WASHINGTON — Rene Sandler knows bad guys.
A fixture on regional “best lawyer” lists, Sandler has been a defense attorney in many of the region’s most high-profile cases since 1996, representing people charged with committing acts of violence.
Later this week, Sandler (whose first name is pronounced Ree-nee) makes her movie debut, as a producer and actor in the Los Angeles premiere of the new Eric Roberts film, “Unbridled.”
“It’s the true-to-life story of troubled girls from a place called Corral in North Carolina,” said Sandler. “These young women have been sexually abused, many had been sex trafficked.”
“The movie couples young women with abused horses, and it’s the story of redemption and healing of both the horse and the human beings,” Sandler said.
Sandler said she was contacted about 18 months ago by the film’s executive producer for script assistance. She found the screenplay interesting and timely, and wanted to be a part of the project.
“I play myself,” Sandler said. “I play a criminal defense attorney who represents the bad guy, who is Eric Roberts in the movie.”
Sandler, a partner in the Rockville and Greenbelt-based law firm of Houlon Berman, said her last drama training was in junior high school.
“The extent of my theater career is in the courtroom during opening statements and closing arguments in criminal trials,” she said. “I was exposed to theater my whole life by going to shows, but my theater career is limited to trial work.”
Sandler’s day job has placed her in the middle of many of Montgomery County’s best-known cases. She represented the family of Brian Betts, a D.C. school principal who was murdered in his Silver Spring home in 2010.
She defended Terrence Green, who shot and paralyzed Montgomery County police officer Kyle Olinger in 2003.
In perhaps her most publicized case, Sandler represented Patrick Yevsukov, the co-defendant (with Collin McKenzie Gude) in an explosives case which also had allegations related to an assassination plot of former President Barack Obama.
In one case she represented a sex-trafficking victim; in another, she represented a man accused of trafficking a young woman.
Sandler said being a defense attorney in a local courtroom and portraying one on film require different techniques.
“In court, I can be very demonstrative with my voice and evidence and argument, and being persuasive with my body movements,” Sandler said. “A movie scene is so scripted down to a precise eye movement or gesture, and a scene can be shot over and over simply because you might have flinched, or made an expression that wasn’t intended.”
With no previous film experience, Sandler said, it took five attempts to nail her scene.
“According to those on the set, especially Eric Roberts, five tries is good,” she said.
The film’s director, John David Ware, said Sandler’s real-world experience served her well.
“Knowing a bit about Rene’s work and her dynamic presentational skills, we decided to cast her to lend authenticity to the role,” said Ware.
“Initial concerns were that she would be ‘tight’ on the set,” Ware said, but after leading her and other case members through focusing and relaxation techniques, “she delivered.”
Sandler says the LA premiere of the film is Saturday, Aug. 26, and film executives are hopeful it will be in theaters in the fall.
She says East Coast screenings are being scheduled in D.C. or Maryland, “primarily because of the 95 corridor, which is a hub for sex trafficking.”
“There are sex trafficking prosecution units in Howard County, Montgomery County, and others, that are addressing this issue, so I thought it appropriate to do a premiere of this type of movie, here, where the issue is so prevalent.”
Watch the trailer for “Unbridled”: