24 Frames

Movies: Past, present and future

Category: Wrestling

'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

'Win Win' looks to keep up writer-director Tom McCarthy's winning streak [Video]

March 10, 2011 |  4:53 pm


Charlie Sheen seems to have the market cornered on the word "winning" these days, but hopefully that won't overshadow the opening of writer-director Tom McCarthy's "Win Win," his third feature after "The Station Agent" and "The Visitor."

The film debuted at this year's Sundance Film Festival to high praise and looks to be the movie that cements McCarthy's reputation for crafting real, nuanced, human-level stories.

In the film, McCarthy (also a character actor in numerous blockbusters) threads together several plot strands, including a struggling small-town New Jersey lawyer (Paul Giamatti) who cuts a corner for financial gain; a divorced friend trying to reclaim his life (Bobby Cannavale); and a displaced teenager who gets a shot at redemption via high-school wrestling (Alex Shaffer, a first-timer who came to McCarthy's attention as a real-life wrestling champion).

The movie comes from a more personal place than McCarthy's previous work -- he wrote it with his childhood friend and drafted off experiences from their New Jersey upbringing. "We didn't want to condescend to these people, and we didn't want to sentimentalize them. We just wanted to live with them," McCarthy told 24 Frames.

(See below for an exclusive clip from the film featuring Shaffer and Amy Ryan, who plays the wife of Giamatti's character.)

"Win Win" also moves the filmmaker into more commercial territory, first by embroidering in comedy that didn't figure into his first two films, as well as by situating his characters in a more readily identifiable universe.

"Tom's first two films looked at very specific worlds,  said Michael London, the veteran Hollywood producer who produced "Win Win." "But this took his themes and his voice and put them in a universal world."


Sundance 2011: With Paul Giamatti's 'Win Win,' Tom McCarthy looks to score once again

Sundance 2011: Tom McCarthy's 'Win Win' attitude

Critic's Notebook: Soul-searching at Sundance

--Patrick Kevin Day and Steven Zeitchik

Photo: From left, Paul Giamatti, Clare Foley II and Amy Ryan star in "Win Win."

Wrestling stars will pile-drive the multiplex (but in family comedies?)

June 15, 2010 | 12:24 pm

Mixed martial arts star Rampage Jackson drew mixed reviews as B.A. Baracus, but World Wrestling Entertainment is hoping the fighters who occupy their own ring can carry some new films -- or at least play key character parts.

The Vince McMahon-run enterprise is pressing forward with its attempt to make modestly budgeted films that feature (but don't necessarily give lead roles to) the wrestlers whose careers they've helped cultivate.

The latest bit of development news comes with a new movie from WWE star Edge. The fighter-performer will star in "Chasing the Hawk," an action comedy about a New Orleans lawyer who loses a classic car he holds dear and then sets out to find it.

Principals at WWE Studios, the organization's film-production arm, say they hope to make more than just action films. One previously announced development project: "Inside Out," which stars Triple H, but in more of a crime drama, with the unlikely cast of Michael Rapaport, Parker Posey and Bruce Dern around him. The wrestler formerly known as Paul Levesque also will star in an family comedy called "The Chaperone," about an ex-con who tries to take his teenage daughter on a class trip but finds the past catching up with him, "Kindergarten Cop"-style.

There's precedent for wrestlers spring-boarding to acting careers, most notably with Dwayne Johnson, who of course began his career in the ring as the Rock before breaking through as a star in his own right.

For the last few years, John Cena had been the biggest hope for WWE. The star of "The Marine" (which grossed a not terrible $19 million at the domestic box office) stars in this fall's high-school wrestling movie "Legendary," as well as a new, untitled project the company is aiming for spring 2012.  Also up this fall for the WWE personalities is  "Knucklehead," starring wrestler the Big Show and centering on a get-rich quick scheme.

The easy knock on wrestler-centric films is that most fans tune in to see them only in WWE plots and subplots -- they want to see them in character, not playing someone else -- which limits box-office potential.

But WWE officials say that their wrestlers are born performers and that with lower budgets -- the goal is films at the $5 million to $10 million end of the spectrum -- they can manage their costs. (They also say they can shave marketing expenses by cross-promoting to the wrestling fans on their cable programs, saving money for the studios that distribute the independently made films.) WWE officials also say they're conscious that not every wrestler can carry a film, which is why you might see them only in a handful of scenes.

Professional fighters who've tried but failed to transition to acting are as prevalent as broken chairs at a Wrestlemania ring; the Stanislavski Method is probably not their forte. Still, they couldn't do much worse than Rampage.

-- Steven Zeitchik


Photo: A scene from WWE's "Summer Slam Axxess" at Staples Center last year. Credit: Francine Orr / Los Angeles Times

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