Theo Rossi on Emily the Criminal | ‘I’ve been a criminal in my life’

We speak to Mr Rossi about portraying violent men on screen, working with Aubrey Plaza and… his pregnant goat.

theo rossi

Theo Rossi stars in Emily the Criminal alongside Aubrey Plaza. He tells us about portraying violent men on screen and… his pregnant goat.

Theo Rossi, best known as Juice from Sons of Anarchy, plays Youcef, a criminal with a heart of gold in Emily The Criminal. The film is a rare opportunity for Rossi to portray his Middle Eastern heritage, and he talks us through the early stages of the production and how he approached the role of Youcef.

How are you?

I’m on a little break from filming. I came home to the ranch here in Austin, where I have a pregnant goat. She’s just outside now and I was making sure she was okay. 

You have a pregnant goat?! That’s amazing.

It might be twins; they can’t tell yet. She’s due in December, but she’s doing very good!

theo rossi emily the criminal

Credit: Universal Pictures

How did you get involved with Emily the Criminal?

It was one of those things where I was doing a film in Atlanta, and I was really into it because I had gone from this other film right before, in Los Angeles, straight to Atlanta. I was looking forward to getting home because I have little kids; we have a ranch over here. And I get a call, and I sit in my team. I was like, ‘I’m not doing anything else; I want to go home’. They’re like, no, no; you need to read this film; Aubrey Plaza is producing and starring in it. I read it so fast. I had never seen Aubrey’s work. I knew who she was, but I had never seen anything she’d been in. 

I said, ‘Let me talk to her’. And, long story short, we got on a Zoom and instantly knew: we’re gonna do this. It was her, John (Patton Ford) and I. She was in Italy doing the film Spin Me Around. I was in Atlanta, John was in LA, and we were all in these crazy time zones. Despite all that, we talked for hours about this project. 

Independent films are exciting because you can get deeply involved emotionally; sometimes, they never happen. Or they sometimes even get shut down in the middle of it; everything that could go wrong goes wrong. But this was one of those things where I knew how important it was to Aubrey and John. I just said, 'Whatever you need, I’m here’. So I went straight from that film to Los Angeles. And within two days, I dyed my hair brown [Rossi was playing Rory Fetter in Vendetta], we started rehearsing, and four days later, we were filming.

theo rossi emily the criminal (1)

Credit: Universal Pictures

What was it about the character of Youcef that you connected with when you were reading the script?

The first thing that scared me about playing Youcef is that I’m Middle Eastern and have never played that kind of character. Which is odd, right? My family is Lebanese and Syrian, and I don’t play Middle Eastern roles. I play more of the Spanish Italian side of my family. Number two was: how will I prepare for this in such a short amount of time? I will have to take my entire method of how I do this and consolidate it into six or seven days. And that challenge in itself made it very intriguing to me because I’m coming in from playing this blond homicidal maniac who murders everyone to this. 

I think Youcef is, at his heart, a very good-natured person in a bad situation. So my preparation was just all-encompassing; it consumed my world in every way. I was calling cousins and friends in Lebanon and listening to their voices repeatedly on my headphones. I was getting my Arabic as best as possible, even just for the little amount we used it, really engulfing myself into the culture of it again with my aunts and my mom to have his background as solidified as I could. And then, most importantly, was developing my relationship with Aubrey. While we were in LA, we just hung out all the time. We got to know each other fast.

emily the criminal youcef theo rossi

Credit: Universal Pictures

It was such a quick shoot. Does wrapping up speedily help because you almost don’t have time to think and obsess over the little things?

Yeah, exactly what you said. The film I’m on right now is like a three-and-a-half-month film. This was 20 days. You don’t have time to come out of it. You are in it, so it’s a blur. When people asked, my wife would be like, ‘How was it?’ I don’t even know! I think it’s good, but I don’t know because you’re so ‘in the blur of it’. I prefer that; it adds to it, especially a film like Emily that’s always moving. The pace is constant, in front of and behind the camera. 

You’ve done a lot of these dark roles. Is that darkness or violence something that appeals to you as an actor?

I had been acting for years, and then Sons of Anarchy came up. You get known for things like that even though Juice on Sons was the least violent – despite killing a tonne of people. He and Opie were the centres, the hearts of the show. But the outside perspective is that the show’s violent, so he must be violent.

sons of anarchy juice

Theo Rossi as Juice Ortiz in Sons of Anarchy. Credit: FX

I started as an extra in this business, so I’ve been a journeyman actor. I’m one of these some call ‘character actors’. Character actors usually lean towards darker roles. Until the antihero became a thing, the leads were always the good ones, and everybody else was pushing the antagonist’s narrative. So it’s not even that I gravitate towards them. I think that’s what audiences like me for.

I’ve known a lot of criminals. I’ve been a criminal for a long time in my life. How do you humanise them? Everybody has a past. I know many people who have lived very unlawful lifestyles, and it’s not that they’ve been bad people. They still have lives, families, needs, and wants. I tried to bring that humanity to them; that was my main thing with Youcef. I don’t see him as a bad guy but as a guy in a bad situation. If anything, it’s a role reversal between Emily and him.

Thank you so much for your time, and good luck with your pregnant goat.

I will tell mama Lulu that you said that!

Emily The Criminal is available for digital download now. 

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