The Knockturnal had the opportunity to sit down with first time actor Richie Merritt and emerging star Bel Powley from new film ‘White Boy Rick’, which premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival on Friday, September 14th.
White Boy Rick tells the true story of young, teen Richard (Rick) Wershe Jr., who teams up as an undercover informant for the FBI in 1980’s Detroit and eventually is arrested for drug-trafficking and is faced with life in prison. White Boy Rick is the first acting experience Richie Merritt, who portrays Rick Wershe Jr. in the film, has ever had. We sat down with Merritt and the talented Bel Powley (Dawn Wershe) in order to gain more insight into the film and Merritt’s first on-camera experience. Check out more details from our conversation below:
Richie, I hear you’ve got a great story about how you got discovered for this movie. How old are you, by the way, right now?
Richie Merritt: I’m 17.
The whole thing was amazing. So, we all want to hear your story. How did you get discovered?
Richie Merritt: You know, I was going to school and I was coming in late and I went to go sign in at the front desk. And there was a casting agent at my school, and somebody introduced me to her and I just basically worked with an acting coach after that. And I got sent out to California to do a screen test and here I am.
When you went to California, was that the first time they put you on film? Or was it before?
Richie Merritt: Yeah, it was just like a screen test with Matthew [McConaughey], so I could get used to being around them and see how we would connect.
Where did this all begin?
Richie Merritt: In Baltimore.
It’s such a transformation for you. An incredible performance. Can you speak about kind of diving into this character?
Bel Powley: It’s pretty hard playing someone who’s high or drunk, it’s quite hard and a fine line to tread, you can sometimes be a bit over the top or a bit hammy. So I was a bit nervous about doing that and obviously I couldn’t go out and just smoke a bunch of crack. I watched a lot of YouTube videos, of other people smoking crack. Yeah. That was that.
How did you guys get into the mindset of the 80’s? How did you immerse yourself in what was going on in the world at that time in America?
Bel Powley: I mean, I read up on it a lot. Because I’m from the UK and I was born in the ’90s so it’s an era and a place and a time that I’m really not familiar with. So I read up on the Reagan era and the war on drugs and Detroit and stuff. But I think it’s only once you’re there and you’re on set and you’re in costume and you’re with the person playing your brother and your dad, you actually feel like you’re really immersed in it. You can read up on it as much you like, but nothing beats just actually doing it on set.
And for you, Richie, how did you get back into that time zone?
Richie Merritt: Same thing. I didn’t do nothing special. I just brought myself and just brought my energy. That’s basically it.
Can you each speak about working with Yann? Maybe what your initial meetings were like when discussing the character and the role?
Richie Merritt: He’s a great guy. Every time we’d go on set, it was always fun. We got to play how we wanted to play it first.
Bel Powley: Yeah, he’s a really collaborative director in that way.
Richie Merritt: Like, he’ll take ideas, too. Like, I had a couple ideas, being a newcomer, and he also took them into consideration.
Like what, for instance?
Richie Merritt: Just like acting like ‘oh, I’m going to do this instead of this.’
Bel Powley: There was actually one bit do you remember? The scene we have together in the diner. We shot it first as it was scripted. And we shot it all from one direction. So we’d been filming for, like, a few hours and we’re about to change the other direction. And Yann came up to Richie and I and was like, “Hey, guys. Something’s just not working in this scene. Let’s just do again, but just make it up.” And we were like, “What?” And he was like, “Yeah, just make it up.”
Richie Merritt: We just made it up.
Bel Powley: And I mean, I’ve been acting for awhile and I hate improvisation. It’s his first film and I was like, “F—-.” I was like, “What’s he going to do?” And Richie was amazing. He pulled me aside and he was like, “Okay, listen, Bel. You’re going to say this, I’m going to say this. This is what we’re going to do.” Basically wrote the whole scene.
Richie Merritt: In my mind. In a couple minutes, couple seconds.
What made the final cut? The improvised?
Bel Powley: The improv, yeah. All that is Richie’s dialogue.
So you knew this guy so intimately, you could just riff off him anytime somebody said, “Let’s go, Richie.”
Richie Merritt: We have a lot in common. Well, not a lot, but we both come from the inner city. We both grew up in hard times and grew up in a large population of people so we kind of know what the street life is like and how to deal with people. So it’s like, I can switch on and off.
