First of all, congratulations.
Thanks a lot.
What did you know about the subject matter coming into the movie?
I didn’t know very much. I mean, I knew of him [Depression-era boxer James J Braddock]. My grandfather and mother had been boxing fans and they used to talk about him but I didn’t know much beyond his name and the Cinderella Man thing.
The script had been doing the rounds for a while, hadn’t it?
Yeah, I read the script about seven years ago and I read for a different part. I don’t even remember what I read but I didn’t read the part I played so it’s been floating around for a long time. While we were shooting Sideways they came to me and said, “Would you like to play the part of Braddock’s trainer?” And I thought, “Sure, why not?”
There is a psychology that surrounds trainers. How did you get your head into that?
I went to a boxing gym and I was surprised how gentle everyone was. It’s very quiet in the gym and everybody was very low key and gentlemanly. The managers and trainers are very caring with the boxers, although then they jump in the ring and beat the crap out of each other. The guy I met and worked with, Angelo Dundee, is one of the greatest trainers that ever lived. He taught me to be very maternal with them because they go into a ring and somebody tries to kill them for three minutes, then for one minute you need to make sure they know somebody loves them before they go in there again.
Did you watch any boxing movies before filming?
Ron Howard had us watch some old boxing movies, like The Set-Up with Robert Ryan. He wanted us to get that patter from the ‘30s and ‘40s so we watched things like I’m A Fugitive From A Chain Gang. We also watched actual fights. That’s what I found most useful – watching Braddock. And I could hear the guy I was playing screaming his head off and jumping in the ring.
How was it working with Russell Crowe?
He was great. The first thing he said to me was “I’m an irascible guy,” and he clearly can be! But he was great and a fantastic actor so you have nothing but fun with the guy. Working with Russell was one of the best experiences I’ve had working with another actor. I never saw him lose it on set but then most of the time I was working with him, he was getting to hit somebody so maybe he was getting stuff out doing that…
How physical was the movie for him and the other actors playing boxers?
Oh they really hit each other. They were real boxers he was working with and they didn’t seem to get the concept of, 'Don’t hit the international movie star in the face.' They were really going for it.
You’ve dabbled with lead roles but you’re a superb supporting actor. How are the two disciplines different?
That’s nice. I’ve got The Illusionist coming out and that’s a supporting part and I’m absolutely happy to continue doing those roles. In some ways the lead role is easier because you have more space to relax into and more time to figure out as you go along. With supporting you have to go in there, hit it faster and get out so it’s more challenging sometimes. But I’ve only played two leads so I wouldn’t know.
The movie is about overcoming obstacles. Is that something you relate to?
It constantly feels like you have something to overcome if you’re an actor, whether the obstacles are real or not. You feel like somebody isn’t giving you your due and for some reason you didn’t get this and that’s just the professional side of the business. Actually acting on film, there’s nothing but obstacles in your way – I have a little bit of an underdog complex, which for some reason makes me feel happy and it satisfies me even more because I feel like I’m always overcoming something.
Do you get the big star treatment at home now?
No, no. My wife treats me worse now. She has no tolerance for that sort of behaviour! She’s Jewish and my son will probably be raised Jewish. I’m an atheist, so I’m waiting for my time to step in and tell him how things really are but I’ll do that when he’s a teenager. I figure he’ll be ripe for atheism when he’s a teenager.