One For the Money Exclusive: Gavin-Keith Umeh on Bringing Evanovich's Baddie to Life

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How does one play a man who is capable of the most horrible of crimes? In One for the Money, Gavin-Keith Umeh is Benito Ramirez -- the dastardly man at the center of the Katherine Heigl mystery. “One of the joys of being an actor is portraying a character that is so different from you. With this guy, I could just let it rip and be as scary as I can be and over the top,” Umeh told us exclusively.

Gavin-Keith Umeh Picture

There are so many minefields when it comes to portraying Ramirez. The fact he is less than joyous towards women is one. His downright scary intimidation of Stephanie Plum (Heigl), the central character beloved by millions of fans of Janet Evanovich’s books, is another. Then there’s how Umeh’s character treats the adored Sherri Sheppard’s Lulu in the One for the Money movie. “You don’t have to find ambiguity with him, there is none. It was nice to play an arch villain.”

Umeh is beyond thrilled that the film is premiering January 27. It’s been almost a year since he shot the flick and the swell of excitement by the millions of Evanovich fans has the actor’s excitement palpable. “It’s kind of a surreal experience because we wrapped quite some time ago. There’s this long build-up and so when it finally comes around, it’s like, ‘OK, this is actually happening.’ It’s starting to become very real for me. I can’t wait to see it,” Umeh said. “There’s the added dimension that the core audience of the book is awaiting it.”

When it comes to the Evanovich nation and their adoration of her main character Plum, Umeh found a fanatic close to home. “In the process of shooting the film, I found out that my aunt is a rabid follower of the Stephanie Plum novels. It was actually nice for me to get her feedback as I was filming because you want to keep those fans happy.”

The actor portrays Ramirez who is not only the film’s bad guy, but is someone who makes his living as a fighter. As a former amateur boxer, Umeh was ready for the part, but still had to refresh some of his skills to fully capture the fierce Ramirez. “I studied martial arts since my late teens. To that extent, I didn’t have to prepare,” he said. “But, because in the film he is specifically an MMA fighter, there were some components of that style of fighting that I wanted to brush up on.”
Katherine Heigl in One for the Money

One of those whom Umeh’s character intimidates is Heigl’s Plum in a downright scary scene in an MMA cage. “She is such a lovely person,” he said of his co-star, who also is the film’s producer. “But, it is a really scary scene, both in the book and in the movie. I was initially very cautious. I didn’t want to be too scary.”

Heigl was clear to the actor that it was integral to the story for him to unleash his fury. “She told me to push it to make it work. Because she was also the producer, she could tell me what works and doesn’t, much more than if she was just playing Stephanie Plum. She told me to just let it go,” Umeh said. “She was a great sport about it.”

When tackling any page-to-screen effort, the actors must balance a tightrope of being true to the source material, while still bringing the film’s screenplay to life. “First and foremost, you have to rely on the books, not only because of the dedication the fans have to the book series and how much they care about it, but also because of the quality of the work -- the type of characters and plotlines that Evanovich has put together. You want to stay true to that. However, as an actor, I went to the screenplay first,” Umeh said. “Then, after the screenplay, I went back to the book to flush out any additional things I could glean from the book. The book is a strong reservoir that you have, you have to use it.”

The elephant in the room is how the millions of Plum fans will react to One for the Money, not the least of which is Umeh’s aunt. “Anytime you work on a project where people know the characters before you do, you have to have a commitment to them. You have to feel the pressure,” he said. Umeh said that the cast and crew keenly knew this and took it seriously to heart. “You want to get it right and you want to bring their vision to life.”

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