Knock­out punch

Gyl­len­haal, Fuqua sculpt a box­ing great.

The Guardian (Charlottetown) - - PROVINCE -

Di­rec­tor An­toine Fuqua got a dis­tress­ing call early in pre-pro­duc­tion for the box­ing drama “Southpaw.”

It was Terry Clay­bon, a box­ing ex­pert who’s trained Fuqua for years. He’d just met with Jake Gyl­len­haal to see if the ac­tor could fight and he didn’t have good news.

In “Southpaw,” out Fri­day, Gyl­len­haal needed to play a light heavy­weight box­ing champ, Billy “The Great” Hope.

“He said, ‘He’s the wrong guy, you picked the wrong guy,”‘ said Fuqua.

Gyl­len­haal could hardly be blamed. He’d never boxed and Fuqua was look­ing for some­thing spe­cific.

As a life­time box­ing stu­dent and devo­tee, the “Train­ing Day” di­rec­tor wanted re­al­ism in his movie.

He’d never di­rected a film about the sport he loved so dearly and he re­ally didn’t want to make just another box­ing movie.

Be­tween “Rocky” and “Rag­ing Bull” and a num­ber of lesser im­i­ta­tors, the cin­ema is a not so se­cret fan of the drama and metaphors in­her­ent in the bru­tal sport.

“I thought, ‘I need a guy who will give me his heart, train seven days a week, twice a day and eat, sleep, drink and live like a fighter,”‘ he said. And his trusted trainer had just told him Gyl­len­haal wasn’t it.

“Sons of An­ar­chy” cre­ator Kurt Sut­ter had writ­ten the script about this champ’s fall from grace and strug­gle to get his daugh­ter back for rap­per Eminem. And Gyl­len­haal wasn’t the only name tossed around when Eminem dropped out.

Yet the pos­si­bil­ity lin­gered. Not only did Fuqua think that Gyl­len­haal had the phys­i­cal size and ex­pres­sive eyes to make this fairly un­lik­able guy lov­able, Har­vey Weinstein was also keen on him.

Gyl­len­haal was pre­pared for the chal­lenge. The now 34-yearold ac­tor had just shed 30 pounds to play a creepy free­lance videog­ra­pher in “Nightcrawler” and he didn’t hes­i­tate to throw him­self into the ring.

Two weeks af­ter that ini­tial call, Clay­bon had a much al­tered mes­sage.

“He said, ‘you were right. This guy’s got heart. He’s tough,”‘ re­calls Fuqua.

So they started build­ing Billy Hope to­gether. Lit­er­ally.

Fuqua and Gyl­len­haal trained side-by-side twice a day, (nearly) ev­ery day for months with Clay­bon.

They did it all: the tires, the spar­ring, the sprints, the long runs and the sit-ups. Fuqua even­tu­ally scaled back to once a day, while Gyl­len­haal sol­diered on.

It didn’t ease up on set, ei­ther. Fuqua filmed the three-minute rounds straight through, of­ten opt­ing for six-minute takes with­out the help of body dou­bles.

He and cin­e­matog­ra­pher Mauro Fiore even en­listed HBO Box­ing vet­er­ans Todd Pal­ladino and Rick Cypher to shoot the fights.

“We shot it like we would shoot a real fight. We did real rounds. We didn’t even stop to light it. When he was ex­hausted, when his lungs were hurt­ing, when he was spit­ting blood? That was real,” said Fuqua.

Gyl­len­haal was de­voted get­ting it right.

“There’re a cou­ple shots where he re­ally got hit in the ribs,” said Fuqua. “I would go out to stop it and he would wave me off. He wanted to keep go­ing.”

Many of those real hits made the fi­nal cut.

“It just cre­ates depth and adds rich­ness to ev­ery­thing. It never got to be too much,” added Gyl­len­haal - even when he was vom­it­ing in the cor­ner.

Although his phys­i­cal trans­for­ma­tion was para­mount, the ac­tor also had to im­merse him­self in the real world of box­ing, steal­ing bits of per­son­al­i­ties or ex­pe­ri­ences from the sto­ries he’d heard from the am­a­teurs in the gym dur­ing the five-month prep.

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“The ef­fects it has on fight­ers are bru­tal,” he said. “Be­cause of that, I’m not just there to see a fight, I’m also there to watch and ask what is each fighter fight­ing for - to find out what are they try­ing to prove.”

The only pro­fes­sional boxer Gyl­len­haal per­son­ally reached out to was Miguel Cotto, whose tech­nique and fam­ily life served as a big in­flu­ence on the char­ac­ter.

“I love his fight­ing, his style, I love watch­ing him,” said the ac­tor.

Cotto even pro­vided the un­likely in­spi­ra­tion for a small, but pow­er­ful de­tail in “Southpaw.” Billy Hope strides out to the ring to no mu­sic in a cli­mac­tic scene, which is ex­actly what Cotto did when he fought Ser­gio Martinez in June 2014. Gyl­len­haal knew it was per­fect for Billy’s mo­ment, and Fuqua agreed.

“It took me about a month and a half to come out of this whole thing and this whole ex­pe­ri­ence,” said the ac­tor, even though he’s still train­ing and wish­ing he’d had even more time to per­fect his box­ing grace. But he doesn’t like to dwell on the blurred line be­tween fic­tion and re­al­ity.

“To me, that’s what the craft of act­ing is. If it looks like magic, you’re do­ing it the right way,” said Gyl­len­haal.

And he’s got the prove it.

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