Interview: Dominic Purcell, Izaak Smith, & Damien Lee

A Fighting Man

I’m meeting to talk to actors Dominic Purcell and Izaak Smith and filmmaker Damien Lee in the most appropriate place possible: a working class, dimly lit boxing gym below a grocery store in Toronto’s midtown. They’re appropriately there to promote their latest film, A Fighting Man (in theatres today), which is about a pair of boxers involved in a make or break fight, but the setting also speaks to the trio of collaborators as people. On screen and off, they all convey the confidence of hard working, everyday people who love what they do and who keep fighting to get bigger and better shots.

Smith is young, well spoken, kind and empathetic despite only having a handful of onscreen credits to his name before appearing as one of the leads here in a cast that also includes such veterans as James Caan, Louis Gossett Jr., Kim Coates, Adam Beach, Famke Janssen, Michael Ironside, and Sheila McCarthy. Purcell is an intimidating looking guy, well built and well dressed with a serious looking face, but also remarkably candid, witty, and giving off an affable working class vibe that most leading men couldn’t fake to save their lives. Lee is quite relaxed for a director, lounging on a weight bench in a track jacket with a pair of headphones around his neck. He’s a genre veteran with dozens of writing, producing, and directing credits to his name, but he doesn’t seem like the kind of guy who would have such a long resume. Being in their presence and in the gym is strangely comforting given how relaxed and how comfortable they all feel.

In the film, Purcell plays Sailor, a washed-up 40-something fighter with the ignominious trait of never having been knocked down in the ring despite losing more fights than he won. He’s brought out of retirement to face Smith’s King, a brash twenty year old who has almost equally washed out before he could become an “up and comer.” They’re both fighting for different reasons. Sailor’s dark recent past and the desire to send his mother back to Ireland one last time before she passes away brings him to the fight with nothing to prove and only money and pride to really be gained. King is about to start a family and get his life together by taking his work seriously after a drug problem nearly derailed him and his upbringing nearly destroyed any chance he had of making a name for himself.

We talked to Purcell, Smith, and Lee about the film’s time shifting structure, how the characters very candidly relate to Purcell and Smith’s real life struggles, and why it took Lee almost twenty years to get around to making the film.

Dork Shelf: This movie does a good job of showing not only the physicality of a boxer, but how there are lots of different things going on in the life of a boxer outside of the fight. So when you read the script and you know the story is going to be shifting back and forth between the fight and what happened in the past of your character, what do you bring from the past into those fight sequences?

Dominic Purcell: That’s a fuckin’ good question. (laughs) That’s a big question, too. My fighting style was really indicative of my character’s life, so there was something there on a very basic level. For me, because of my character’s situation, I wanted a fighting style that reflected that situation. I hope that came across.

Damien Lee: It did, and you also tried to do that with your physique in the film, too.

DP: That’s true! I did work a lot on thinking about this guy who can’t be knocked down in the ring, but who has a hard life, and then you start thinking about what it’s like to play a guy trying not to get knocked down in his everyday life. What would that person look like? How would be hard in some spots and soft in others.

DL: He purposefully made himself this big, lumbering lug.

DP: No, and he’s the kind of fighter that you used to see a lot of but you don’t really anymore. I said this before, but I never wanted him to have this homogonized bodybuilder kind of look. I mean, I’m playing a guy my age, which is 44, who hasn’t boxed in years and who doesn’t ever go to the fuckin’ gym because he’s just this guy from a steel town. He just works out by living. But I wanted to bring in that presence and bulk because he’s a heavyweight. We can get all metaphorical and spiritual if you like, but the weight symbolizes the weight of his life at the time.

Izaak Smith: And even though we built a lot of character into our bodies and into our fighting style it’s important to always keep in mind where you are in the story, even when the story is going back and forth like ours does. You understand that the story is going to be cutting away, but on the day of those fight scenes, we always prepped like we were actually going into a boxing ring. Most of those moments in the ring are also tying back to previous moments in the lives of our characters. Just like you would in any scene you have to remember where in the film those scenes are coming, but here you have to balance this professional side of the character with their whole life.

DS: I think my favourite scene in the film is the first time you two meet in the boxing gym and King gets in Sailor’s face to try and get inside his head, and Sailor’s response is kind of heartfelt. And you, Izaak, have to sort of act like you’re really hardened and that what he said and the little bit of trash talk at the end of it didn’t hurt you, but you actually look like you’re kind of listening to his advice.

DP: (laughs) That’s definitely not what he intended, but I can see that and that’s great!

IS: Well deep down I think that guy knows it’s true. I mean, truth is truth, right, whether you want to listen to it or not.

