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From the Studio that brought you John Wick: The Protégé

Rescued as a child by the legendary assassin Moody (Samuel L. Jackson) and trained in the family business, Anna (Maggie Q) is the world’s most skilled contract killer. But when Moody – the man who was like a father to her and taught her everything she needs to know about trust and survival – is brutally killed, Anna vows revenge. As she becomes entangled with an enigmatic killer (Michael Keaton) whose attraction to her goes way beyond cat and mouse, their confrontation turns deadly and the loose ends of a life spent killing will weave themselves even tighter. 

Maggie Q joins cinema’s ranks of badass assassins with her own fierce take on Anna, who is immaculately skilled at dodging tricky enemies but can’t hide from her personal demons. Teaming up with award-winning actor Michael Keaton as her rival, action icon Samuel L. Jackson as her mentor, and Casino Royale director Martin Campbell, Maggie Q was inspired by the unique challenges of the no-holds-barred role. She loved exploring a woman whose off-the-charts lethal abilities are second nature, but who is only just starting to reckon with who she is, where her powers came from, and what she wants going forward.

“I found The Protégé to be a wild, wild ride,” says Maggie Q. “There’s lots of action, and there are some funny, sexy, complicated relationship dynamics. But within all that, it is the story of a woman confronting her past, which comes around full circle, the way the past often does in our lives.”

An Assassin Is Born

In 2006, director Martin Campbell shook up the action-adventure genre with his total reboot of the James Bond franchise, Casino Royale. Campbell’s refreshingly unsentimental take on Bond stripped every shred of campiness from the legendary spy, leaving behind a seething, hard-working, real-world super-agent moving with a cutting wit through visceral battles, stunning international locations, and dark corners of emotional intensity. It was a bold vision that helped kick off a whole new era of action films aiming to thrill not just visually but on multiple levels.

When Campbell read Richard Wenk’s screenplay for The Protégé, he was struck by the fact that it touched on many of those same elements that continue to draw him: A breakneck pace, a clever, globetrotting story with one surprise on top of another, non-stop opportunities for creative, kinetic action, and at its center, an unconventional action hero who breaks the mold. The script offered the chance to create the big, sleek, explosive set pieces Campbell loves to conjure, but it also held the excitement of giving a dynamic actress a role worth sinking her teeth into with relish.

The script began with producer Arthur Sarkissian—who himself made a major impact on the action film genre with the influential Rush Hour franchise, the quintessential comedy-tinged buddy cop series starring Jackie Chan and Chris Tucker as a pair of mismatched Hong Kong and LAPD detectives. It was Sarkissian who asked Wenk to consider creating a highly complex female assassin at the center of an international adventure.

“I felt that a character-driven, revenge-based female assassin story could be something really special if developed well,” recalls Sarkissian. “Richard is someone I’ve always liked and respected, so I brought the idea to him, and he did a great job writing it.”

Anna might be coolly efficient at her job, but she is no machine. She is great at what she does in part because she learned long ago what it takes to survive in a cruel world—learned to tap into a devastating deadliness out of sheer necessity at an age when most kids are at the playground. Growing up in Vietnam, Anna’s life nearly ended in a tragic massacre. Instead, she was raised by Moody, the elite American operative who took her in, encouraged her already steely instincts, and gave her all she would need to keep sharpening her mind and skills. It was Moody who showed Anna there was a way to cultivate her furious need to right the world’s many wrongs—and then he watched his protégé turn into one of the world’s most powerful tools for justice.

But now, with Moody lost to a brutal hit they never saw coming, Anna finds a lifetime’s worth of carefully built armor crumbling. On the hunt to find and reckon with his killer, she is as plagued by ghostly memories as she is threatened by a non-stop barrage of blows and bullets. At the same, adding another layer of intrigue, Wenk put Anna in the middle of a cat-and-mouse chase with a killer just as proficient, intelligent, and wise-cracking as she is—a chase that constantly shifts who is the cat and who is the mouse.

Wenk’s blend of shifting relationships and high-wire suspense put Sarkissian instantly in mind of his good friend Martin Campbell, whose career has encompassed not only Bond but numerous adrenaline-pumping stories ranging from Legend of Zorro to Vertical Limit.

