Tiller Russell’s latest film, Silk Road, starring Nick Robinson and Jason Clarke, tells the true story of Ross Ulbricht from the creation of the narcotic-selling website Silk Road to his arrest. When actors portray real people, it can be seen as less challenging because there is direct material to inform the personality and a real live person to mimic, but also more challenging because there is a person to compare the performance to and judge its authenticity. Nick Robinson opened up about how he prepared to play Ross Ulbricht without meeting him.
The story of Silk Road is quite fascinating. The film follows Ross Ulbricht (Nick Robinson) as he creates this website that spins wildly out of his control and concurrently follows DEA agent Rick Bowden (Jason Clarke) as he goes undercover to build a case against Ulbricht. Nick Robinson chatted with CinemaBlend about his process of preparing for the role of an existing person. Here’s what he shared:
I think for this the process is different because there's less stuff you've made up, you know, you're not creating a fictional person. There's a public record and a history there. And so for Ross, Tiller and I looked at his looked at his blog posts on Silk Road. When he was arrested, the FBI downloaded this fast trope off of his laptop, and a lot of it is public record. Ross used the Silk Road almost as a diary. He couldn't really tell anybody about what he was doing so he would express himself on these chat rooms and these blog posts as the Dread Pirate Roberts. And that was really interesting, that was like a direct view into his thought process and what he was thinking and what he was going through. I went through and picked out a few passages that made their way almost verbatim into the movie of just his manifestos and his kind of big, bold declarations he would make sometimes. So all of that was really helpful in getting an idea of who Ross is as a person. I never had the chance to meet him and there's a lot of stuff that we had to make up and kind of fabricate, but we tried to always go back to the text of what he was writing about and try to stay as true as we could because that's a firsthand account.
A diary of sorts certainly seems to be as close to a person’s inner-most thoughts as one can get. Silk Road displays various aspects of Ross Ulbricht’s personality as he changes over time with the demands of his website. He starts out as an easy-going college-aged kid with an idea, but that idea soon consumes his life and decisions and he starts to spiral. Nick Robinson gives an excellent performance in the film, capturing the genius, hopeful, desperate, and despairing parts of Ulbricht.
Ross Ulbricht was given a life sentence without the possibility of parole, and director Tiller Russell intentionally did not comment on that in the film. He wants the audience to decide whether they agree with the outcome, and has said that he sees Silk Road as a sort of Frankenstein story where the creator lost control of his creation. Nick Robinson commented on this aspect as well, saying:
I think that in a different life, Ross could have been a really successful entrepreneur in Silicon Valley. He had that kind of drive and ambition, he just channeled those energies kind of into the wrong source. He got really into libertarianism and college and the Silk Road initially was kind of just an experiment. It was like a thesis statement on libertarianism, small government and no intervention and freewill and having a fair attitude towards everything, specifically the war on drugs, and allowing people to make their own decisions and get what they want, in a controlled environment.
Sounds like lead actor Nick Robinson and director Tiller Russell were on the same page with Silk Road being the story of a well-intentioned project gone wrong. Silk Road is now available on Apple TV, Prime Video and everywhere you rent and buy movies. What do you think of the outcome of this story?