Paul Giamatti & Alex Shaffer – Win Win

April 8, 2011 by  
Filed under Interviews

“What is it like to be as good as you are?” The question comes up in “Win Win,” director Tom McCarthy’s family dramedy about a high school wrestling coach whose life finds new meaning when he and his wife take in a troubled teenager who happens to know his way around the mat.

The same question could be asked of the film’s leading men, Academy Award-nominee Paul Giamatti (Cinderella Man) and rookie actor and high school wrestling state champion Alex Shaffer. As acclaimed stars in their respected fields, Giamatti and Shaffer share major screen time as Mike and Kyle, a coach and athlete who together learn that winning doesn’t always mean finishing first.

During an interview with the me at the SXSW Film Festival last month, Giamatti, Shaffer, and McCarthy discussed the intense nature of wrestling and who kicked whose ass during the shoot.

Paul, I imagine you doing your research for this role by going to wrestling matches and just staring intently at the coaches the whole time. Is that how it worked out?
Paul Giamatti: Yeah, I was looking at the coaches. I paid more attention to them. Those guys are a whole different thing within themselves. The really good ones get so involved and then there are the not really good ones. I was really amazed. When I smack [Alex] in the movie, it’s really a thing these [coaches] do, but some of them smack [the wrestlers] in the face without the headgear. They get really physical with those kids. It’s intense to watch.
In the past you’ve talked about losing yourself in a character. Was it more of a challenge to play someone who seems to be more like who you are in real life?
PG: Yeah, I don’t think I’ve ever played a character before where I thought, “This guy feels like me.” I don’t know if [Mike is] like me or not. It was different for me to do. In some of the more central roles I’ve done in movies I’ve played guys who have much more complicated places they go. Not that this guy isn’t a complicated man, but he doesn’t dwell in those places. He doesn’t go take refuge in those places, which was tricky for me. Part of it is because I’ve gotten used to doing that and part of it is just my interest as an actor to flip over the rock and look at the crawly, ugly things underneath it.
And in this role there wasn’t as much underneath the rock?
It’s not that he’s vapid or not a complex, rich guy, but he just doesn’t have those places. [Director] Tom [McCarthy] constantly had to say to me, “This guy doesn’t go there.” So, it was hard, actually in a lot of ways – harder to feel like I had to constantly walk that line because he is conflicted. He’s done something wrong and it’s always gnawing away at him. But that sense of how much he reveals or how much he takes it in and how much he compartmentalizes it is a different thing than I am used to doing.
Alex, talk about the scene where you wrestle Paul to the ground. Were you worried you might hurt him?
Alex Shaffer: I remember there was a stunt double, but he didn’t do that scene. Before we shot that scene Paul was like, ‘You never let me do [my own stunts]. I want to do it!’ so we ended up doing it. I wasn’t that nervous. Paul’s a tough guy. He told us he woke the next morning and he was like, “[moans in pain].”
PG: It’s not like I was scared of the kid or anything. I could kick his ass.
Tom McCarthy: It’s a pretty good takedown. It’s a pretty violent take down even for wrestling.
Alex Shaffer: It’s a blast double.
Tom McCarthy: Blast double? We’re breaking that here. No one has heard that before.
Alex Shaffer: I went home and I was thinking, “What’s the name of that move?” The blast double, it’s like…Well, I don’t know.
TM: Well, show him. Sir, would you mind standing up?
Alex, do you consider yourself a jock or an athlete and is there a difference between the two?
TM: Oh, that’s a good one.
AS: An athlete, just because I’m an athletic kid. Jocks are like…I don’t know. (Turns to Tom) What is the difference?
TM: I don’t know. What’s your interpretation of a jock?
AS: It’s like that nerd movie (“Revenge of the Nerds”) and that one guy (“Ogre”).