“Martin and I have been friends for decades and I know him to be a very in-depth director who pays a lot of attention to character even though he is also truly great with action,” notes Sarkissian. “Casino Royale is one of my favorite Bond movies ever. I know what he likes, and I knew he would spark to The Protégé, and he did.”

The combination of the script with Campbell at the helm next drew in Millennium Media, the long-lived independent film studio known for its track record of star-driven action hits. Says producer Rob Van Norden, head of production at Millennium: “The Protégé had a wonderful script and the chance to work with a director of Martin’s caliber was very, very exciting.”

Over the years, Campbell has developed one main rule for building seamless action: it can only begin with meticulous planning. That was his approach as soon as he came aboard The Protégé.

“I always work from lots of preparation,” notes the director. “Preparation is everything to me. You are very aware going into a film like this it is going to be tough shoot, because in order to make any action-thriller good, you always have to go that extra mile. So, for me, that all comes down to the way you prep.”

Van Norden enjoyed watching Campbell in his element, putting all the pieces together that make up the puzzle of intricate and heart-stopping action that just keeps flowing from one thrill to the next.

“Martin is a very old school director,” Van Norden observes. “And what I mean by that is he is very decisive, very direct, he’s got terrific instincts and he knows exactly what he wants. He’s not shy about anything, and everybody else’s job is to just keep up with him. He’s got a huge amount of energy and he’s there before anybody else on set planning his shots. He’s thought everything through before he does it. He’s like a commander on the set.”

Yet, Campbell also believes strongly in relying on others to do what they do best. “A lot of any action film comes down to the people you hire. We had such a terrific cast and crew on this, and an excellent production team from Millennium who were really supportive,” he says. The big push early on was to find actors who could embody Wenk’s flashy-but-nuanced characters yet were equally ready and able to jump into intense fight choreography. It all hinged on casting Anna. Everyone knew that they had to find an actor who could bring a completely believable, elite athleticism and laser focus. But, at the same time, she also had to be funny, whip-smart, seductive, and able to navigate a storm of emotional chaos while she is unleashing physical chaos on those who threaten her or the people she loves.

Campbell was aware that there already existed a person who seemed to fit into the role like a glove. This was Maggie Q, who also happens to be the real-life protégé of one of the world’s most beloved, creative, and uncompromising action stars: Jackie Chan, the master of martial arts and daredevilry who Campbell had recently directed in The Foreigner.

“Maggie had it all, having trained with Jackie, but also being a terrific actress,” says Campbell. “It’s not often that you find the kind of acting ability she has in combination with her extraordinary physical skills. It adds a lot to the realism that she is able to do nearly all of her stunts herself.” 

Having also worked with Chan, Sarkissian was equally impressed by the total commitment that Q brought to every single aspect, physical, comedic, and emotional, of the role.

“I’ve been a fan of Maggie’s since Mission: Impossible III and Live Free or Die Hard,” Sarkissian comments. “She did a huge amount of preparation for this physically demanding role and when it came to the stunts, she always said to us, ‘whatever you need.'”

A Real-Life Protégé: Maggie Q as Anna

Training under Chan’s inventive and fearlessly daring tutelage, Maggie Q absorbed the philosophy that whatever you do, go all the way. She brought that uncompromising aim to her 2006 star-making role opposite Tom Cruise in the blockbuster Mission: Impossible III, and never looked back, going on to become one of the fastest rising action heroes of a generation. Soon, she was starring with Bruce Willis in Live Free or Die Hard. Then, she brought to life the assassin-gone-rogue Nikita Mears in the CW’s hit television series Nikita. Q also garnered global popularity in the role of Tori Wu in Divergent and the sequels Insurgent and Allegiant.

Q remains one of a very small cadre of stars who can convincingly pull off close-in, high-flying fight choreography without a double–allowing the audience to come with her characters on any adventure in the most visceral way. Though Q is not new to playing assassins, Anna’s journey back to her childhood origins felt unique to her. She saw Anna as a dream role, a woman she could relate to as a person but also one who demonstrates an inspirational power, confidence, and level of badassery.

