HIt Man
Hit Man, (L to R) Adria Arjona as Madison, director & co-writer Richard Linkletter, co-writer Glen Powell as Gary Johnson, and director of photography Shane F. Kelly. Cr. Brian Rondel / Courtesy of Netflix

Growing up in Austin, with dreams of making movies, Glen Powell was very much a fan of Richard Linklater, who helped build the city into the film capital it is today. But he didn’t just see the films of the Oscar-nominated director of Boyhood, Dazed and Confused, and the Before trilogy, among many other indelible films. 

He also had a personal connection.

“My first screenplay was, I think, my freshman year of high school. It was a really weird script,” Powell recalls. “Everybody else was kind of writing poetry and prose and my creative writing teacher was obsessed with Rick, and would play his films Tape and A Scanner Darkly and all these different things, and was friends with Rick’s editor, Sandra Adair.

“So I was writing screenplays for my creative writing class, but Rick’s work was very much a part of it. And so we would study some of his stuff, and Sandra Adair came in to guest speak in the course, which is kind of crazy, thinking about it. That’s kind of where my writing process really started.”

Powell kept writing, and even “sold a couple things that paid the bills for a little bit,” he says. But his first script to actually be made into a film is a collaboration with Linklater: Their new film Hit Man is a crime romance that combines perfect plotting with Linklater’s knack for making everything look easy.

Of course, Powell hasn’t just been writing: He also became an actor, and landed his first role around the time he wrote that first weird script for his class at Westwood High School. His breakthrough role was a small part in Spy Kids 3-D: Game Over, written and directed by another Austin film icon, Robert Rodriguez. Powell soon got his first chance to work with Linklater, in the director’s 2006 Fast Food Nation.

He had a run of success in the next decade — including roles in The Great Debaters and The Dark Knight Rises — before reteaming with Linklater in 2016 for Everybody Wants Some!!, a 1980-set spiritual sequel to Dazed and Confused inspired by Linklater’s time playing baseball at Sam Houston State University. (Linklater also played football in his youth, as did Powell.) They worked together again in Linklater’s 2022 space travel fantasy Apollo 10 ½.

Our Hit Man digital cover. Photo by Matt Lankes. Courtesy of Netflix. Cover designed by Ryan Ward.

Powell’s star kept rising: In that same year, Powell played pilots in Top Gun: Maverick and Devotion, and also executive produced the latter. And this year he stars opposite Sydney Sweeney in the hit rom-com Anyone But You.

But Hit Man, which premiered at the 80th Venice International Film Festival last year to splendid reviews, marks his arrival as a writer-star. And it seems primed to have one of the best receptions of Linklater’s spectacular career. The old adage about never meeting your heroes has, in this case, been proven wrong.

Hit Man tells the semi-true story of Gary Johnson, the subject of a 2001 Texas Monthly profile by Skip Hollandsworth. The piece detailed how the real Johnson bounced between teaching community college classes and impersonating a hit man to help police capture people trying to hire contract killers. Johnson’s work led to dozens of arrests. The film has fun with scenes in which Powell plays Johnson playing a variety of hit-man characters during undercover sting operations in which he sets up people who want other people killed. 

But Hit Man takes some creative liberties when it shows the mild-mannered, scholarly Gary becoming the macho, confident killer “Ron” to sting a woman named Maddy Masters (Adria Arjona). When she explains that she wants to escape her controlling husband, Gary/Ron begins to take her side. Soon Ron and Maddy fall for each other, but their secrets threaten to destroy everything.

We talked with Linklater and Powell about how they collaborate, the art of making things look easy, and taking a stand for sex scenes.

Adria Arjona as Madison Masters and Glen Powell as Gary Johnson in Hit Man. Courtesy of Netflix

MovieMaker: You both played football – did that give you any kind of shorthand, or bulls— detector? 

Glen Powell: This movie really is like a Richard Linklater biopic in a lot of ways — he’s part Gary, part Ron.

Richard Linklater: I can turn it off and on — this movie is kind of autobiographical. Believe me, a lot of people know me as Gary but the special ones know me as Ron. Make no mistake. 

Glen Powell: That was the fun part about shooting Everybody Wants Some!! … I do feel like Rick has a lot of movies where you know him as this intellectual, thoughtful writer and director. I think what was so fun for me on Everybody Wants Some!! was really getting to know him as an athlete. It’s something you can’t manufacture — you’ve either been in a locker room and lived in a locker room and been on the road with a team or you haven’t. 

