Chuck: Liev Schreiber Takes On Troubled Boxing Great Chuck Wepner -- Interview

– by Edward Douglas

It would be tough finding a harder working actor than Liev Schreiber who has successfully transitioned from supporting roles in movies to his very own TV show, playing fixer Ray Donovan on the Showtime series for five seasons. He’s received four Golden Globe nominations and two Emmy nominations playing that role.

In between seasons he’s found the time to make Chuck, a movie about the famed “Bayonne Brawler,” Chuck Wepner, whose career was documented in the ESPN “30 for 30” doc, The Real Rocky. Besides being the New Jersey Heavyweight Champion in the ‘70s, Wepner famously went 15 rounds with Muhammad Ali, but his somewhat tragic story was also the inspiration for Sylvester Stallone to make Rocky.

The movie, directed by Philippe Falardeau (Monsieur Lazhar), recreates Chuck’s family life with his second wife Phyllis (Elisabeth Moss) and daughter. It then shows how his brush with fame led to drinking and drugs that destroyed that marriage and eventually put him in jail, busted for dealing cocaine.

Chuck’s story is pretty amazing, especially in the way it’s told in a light and often humorous way in Falardeau’s movie, and Schreiber gives probably one of the best performances of his career, working with actors like Naomi Watts, Ron Perlman and Jim Gaffigan.

In fact, Wepner himself said this about Schreiber playing him, “When I found out that Liev Schreiber was going to do the part, I was all on board.”

Earlier this week, LRM sat down with the actor for the following interview in which he proved to be thoughtful when talking about Chuck Wepner, and why he wanted to play him. Also, after the interview with Schreiber, we have an added bonus of a few more quotes from the real Chuck Wepner himself.

LRM: When I spoke with Philippe (film’s director) earlier, he told me you were involved in this very early on, so was this something you chased down?

Liev Schreiber: No, no. I didn't really. (Producer) Mike Tollin brought it to me, because I think he heard that I was a fan of boxing, and I was really impressed by Chuck as a character and a little embarrassed that I didn't know his story and felt like it would be a good idea to tell it. I wasn't hugely involved until the financing arrived 10 years later, and I thought, "Holy crap. This is actually gonna happen."  The control freak in me took over and said, "Well, if it does happen, then we've gotta get the right director. We've gotta get the right actors...” and all those elements.

LRM: What was it about Philippe that made you think he would be the right guy, because I know he's been telling everyone you didn't think he was the right guy. 

Liev Schreiber: I was sure he was the right guy. He's full of sh*t. He was the first one I met that was a real pragmatist, you know? Often times when you're in this situation and you're meeting people about a film, it's everyone wants to get along so well. It's like, "Oh, I love it. Everything's so great." Philippe was the first pragmatist. He was the first one who went, "Well, I like it and it's an interesting character, but I'm curious how we're going to accomplish this. And I'm working my mind around how to do that."

He was into the big problems of the film, and I felt that's what I wanted in a collaborator. I wanted somebody as a director who was really addressing the hard stuff, and I could tell right away that he was a real filmmaker, a real humanist filmmaker, and knew very little about boxing; I liked that as well.  He was going to give a fresh approach and a fresh eye as someone who knew a little bit about boxing. I thought between the two of us, we could find it.

LRM: Do you do any boxing yourself? I know that there's kind of a wave of New York actors who have their own boxing circle. Are you part of that?

Liev Schreiber: No, I've trained in boxing for about 18 years. I don't box. I've sparred. I never actually boxed competitively or anything like that, no.

LRM: I actually meant sparring. I know that Sam Rockwell is a part of that wave. 

Liev Schreiber: Yes, I do that. Yes. I'm part of the wave, and Sam does as well, absolutely.

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LRM: What is the appeal of playing a boxer?  Was it just the interest in Chuck’s story?

Liev Schreiber: It held no appeal to me. (chuckles)

LRM: They make a lot of boxing movies, and actors seem to really like doing them.

Liev Schreiber: Yeah, I know, I know. I think that they're inherently dramatic, and I think they are these incredible ideograms for human struggle, so it kind of lends itself to that. I think there's something about the Horatio Alger aspect of boxing that appeals to actors at some level. For me, I think the thing that I was most interested in was the kind of cautionary tale about fame and celebrity that seemed to be at the heart of Chuck's story.

LRM: Can you expand on that a bit more?

