When Richie Merritt first set foot into his school’s theater arts class, he wasn’t preparing for a future in Hollywood. “To be honest,” he told MTV News, “I only went to that class because one of the girls I was talking to back in the day was going, so I was like, alright, this is a good way so I can see her more so I’mma just get this class so we can have this class together.”
But on the day a casting agent for White Boy Rick walked into his school in the middle of a nation-wide search for their lead – an unknown teen who could play Detroit-raised FBI informant-turned-nonviolent drug offender Richard Wershe Jr. — that introduction to theater ended up being beneficial for more than just his love life.
“I was coming in late and the lady behind the front desk, she knew me … so she recommended me [to the agent],” he said. A quick introduction set into motion a month-long audition process that required him to work with an acting coach in Baltimore and make a trip to Los Angeles for a chemistry read with Matthew McConaughey (who plays Richard Wershe Sr.) in front of director Yann Demange.
After impressing all the right people, Merritt landed the role and was off to Cleveland to earn his first paycheck — “First job, like, actual job,” he stressed. “I never worked a market before this or none of that.” — alongside an Oscar winner (McConaughey), three Oscar nominees (Bruce Dern, Piper Laurie, and Jennifer Jason Leigh), and an Emmy nominee (Brian Tyree Henry).
Despite confidently boasting to friends about being cast from the minute he met the agent, the wonder of going from public school to a movie set was not lost on Merritt. “The first day [on set] I was like, ‘Damn! This is one big-ass kick-back!’” he recalled. “It was hella people and, I don’t know, it’s like, I was nervous and I was scared, but I kind of just put that aside and had fun, because that’s what I’m good at.”
As he got more accustomed to set life, having fun became a mantra of sorts, with his frequent scene-partner and on-screen dad McConaughey echoing its importance while doling out life lessons like “always be myself and never switch up on my family” and “to love work” — but the 17-year-old credits every single member of the cast and crew with making his first job worth the 5 a.m. call times.
“That’s how you know I love something, is when I wake up, ass-crack of dawn, just to go do it,” he laughed. “And I wouldn’t even wake up for school! I wouldn’t even wake up to go see my favorite teacher.” Of course, it’s not like his teachers were ever letting him cut fake crack and shoot at a mischief of rats.
But it wasn’t all fun and games. The subject matter of the movie required Merritt to do some serious introspection and engage in thoughtful dialogue with the real Wershe — all over the phone while the 49-year-old continued to serve his prison sentence in Florida 30 years after conviction. The two bonded over their similar backgrounds, albeit separated by decades and hundreds of miles, making Merritt a natural at portraying Wershe.
“We both understand what goes on in the streets, like he grew up on the streets, I grew up on the streets; we both know how it’s like to be in a mixed population, like black, white, Hispanic,” he said, before divulging the topic that solidified their bond and got to the core of the movie’s story: unconditional love for family. “The only thing I had to really get from him,” Merritt added, “like, how it was being in jail.”
He very quickly clarified that he knows what the prison system is like. “Like, my family was really distant. My family broke apart,” he said. “I understand the feelings of abandonment and I know how it is when you miss somebody.” Merritt’s mother was incarcerated when he was a child, and after filming, one of his three older brothers was locked up. “But it was more about like, finding that distance because some people will go in jail and not cry at all.”
This awareness was, of course, entirely intentional. “They wanted somebody that was authentic, not somebody that could play they’re from the streets,” he said. “I’m not saying, ‘I’m from the streets, I’m from the trenches.’ I’m not saying that, but I understand where people are coming from because I grew up in that environment.”
It’s an environment that is vastly underrepresented outside of its community, and one that is not easy to break out of. “Nobody really comes from Baltimore. Nobody. Like, everybody that done came out of Baltimore is just like…” he paused, “It’s like they die or something.”
He’s thinking of a specific example when he says this, a childhood idol and legend to the local rap scene, Lor Scoota. Merritt took note of Lor’s budding career as he gave back to the community that supported him — and he also took note when the rapper was shot and killed while leaving an anti-violence event in 2016. “It’s hard coming out of Baltimore,” he said. “Anything could happen. Anything. So it’s like, you gotta be grateful.”
For now, Merritt is focused on continuing down the path started by his idols before him, trying to do the best he can to make his community a better place, “because if I can do this and I get myself right, then I’mma be able to look after my peoples and help them do right.”