DOING THE ROUNDS
The Bleeder’s Liev Schreiber on telling a real-life boxing story without pulling any punches
LIEV SCHREIBER KNOWS
boxing. He fell in love with the sport as a kid when he saw the great Muhammad Ali fight George Foreman. He played a Polish boxer in the Robin Williams movie, Jakob The Liar, when he was a young actor making his bones in the business. And for years he’s moonlighted as the voice of HBO Sports, lending his smooth tones to documentaries about Manny Pacquiao and Floyd Mayweather. Yet one big boxing story had passed him by.
“I was surprised I didn’t know who Chuck was,” says Schreiber of Chuck Wepner, one of boxing’s great nearly men. A working-class kid from the streets of New Jersey, Wepner, aka The Bayonne Bleeder, challenged Ali for the world heavyweight title in 1975, but was (technically) knocked out with just 19 seconds to go in the final round. It’s a hell of a story, and when Schreiber was first sent an early draft by producer Michael Tollin around ten years ago, he was intrigued enough to not only sign on to star in The Bleeder (known in the US as Chuck), but also as co-writer (“I just did some polishes,” he demurs). And he stayed attached to the film across a long journey to production. “We can all understand really intimately the dramatic journey that is a 15-round prize fight. I think we rally behind the people who are willing to risk that and celebrate their tenacity and ability. I think there are terrific metaphors for life in boxing.”
That notion, of course, has been kicking around for decades, and certainly since Rocky thrust Sylvester Stallone and boxing into the spotlight in 1976. Wepner has often been suggested as an inspiration for Rocky Balboa, whose indefatigability defined a generation, and there are certainly parallels between the two men. In a weird quirk, Stallone even shows up as a character in The Bleeder. Played by Morgan Spector, we see him taking Wepner under his wing, and trying to secure him a role in Rocky II. And Schreiber even enlisted the help of Stallone when he was prepping the movie. “He’s been incredibly generous,” says Schreiber, who spoke multiple times with Stallone. “I really enjoyed our conversations, particularly around his process. I think Rocky was a metaphor for his tumultuous career up to that point. That was really fascinating and led us away from the idea that this was a pure boxing film.”
Schreiber and the film’s director, Philippe Falardeau, had loftier ambitions for The Bleeder, reflected in its excellent supporting cast, which
includes Ron Perlman, Elisabeth Moss, and Schreiber’s former partner, Naomi Watts. “There was something about Chuck’s story, a kind of cautionary tale about fame and celebrity that was interesting for me,” explains the actor. “Sometimes we maybe laid a little hard into his drug-taking and partying, but that was part of the story we were interested in. He’s a very winning personality, so we left some of the darker elements of Chuck’s life out.”
In the States, the film was fairly wellreceived by critics, but didn’t fare that well at the box office (grossing just $320,725), which might explain why it’s bypassed cinemas in the UK. It’s an interesting, grubbily realistic addition to the ranks of boxing movies, with Wepner a relatable protagonist. For all Schreiber and Falardeau’s dramatic goals, though, it’s still very much a boxing movie, with its fair share of fight scenes. “There are two problems with boxing on film,” says Schreiber, who, at 49, is a decade older than Wepner was when he fought Ali. “One, actors never look like fighters, no matter how hard you train or what six-pack you have. In my case, it helped that Chuck had this lumbering forward momentum that wasn’t so hard to recreate. The other problem is contact. You can tell when somebody’s not getting hit.”
The simple solution: to get hit. So Schreiber’s sparring partner, Pooch Hall, was cast as Ali. “He’s very good at controlling his power, but you see the sweat pop off me and my hair go back. You can tell I’m being hit. Does it hurt? Sure!” Then again, Wepner’s is a rocky story of pain and persistence. It was always going to require a little of both to get it made.
Clockwise from here: Liev Schreiber as Chuck Wepner; Against real-life sparring partner Pooch Hall, cast as Muhammad Ali; Ali KOS Wepner in 1975; Ron Perlman as Wepner’s trainer and manager, Al Braverman.