Liev Schreiber: Yeah, you know, it felt to me like what happened to Chuck after the release of Rocky, and after his fight with Ali, was a little bit of a detour for him in terms of his emotional growth. I think it is hard not to be side-swiped and starstruck by the massive adoration and appreciation of the gigantic, ignominious mob.  It's very hard for anyone to compete with that, and as someone who makes his living in the spotlight myself, I understand that distraction and how dangerous it is. I think we can all agree that we live in a relatively celebrity-obsessed culture. When you hear kids talking about their aspirations to become famous and blow up and all of that garbage, it kind of makes you want to offer some kind of counterpoint to say, "What is it about this that really has you so engaged? What's the substantive aspect of your aspiration? What are you achieving? What are you giving back in return for this fame and celebrity? Even if that's not a concern for you, what do you really think this fame and celebrity does?” It turns out it can very easily unravel a life and destroy it. I felt like Chuck's story articulated that really well, and his resilience as a character to overcome and to win that battle with fame, alcohol and drugs, which tend to walk hand-in-hand with fame. His ability to survive that is maybe even more profound than the 15 rounds he went with Muhammad Ali.

LRM: What’s funny is that when I spoke to Chuck, he mentioned that the fight with the bear in the movie was for Make-A-Wish, that he did it for charity.

Liev Schreiber: He did it as a charity, that's right.

LRM: I wish that was mentioned in the movie.  I know you met him fairly early on in the process. What did you want to ask him? What kind of things did you want to know from him?

Liev Schreiber: You know, it's funny, because typically when you start to work on a movie as an actor, you already have the script in place, right? You know the kind of narrative arc of the story, and more often than not, if the character that you're portraying...this is why I hate playing people who are alive. The character you're playing may not really fit the narrative arc of your script because you're fictionalizing it to a degree and you've had to take some artistic license with it. There's all these questions you have. You may not get the answer that you want.

First of all, what was amazing about Chuck is he would talk about anything. Completely unafraid, or unembarrassed, to talk about anything, and I found that incredibly generous. That a guy who had been through all of these wars with himself and others came out with such optimism and goodness. That told me something about him as a character. For me as an actor, it's these little, idiosyncratic random things that are often the most interesting, because you have narrative and the structure's there. It's in the script. What makes the character come to life are the little things that we can't explain, and if you're luck enough to spend some time with someone and you find one of those little things, that's what really gets me going.

It's kind of hard to explain what it was about Chuck. I think it had something to do with the sort of sideways glances he would make towards his wife every 30 seconds. That was one of the first things that I picked up on that I found as a kind of starting place for the character. The checking in. He was always checking in at home. Checking in. Aware of being judged, but at this point in his life, the only one he cared about was Linda, and that was moving to me.

That animal that is aware of being judged is always there. That was, to me, an interesting place to start. I don't mean animal, but you know what I mean, that man, but when you talk about behavior, I like to take intellect out of it because it's more intuition. If you try to understand something or put too much logic on it, it stops being interesting at certain level.

It starts being narrative, but there was something about that instinct to check in with other people to see what they thought, if they were judging him. So much of what Stallone put in Rocky and so much of what really was in Chuck was this thing, "I just gotta show them. I just gotta show them that I belong." He's acutely aware of them, you know, and that was something that I kinda, I related to.

LRM: Chuck mentioned that, too. I asked him what in your portrayal he thought really nailed him and he said those kinds of small gestures were spot on.

Liev Schreiber: Oh, that's nice.

LRM: He also mentioned you brought "Requiem For A Heavyweight” into the mix. That was your idea to bring that into the narrative. Is that one of your favorite boxing movies? Did you have other ones?

Liev Schreiber: No, when we were working on the script, I thought it had some resonance, cinematically, and literally. You know, Chuck's favorite film is Gentleman Jim Corbett, and he had this quote that he used to always do, which was actually John Sullivan, and Jeff Feuerzeig and Jerry Stahl included that in the script, but it became very kind of convoluted. Both Philippe and I were interested not only in a film about a boxer and a film about boxing, but we were also very interested in this kind of Brechtian overlay in which we were making a film that was going to be part of the continuum of films about boxers and fighters. For me, there was something about Requiem for a Heavyweight that it fit. It was something about that character, Mountain Rivera, that fit Chuck's soulfulness. Not his braggadocio. In other words, John Sullivan used to say, "I can lick any man in here." Whereas Chuck might have liked to do that line, that wasn't evocative of Chuck for me.  I felt like Mountain Rivera's, "I was almost once this" felt relatable, and so we went with that.

LRM: You’ve been doing "Ray Donovan" for a few years now and you’re part of that wave of actors who have transitioned into television, so how has that been so far? Has it been appealing to play a character for four or five years?

Liev Schreiber: I don't know if I would have done it if you had told me I'd been doing it for five years. (laughs)

LRM: Well, when you first started doing it, I wasn't sure myself.  

Liev Schreiber: No, I've been doing it for almost six years and probably if I had known that it would be six years, I don't know if I would have done it. There's certainly something interesting about staying with a character for six years, and there's also something really interesting particularly about staying with a particular ensemble for six years. It's very much like the old rep theater used to kind of be like that, where actor companies would sort of stay together and do things together. I couldn't have asked for a better ensemble than this group of actors that we have on Ray Donovan, so that's been a real blessing. Also just being a grown-up and holding a job down for five or six years. I got kids now and this is a good thing to do. This is my job.

