Meet Theo Rossi, the breakout star of ‘Emily The Criminal’

Meet Theo Rossi, the breakout star of ‘Emily The Criminal’ | Soho House

A familiar face to fans of ‘Sons Of Anarchy’, the actor is now winning over film critics and cinema audiences alike for his latest role opposite Aubrey Plaza

Saturday 15 October 2022 By Andy Morris   Photography by Payton Ruddock

Theo Rossi is worried about his chickens. One bird in particular, named after a fellow actor. ‘We just realised “Gary Busey” is definitely not a hen. He’s significantly bigger and more aggressive.’ A covert cockerel is only one resident of Rossi’s ranch in Austin, Texas. Alongside his wife and two sons, Rossi has a hefty ‘shepsky’ (a German Shepherd and Husky cross), a donkey, ducks, goats, and deer. ‘I think everybody should have an animal that they care for, because it takes away your ego a little.”

At 47, Rossi is one of life’s pragmatists, keen to make the best of any situation – in his own words, becoming a ‘court jester’. Best known for his roles as the duplicitous ‘Juice’ Ortiz in biker blockbuster Sons Of Anarchy and the ruthless ‘Shades’ in hip-hop thriller Luke Cage, Rossi spent most of his career turning bit parts into nuanced character studies. Being a key component of Sons Of Anarchy – more than five million people watched his final episode live – has taught him to treat it all as a process. ‘We always joke around when people ask, “Do you ride motorcycles?” Yeah, sometimes.’

He is determined to cut through the Hollywood nonsense, having spent years as an extra watching actors complain about their jobs. ‘You would think that they’re in the final scene of Braveheart, where [William Wallace’s] arms and legs are being pulled. No, you just gotta act! It’s not that big of a deal.’ His inspirations are clear: ‘The actors that I love – John Cazale, Gene Hackman, Denzel Washington, Jeffrey Wright, Bette Davis – they were all servicing the character.’

Rossi’s next big moment comes with Sundance hit Emily The Criminal, shot in a mere 21 days. He stars opposite Parks And Recreation breakout Aubrey Plaza, whose debt-ridden character slips into full-blown fraud. It is both Uncut Gems-level intense and also, thanks to the two leads, extraordinarily empathetic.

Meet Theo Rossi, the breakout star of ‘Emily The Criminal’ | Soho House

For Rossi, Plaza was a kindred spirit. ‘She’s one of one. You can’t nail her down as this type: with films like Black Bear and Ingrid Goes West, she gets to flex a different muscle than from what people know her for. We realised that our processes are almost exactly the same: our dedication, our work ethic and how we are very aware of how lucky we are. And you’d be flabbergasted how many people aren’t like that.’

Rossi is a rare team player in an industry fixated on solo stars. When asked to describe his friend, director of Luke Cage Cheo Hodari Coker explains that it is Rossi’s collaborative nature that shines through. ‘He’s like Thelonious Monk when he’s part of an ensemble – he plays the back slightly off kilter, but it isn’t until you pull back and see the whole thing come together do you fully realise how brilliant he is. He thinks about his part... and the whole band.’ 

Part of the reason that Rossi is so compelling on screen is his ability to use elements of his past – growing up in Staten Island, listening to Wu-Tang Clan and modelling his behaviour on the criminal element he could see so clearly. ‘I'm ultimately stealing from all my human experiences when I meet people.’ As an adult, he has taken certain precautions to free himself creatively. His meal and workout routine is Lynchian in its simplicity: he runs up to eight miles daily, and doesn’t drink or smoke. ‘The rest of my life is so out of control. I have to find some grounding, because if I was out to sea all the time, I’d be doomed.’

The sense of familiarity is also why Soho House Austin is such a draw. ‘The vibe by the pool and the cabanas is like old Hollywood. So it feels like you step into another dimension when you’re there. Everybody’s just so personable.’ The consistency of the experience is key. ‘I’m going to know a bunch of people. Nobody’s trying to be somebody they’re not. Not like LA, where people just stare at you. You think, “Wait, are they staring because they liked my work? Or do they want to murder me?’”

Emily The Criminal is available to rent and own from 24 October

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