Richard Linklater: It always kills me when you get these politicians, these guys acting like tough guys. Ted Cruz never wore a jockstrap, okay? 

You can listen to the the MovieMaker podcast of this interview on Spotify or anywhere you enjoy podcasts:


I know people who knew me for years didn’t know I had an athletic past. It didn’t really leak out till about 10 years into my moviemaking. I never told anyone. I started making movies with sports in them, and people were like, “What are you doing?” … I sort of came out of the closet as an ex-jock very slowly.

Filmmaking is the ultimate group effort. A group comes together with a goal, and there’s an easy sports analogy there. You’re coming together to be the best team you can. I like that attitude of you put your own thing behind you and do what’s best for the team and you offer your best and you’ve gotta get along. … It brings out the best in people, or suppresses the worst, maybe. 

We’ve always had this shorthand, for years. I never thought of it as a team because it was just the two of us. But we’re a bobsled team, maybe?

Glen Powell: Or a curling team? … There is something with actors and directors. Not everyone is collaborative. Rick is a unicorn in that way, where a lot of directors box you out of the process, or look at it as this thing where actors are there to taint something, or negatively affect it, or put their weird ideas on it, or their egos into it, or whatever it is. And I’m not sure if it’s just the people that Rick teams up with, or if it’s just his energy, but it makes it very easy.

The thing that Rick and I really found a shorthand on is that we always agreed on what was good, what made us laugh. … I feel like our egos were always at the door on this thing. And we were always going, “Okay, how do we make the coolest movie possible for the audience?” It is a sports mentality. It’s like, get the W, no matter what.

Richard Linklater: And I love collaborating, just to bounce ideas off someone. Writing can be pretty lonely, and I’ve done plenty of that in my life, but I enjoy writing with someone. I’ve experienced this before with Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy. [Editor’s note: Hawke talks more about their collaboration on the Before trilogy on page 80.]

Why not write with the actors? It’s almost like writing is closer to rehearsal — “Well, does that sound good coming out of your mouth?” … Actors are storytellers, too, and we’re all in this story thing together… We’re aiming for something pretty high. We have a high standard. We’re really pushing each other, not in an aggressive way, just: It better be good. 

Glen Powell: That’s one thing that I was incredibly impressed with Rick about, early on: I think he was looking at me being like, damn, this guy doesn’t sleep. And I was looking at him like, man, you cannot wear Rick out. He was down to work all the time. 

Richard Linklater: It’s the kind of thing you never say out loud, but I think each of us was like, I’m not going to be the first one to stumble here. … We were just relentless to the absolute finish line: “We’re not slowing down because of me.” 

Glen Powell: 100 percent. We just ran each other into the ground. [Laughs.] 

Richard Linklater: That’s a good feeling when you’re done because you know: Okay. We left it all there. 

Richard Linklater and Glen Powell on Michael McDonald

Glen Powell: There were many times while making this thing where that additional push really made the difference in the scenes. Where you and I looked at each other and we’re at the 11th hour, kind of like, “Is this it? Maybe there’s another element here —  maybe the entry point into this could be different.” And those made all the difference in the edit. 

Richard Linklater: I described it to someone recently, and this sounds funny, but I said we were going for like a Steely Dan song where you work so hard and you reach perfection — and then you keep going. Just to find new things and make it more audience friendly. 

You reach an early perfection — the song is there. But we’re going to keep putting layers on this. We’re gonna stay in the studio an extra six months and get Michael McDonald to do background vocals on this one lyric.

MovieMaker: But then they call that music yacht rock. Because it’s so relaxing to listen to.

Richard Linklater: We’ve made a yacht rock movie, Glen. Aren’t you proud? We’re a Steely Dan song.

Glen Powell: The funniest part about working with Rick was it’s never like going to work. We would never go into it like, “Hey, I had an idea for the movie.” We’d just shoot the s—, and this is exactly what it’s like: talking about Steely Dan, and somehow it slowly finds its way back to the movie. 

Richard Linklater: Everything we talked about is tangentially in the web that could take root. We’re not just talking. We’re working. 

Adria Arjona as Madison Masters and Glen Powell as Gary Johnson in Hit Man. Courtesy of Netflix

Glen Powell and Richard Linklater on Getting Unstuck From the Facts of Hit Man

MovieMaker: How did you find the 2001 story by Skip Hollandsworth? 

Richard Linklater: I called Skip immediately after reading it. I had already optioned his story that years later would become the movie Bernie. So I was friends with him. And I read this article, like, “Skip, this is a great character. This is kind of a movie.” We even talked about it then, but I just didn’t feel it. 

