Just who are the sisters in 'The Fighter'?
Almost everyone who's seen "The Fighter" has come out talking about "the sisters," the six (or is it seven?) big-haired, loud-talking, punch-throwing Irish American siblings to Mark Wahlberg's Micky Ward and Christian Bale's Dicky Eklund. They have nicknames as colorful as their hairstyles -- Tar, Pork, Beaver -- and, in the movie as in real life, are fiercely protective of their brothers while serving as a comedic Greek chorus.
But who in the name of Conan O'Brien are the women who play them?
Someone named O'Brien, for one, who -- oh yes -- also happens to be Conan O'Brien's real-life sister, Kate, as well as other fledgling actors as endearingly salt-of-the-earth as the people they portray.
While several of the performers live in Los Angeles and have some acting experience, the majority are small-town Massachusetts locals who came through the front door -- literally, by answering a casting call that sought "boxers, crack addicts and little Cambodian men," as Erica McDermott, who plays Tar, puts it.
They had hoped to land jobs as extras. But among the 3,000 people who showed up at the Lowell, Mass., casting call, they wound up with key roles in the film. "The casting director was going around the casting call saying, 'You're too pretty,' and 'You're too pretty.' So I got up in her face and said, 'You think I'm too pretty?' " said McDermott. And then, by way of explanation, she adds, "Because in my acting class they said you have to take a risk."
A stay-at-home mom who had been contemplating a return to a nursing career, McDermott's previous acting claim to fame, she says proudly, was a performance in a community theater production called "Mommylogues," which she took on after a few weeks of acting classes.
Her fellow "Fighter" sister, Melissa McMeekin, wasn't much more experienced. She too went to the casting call on a lark --- "I was going to turn around when I saw how many people were there, but my Mom had to pee and she made me go inside" -- and was surprised that she was called back. Then she was called back again. And again. It culminated for her, as it did all the women, in a four-hour audition in which famously exacting director David O. Russell had the finalists improvise their parts.
"I still didn't think I'd get it, but it was a chance to meet a big Hollywood director and how cool is that?" McMeekin said, adding that she drew from her own life in scenes like the one in which all the sisters crowd into the kitchen to express their opinions. "I come from a big Irish family, and you gotta get in there to get your words heard. I love my family. But, you know, they're big and Irish."
For Bianca Hunter, who plays Pork, the movie was a chance to revisit the acting career she barely had and had long forgotten. More than a decade before, Hunter had a few bit parts in some independent movies -- she holds a bizarre distinction in the history of cinema as the girl who simulated oral sex on Harvey Keitel's character in a famous scene from 1992's "Bad Lieutenant" -- but left behind acting in the late 1990s to raise her three children.
After the sisters had been cast in the Lowell-based film, they found themselves in an unusual position -- playing characters in a place where everybody knew their real-life counterparts. They would walk around the town -- to the nearby Outback steakhouse, to the Kohl's department store -- and hear bits of stories, from the waitresses and the cashiers, about the women they were portraying. A sucker-punch incident here, a bar fight there.
And then they would hear from the girls themselves -- especially Pork, who was on set nearly every day. "She would come up to me and say, 'Why are you saying that? I wouldn't say that,' " recalled Hunter. "And I would explain to her that I'm not coming up with it; that's the writer talking. And that it's OK anyway because it's a movie."
The legend of the sisters grew when the real-life Beaver Eklund (some of the sisters share a father with Ward, some with Eklund; they all are the offspring of Alice Ward, played by Melissa Leo) stormed out of a recent screening in protest because she didn't like how her mother was being portrayed.
The actresses had to make adjustments on set too. "Amy [Adams] and Mark were cool. They would just talk to us and shoot the.... But Melissa and Christian [Bale] stayed in character," Hunter said. "And I do mean stay in character. Melissa was our mother 24-7. She called us by our names. She never dropped that overbearing Lowell mother. It was a little weird."
Starring in the movie also meant enduring a unique set of hair-and-makeup rituals (the sisters' appearance is as much a part of their characters as their dialogue). Gremlins would flutter around the set giving a hair-tease or applying a nicotine tooth-stain.
And by the time it was over, the four women -- McDermott, Hunter, McMeekin and O'Brien (the last of whom didn't tell her sisterly costars that she had a famous brother until the end of the shoot) -- had become close friends, now talking several times a week and even vacationing together. "I love Kate, and Bianca [who lives in New York] has come up and visited me for the week with her children, and I talk to Erica once a day," McMeekin said. "They're like my real sisters." (The other three women -- Jill Quigg, Jenna Lamia and Dendrie Taylor -- move in a somewhat different orbit.)
McMeekin and Hunter have a manager, which they didn't have before, and have booked roles in independent films. "And I've got a lot of irons in the fire," McDermott contributed. "I definitely want representation. I definitely want to take it to the next level, without a doubt. This is my first involvement in a movie and I'm blown out of the water," she said, pronouncing words like "doubt" and "water" with a thick-as-gravy Boston accent. "Every week, I think I'm hitting the lottery."
But even as the experience transformed them, playing these characters wasn't always a major departure. "There was that moment when we were shooting," McMeekin said, "where Melissa's character was throwing pots and pans. And I looked at Bianca and said, 'It's just like my childhood.' " She adds, "I was kidding. A little bit."
Photo: David O. Russell with (left to right) Erica McDermott, Kate O'Brien, Melissa McMeekin, Dendrie Taylor and Jenna Lamia. Credit: Paramount Pictures