Former NFL star Simeon Rice moved from the football field to the film set. His directorial debut, the action-thriller “Unsullied,” opens nationwide this weekend in more than 100 theaters, including the AMC Elmwood Palace 20.
Rice’s 12 years in the NFL included six seasons with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and a ring for playing in Super Bowl XXXVII. He got the idea of becoming a filmmaker while he was with the Arizona Cardinals, shortly before he joined the Buccaneers. His desire to make movies grew after his move to Tampa.
Rice both wrote and directed “Unsullied.” First-time film actress Murray Gray stars in the film as Reagan Farrow, a former track star who’s abducted after her car breaks down on a rural road. Reagan subsequently uses her track skills to save herself.
Despite Rice’s 122 recorded sacks during his NFL career, football didn’t inspire the athleticism in “Unsullied.” Instead, Rice sites Mel Gibson’s chase film “Apocalypto,” crime drama “No Country for Old Men” and the 1972 backwoods drama “Deliverance” as his touchstones.
“It was those chases and levels of anxiety I needed,” he said a few weeks ago. “You have a young lady in a complicated situation. She’s a former runner and she has to use her best asset to evade and survive.”
Rice and his cast and crew shot “Unsullied” at Heritage Village in Pinellas County, Florida. Some of the 21-acre living-history museum’s buildings date to the 19th century.
“We had every bit of a studio feel there,” Rice said. “It was amazing for us.”
The wooded areas where the film’s chase scenes happen also serve the story well, Rice said.
“The woods create a character,” he said. “Because it’s the unknown. When you enter the unknown, you create vulnerability. Reagan character has to deal with being displaced psychologically and physically.”
UCLA acting student Gray won the role following a national search that drew 300 actresses.
“It was a demanding role, psychologically and physically,” Rice said. “She was fearless. She stepped up and carried the film.”
Gray and Rice alike make their film debuts with “Unsullied.” Making the film, Rice said, “it was exciting for me and daunting. I was nervous going into the process. You don’t want to mess up. But the moment I got on set, it all made sense. At that moment I felt comfortable.”
Although Rice has loved movies his whole life, he didn’t consider becoming a filmmaking until his pro football years. His seriousness was such that he studied filmmaking at the New York Film Academy.
“I love storytelling,” he said. “I look at it like a game. Not a football game, but like putting a puzzle together. It’s questions waiting for answers.”
Looking back at his football career, Rice has great memories of playing the Saints in New Orleans.
“It was always a fun place to play,” he said. “The Who Dat Nation was always fun. And to see what they were able to accomplish coming off of Katrina, wow. Look at them go. That’s an amazing story.”