Cut to the pandemic — I get a call from Glen saying, “Hey, you know, I read this article.” … I was excited that an actor, especially Glen, was excited about it, because I felt in my own head about it, and it didn’t quite work. It was such a relief to bounce ideas off a creative person.

Glen Powell: From the moment I read the article, what I was fascinated by was sort of the psychology of it — my immediate thought was, this is a guy that is teaching about humanity, and technically emulating humanity, but not experiencing humanity. And I thought, that’s such an interesting character. When I immediately read it I thought Rick would have such an interesting perspective on it. 

That character could exist as such a weird comedic trope, if played incorrectly. And I think what Rick is able to do is take what in other hands could be really stock characters and make them very three-dimensional and very lived in and profound. 

There was this swell of energy around it very quickly. It never felt like, “What is this?” Immediately I felt like we started catching some really big thematic ideas. 

Tootsie is a really weird example, but it’s a misogynistic guy who wears the clothes and the skin of a woman and ends up respecting them. There was sort of the same sort of character math here, of a guy who puts on the clothes of a human, a multi-dimensional human, somebody who’s exciting and dangerous, and is doing all the things that he’s not, and ends up becoming that guy.

Richard Linklater: The logjam that I had to clear out, that Glen certainly helped push over, was I was just kind of stuck in the facts. This phenomenon of the undercover hit man is very real. But there was a commonality — it’s just kind of the same thing over and over. Where does it go? Where’s the third act? Where’s the second act even, maybe. And Glen’s like, “What if we deviate?”

The article ends when he lets the young woman off, the young wife. And that’s not that far into our movie, you know? And it was kind of like, well, what if she called him? What if she thanked him? What if she asked him out? Then oh, s— — he’s stuck as Ron.

Gary’s a real guy. I got to know him. His cats really are named Id and Ego. But she was made up. That’s when I started to feel we were in a genre too, for the first time. It’s kind of noirish the way she comes in. We made the choice to not have her be a black widow or setting him up, because I’ve seen that before. You can’t do better than Double Indemnity and Body Heat

What if they’re kind of meant to be together? What if they really are the perfect mates for each other? … Now we’re in screwball comedy territory. What’s keeping this perfect couple apart? 

The Real Gary Johnson From Hit Man

MovieMaker: One thing I love is that the thing that’s hardest to believe is the thing that’s totally true. There’s this guy who’s a professor, who’s also going undercover and has like 70 arrests impersonating all these different people — that’s the hurdle for the audience to get over. But that happened. That’s real. 

Glen Powell: If we made that part up, it would be the most awkward, clumsy buy-in, and we would have changed that. We would have simplified that in a way during rewrites to be like, “Well what if he’s just this?” It’s a clumsy entry point, but he enters the movie in sort of this weird identity crisis already. 

Richard Linklater: I could relate to him sort of as an artist — as someone who sees the world kind of behind glass a little bit. … and that’s our thesis: Can you change?

MovieMaker: Did it take an actor to see the potential in how fun it would be to show Gary playing all these different hit-man characters? 

Glen Powell: I think one of the universal qualities that we kind of unlocked early on is this idea, especially during the pandemic, about how people were feeling stuck in their identities, stuck in relationships, stuck in places, stuck in their lives. A lot of times we kind of glance past mirrors, you rarely look at them.

I think COVID was an interesting time where you kind of had to stare in the mirror and stare at your life in a way that you never were forced to do before. And I think that’s why this movie kind of resonates on that level. And it kind of guided the process a little bit — that idea that it’s never too late to go out and become the person you want to be. 

But in terms of Gary’s performance of Ron or any of these guys, the audience has to remember that Gary exists under there, that this is all a performance for a very specific purpose, and that’s the fun and games of it. And I think that’s where Rick and I had a great little bulls— check for each other over the course of this thing. He really kept me honest on that performance. Because it could go off the rails really fast.

Hit Man Co-Writers Richard Linklater and Glen Powell on Getting Sex Scenes Right

MovieMaker: Another place where it could have gone off the rails, and doesn’t, is in the sex scenes. We talked with Sean Baker last issue and he wondered whether it’s true that Gen Z audiences don’t want to see sex scenes anymore. But I think you’ve handled them well. They seem to be sort of frowned on, more than they used to be. But they’re such an integral part of noir, and the chemistry between these two characters.

Richard Linklater: Well, I’m proudly old school in this regard. In the movies I love, people actually like having sex. If superheroes don’t want to have genitalia, that’s their business. 