“I felt like Anna was the culmination of everything I’ve done so far in my career—she mixes together strong emotion, extreme action, and a smart, playful romanticism all in one person,” she describes.

Despite being able to dispatch the most savage henchmen with business-like professionalism, Anna is now in the most vulnerable moment she has faced since childhood. This took Q to places she hasn’t been before on screen, as Anna wrestles with internal scars that she has never revealed to anyone.

“What makes Anna so interesting beyond being so strong and savvy is that, at heart, she’s a woman with extreme trauma trying to cope with that. She’s unusual in that she’s trying to come to accommodation with a deep sense of loss and hurt even while she’s hunting a killer,” explains Q.

Echoing the character, Q wanted the action to be nearly automatic so she could focus on overlaying light and dark emotions to each scene in the moment. As soon as she was cast, she committed to giving the training her absolute maximum—which meant pushing her edges farther than ever before.

“I knew there were going to be some really big fight sequences, some challenging wire work, and one stunt that I think is the scariest stunt of my whole career, so there was no question there needed to be intense preparation and rehearsal,” she says.

Practice makes perfect and aiming for perfection is something Q believes in when it comes to creating authentic action.

“I have a very high standard for action, both for myself and for other people,” she confesses. “I admit I often find myself always pushing people further in fight scenes than they expected to go. It was so great to work with someone like Martin—who is one of the best action directors in the world—because he also has a very high standard like I do. But I still was always pressing Martin for more.”

Hard, fast, and uncompromising as the action was, Maggie loved that there was a lightness to it as well, which she could explore with her co-stars Samuel L. Jackson and Michael Keaton.

“When you have Sam and Michael, who are two brilliant comedic actors, you’re of course going to have some humorous moments,” she observes. “I like that the movie never takes itself too seriously right up until the moment it is supposed to. Martin is very skilled with that. When the film is dealing with serious themes, it’s in deep and it’s emotional. But when the film has lighter moments, it goes just as hard at having fun.”

Q especially loved riffing on an offbeat father-daughter relationship with Samuel L. Jackson as Moody. She sees Moody and Anna as movingly close, even if what brings them so close is their lethality. 

“Moody has been a father figure to Anna for most of her life now,” she notes. “They have this beautiful connection, like any daughter would with a father, but it’s a little more complex than most since what they share is being assassins. It’s definitely an unusual bond, but I like that they know each other’s idiosyncrasies and minds like no one else could. And I think Anna can’t imagine what she would have become without Moody’s guidance, love and friendship.”

Jackson brought that all to their scenes together. “I was so glad it was Sam playing Moody, because as soon as we met, I felt connected to him and we had a natural ease with each other that made this relationship organic,” she says.

In turn, Jackson got a kick out of watching Q latch onto the role with so much gusto. “I’d seen Maggie before on television, but working with her was the most amazing experience,” says Jackson. “Seeing how Maggie just attacked the physical side of things while also exploring all the psychological baggage Anna has to carry around the world with her was incredible.”

Q equally relished the game of one-upmanship she would play with Michael Keaton as Rembrandt, with whom she enters into a back-and-forth chase with the highest of stakes. She enjoyed that Anna is drawn to Rembrandt as someone who can understand her—and the costs of the life she leads–at a depth few people in her life ever could, even if Rembrandt also might be her greatest threat.

“Anna and Rembrandt are both very smart and very powerful and when they meet it’s as if they have finally each met their match, in both senses of the word,” says Q. She continues: “I love that The Protégé’s fireworks come from two highly intelligent people who are attracted to each other but also playing a dangerous game with one another. It’s more exciting to me than a conventional romance. The crux of their relationship is who’s going to get ahead of the other, and how are they going to do it? You never know what’s going to happen with them right up until the very last second of the film. And to have this chance to work with Michael, who is such a film legend and so good at what he does, was a very special experience.”

The Lure: Michael Keaton as Rembrandt

In her drive to settle the score, Anna crosses paths with Michael Rembrandt, who is every bit as sophisticated, savvy, and full-throttle deadly as Anna. Though he comes into her life with an air of enticing mystery, he soon proves to be both a menace and a temptation. Coloring the role with his trademark charm is Michael Keaton, the Academy Award®-nominated actor (Best Actor, Birdman, 2014) who throughout his career has enjoyed taking on an unusually wide range of characters spanning from broad comedies to award-winning dramas to action films.

