn’t be spoiled by changing the plot to suit the movie which gives the people a wrong impression of the books.

  6. Cheers to you for pointing out that race of a character has nothing to do with how awesome they are! As for Dylan O’Brien, he wasn’t my first choice (actually I didn’t even have someone in mind) but I like him. He’s a great young actor who has a ton of potential and playing a character like Mitch Rapp will do nothing but help him grow as an actor. I’m nervous about the movie, but I look forward to it. Having just started the series and finishing up Transfer of Power I hope the movie does well enough to turn it into a franchise so we can all see Dylan grow into the character that everyone loves.

  7. Having just seen the trailer I am disappointed in what I see. The only thing good about them has been Keaton as Stan Hurley. I think they have strayed way to far from the book. Although Dylan is a fine young actor I just don’t see him as Mitch, and Sanaa, while a fine and beautiful actress, is to old to be Irene. While this may be an extremely entertaining movie I see this as another Jack Reacher. Why can’t Hollywood leave an excellent story alone when they Adapt them.

  8. why does Hollywood feel the need to continually change the plot and characters And the authors intentions in a book. Vince Flynns books are one of my all-time favorite and I am extremely disappointed in this film adaptation and casting.

  9. Have read them all and sent them all to my son who has been in a sense a real life Mitch Rapp primarily in the ME — Iraq, Kurdistan, Syria, Lebanon, etc. Speaking for both of us, he says the changes are trivial — the fact that the movie(s) have been and will be made is the important thing. Movies that in the Obama era were considered to PiC to make, that would possibly “offend” foreign audiences, etc, are now, in the era of Trump going to be made. Vince would have voted for Trump, btw.

  10. I just saw the Mitch Rapp movie this afternoon. I am a die-hard fan. I typically refer to Mitch as though he were a close personal friend; or I ask the rhetorical “what would Mitch Rapp do in this scenario?”; or the obvious “Mitch would have easily taken care of this situation by now”; and “why hasn’t he shot anyone in the kneecap yet?!”

    Initially I was put off by the size of the actor playing Mitch, but then I remembered that, although this is one of the last books in the series, chronologically speaking, it is the beginning of his career with the CIA, etc. So I could get past the lack of bulk. I thought the height was more an issue than the bulk. Mitch was supposed to be 6′ or 6’1″? If this guy was taller than 5’9″, i’d be shocked.

    Putting the physical discrepancies aside, I thought the portrayal of Mitch’s character was so OUT OF sync with the Mitch that is described in the books. One example: Mitch is always, always hyper-aware of his surroundings, but never, ever stone-faced-full-on-hardcore-stare. He usually uses a newspaper, cell phone – ANYthing to make him blend in and seem uninterested in the activities going on around him. I know their goal was his intensity, but I think his ease at blending in with the locals would have gone a lot further in establishing who Mitch Rapp is. Let me correct myself, though. He does give the cold-as-ice-you-are-a-dead-man stare when he is walking directly at a target. But in those scenarios, he wants his presence to be known; he isn’t attempting to be covert.

    As for Irene…I’ll admit it took me a split second to even know who the character was. But her skin color was by no means the issue. I’m going only by memory, because I always read library books. I think she was described as being relatively petite? (I could be wrong about this point). But I do know Vince went into great detail about Irene’s physical image. She was an immaculate dresser; fitted, tailored suits; her hair was usually in some type of professional up-do; i think he typically described her as wearing one classic piece of jewelry (pearl necklace, maybe?). She certainly didn’t trudge around in some over-sized peacoat-trenchcoat combination. She was described as always presenting the calmest of facades, even when her brain was racing a million miles a minute. And I don’t remember Irene cursing ~ ever. Let alone the mack-daddy “f” word.

    Hurley’s casting was neither here nor there for me, because I hadn’t created such a strong physical image in my mind’s eye. But Michael Keaton’s portrayal of Hurley was fabulous. In fact, it was the highlight of the entire movie, in my opinion.

    As for the storyline. It didn’t even begin to touch on the really interesting things that Vince included in his books. The undercover, secret inner workings of the government and our politicians. How they are willing to say one thing in one setting, and then talk out of the other side of their mouth when in front of a different audience. Those are the extras that made the Mitch Rapp series addictive.

    I guess all in all, I’m glad the entertainment industry finally, finally had the cajones to get this movie made. Vince tried for how many years to get this accomplished while he was alive? A ridiculous amount of time ~ too long, that’s all I know.

    Maybe my expectations were too high? Personally, I would have rather waited even longer for something that was truer to the essence of the books.

    Either way, Vince Flynn’s books brought a new level of entertainment that I sorely miss. May he rest in peace.

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