The Bleeder’s Liev Schreiber on telling a real-life box­ing story with­out pulling any punches

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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.

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