Having Keaton in the role made the delicate, yet dangerous, dance that goes on in between Anna and Rembrandt that much more intriguing. “Michael plays Rembrandt so truthfully,” says Campbell. “You can see in Michael’s eyes what’s going on in Rembrandt’s brain. He also brings a slightly quirky quality that really works for the character.”

For Keaton, it all began with his reaction to the script. “This story was not only suspenseful, but I thought pretty smart and clever,” he recalls. “I also like that it’s a real movie – the kind that takes you out of the ordinary world and is a pleasure for that reason. The things that happen between Anna and Rembrandt aren’t going to happen in the average person’s daily life. And that’s why we love to see them on the screen.”

For Keaton, there was also the pleasure of taking on a role not quite like any other in his sprawling career.

“Rembrandt is a mysterious kind of character. What you see isn’t always what you get,” Keaton describes. “He’s intelligent and I think that he’s a realist in the sense that he totally understands and accepts the dangers of this world of assassins in which he lives. For me, it was a really fun challenge. He’s very physical, but only when he absolutely has to be. He just happens to be pretty good at it.”

The physicality of the character meant Keaton had to take on some serious training—putting in enough sweat and toil that he was able to perform a number of his own stunts. “The little kid in you is so excited to try all these cool stunts you love watching in movies,” he laughs. When it came to the action, he also took a measure of inspiration from watching Q employing her exceptional skills and confidence. “Maggie is something to watch in this movie,” he muses. “She can be so seductive and alluring and then she turns around and just devastates all these guys. It’s a blast to see her doing what she’s so good at. She is as tough as it gets.”

Still, Keaton impressed Campbell with how well he was able to keep up with Q. “He really went for it. While Michael’s known first for his acting ability, he was willing to work very, very hard and Michael has what it takes to create convincing action. You had to believe that Rembrandt can be lethal, and you do.”

Adds Van Norden: “Michael can be very funny and playful, but he also elevates the project. He’s a very organic actor who has this rare ability to build each take into a better and better performance. He worked really well with Martin and he’s terrific paired with Maggie. There’s so much chemistry there.”

The Mentor: Samuel L. Jackson as Moody

To portray Moody, the filmmakers turned to action cinema’s undisputed biggest draw and a man who has become a modern-day icon of cool: Samuel L. Jackson. Jackson has brought his acumen to action of every kind, from massive franchises including the Marvel Comics Universe (as The Avengers’ Nick Fury) and Star Wars series (as Mace Windu) to comic hits like The Hitman’s Bodyguard and Snakes on a Plane to dramatic action ranging from Martin Scorsese’s Goodfellas to Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction and M. Night Shyamalan’s Unbreakable.

“One of many great things about Sam is that he’s a true chameleon,” says Campbell. “He can change himself and he can do any kind of role. For this story, we knew Sam would be able to make the father-daughter assassin story between Moody and Anna feel absolutely real. Moody has some big soliloquies as well and Sam is one of those rare actors who can make a speech entertaining just by the force of his personality. He really made Moody work in his own distinctive way.”

Adds Van Norden: “We’ve worked with Sam a few times before, including on The Hitman’s Bodyguard, and we know how amazing he is. He comes in knowing every little aspect of what his character is doing, why he’s doing it, and how he would do it. He’s a professional but he’s also a consummate movie star, which is a really good combination.”

Jackson enjoyed Moody as a character but says the biggest draw for him to The Protégé was his love of women-led action. It all goes back to his breakthrough role in Renny Harlin’s influential comic thriller, The Long Kiss Goodnight, in which he paired up with Geena Davis, who stunned audiences as an amnesiac schoolteacher who suddenly discovers she has the unrelenting fighting skills of a superspy.

“Ever since I did Long Kiss Goodnight, I’ve always thought that women who kick ass are great,” Jackson muses. The unusual relationship between Moody and Anna—part tight-knit, loving family members and part cut-throat assets-for-hire—was also an attraction. He also liked that Moody becomes a father to Anna because, no matter his well-honed instincts as a loner, his heart won’t let him leave her alone in a tragic situation. Instead, he helps her to accept that though she has been forged by fury and loss she can build a whole new life.

