Meet The Navy SEAL Who Turns Actors Into Assassins

The first time Joost Janssen read an early script for American Assassin, he knew this was a Hollywood project that he wanted to be a part of. Not only was the main character an agency operator with a set of skills in line with Janssen’s, as a former Navy SEAL and government contractor overseas, but much like the character of Mitch Rapp, he was drawn into the service by personal tragedy.

“I lost my wife to a car accident and was struggling to find meaning in my life,” says Janssen thoughtfully during a mountain retreat in Utah. “I had never considered enlisting or the army before that time, but after it was the only option I saw to get my life back together. I put all of the anger and emotion into that pursuit. I understand how powerful that motivation can be.” The studio also agreed that Janssen, who had consulted on 13 Hours and The Last Ship, was a perfect fit and put him in touch with actor Dylan O’Brien through Harry Humphries’ GSGI consulting firm.

“Joost was a huge resource for me,” says O’Brien, who while no stranger to the action genre was getting his first real taste of tactical training. “He had an incredible ability to see the little things that helped make what ended up on the screen as authentic as it could be. There are guys out there who have really done this kind of work, and we wanted to do justice for the material. There are a few scenes in the final product that are a direct result of his suggestions. “

The director Michael Cuesta agrees that Janssen was a huge asset to developing the script and bringing Mitch Rapp into present day. “Listen I am a movie director and not a Special Forces soldier,” he says. “Joost took what I had on the page and helped add in that realism that is essential when you are trying to be convincing in those scenes. It was amazing to have him there everyday as partner in this process, ”

Due to his ability to look the part Janssen has even appeared onscreen a few times, choking out O’Brien in Assassin and as part of the Tripoli GRS reinforcements in 13 Hours. Both roles were executed expertly, of course. For now though, the California native enjoying his gig of helping action stars look the part instead.

How was your job overseas similar to what Mitch Rapp gets involved with?

I can’t really talk about which agency, but I was a direct hire contractor for a government agency. I was not hired as an employee, which that meant the way that I got paid is very cloak and dagger. So there is a lot of legal separation between my actions and the people that I was working for.

Can you explain what the screening process for those contractor positions were like?

For starters, they require eight years of special operations experience to even begin to screen for the assignment, which is very similar to what you see in the team they build in American Assassin. Of course in this case Mitch Rapp is the exception the rule, going through a program that has been built for people with plenty of military experience already. Then screening process is quite similar as well. Everyone that applies is great at their technical craft, but they all come from different areas and forces. The challenge is to take the ways that you have been doing things for the past 20 years and adapt to the way your new team is doing them. There were guys who would make it through SEAL team training or another special forces training, but they couldn’t make it into the contractor world.

How do you train for that new job?

There is a lot of work doing on the shooting range and in the kill house, where you work out a number of attack scenarios. That allows you to start learning how to work in smaller groups, even down to two people. The difference between where I was before with the SEALs is that when we hit a house there were eight or more guys. There was never really a shortage of backup. Here you are doing it in teams of four or two sometimes.

Where were you working at that time?

Programs like this exist in high-threat environments. I personally went to Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, Yemen, and the West Bank.

How would you have reacted if you were a contractor and someone like Mitch Rapp was thrown into your program?

There are definitely a couple of parts of the story that happen for the sake of the story, like that. The cost of training a Navy SEAL is over one million dollars, so those guys who are showing up at a camp like that have been invested in heavily. The idea that you would take a guy you just found and put him in the same program in just a few weeks is a little unlikely. These government contractors aren’t dumb. They wouldn’t take a guy of the street and give him just a few weeks to transform into a complete warrior. That’s what makes the movie interesting, but you have to suspend your disbelief for a moment.

Explain your first meeting with Dylan.

I first met Dylan two weeks before he started filming. There was an injury that he was getting over at the time, so that had to be a consideration during the training. I used that time to talk to him about a few of the experiences that I had gone through that inspired me to be the man that I am. I think that helped him. It was also a way for us to build up trust, and they could see that all I wanted was to add value to the project and do it justice.

How did you set up the tactical training?

