Kate del Castillo and B.D. Sweeney in Jules Stewart’s “K-11.” | BREAKING GLASS PICTURES
The prison drama “K-11” gets its name from the LGBT unit of the Los Angeles county jail — “a sanctuary for broken toys” cracks one character. This is where Raymond Saxx, Jr. (Goran Visnjic), a straight man, finds himself incarcerated after being accused of homicide. Raymond is too drugged up to recall the circumstances of the crime. As he sobers up, he must navigate K-11’s power structure in his quest to recover his freedom.
The cell is run by an inmate named Mousey (Kate del Castillo), a transgender queen bee. She is in cahoots of sorts with Sergeant Johnson (D.B. Sweeney), a corrupt, drug-fueled guard who is in love with her. Sweeney and del Castillo steal the film, sinking their teeth into their juicy roles.
On the phone from Los Angeles, Sweeney spoke about making “K-11” and playing a violent, drug-abusing sexual predator.
D.B. Sweeney creates a drug-addled prison guard with an unexpected tender side
“It’s always a fun challenge to play someone different from you,” he said. “I’ve never had any problems with drugs. The drugs cloud his judgment, but he is a cunning character who is able to get ahead.”
Johnson works things to his advantage throughout the film. He “buys” Raymond for his unit, and there is a suggestion that the officer has designs on the hunk. “K-11” drips with erotic tension whenever Johnson hints he will use sexual dominance to control the male and transgender inmates.
“It comes down to entitlement,” Sweeney said in explaining his character’s motivation. “Sergeant Johnson decided that because of all his experiences and all the wrongs committed against him, he will take everything he can.”
The actor talked about visiting the actual K-11 unit in the LA County jail system and meeting young officers horrified by what they witnessed.
“It’s interesting that it’s a mandatory first stop for cadets out of the academy, but Johnson who gets there can’t leave,” he said. “This is a guy very comfortable in a hellish environment.”
The actor admitted he’s had a couple of brief brushes behind bars himself.
“I have been arrested when some barroom situations that have gotten out of hand — but just for a night or a couple of hours,” Sweeney said. “That’s a real ‘come to Jesus’ moment. I wouldn’t want to be in jail. It’s a deterrent when you get those handcuffs on — it’s a whole other level of correction.”
Sweeney explained that he based his character’s thirst for power on “authoritarian people, like a TSA agent or security guard, who always wants to demonstrate their petty authority.” Johnson doesn’t like not getting his way; he scuffles with inmates who cut in on his drug business and he also experiences meltdowns.
“When you push them, they get whiny,” Sweeney said of people like Johnson.
But Johnson has a tender spot for Mousey, whom he sees as his girl. Sweeney described their relationship as that of Prince Charming and Snow White; Johnson buys her shoes off the Internet, among many favors. Still, the complex sexual politics of their relationship — in a prison setting, of all places — are not addressed.
“The nuts and the bolts of it — so to speak — aren’t an issue,” Sweeney said. ”He’s so bought into Mousey the woman that he doesn’t think about it that much. He accuses and uses everyone, including Mousey, but he has a sincere and deep love for her.”
A critical scene in which Johnson and Mousey engage in erotic asphyxiation sex was a challenge the two actors surmounted with aplomb.
“I met Kate once before filming, and that scene was the first thing we filmed,” Sweeney recalled. “We just dived in and did it. Kate was great and made me feel comfortable and dark and violent and emotional. If that were the first day with some actors I’ve worked with, we would never have gotten the scene. Kate made it happen. I didn’t remember what happened during filming, and when I saw it, it was fun to watch it. It was like watching someone else in the movie.”
The actor transformed his look for he role, sporting a mustache and even a Hitler-ish haircut.
“I’m not interested in playing Hitler, but he was an inspiration for evil and for Johnson’s mustache,” Sweeney said. “A lot of guards have mustaches.”
Johnson’s appearance was a source on debate on the set, the actor admitted.
“Jules [Stewart, the director] wanted Johnson to have a puffy drug look,” Sweeney said. “I wanted to make him more emaciated like a meth addict. It was an interesting choice to make his clothes too tight.”
Playing Johnson as an over-the-top figure was fun for Sweeney, but he recalled fondly his key role in the fine 1999 independent queer film “The Weekend.” In that drama, he was Tony, a man whose lover, friends, and family members gather on the anniversary of his death.
“I really liked it,” Sweeney said. “I got to work with Brooke Shields and Deborah Kara Unger. Brian Skeet [the director, who adapted Peter Cameron’s novel] was a good friend. It was a great opportunity to spend idyllic time and that character was interesting. He’s so much kinder than me, and understanding — almost Christ-like. It made me think what parts of me are pure and good and bring them out.”
Sweeney is just as memorable playing the evil, drug-addicted, and frankly pretty queer Sergeant Johnson in “K-11.” He takes praise for his performance in stride, though, taking pains to point to performances he admired in other prison dramas.
“I really like ‘Kiss of the Spider Woman’ and ‘Birdman of Alcatraz,” he said. “But ‘Papillion’ is my favorite.”
K-11 | Directed by Jules Stewart | Breaking Glass Pictures | Opens Mar. 15 | Cinema Village | 22 E. 12th St. | cinemavillage.com