“Emily the Criminal” is a movie about how difficult it could get to make ends meet when the world of work keeps putting obstacles in your way, leaving you with no option but live through illegal means. We spoke with Theo Rossi, the co-protagonist of the movie by John Patton Ford alongside Aubrey Plaza, about his character and the inspirations behind it.
Theo opened up with us about his past and present life, between philanthropic goals and Hollywood experiences. Because where our society goes wrong is the understanding of time: oftentimes, we don’t understand how precious it is, what a luxurious currency it is to be able to spend time with the people we want, doing the things we enjoy doing.
Because we all, even outcasts, as human beings, should always deserve a good turnout of opportunities.
What’s your first cinema memory?
That has to be one of the things that have stuck with me the most. The beginning of the blockbuster era. I remember seeing “Star Wars: Return of the Jedi”. I was super young in the theater, and I remember being blown away that Luke had on that black outfit, and he was in total gangster mode. He was just super ready and had upped his game to the next level. Like sith lord boss level. I just remember thinking it was the coolest thing I’d ever seen on a screen.
“Emily the Criminal” was a great success at Sundance Film Festival this year. Your character, Youcef, is a shady supplier of stolen credit cards, who employs people to visit stores and use those credit cards to buy very expensive goods (which are destined to be illegally resold in a second step). What were the first thoughts you had and considerations you made when you got the part and read the script?
When I first read the script, I absolutely loved it. I read it in 35 minutes and couldn’t put it down while I was shooting this other film. It just hit me differently because I hadn’t gotten rid of my own student loans until I booked “Sons of Anarchy” and it made it to the air. It was super late in my career, so I knew all about the struggles of that insurmountable debt and knew all about that world. I had also grown up around a relatively robust criminal element in my environment and within my own family, so it felt familiar.
I was intrigued by the script and story from page one.
How did you approach your character and his questionable way of moving in the world? Did you discover anything new about yourself while wearing his shoes?
I tried to discover what I’ve kind of always felt and it only reiterated my belief in it after reading. That is that the majority of the time I feel no criminal wants to do the crime. At the heart of it, there’s a human being under there that wishes there was another way. We seem to sideline criminals in our society; not understanding why the crime is being done in the first place. If we find the root, we could possibly present other options for people. So, through Youcef, I discovered that there’s always a person who wants a better life. I was hopefully able to find that with the character portrayed in this film.
If you think about yourself, your temper, your personality, your strengths and your weaknesses, would you have rather been a credit card fraudster or a Dummy Shopper in the microworld of the film?
Definitely, the credit card fraudster. I would probably do really well as a dummy shopper because I can keep my resting heart rate relatively low from running all the time. So at least I’d be relatively calm. I also guess I act for a living so that would hopefully help when shopping. But I think I would want to be the one pulling the strings because like they say in the beginning, “We’re not doing anything illegal here so you can call the cops if you want.” Better off sending the dummy shoppers out to do the hustling and take a cut.
There’s this beautiful moment, one of the few intimate ones between Youcef and Emily, in which they daydream about what they would do if they had a great deal of money; she says that she’d use it to just “be free and experience things”, while Youcef plans to buy a big house for his mother. What do you daydream about?
I daydream about building on what I currently have. Taking the ones that are closest to me and being able to alleviate any burden that they have. But there’s just so much you can do, I guess. Expanding on what I’m trying to do now which is taking care of our ranch out here in Austin. I’m surrounded by lots of animals all day and it’s just a very calming life to be in service to them. And of course, my kids and wife as well. So just being surrounded by life and nature is pretty beautiful. I’m always surrounded by growth in life, so the more I can expand on that and refine that, the better. I’m very fortunate as long as I can keep doing that. So, I guess I’m living my daydream currently.
Speaking of your character’s mother, she’s the one who makes an eloquent speech during a lunch scene, saying that God gives every single person their own gift, which sort of becomes their label, right next to their name: so, she recalls the title of the film. If Emily is The Criminal, Youcef is The…? And Theo is The…?
Youssef is the optimist. Theo is the nihilist or the absurdist. Probably more of the absurdist according to Camus’ version. Or maybe just a court jester because of what I do for a living in this life.
So, Theo the Jester.
“Theo the Jester”
Emily experiences a series of dead-end job interviews – a reason for which she ends up working for Youcef to make ends meet. Therefore, the movie typifies the inaccessibility of the world of work, which is also made of way too many overexploited forever (unpaid)-interns. Have you ever had a similar experience? Where does our society go wrong, in this aspect?