“What I found interesting is that when Moody first encounters Anna as a child in Vietnam, he can see right away she is fated to be a different kind of person,” Jackson explains. “He sees she has a drive and a capacity for handling situations that most people don’t have. But he has them. So, he pulls her into his own violent world, and nurtures that part of her,” Jackson explains. “But, at the same time, he sends Anna to the very best schools and encourages her to develop that whole other academic, book-loving side that is a big part of her, too. I think that Moody is actually really proud of who she has become. It’s an unusual relationship and not at all your typical father and daughter, but for them, it works.”

Moody himself is far from ordinary and with wide-ranging fascinations—a man who is as exhilarated by a vintage guitar as a precision weapon. “Moody has a very eccentric personality outside of the spy world and you get to see a bit of that other persona when he’s at home with Anna,” Jackson notes. “When their professional work is done, then he can be a father figure in another kind of way with her. I think he very seldom shows her that softer side of himself, but when he does it’s meaningful to both of them.”

Coolness is something Jackson seems to evoke no matter the character he’s playing. “Sam is always cool,” muses Sarkissian. “He always knows everything he has to do to create a very appealing character and he’s great fun as Moody.”

Sealed With a Kick: The Action Choreography

As an asset-for-hire, Anna’s normally the one on the offensive. But once she sets out to find who ordered Moody’s hit, she is in peril quite literally everywhere she goes, putting her defenses to the test in one unexpected location and situation after another. For Campbell, a key desire was to keep a hardboiled naturalism at the center of the film, even while pulling off the kinds of rousing stunts and set pieces that define the summer blockbuster.

Campbell has long been a big proponent of practical stunts—the kind that requires creativity, skill, and lots of pre-planning. Practical stunts were behind the electrifying energy he brought to the Bond franchise, and he continues to believe it’s the best way to bring audiences inside the thrills and spills of gripping action. So early on, he developed a close working relationship with the film’s stunt coordinator, Diyan Hristov, whose credits span a line-up of action hits including 300: Rise of an Empire, The Expendables 3, The Hitman’s Bodyguard, and Rambo: Last Blood, and who also served as the film’s second unit director. Together, they crafted a series of high-octane fights and chases as Anna travels first through Europe and then, unexpectedly, to Vietnam, where she was born.

“Diyan is a very imaginative thinker, and he came up with a lot of fun ideas for the film,” says Campbell. From the beginning, Hristov was excited by Campbell’s approach.

“In the very first conversation I had with Martin, he told me he wanted every action scene to have as much realism as we could possibly bring to it. He wanted to give the audience absolutely real-life stuff, using mostly practical stunts not digital tricks, and for me, that’s always the most exciting challenge,” he says. There was a feeling for Hristov that he could design anything, because Campbell and his team could handle the logistics of the most intricate of sequences. “You can’t believe how much preparation Martin does. He has every second of the film in his head so that gave us all inspiration and freedom,” he says.

Of course, making the action palpably real also rested heavily on training the two leads, who came in with completely different action backgrounds, but had to appear to fight on the same level as true rivals. Hristov enjoyed coming up with individualized plans to help Keaton and Q both achieve their best.

“For me it is always about really getting to know the actors and then building the action around what they’re comfortable with and capable of,” explains Hristov. “Both Maggie and Michael worked equally hard and have my highest respect. They’re so different, yet they have important things in common: they’re both professional, committed, and quick thinking.”

Keaton says that Hristov and his team kept him on his toes, but also gave him everything he needed to feel that he could go head-to-head with an athletic superstar like Q. “The stunt work on the film really impressed me,” he says. “I had never worked with these guys before, but they really know how to make everything very fun. There are some very, very intricate stunts and I did everything I felt I could do on my own, but I also enjoyed watching these action specialists go out there and do what they have spent a lifetime becoming great at.”