I’m happy because I remember filming that day and it was the one scene that we were going to have together outside of the fighting that we do. The funny moment that I had was how after we had been training with him for six weeks on the fighting for the film and going over the script, that was the first time I heard Dominic use his American accent. (laughs) I remember just being so confused! “Oh right! We’re acting! He’s not going to speak like Dominic.” Maybe my listening there was just me trying to figure out why he all of a sudden sounded American. (laughs)

DS: Damian, you’ve made a lot of different movies in a lot of different genres, so what was it that made you want to finally take on a sports film?

DL: It goes back to when I was working with Dominic on this film that we did with Brendan Fraser and Ethan Suplee called Breakout. We spent a lot of time together, and I always had an idea for a boxing story that would hearken back to a primal male myth: that of Sir Percival and The Fisher King and the search for the Holy Grail and to try and see if it was possible to weave that into a traditional boxing story. The idea of a boxer that wasn’t a great boxer, but one that had a great nobility, like Percival. He had exhausted himself completely and absolutely. The idea of doing a story about a guy who had committed himself to being the best that he could be, but he wasn’t very good. This kind of guy who wasn’t the best, but was fully committed and devoted seemed like a great character to me.

While we were filming that movie, I wrote about four or five pages of this idea that I had been kicking around for a while with Dominic in mind. I shared it with Dominic, and with Ethan, too, and we all made some comments and notes. From there I just set about doing the script after I showed them about five or six pages that I had hashed everything out on. Then it became a matter of creating that male myth, which is kind of a lost form of storytelling today, and to put into that these aspects of epiphany within that that both fighters could bring out in each other. That brought out the lives of both of these fighters, and that gave us the ending that’s kind if unique for a fighting movie. It was an interesting mix.

DS: And you’re not just telling the story of these two fighters, but also the stories of everyone that gets brought into their orbit.

DL: That’s right! We open this movie starting in round five of the fight when these guys have already been destroying each other to a point where the fight might not even make it much further. Then the question at that point becomes, “Well, how did they even get here? Why are they doing this and why does this mean so much to them?” That’s the hook at the beginning, the questioning of why they are the way they are. Why is so much being offered by so little? And to do that, you need to know the people who helped to put them in the ring in the first place and understand all of the aspects of what they are fighting for and against.

It’s a survival story, but it’s also an organic kind of journey. The hard part was finding someone who could play a role like Sailor who could be that physical at that age, but also a very specific mental capacity, as well. I had the idea for a long time, but it wasn’t until meeting Dominic that I felt like I had found someone who could play the role and bring it to life in a way that he might be able to. Working with him was perfect because everything kind of fell in line after meeting him.

DP: He had been sitting on this story in his head for twenty years! For me it’s hard to believe that he couldn’t find a guy who could play the role, but he said I came along and I just kickstarted it.

DL: Seriously, though! I mean, you know film very well, so in this world today, how many guys could play that role? You’d be hard pressed to come up with a lot of names. Really the only name that springs to mind is Tom Hardy, but he’s already made that movie and he’s too young to play this role.

DP: And he’s too small, too. He’s only 5’ 9” and you always had the idea that he was this huge lumbering guy.

DL: True, but you can cheat that. Even if you did that, though, he’s still too young by about ten or fourteen years. I can’t come up with any names.

DP: Russell Crowe?

DL: Too old! And I don’t think he could get in the kind of shape I would need him to be in for it. No disrespect to him at all, but I also don’t think he has the physicality to pull it off. You’re pretty limited.

DP: What he needed was a guy who looked like a Ninja Turtle. (laughs) That was what I brought to the role. If you notice my back in the movie, that’s what it’s about. They should have just called the movie “The Back.”

DS: That’s probably why you can’t get knocked down, because you would never get up again.

DP: Exactly! (laughs) There’s no actor around with the back and the neck that I have. I’m pretty confident of that. I should just start sending out photos of my back and neck instead of headshots. (laughs)

IS: “Look at the neck on that guy! Who has that neck?!?”

DP: Izaak was neck envious the whole movie. He was always asking me, “How big’s your neck now?” (laughs)

IS: But what’s really cool about this story that’s interesting and really great to be a part of is that with most boxing movies there’s a good guy and they pit him against a bad guy, and Damien really changed the way that we see that narrative by pitting two guys against each other that you can get behind. You never know which one you feel closer to. I think that speaks to just as people how we go back and forth between our different sides.

King ends up having to learn the gravity of responsibility. With Sailor, he has to realize that starting out anew can happen at any point in life. It really speaks to how I like how when we talk about the film, we aren’t looking at things in black and white, but how you can talk about all of these qualities that are within everyone. Not necessarily one person or personality is going to win out over the other, but they both have to be strong parts.