This is a hot couple — and again, we’re kind of in noir territory. If you’re going to risk your life, if you’re going to risk everything you’ve worked for and everything, there’s got to be this insatiable, sexual — that’s what pulls humans in. That puts you out there on a limb. That wouldn’t just be some chaste thing. It’s real. These people are f—ing. These people really have the hots for each other. That makes it believable. That’s what pushes people to do crazy things. 

Glen Powell: It’s checking logic at the door. We have a guy who’s stuck in his head. The id and ego of it all. … The magic trick of this movie is portraying a guy who is all logic, all manipulation, becoming sort of a guy who is starting to lose track of reality a little bit for himself. That’s the fun of being a human. We talk about the submission to passion in this movie. 

Where I think a lot of modern sex scenes go wrong is they’re executed as, okay, let’s just execute the sex scene. You end up watching it omnisciently, feeling awkward.

Richard Linklater: It’s clinical.

Adria Arjona as Madison Masters and Glen Powell as Gary Johnson in Hit Man. Courtesy of Netflix

Glen Powell: This movie is a fantasy, right? So you really have to have the audience engage with her and cheer for him to nail this moment. It has to be fun. There’s a buoyancy to all of it. It’s not supposed to be perverted, it’s supposed to be fun. There’s a wish fulfillment to it. 

One of the things that Adria really added was a female perspective on these things. She was so integral. We would basically pull images from all sorts of places — artwork and magazines or any of this stuff — where it’s like, “Okay, this is a sexy image to women.” She’s like, “This is hot.”

We would kind of compile — it would almost be like sexual storyboards, so to speak. It was just a feeling — this kind of feels like this for this moment. 

I think it really helped because those sex-scene days are so nerve-racking for everybody. Everybody’s just trying not to f— it up. Or get canceled. [Laughs.] As an actor, you’re like, I want to respect my co- star. I want them to feel comfortable. So there’s all this stuff going on in your head. And it’s never a sexy experience. There’s nothing sexy about it. 

The fact that Rick, Adria and I got to bake this thing together and really understand what the goal set was and the tone of it — I think for me, I think it’s one of the few sex scenes I’ve seen in recent memory where there’s an investment level there. I think sex is taken out of movies because it so quickly becomes a detour rather than flowing through the same story. 

Richard Linklater: We say it during the first sex scene — Gary says I was once told I think too much to have sex. If you’re going to transport into another person, you might as well transport into a sexual, you know, Don Juan. If you’re gonna be a different person you might as well be a better sexual person. 

That’s why you like Ron. He wasn’t a thinker. He was a doer.

Glen Powell: There’s a fantasy of who we know we could be if we could get out of our own way. 

Richard Linklater: Adria was just such the third partner in this whole thing. Because that character is based on whole cloth, she had to come in and really ground Madison in something, and she had such strong ideas. She’s like, “I would never say that. I couldn’t say that.”

Glen Powell: I think a lot of actors and actresses can potentially get in their own way of thinking about themselves before they think about story. Every step of the way, she didn’t shy away from being certain things on camera that are necessary gears for this story to really work. She never questioned it out of ego. She always leaned in where she needed to lean in. And I think that’s why the audience really engages with her on a realistic level. 

There can be a protective element to some actors, like, “I don’t wanna play this” or “I’ve seen this in other movies” or whatever it is… 

Richard Linklater: Thinking of how they’ll be judged —

Glen Powell: If they’re likable or how they’ll test or whatever.

Richard Linklater: She embraced those flaws that Madison has. 

Glen Powell: That’s what makes a dynamic performance, is you have to trust that the audience will be on that ride with you. … Adria really, really understands storytelling.

Richard Linklater: People forget — whether it’s studio executives, anyone giving notes or actors or anyone executing: Our biggest partner here is cinema itself. You can take a ride on it. It wants to embrace your character, it’s featuring you, it’s giving you so much, you should take advantage of that, not overthink it. 

If you put two people on the screen and don’t make them completely loathsome, I want to like you. I want to go with your story, even when you’re doing horrible things. That’s the power of cinematic storytelling. You might as well use it and have some confidence in it. I see people who just think their way out of great characters and great stories, just by auto critiquing. 

No one gives a s—. Keep going. Keep going. 

Hit Man is now in theaters and arrives on Netflix on June 7.

Main image: (L to R) Adria Arjona as Madison, director and co-writer Richard Linkletter, co-writer Glen Powell as Gary Johnson, and director of photography Shane F. Kelly on the set of Hit Man. Courtesy of Netlix.