LRM: The other movie of yours I want to ask you about is another sports movie, the sequel to "Goon" which opened in Canada already a couple months ago. Any idea when we'll see it here? I love that first movie so much. 

Liev Schreiber: No idea,  I don't know when it releases. I kinda thought it had released, but I'm not not positive about that.

LRM: It came out in Canada in March, but I don't think anyone's picked it up because it hasn't been at any festivals...it's really strange.

Liev Schreiber: I'm not sure. I gotta find out.

LRM: You've also been doing some voice work recently, too? Is that kind of a new thing to you, too?  

Liev Schreiber: Nah, I've been doing that for 20 years...Sports docs, HBO Sports and regular docs.

LRM: I was thinking more like the "My Little Pony" movie...

Liev Schreiber: Oh, that stuff!  No, that stuff's new to me. Yeah, yeah, yeah. The kids' movies are new to me. I've been trying for obviously nine years to get involved in that stuff, and it's just finally begun to show dividends. I'm doing a part in My Little Pony and I've got a part in Wes Anderson's new movie Isle of Dogs. No, I love it and I want to keep doing it. Yeah, and I did a little bit in Jungle Book as did my kids. My kids were a couple of the baby wolves in the wolf pack in Jungle Book.

LRM: Really? Well listen, congratulations on this movie. It was great to meet Chuck, too, because it's very rare to see a boxing movie and then actually get to meet the person and get another side of the story. He’s a really interesting and cool guy. 

Liev Schreiber: Yeah, he's a great guy. He's a great guy. We were primarily concerned with this kind of harrowing story of his battle with fame, and we under serviced his amazing career as a fighter.

LRM: He suggested doing a “Chuck 2.”

Liev Schreiber: I know. He keeps talking about the sequel. It would be great to play a boxer at 51. That would be really...

Chuck opens in New York and L.A. on Friday, May 5.

The real Chuck Wepner (2nd from right) with Muhamma Ali (2nd from left)

The real Chuck Wepner (2nd from right) with Muhamma Ali (2nd from left)

As an added bonus, here’s more with Chuck Wepner...although if you haven’t seen the movie, you may want to wait until you do, as we talk about some of the differences between the movie and real life.

LRM: How hard is it to watch a movie like this that’s about you? 

Chuck Wepner: It hurts more each time in places. It’s not too hard. I’m always able to find something watching it for the second or third time that I didn’t catch the first time. It’s great to see it, though, and I hope that the public loves it the way everybody has so far.

LRM: Did you think the movie was fairly accurate? 

Chuck Wepner: It was very accurate I’d say. I wish they’d gone a little more into the good things I’ve done, you know, being on the Special Olympics for over thirty years, doing stuff for charity and turning my life around and being clean for over thirty years. Maybe that will be the sequel.

LRM: I’m sure there’s a lot more about your time in jail...

Chuck Wepner: There’s a lot more to that. As a matter of fact, they cut it short, but I actually did go down to see Stallone. When he came to the jail to do Lockup, the warden came to get me and said, “Chuck, he’s here, he’s here!” I said, “Who?” and he said, “Sylvester Stallone, he’s going to film parts of his movie here. Let’s go down and see him.” We went down to see him, and Stallone gave me a hug and said, “Chuck, is there anything I can get you?” and I said, “Yeah, how about a rope ladder?” The warden laughed, but the captain of the guards said, “Don’t be a wise ass.” I watched them filming, and the next day and then he finished his shots and that was it.

LRM: Was it just a coincidence that he ended up at the same jail where you were imprisoned?

Chuck Wepner: No, he personally filmed it there, because he knew I was in jail there in Northern State. He could have picked any one of ten prisons. He picked Northern State because he knew I was there.

LRM: After the Ali fight, were you still boxing?

Chuck Wepner: I had ten more fights after the Ali fight, and of course, I wasn’t the same guy. I was Chuck Wepner, and I wasn’t training as hard as I used to, but I did alright. Then in 1980, five years after, I said, “That’s it.” I lost the title to a kid named Scott Frank. I was 41, he was 20, and I said, “That’s it. I quit.”

LRM: It’s a surprisingly funny and entertaining movie, so do you think that your life has had those kinds of humorous moments?

Chuck Wepner: Oh, definitely. It definitely has had those kinds of humorous moments. I don’t object to anything that they said in that movie. Most of it was right on.

LRM: What did you think Liev got right in playing you? 

Chuck Wepner:  The laid-back guy that I was. When I went out partying, I went out partying, but most of the time, I was just a laid-back. The way he trained. He trained hard. The inflections of his face and everything else. I thought he did a great job.

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