TM: Yeah, I think you’re an athlete. I don’t think you have the jockness.
Tom, What kind of wrestler were you in school? A team? B team?
TM: I was trying hard to get on the A team. I was pretty good. I started wrestling like in the third or fourth grade, but I was never near [Alex’s] level. I never made it to state. I was decent. But by my senior year I just burnt out. I realized it was a brutal sport and I wasn’t having fun. Going back and spending time revisiting the sport was a lot of fun. We went everywhere to watch matches. When I heard about Alex, he had a match coming up that weekend. I actually knew the guy he was wrestling. It’s like Shakespeare. As soon as you start to understand the language it opens it up in a beautiful way. With wrestling it was like, “Well, that kid is tough. We have to go to that match.” Joe [Tiboni] (who is co-credited with the story) and I were dropping stuff all the time to go to these matches. He’d be like, “Guess who’s wrestling this week?” and we’d run out to see it.

Win Win

April 8, 2011 by  
Filed under Reviews

Starring: Paul Giamatti, Amy Ryan, Alex Shaffer
Directed by: Thomas McCarthy (“The Visitor”)
Written by: Thomas McCarthy (“The Visitor”)

While most sports-themed films focus on the game-winning shot at the buzzer or a walk-off home run in the bottom of the ninth, none are as emotionally rich as the ones that revel in the post-game celebration. Even then, winning isn’t everything if the narrative is brimming with spirited drama like in “Rocky,” “A League of Their Own,” or “Friday Night Lights.”

Sure, watching Rudy Ruettiger on the sidelines during his team’s final defensive stance in “Rudy” would have been extremely anticlimactic, and Daniel LaRusso probably would’ve found himself in a body bag if he hadn’t crane-kicked Johnny in the face at the end of “The Karate Kid,” but those things happen. The ball doesn’t always find the center of the rim. The coach leaves you sipping Gatorade on the bench. Nerves factor in. Someone always goes home disappointed.

It takes a film like “Win Win” to find a silver lining or thematic balance when a screenplay isn’t dictated by typical Hollywood standards. Directed and written by Thomas McCarthy (“The Visitor,” “The Station Agent”), “Win Win” isn’t so much an inspirational “Pride of the Yankees”-type sports movie as it is an endearing family dramedy set delicately in the competitive world of high school wrestling.

Unlike Gary Cooper in that 1942 Lou Gehrig biopic, Paul Giamatti in “Win Win” is far from announcing to anyone that he’s the “luckiest man on the face of the Earth.” As a small-town New Jersey lawyer with a struggling practice, Mike Flaherty (Giamatti) worries about how he will support his wife Jackie (Amy Ryan) and their two daughters. Moonlighting as the local high school wrestling coach doesn’t help ease any anxiety since his team of young grapplers is missing a few things, specifically skill.

But Mike’s problems seem to be solved two-fold when he agrees to take legal guardianship of Leo Poplar (Burt Young), a client suffering from early stages of dementia. Afterwards, Mike’s moral compass spins out of control; he pockets the monthly stipend and checks the old man into a retirement home. His sketchy behavior leads him into the path of Leo’s unusually mature, albeit slightly rebellious, teenage grandson Kyle (Alex Shaffer in a breakout role), who happens to know his way around a wrestling mat. Mike and Jackie are adamant about giving Kyle the stable, suburban upbringing he needs after they find out the only adult in his life is his drug-addicted mother (Melanie Lynskey). McCarthy writes Kyle with sensitivity and depth and treats him like a real kid, as opposed to the oversized puppy dog Sandra Bullock boards in “The Blind Side.”

McCarthy could’ve replaced the wrestling scenes with scenes from any other sport and still produced the same heartwarming and darkly hilarious movie (credit actors Bobby Cannavale and Jeffrey Tambor as assistant wrestling coaches). The crux of this story comes from the complex relationships between all of McCarthy’s meaningful human characters. Giamatti’s role isn’t a stretch from the frustrated failures he’s accustomed to playing, but there is such a decent heart inside Mike that it allows audiences to overlook some of his early underhandedness and will his redemptive qualities to the forefront. Newcomer Shaffer holds his own in the daunting task of sharing the screen with juggernaut Oscar nominees; his non-actor charisma and natural athleticism (he’s really a state high school wrestling champion from Jersey) maintain his believability. “Win Win” may not be a flawless victory, but McCarthy is able to pin us down effortlessly nonetheless, proving there’s more to life than being carried off the field a hero.