With Q, Hristov had almost no limits to what he could design for her. “I’d have to say that she took our breath away with some of the stunt work she did. She’s just an incredible warrior,” he describes. “She gave it absolutely everything, and she was there in every moment, every training session and every rehearsal, doing both the smallest and the most dangerous stunts herself. I’m being absolutely honest in saying she did it all.”

Hristov adds: “There are some advantages to having an actor who can do all their own stunts, but it is also a risk. You have to really, strongly believe in the actor and take responsibility for the action being achievable, but when that is there, it is a big win for the movie.”

The chance to reunite with Jackson after The Hitman’s Bodyguard was another pleasure for Hristov. “Sam simply knows action inside and out so that was very helpful,” he says. “He’s the kind of person who when he has a question about the scene, there’s always a reason and it leads to something better.”

In one of Campbell’s favorite scenes, Anna and Rembrandt provoke and test each other’s professional reflexes in a dance-like pas de deux that mixes the sensuous and the hazardous. “The idea I had was that their first big fight is really a kind of seduction at the same time as it is a serious test of each other’s skills, so that inspired the design that Diyan came up with,” says Campbell.

For Hristov, the merging of comedy, seduction, and martial arts made all three more exciting. “I thought it was such an ingenious concept Martin had to create something that is part battle and part dance that generates sparks between Anna and Rembrandt. I liked the challenge of adding emotional layers to what is also just a very fun fight sequence.”

Still, it took months of running through the complex moves to pull off the scene in the moment. 

“We spent a lot of time before production began walking Maggie and Michael through the choreography and we kept working on it as shooting began in Romania to get it right. It would not have been possible without the skills and devotion of these actors,” Hristov comments.

No matter how well they worked out the timing, Keaton recalls that once on the set, new pitfalls were everywhere. “Even after rehearsing it for weeks, once on the set, there were suddenly all these obstacles you hadn’t taken into consideration,” he laughs. “But it was worth the hard work. I think it’s a smart, funny, sexy scene that audiences will enjoy.”

Production

While second unit crews captured The Protégé’ s far-flung locations, most of the film’s principal shooting took place in and around Bucharest, Romania–a grand and energetic city once dubbed “the Paris of the East.” Full of both classic and modern architecture, and lined with lush parks, the city offered a surprising array of environments that could be transformed into settings thousands of miles away. It also offered the opportunity to shoot in some rather unusual spots—including the wildly over-the-top country estate and city villa of the high-living former Romanian dictator Nicolae Ceausescu.

“Bucharest is a beautiful city that lent itself to all the story’s locations and it was very easy to work there,” says Sarkissian. Production designer Wolf Kroeger, who has designed films ranging from The Last of the Mohicans to Love In The Time Of Cholera, took advantage of Bucharest’s elegant buildings and wide-ranging landscapes but also crafted many key sets entirely from scratch. Since the film was unable to shoot in Vietnam, a Bucharest backlot provided the space for Kroeger to completely recreate Vietnamese street scenes from scratch. On that same backlot, he also built the well-fortified bunker where Anna is held prisoner.

“Wolf’s designs were really impressive,” says Keaton. “When he created the street in Vietnam for us, you had no sense of what that area looked like before. It just became another world.” 

To capture both the splendor of the locations and the dynamism of the action, Campbell reunited with British cinematographer David Tattersall, who recently shot The Foreigner for him. No stranger to epic productions, Tattersall is renowned for his work with George Lucas on several of the Star Wars movies and films ranging from Lara Croft Tomb Raider to The Green Mile. “I really love working with David,” says Campbell. “He’s a perfectionist, but we both like to plan out everything, so it seems to work really well between us.”

No matter how well you plan though, Campbell still believes the heartbeat of compelling action has to be the spirit of invention. “For me what takes an action film to the next level is when it is imaginative,” he sums up.

That is what in turn makes for a transporting ride for audiences. “What audiences can expect from The Protégé is a character-driven story with terrific action and great actors in Maggie Q, Michael Keaton and Sam Jackson. It’s sheer entertainment,” says Sarkissian.

For Van Norden, The Protégé is exactly the kind of immersive movie experience for which cinemas are made. “It’s a big, fun assassin movie that’s exciting, cool, has characters you’ll enjoy in an emotional story with surprises, and it offers a fun escape.”

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