DS: Well, that’s the burden that I think the best sports movies often face. Having two people pitted against each other in sport with their own demons that they have to overcome is a lot more satisfying than a simple good guy vs. bad guy story.

DL: I absolutely agree. That’s Chariots of Fire, which is one of my favourite movies. That’s what made that film such a great story. I think when you can make the situation of the film the villain and not a person, that’s when things get interesting. That’s where we get our energy from: the situation.

And also, what gives us that here is the struggles these guys are facing. Those struggles give us the ability to transcend. By providing each other with a final kind of noble obstacle, they become stronger and better. They’re yielding to the moment.

DS: Dominic, you must not get approached with roles very often where you’re asked to play a guy who has devoted his entire life to something and still isn’t seen as being one of the best in his profession. Even Sailor would admit that, and he’s kind of prideful of the fact that he’s lost a ton of fights, but he’s never been knocked down. What’s it like playing someone who has gone through their career and devoted their life to it, but who has never really gotten any major amount of respect or recognition?

DP: That’s how I feel now. You’ve pretty much answered my fuckin’ question. (laughs) I mean, I can completely relate to that. Obviously we’re all flawed, but I’ve done work that I think should have been noticed, but it hasn’t. I think this movie is a prime example of that.

If you look at some of the movies that get nominated for Academy Awards – and I’m not saying that our film should get an Academy Award because it’s just a great fuckin’ movie that’s not trying for that sort of thing – but they all have this machine behind them. We don’t have that. It doesn’t get millions of millions of dollars to try to win anything. That kind of dynamic is pretty much like my career with the exception of Prison Break. That was just this explosion, but it didn’t translate into me being an A-list actor.

And I don’t like that term A-List or B-List. I fuckin’ hate it because it implies that somehow Matt Damon would be better than me, which is bullshit because we would never be up for the same kind of fuckin’ thing. The thing is… you got me on a rant… (laughs)

But I relate to this kind of underdog. People can look at me on the outside and say, “Oh, Dom has done movies and TV and this and that…” but, man, I don’t feel like a success at all. Not in the slightest. I feel like I’ve reached a level that is somewhat satisfactory and I’ve done some great stuff, but I’m nowhere near satisfied with my lot at all.

DS: I think that’s a really great and balanced answer for anyone in any profession, really. You’ll get to a point where you’ve established yourself and suddenly you’ll realize that there are people above you that you’ll never understand the appeal of and the hundreds of people below you that are better than you who might never get a shot.

DP: Right! Absolutely. I think that’s certainly the thing that drives me. That fuels me. I mean, just finding Damien for me was great. We’re like brothers now. We speak the same kind of language. I mean, he writes for me, for fuck’s sake. I’m lucky to have a champion like that in my corner who believes in me, and I think we all kind of need that.

DS: Izaak, you have an equally hard role to play because you’re playing a young guy who even by the age of 20 when this movie starts should probably not even be alive. He’s seen more bad stuff before her turned that age. It reminded me a lot of some of the stuff I had to go through and a lot of the people I knew growing up: those kinds of people who have to grow up before they can firmly get a handle on what that means.

DP: And he does that wonderfully, I think. I said that to people before. Izaak’s performance in this movie is really beautiful. It goes back to how we were talking about that weight, and he brings so much of it with even just a look. For a young man that hasn’t had a whole lot of experience just yet, I think his performance is brilliant.

IS: Wow. Thank you. I almost forgot what I was going to say. (laughs) But I’m really glad that you able to recognize that, and that was always important to me to convey in the role. To accurately display that life experience in a way that everyone can connect to it. One of the isolating things about going through trauma when you’re younger, or any major experience, really, is that you can feel when someone hasn’t gone through that in a performance. It kind of keeps you outside of everyone else’s happiness and you have to find new ways to connect to people.

DP: There’s a real displaced kind of feeling that’s hard to fake when you’re doing these kinds of roles.

IS: Totally. It’s great to know that people can find something in these characters whose lives haven’t been as “shiny” as those of some of their counterparts.

For me, though, when I read the script I didn’t want anything to do with it at first. I didn’t like the character. I didn’t want to be a part of it. Then I realized pretty quickly that my initial refusal was because there were so many parts of my life that I didn’t want to confront. I was seeing that in the character. In my own life I was running away from a lot of different things. For me, in order to play this character it became a matter of confronting all of the issues that I didn’t want to confront in my own life. Now that you’ve said that and I’ve done the film, I can safely say that confrontation was totally worth it.

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