The endearing new indie film Win Win screened at Austin’s SXSW film fest last week, and I had the opportunity to sit down with leading man Paul Giamatti and director Thomas McCarthy. They took the time to discuss their new film, released today in theatres, about a harried wrestling coach and a neglected teen. Audio version included at the end of the page.
This family drama pulls at the heartstrings while providing plenty of light comedy. Giamatti plays Mike Flaherty, a father and husband who is struggling financially and takes in a neglected teen named Kyle (played by real-life high school wrestler and first-time actor Alex Shaffer). When Kyle turns out to be a wrestler extraordinaire Mike enrolls him in school and puts him on the team, and suddenly his losing streak in wrestling and in life seems finished.
McCarthy directed this touching indie comedy/drama, which some might describe as a movie about wrestling. The wrestling elements are important to the story, but only as vehicles for the emotional journeys of the characters. McCarthy had this to say about the sports elements of the film, “I think there’s a level of escapism for the characters…getting caught up in sports does that. Getting caught up in sports does that for me, it’s a total escape. Movies aren’t always an escape for me because I’m thinking too much, you know with sports I can’t do that. I think how that informed our choice in this movie is that I wanted to have fun with this movie.”
About casting a wrestler instead of someone with an acting background in Kyle’s role, McCarthy said “I think early on I decided I needed a wrestler for that role. Only because I used to wrestle and beyond that I’m sort of a sports nut and I can’t stand when I’m watching movies and I feel like the actor can’t actually play that sport or play that well. But I knew with Alex’s character of Kyle he’d need that, so it was kind of an early decision. We saw a day or two of actors from New York, then we said ‘nah, we need a wrestler’.”
Paul’s character has to make a sacrifice in the end of the movie, instead of perhaps a perfect ending with everything working out exactly the way Mike wanted. McCarthy adds, “it’s a film about redemption, you know, and however that comes about in a very circuitous way in this film, and it just felt right. For instance, to end this movie [SPOILERS] with Kyle winning at the states wouldn’t have felt appropriate for the story, for the emotional core and the journey of the protagonist Mike Flaherty in this case. It just felt emotionally accurate, most importantly.”
He added about the script, “I think it’s realistic. I mean a big part of me wanted Kyle’s character to win the states and you know holding each other‘s arms up…but it just felt honest, that world…it isn’t everything all tied up in the end. The victory isn’t a wrestling victory, the victory is when he pulls into his driveway and he sees these kids just playing without thinking about it.”[END SPOILERS]
Giamatti talked about preparing for the role. Lots of research into wrestling went on and Giamatti spent plenty of time watching the coaches. “Yeah, I was looking at the coaches. Bobby and I both paid a lot more attention to the coaches. And you know, they’re a whole thing to themselves those guys, the really good ones…You know how involved the really good ones get. I was amazed, you know when I smack him in the movie, is a thing that these guys do. They smack them in the face…they get really physical with those kids, it’s intense to watch actually.”
Giamatti spoke about the well-written script, mentioning that many of the subtle nuances of his character were in there, “Tom’s open to things but it’s pretty meticulously written. And all that was in it, the ten dollar cigarette thing, all that stuff was in there. But there are great little things like that throughout and that’s kind of what makes his things great, is all the details.”
Describing the psychology of his character, Giamatti said, “Well he’s obviously under a lot of pressure. He’s not a guy that’s ever done anything that deviates from the norm, so he takes this slight step to the side. I find an interesting thing throughout the movie…I don’t think it’s such an overt thing but I see it all the time and when I saw the script too, there’s all this stuff about kind of masculinity in it…sort of threatened masculinity. And the whole sports thing…I mean he’s not a great coach, this guy, he doesn’t have that kind of drive actually, and that’s kind of ok, it’s just not who he is. He’s desperate so he’s trying to be something he’s not. He’s not a guy who does this and not give a shit. I think by the end of the movie he’s ok with not being that guy, in some ways I feel that the movie’s about being ok with who you are.”
Regarding working with Shaffer, who didn‘t have a lot of experience on set, Giamatti said, “I think the only thing it ever felt to me was like early on was that he didn’t know the technical stuff like hitting his mark. Just technical stuff that obviously, was not a big problem for the kid. He wasn’t cocky about it, he was kind of watchful about it. I never had that sense that ‘oh my God I’m working with some kid that has no idea what he’s doing’. He was there, he was present, he was open to direction, he was having fun which was nice to be around someone who was having fun.”
On how it feels to be the best, Giamatti modestly said, “Well I have no answer for that…I mean I don’t think I am so…it would be nice to be good at what I do, I mean I would be happy to be good at what I do. I don’t feel like I’m that in control yet to be able to be the best.”
That concludes our interview. We’d like to thank Paul and Thomas very much for talking to us. Be sure to check out Win Win, now in theatres everywhere. And check out our Win Win review as well.