In his latest film, Matthew McConaughey plays the father of Richard Wershe Jr., a teenager who becomes an undercover informant for the FBI at the peak of the crack epidemic in the 1980s.
The film premiered at Toronto International Film Festival and will be arriving in theaters September 14. The film’s star, Richie Merritt, is a newcomer to the entertainment industry.
Here’s what you need to know about him:
1. He Never Acted Before This Film
White Boy Rick marks Merritt’s first acting experience.
He was just 15 when he was chosen in a nationwide casting search. Director Yann Demange tells Variety, “We are very excited to have found Richie… For the purposes of our story, it was essential that we find someone who understands the life of an inner city teenager, as well as the complicated point of view and experience of the real life Ricky Wershe Jr. As a fifteen-year old kid from inner city Baltimore, Richie brings a genuine sense of authenticity to both the role and our film.”
In an interview with The Hollywood Reporter, Merritt’s co-star, Matthew McConaughey, explains that because of the fact that acting was so new to Merritt, he didn’t have an “overzealous reverence” for the fact that he was in a movie. McConaughey says, “I said every night… there’s a 20% chance Richie might catch a bus to Baltimore tonight and not show up… [He] didn’t ask to be here!”
Still, director Yann Demange was convinced Merritt was the right choice for the role. “It was a big chance. The studio was nervous. But I was convinced he was the one. And the support of Matthew helped,” the director says.
Merritt spent two weeks training with an acting coach before being flown out to LA. There, he did a screen test with McConaughey, and won the part. According to Variety, McConaughey tested with “dozens” of actors before Merritt was awarded the role.
2. Both Actors & Non-Actors Auditioned for the Role
Casting auditioned both actors and non-actors for the role, and they searched all over the US, the UK, and Australia, according to Deadline.
Speaking to the outlet, John Lesher, one of the producer’s of the film, said, “We auditioned both real kids, with no experience, and also young actors. It was very important to us that we found someone with the authenticity and similarity in his background (to Wershe)… We all just fell in love with him. He has a natural charisma.”
USA Today reports that talent scouts searched boxing gyms, community centers, and high schools in five cities before coming across Merritt. And where did they find him? The principal’s office.
Speaking on Jimmy Fallon on Wednesday, McConaughey explained, “What happened– in a principal’s office in Baltimore High School in a street casting session… We’re going in and the casting director pitches the part to a principal. The principal says, ‘Well that’s the little **** you gotta start with right there,” motioning to Richie.
3. He Didn’t Know Who McConaughey Was at First
Merritt admits that he learned a lot from his experience on the film… including who Matthew McConaughey was.
Merritt, who is now a high school senior, tells USA Today, “I didn’t know who he was at first. Because I’m used to watching action movies with, like, Will Smith or Mark Wahlberg, stuff like that… But when I met him, it was like, ‘I do know that guy.’ I didn’t know his name was Matthew McConaughey.”
Merrit admits that the experience was daunting at first. The Herald Miami reports him as saying, “I’d remember what my mother always told me, ‘God wouldn’t put you here to fail… I would take a couple of deep breaths when I was anxious and nervous. I would always try to be in the moment, have fun and do what God brought me to do.”
4. He Hopes to Become a Full-Time Actor
Merritt says he’s hoping to take pursue acting full-time. “It’s most definitely something I plan to take on,” he says.
And how are reviews so far? Positive.
Variety’s Peter Debruge writes, “The standout turn here is Merritt’s, projecting both the streetwise toughness that attracted the authorities and the kind of determination that, under different social circumstances, might have allowed for Rick to find a legitimate path to a better life.
At this point in time, Merritt is not signed to an agency. He is with Ilene Feldman Management.
In an interview with Flickering Myth, Merritt explains what the director was looking for in his performance in the film. “What he was really looking for is authenticity. He just wanted somebody to bring it to the table.”
5. Wersche Jr. Is Set to Be Released from Prison Christmas 2020
Interestingly enough, the man who Merritt plays recently got his first parole six months ago after 27 years in prison.
He was initially scheduled to be released from Florida prison on April 20, 2021, but will now be released December 25, 2020, according to Click On Detroit.
Wersche is now 49-years-old and is behind held at the Reception and Medical Center state prison in Lake Butler, Florida. The outlet states that with good behavior, he could be released earlier than the Dec. 2020 date.