24 Frames

Movies: Past, present and future

Category: Tom McCarthy

'Win Win' turns a wrestler into a star

March 24, 2011 | 12:54 pm

Shows like "Gossip Girl" and "Glee" have given us teenage actors with abundant polish and self-awareness, or at least 25-year-old actors playing teenagers with abundant polish and self-awareness.

But if you've seen Tom McCarthy's "Win Win," the dramatic comedy about a high school wrestler who's taken in by Paul Giamatti and Amy Ryan, you've come across a different kind of adolescent: one who is smart but taciturn, polite but blase.

"I was tired of seeing 16-year-olds who are so emotionally attuned and articulate," McCarthy told 24 Frames of his teen lead, a New Jersey wrestler he plucked from obscurity named Alex Shaffer, after scouting dozens of non-actors. "Most 16-year-olds are like Alex: They're hearing it all and taking it all in. They're just not letting you know that."

In a profile in Thursday's Times, Shaffer demonstrates what McCarthy means. Describing why he decided to try out for the part, Shaffer said, "My friend texted me: 'You should audition for this. It's in the newspaper.' And I was like, 'No, man.' At the time, I was focusing on wrestling. And my friend was like, 'No, dude, you should audition. It's a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.' And I thought about it, and he was right."

The teenager, who describes himself as a "big day sleeper" and who left high school earlier this year (to focus on acting), says he didn't get starstruck on the set. Well, except for when he saw Ryan: "I was like, 'Dude, that's Holly from "The Office."'"

Authenticity is a religion for McCarthy, who will do numerous takes and tweaks just to get the emotional levels right. It's paid off so far: The movie has garnered rave reviews and a strong opening weekend.

And Shaffer? He describes a post-movie life in which friends give him a hard time "in Chili's," where they hang out (when they're not in Shaffer's basement). The teen hopes acting is in the cards, though, as is a GED as he takes online classes. "I'll definitely graduate and then concentrate on acting until I feel the need to go to college." He pauses. "Hopefully, I won't feel that need."

--Steven Zeitchik



Alex Shaffer's true-life role

Limitless breaks out at the box office

Tom McCarthy's Win Win attitude

Photo: Paul Giamatti and Alex Shaffer in "Win Win." Credit: Fox Searchlight


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