The stunt coordinator headed all of the martial arts training. I did all of the weapons tactics. Most people think that weapons tactics is all about how you are using a gun when you are shooting it, but in reality, they come into play the entire time. How do you sit with a gun? How are you walking around with a gun? Where is your trigger finger when you are casually carrying a gun? Making sure that you aren’t sweeping the barrel across anyone. I trained Dylan like we were really going to do these operations for real. That is how serious I want him thinking about those scenes. I want him to get into that mentality. There would be certain tasks that I would have him do with me, where we were going through rooms and clearing them as a team. It doesn’t really matter if that scene comes up in the film or not because it is more about the bond that is being built there. One of the realities of making a movie like this is that many of the actors don’t get to interact with each other closely before the filming begins. So this is a way to help them forge a bond before going on camera together. The filming took place at Gillette Studios in London, which was the old Gillette factory. Only about 30 percent of it has been transformed into a studio, the rest of it is like a haunted warehouse. So we had full access to everywhere and we were running around like kids in a candy store. The place was full of boxes and long hallways; we could shoot blanks without a single person caring. It was kind of the best.

What weapons were you using?

Typically you have two weapons, starting with your primary weapon, usually a rifle. So that would be like a M4. The secondary would be a handgun, like a Glock typically. This movie was more pistols intensive. So there was training with both.

Dylan told that there were a few scenes that changed directly because of your input.

I appreciated how much they took my opinion into account. During the training camp scene with Keaton, the script originally had him instructing to cut the carotid artery, but in real life that is not the best tactic. If you go for that artery the guy is going to have at least 10 more seconds of fight left in him, and still have an ability to make noise, which would interrupt the operation. So we had Keaton instead go for the trachea. The line was changed that morning right before the shoot. Now he says, “No noise. No Mess.” I think it really changed how good that scene was. Then the whole training montage was adjusted as well. The first draft had it as him just going down the shooting range shooting off a pistol and then shooting off a rifle. I personally didn’t think that was aggressive enough for a guy who has been tracking down terrorists and learning languages for the past year. So we changed it to where he was doing some two-gun training while timed. I think that particular scene really came together.

How was this experience different than training the guys for 13 Hours?

The difference was that Assassin is more about lone wolf operating. 13 Hours there was more work on straight up tactics and immediate action drills. The ability to back each other up and make is look seamless. For that project we got to train with live fire right in California, which upped the ante quite a bit.

Sounds pretty intense.

Michael Bay took the project so seriously that he was calling us every single day and asking how the guys were handling the training, because he was that committed to having them look legit. But all the guys were great. They really put their hearts into the process. Nobody was driving home at night either. Everyone stayed in a hotel together, and in the morning we got up and did a big Crossfit workout. There was a lot of work on the range as well. Listen, accuracy isn’t as important as it is in the field, but you better be close before we give you a live weapon to use. [Laughs]

Before you worked with actors you were a BUD/S instructor, and before that you went through the training yourself. What was your experience like?

I will admit that my training was not a walk in the park for me at all. I made the mistake of overtraining before I went out there. I was trying to get used to running in boots, and unfortunately got shin splints. So even walking into the training I was dealing with an injury already. I also had an iliotibial band injury, so my knee would lock up randomly. But during the process I learned to work around these set backs. One of my instructors had me put an ice pack on my knee, and freeze it. It would get me through the day. I remember watching the guys in the classes ahead of me doing the surf passage with the rubber boats, getting tossed around by the waves. I remember wanting to get to that day at the very least. I made it to Hell Week, which is the big decider. I had one of the boats hit me in the head and tore ligaments in my neck. I literally couldn’t hold my head up. So during the rest of my training I had to dedicate a hand to keeping my head up so that I could see where I was going. The instructors thought I was wacked out, but I convinced them to let me finish.

Sounds like you went through hell for sure.

It got even more complicated because I came into camp as a Canadian citizen. I had a green card, but that was it, because I was born in Holland. Then at the end of the camp I learned that you had to be a United States citizen to be in special operations because of the clearance that is required. So they kicked me out one week before graduating, but kept me around. They played the national anthem at the end of every day, and they made me stand off to the side, fashion a homemade Canadian flag and sing “Oh, Canada”. The whole time I thought I was kicked out, but in the end they helped me graduate and become a citizen, so that I could serve.

How did that shape the kind of instructor that you became?

Those challenges made completing the process even more meaningful. The next time I went back there I spent three years as an instructor. Since then I went back to Afghanistan and would run into a few of my students, who would come up to me and say I changed their life, or saved them with advice. I think that having my kind of struggle through the process made me a better instructor, and made me a better instructor to help these actors understand the dedication required.