Of course, I started as an extra in Hollywood. I started from under the bottom of the bottom. I never knew anyone in this business or even close to it. To get any type of foothold in this crazy game you have to make a ton of sacrifices that involve no pay whatsoever in hopes that it will lead to something bigger. The saying Absolute power corrupts absolutely is in its truest form in Hollywood. So, when those in power know that and are aware they can take advantage thru unpaid work. Not just in this gig I do but in any other. The promise of the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow.
But that rainbow ain’t paying the bills so you have to get creative.
And as for where our society goes wrong? It seems to be built on a hierarchical system. People need training and they need opportunity. The only way we can see someone’s gifts as a person is through realistic opportunity, so I think that’s where we might go wrong. I feel we don’t present opportunities as much as we’d like to believe we do. I’ve found sometimes it’s the opportunity presented without very clear terms and an agenda that serves the ones giving it.
What makes you say “yes” to a project?
It’s always the people.
But besides that, someone told me something recently that I agree with. You do every project for a reason. Sometimes you do a project for a chance to work with specific artists, sometimes you do one for the location they are filming, sometimes you do it for monetary reasons and sometimes you do it for just the pure love of that project. So, there’s always a reason. Some reasons are better than others but all have their place.
You’re an Ambassador to the Boot Campaign, working to raise money for wounded soldiers and those returning with PTSD, you founded the program “Staten Strong” to rebuild three homes for Hurricane Sandy victims on Staten Island, and you launched a campaign with The Humane Society of the United States to protect street dogs. Where does your call to be so involved from a philanthropic point of view come from? What are the main goals you’d love to achieve in the years to come?
I’m a human being on earth. Everything we do in life revolves around community. Everything we do is for connection. The fact that I’m talking to you right now is for connection. The same for the people who read this or listen to this–it’s for a connection. When we watch TV, it’s for connection. When we watch movies like “Emily the Criminal”, it’s for connection. We’re trying to connect, and I believe in this life we’re supposed to help one another. That connection teaches us that we are supposed to be there for each other with no strings attached. If I am in a position where I can help, it’s my duty to help. That’s what I’m supposed to do and that’s what I’m going to hopefully be able to continue to do.
As for the main goals I’d like to achieve in the years to come, I try really hard not to look toward the future. I just try to look towards each moment I’m in. I don’t want to sound all esoteric and strange but I’m just trying to hopefully make everyone around me happy and live their best life, which in turn makes me live my best life. I’m here for some reason and at this point in my life, that reason is to be a figure that is there for those who need me. That’s what I’m trying to do, and that’s what I’ll continue to do. I believe it’s my duty.
What was your biggest act of rebellion?
Most of my existence has been an act of rebellion in one way or another. I’m still rebelling but not nearly as much as I used to. Life has a way of calming you. As the lyric says in the Bob Dylan song, “Mama put my guns in the ground”. I mean, they still come out from time to time but not in the same way. My biggest act of rebellion these days is that I don’t suffer fools lightly anymore. I understand that life is short, and I’m very aware that I’m going to die at any moment. Because even if it’s 100 years from now or tomorrow, either way, will only be a moment. Because I’m so aware of my mortality and with that time is my biggest commodity. It’s the most important currency, so I’ve decided to do things I enjoy with the people I enjoy.
My biggest act of rebellion is that I refuse to fall into the day-to-day nonsense that can easily take hold.
What’s your biggest fear?
I’m fortunate that I don’t have any. I’ve found that once you alleviate the fear of death, you have very little reason to fear anything else.
What does it mean to you to feel comfortable in your own skin?
To just be okay at the moment. I believe it’s hard to ever be fully comfortable in your own skin. We all have uncomfortable moments. It could be from anything in this life. It could be from other people you have to be around. It could be from feeling uncomfortable one day physically or mentally. Or it could just be from something you ate that day. Being comfortable in your own skin is one of those terms that’s like being happy all the time. I feel it’s impossible and it sets up an unreasonable expectation to try and obtain. For me, being happy in my own skin is trying my best to know exactly who I am. For me to be okay with all the parts that make me up as a person. The good, the bad and the ugly.
What’s your happy place?
I’m fortunate because I’m in it. My happy place is when I’m spending time with my family and working on the things I enjoy. Creating, building, and discovering. I absolutely love the art of acting and what you can reveal in the process about yourself. I also truly love the creation of projects from an idea. To see them actualized. But most importantly I love being with my family and with all the animals and nature on the ranch at home.