Tatum, seen in Stop-Loss, Step Up and the upcoming action film G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra, was excited to reunite with his Saints director. Of working on the film with Montiel, Tatum says: “Dito and I wanted to make a film about lonely people…about two guys who find each other and common ground—even though they represent two different ends of the spectrum. They both have something they need from each other.”
The troubled, sensitive and good-natured Shawn is a character far removed from Saints’ violent, streetwise Antonio, but Tatum was eager to challenge himself as a performer. He and Montiel created a detailed backstory for the character who has fled his roots in Birmingham, Alabama, in order to try his luck in the city.
“Shawn’s dad was a tough college wrestling coach,” Tatum explains. “Since he was a very athletic guy, he expected his son to be athletic, too…so Shawn wrestled. A lot of parents want to live through their kids and want them to do better than they did. That was a real source of friction for him and his father.”
Since working together on Saints, Tatum and Montiel have evolved an easy kinship. “Dito and I don’t need to talk much when we’re working,” Tatum explains. “We get each other. Sometimes he’ll act it out for me. He’s a mirror for me that I can look into and say, ‘Okay. I get it.’”
Adds producer Misher: “Channing’s performance in Saints was groundbreaking, something that marked him as a star on the rise. That’s why we were so keen on putting Channing and Dito back together for a movie like this. What we have is the intensity and the honest emotions that Dito brought to Saints, which he now brings to a genre movie.”
Terrence Howard’s Harvey, in a situation inspired by Midnight Cowboy, takes Shawn in and becomes his mentor. The filmmakers were eager to work with Howard, whose role in Hustle & Flow earned him an Oscar® nomination for Best Actor. His versatility extends to his role in the box-office smash Iron Man. Of Howard’s character, Montiel says: “When Channing first had to go with Terrence in that early scene, I wondered how we were going to make anyone believe that Shawn would follow this guy down the street. Then I remembered, when I was a kid in the street, if I thought you had $20…I didn’t care if you were some guy telling me the craziest story in the world, I was going to figure out how I was going to get that $20. Harvey is a decent person and Shawn is a decent person, and there is an aura about decent people that makes it so you might follow them. I knew that feeling of waiting so long and hoping for something good to happen.”
Howard wanted to work with Dito Montiel ever since the 2006 Sundance Film Festival, when he was part of the jury that awarded Montiel that year’s Dramatic Directing Award for A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints. “The chances he took in putting that film together! It was one of the most original and unique ways of telling a story I’ve ever seen in my life,” commends Howard. “Alan Rudolph and I were judges at Sundance that year, and that was the first film we saw. We walked out of it and Alan said to me, ‘We could go home right now and come back nine days later, without having seen any of the other films, and give this film the award and be right doing it.’ Of course, we stayed and watched all the other films, but none of them came close to what Dito accomplished. That’s what brought me to this film. I knew I was betting on the right horse.”
Howard responded to the fact that both Shawn and Harvey have reached a desperate point in their lives and are looking for one good break. “Harvey is somebody who’s down-and-out and trying to find his way,” says Howard. “Any time the door of opportunity opens, he’ll walk in there—whether it’s selling shoes or socks or helping somebody do some street fighting. But Harvey’s no street fighting guru; he’s new to the game, like Shawn.”
The filmmakers cast Luis Guzmán as Martinez, Harvey’s former childhood friend and a fight promoter. Montiel met Guzmán at his apartment to go over the role as well as his style of directing. Guzmán was impressed by the director’s ability to inject real aspects from his life and put them into a believable story. Says the actor: “I was turned on to Saints because it was such a character-driven movie with amazing characterizations of real people from Dito’s life. Someone like me who grew up in the streets in New York can really identify with that.”
Shawn also embarks on a romantic relationship with Zulay (sounds like July), a single working mother who is struggling with her own trust issues. When Zulay Henao auditioned for the role, the character was named Tasha. The day of her audition, Montiel heard someone at the audition make the mistake of mispronouncing Zulay’s name, at which point she corrected him. “At that moment,” Montiel laughs, “I said to myself, ‘She’d be really good.’ I liked that she corrected the person who asked and said her name wrong. We decided to use her real first name, and she really became the character. She brings a true decency to the role.”
Though they share a name, Henao found her character quite different from herself. “Of course, she’s a New Yorker, so I understand her, even though I’m from New Jersey. And she may have a bit of an attitude,” she laughs. “Though she’s going through a lot of things I’m not going through, I can definitely relate to her. All of us have made bad decisions that have marked us. She knows she’s made a lot of mistakes and that she’s paying for them. She’s a single mother working in a nightclub, living in the projects and supporting her family. So often in life, we walk around wearing masks and pretending everything’s okay, but these three characters [Shawn, Zulay and Harvey] strip each other down to the bone.”
Actor Brian White was cast as Evan Hailey, Shawn’s former wrestling teammate from Birmingham who has become a powerful professional fighter. White, who recently demonstrated his athletic ability and dance skills in Stomp the Yard, looked forward to playing a character who is an expert at mixed martial arts—a sport White practices. Of his character, White says: “There’s a seed of antagonism between Shawn and Evan, which stems from their days as high-school wrestling teammates. Evan kicked Shawn’s butt when they were younger, and he’s now a champion, so he underestimates Shawn’s ability to win.
“I love Dito’s sensibilities as a director, and he’s a real artist,” White continues. “Any director who can write a story about himself and make it entertaining and objective is special. Something so close to home is usually hard to put on to celluloid in an entertaining way, and Dito was able to do that and maintain his integrity.”
Rounding out the cast are other Saints alums, including PETER TAMBAKIS, MICHAEL RIVERA and Pride and Glory’s FLACO NAVAJA as Harvey’s crewmembers Z, Ajax and Ray Ray, respectively; Beer League’s ANTHONY DESANDO as fight promoter Christopher; American Gangster’s ROGER GUENVEUR SMITH as the organizer of the underground fights, Jack Dancing; and professional fighters YURI FOREMAN (middleweight boxing champion) and CUNG LE (MMA Strikeforce middleweight champion) as, respectively, the Russian fighter and Korean fighter.