Aussie actor on Sugar Ray Leonard and sports movies
Time Out Bahrain staff
hen Hollywood decides to show us the future, why have things never turned out for the best? Guaranteed we’ll either see the aftermath of a nuclear war, or either apes or robots will be running the planet. In Real Steel, set in 2020, robots have an important role again, having taken over from humans in the sport of boxing. Former fighter Charlie Kenton, played by Hugh Jackman, has been down on his luck ever since it became illegal for humans to climb into the ring – but he soon gets a chance to turn things around by teaming up with his son, Max, to build their own giant robot that could be a contender for the championship.
So is this Rocky with CGI? Expect lots of authenticity, as former champ Sugar Ray Leonard was on set coaching the actors in their motion capture suits, so that the robots would move like real boxers as soon as the special effects team had done their thing. And what about Hugh Jackman? The actor has found it tough to have a major hit outside of growing lambchop sideburns and brandishing metal claws as Wolverine for the X-Men films – Van Helsing, Australia and Swordfish didn’t exactly set the box office alight, with The Prestige the only real exception. Did that influence his choice of movie as a struggling fighter this time around?
Were you consciously looking for a movie like this – that is really for everyone? No, I wasn’t. It came to me as a film script and I read it and really loved it. However, when Shawn Levy [director, producer] came on board, that just strengthened it even more. I knew it was a big movie, but it wasn’t relying on me for action. It was almost the opposite. I get beaten up in one scene, but apart from that, there’s no people-action for me.
What was it like getting in the ring with Sugar Ray Leonard? It was interesting. The first day we were working together, they had a crew filming behind-the-scenes footage. He’s a former champion of the world, so he was just sparring with me, pretending to punch my stomach… which kind of hurt! Because the camera was there, he just wanted to play around. He’s such a great guy; we’ve hung out a lot, and I really like him.
Was there an important lesson you took away from working with him? He really talked to me about the corner man – that’s my character in the film, not the boxer. I own and control these robots and promote them, so I’m the guy in the corner. Sugar Ray got very intense with me. He said that he didn’t think I realised how important the corner man is.
And, even though there are robots in there, what you need to convey is that you’re the rock; you’re the strength. Sugar Ray said he used to hire Angelo Dundee for the last two or three weeks leading up to a fight, precisely because Angelo knew exactly how to talk to him. He said if you get a corner man who doesn’t know how to talk to you, there’s nothing worse. I need to know when to pick my fighter up, when to shut up and when to say the right thing.
He was also very open about the cost of boxing, the personal cost, not just the physical cost. The pursuit of that goal, that excellence, to become champion of the world, is difficult. Things get sacrificed on the way for the attainment of that goal. And he says six weeks out from a fight, it’s like you go do your own thing. And you have to push everything and everyone out. And that can be hurtful to people.
What was your first step to create your character, Charlie Kenton? The first step was really getting in touch with the idea of someone who thinks he’s a failure, with a low opinion of himself. And what makes someone act in that way; what makes someone deliberately try to be almost unlikeable. He doesn’t want someone to get close. That was the emotional side of him that I really worked on first.
What aspect of your character’s personality appealed to you as an actor? I love the idea of someone who has decided to take a view that the world is unfair to him; that in so many corners he’s disappointed in himself. He feels that he’s failed at everything and now he’s trying to eke out a living in this thing that he hates, that is so humiliating as well as disappointing. And right up to that, he’s become hardened to the world around him.
The desperation he’s in I thought was a really powerful thing to play; somebody who’s desperate to get out and feeling trapped on all sides. But to be honest, the most powerful thing is the opportunity to redeem himself. That frightens him, because now he’s aware of what he’s got to lose. And if it doesn’t work out, how would he live with himself?
Is this movie a new take on what we think of as a sports movie? Absolutely, in terms of being one of those rousing, get out of your seat movies, but it’s a drama too. It’s a lot about the characters, and that’s what Shawn was going for. Real Steel is in cinemas this month.
The best boxing films
Our favourite movies with human fighters.
Heavyweight: Rocky (1976) Forget the sequels, this beat Taxi Driver to the Best Picture Oscar with good reason
Cruiserweight: The Fighter (2010) Multiple award nominations, and even a couple of Oscar wins earlier this year
Middleweight: Raging Bull (1980) De Niro famously put his body through hell to depict the rise and fall of Jake LaMotta
Welterweight: Million Dollar Baby (2004) Clint Eastwood direction, a Morgan Freeman voiceover and a sad, tragic ending
Knocked out first round: Teen Wolf Too (1987) Before Arrested Development, Jason Bateman was a werewolf who boxes. Just wrong.