And is this changing things in your life completely now?
Richie Merritt: Yeah, this is like all new. I’ve never been on TV before, so now I’m on TV. Most definitely.
And what did you think you were going to end up doing for a job before the casting director saw you?
Richie Merritt: Music or I was going to be working with my mom.
Bel Powley: What does your mom do?
Richie Merritt: House specialties.
Do you play an instrument?
Richie Merritt: Do I make music? I make beats. I don’t really DJ like in clubs.
Bel Powley: Like on a computer?
Richie Merritt: Yeah. On my friend’s computer.
Is acting your primary plan now?
Richie Merritt: Oh, yeah, most definitely. I’m real focused on acting now, since it’s available for me right now. Yeah, most definitely.
I read that you didn’t actually know who Matthew McConaughey was in the movie.
Richie Merritt: Yeah.
How did that play into your interaction with him? And now are you star-struck maybe?
Richie Merritt: I’m never star-struck by anybody because, you know, no matter who you are, you’re still a person. You’re still a human being.
Bel Powley: Oh, my God, that’s what my mom told me when I started acting. Everyone is just a person.
Richie Merritt: It is. So it’s like, I’m not going to be like, oh, you starred in like 25,000 films. That don’t surprise me. Because I can meet up with you, you can be a total asshole. But then you can be nice. I’m just there in the moment and present.
Bel Powley: Can I just say, like, on that note, that’s what makes it so amazing having Richie as a scene partner. Because he doesn’t…
Richie Merritt: I don’t get intimidated.
Bel Powley: But, also, you’re not like overly self-aware. Like, his instincts are so truthful and organic. It just kind of forces you to be the same, I think. Like, after you’ve done lots and lots of films, you’re like, “Oh, I look really good from this side,” but you can see the movie in the head as you’re filming it. But, he doesn’t. He just does it. He feels it and it’s amazing to act with.
You were born for this. What took so long for you to get into acting?
Richie Merritt: Just being found. It took them a long time to find me. They said it took over two years to find somebody for this part. So they just kind of lucked out and came to my school at the right time. I wasn’t even going to go to school that day, they really lucked out.
Bel Powley: Oh, thank God.
How old were you when this actually happened? What grade were you in?
Richie Merritt: I was in 10th. I was 16 years old. It’s pretty crazy because Rick got locked up at the age I am now.
Did Yann say anything about the fact that this movie is somewhat subversive, in that it’s the story of white kid in Detroit, but really, which the audience is right in there, sympathizing and paying attention, but really, that kid who went to prison, that’s essentially a black teenager’s story? You end up in jail for your whole life, you know?
Richie Merritt: Well, not necessarily, it can be anybody’s story. Just depending on the choices you make in life. I could be sentenced to year or life just for doing something petty.
It’s an extremely interesting film. It’s playing out there on so many levels.
Richie Merritt: And it’s based on a true story, that’s what even makes it better.
Did you ever talk to the guy?
Richie Merritt: Yeah, yeah. We talked to him a lot.
Bel Powley: We talked to him a lot on the phone.
Richie Merritt: I actually talked to him last night, he tells me he’s doing really good.
Is he out now? He’s coming out soon, right?
Richie Merritt: No, no, no no. He’s in Florida right now. Doing his time.
He had to do a second sentence for something else.
Richie Merritt: Yeah, but he did get parole. So that’s really good. Hopefully, he’s going to be out soon.
Has he seen you do this? Any clips or anything?
Richie Merritt: No.
Bel Powley: No, not yet.
Wow, that’s going to be amazing. There’s no way they can show him the movie at this point? On a phone, maybe?
Richie Merritt: When you’re institutionalized, it’s like communication with the outside is really tight. You can only do it a certain amount of times, but you do have JPay where you can take 30-second videos and you can send them to him and he gets pictures and videos back. Other than that, you got to be like 18 to go see somebody in a maximum state prison.
Are you interested in meeting him?
Richie Merritt: Oh, yeah, most definitely. I definitely want to meet the guy.
Bel Powley: We all want to meet him.
Here’s a weird question. Does he look like you? I’ve never seen a picture.
Richie Merritt: The casting agent said I kind of look like him.
Bel, your character is so down there. She’s in this state, this fugue almost of addiction and also resistance to anybody pushing her to do anything she doesn’t want to do. How do you get into that mental state for that?
Bel Powley: I don’t know, it’s hard. Because if you’re playing the feel high, your mind is clouded, right? So you have to layer that on top of all the other choices that you’re making. Yann, in my first audition, told me something that really stuck with me which is that Dawn is the only character A) That has like a full arc and also that has like clarity on what’s going on. Like, she sees her brother and she sees what’s going down and she sees her dad for who he is. And that’s almost why she has to run away because she can’t handle watching what’s happening to Rick. I don’t know. They’re pretty intense scenes. Like, the first scene I shot was the scene when I was running around in my knickers.
Richie Merritt: Trousers.
Bel Powley: Trousers? They’re underwear. No, wait. Lost in translation. That was the first scene. I wasn’t actually meant to be in my knickers, I was meant to be in my trousers. I thought that it would be funny to do it in my underwear and then it was raining and it was kind of snowing and it was really cold and it was horrible. But it looks good in the movie.
That’s all that matters.
Bel Powley: But it was a great scene to start with because I sort of just had to dive in at the deep end. Especially with Matthew because I was so nervous about working with him. And all of our scenes are basically me just screaming at him, trying to beat the crap out of him. So I think it was good to just start with the most difficult one and that kind of set the tone for us for the rest of the film.
And for you, there was no problem with any scene particularly because you knew this character so easily, so intimately?
Richie Merritt: Oh, no. I mean, we do have a lot in common, but I also did have to play him. I took things out of my life that I could reflect to in this movie. But, am I actually him? No, I got a different life. I got a loving family. I got two mothers, a father, five brothers, one sister. A really supportive family and I love them.
Is it easier to work with a director that lets you throw in new ideas and changes to your characters?
Bel Powley: Yeah.
Richie Merritt: It can be difficult. But then it can be fun. It’s all about openness and creativity. Having fun. That’s all it’s about.
And Matthew, you weren’t intimidated by him but you have a lot of scenes with him.
Richie Merritt: The first time of me meeting him, we went bowling, just so we could get a feel for each other. I got to spending time with him, we both really love our families so that’s what really grounded us and brought us together. So I feel like that helped us connect a lot. And just spending time with each other, listening to music. I’d DJ, he’d DJ. We went on car rides together. Just spending time with each other, getting to know each other really helped out.
And Brian Tyree, you worked with him. You didn’t really have any scenes with him in this movie, right?
Bel Powley: No. We had one tiny bit when Rick’s shaving and they, like, bust into the house. And he just kind of like threw me to the side and that was about it. That was the only time in the movie.
But then you got to work together on stage later?
Bel Powley: Yeah.
That’s kind of cool, right?
Bel Powley: He’s amazing. His movie opened last night, actually. He’s in ‘Widows’. He’s so cool. I loved working with him.
So, even for the first time, what do you take from this movie that you can apply to your next project?
Bel Powley: I would definitely say that, like, what we were talking about before, that scene, for example, where Yann was like, “Just make it up,” I’ve never done as much improvisation and just working off the pages in any other film. Also, like, Matthew’s pretty loose with his choices. He’s not nervous to make mistakes. He just does it again, tries something different. That kind of pushed me to, like, just improvise more and push boundaries in my life.
With a true story like this, you would think that there’s really not much space for creative liberties.
Bel Powley: Oh. Well, we weren’t changing the story. We’re just talking about in the moment, just doing what you feel. Because, at the end of the day, the movie’s about family and connection.
Richie Merritt: The bond that Rick wanted with his family, that he had with the Curry’s. It was about family, basically.
Bel Powley: Yeah. So they had to really feel the connection for the truth, otherwise, what’s the point?
Richie Merritt: I’d say, like creativity. Just keeping an open mind. Keeping your options open to anything.
I just wanted to know about location, where you guys filmed and how did that influence the performance?
Bel Powley: We filmed in Cleveland.
Was this your first big American film?
Bel Powley: It’s my first studio, yeah, but I’ve done American films before.
This one looks kind of big-budgety, but some of the neighborhoods that are in the film are such, pardon me, sh*t-holes. It must have been an eye-opening experience.
Richie Merritt: You know, to get a feel of the ’80s, you had to kind of live in it. So the director did really do a good job on matching up the places.
Do you know what you’re doing next?
Richie Merritt: I’m just taking the long ride and cruising around.