By Thomas Gerbasi
For an aspiring boxer, getting a compliment from an established middleweight contender like John Duddy would be the thrill of a lifetime. For an actor putting together the skill set to play a boxer, it meant even more, and that was the case when Duddy visited Holt McCallany in the locker room at Gleason’s Gym in Brooklyn.
“I’m really impressed,” Duddy told McCallany. “I’ve been watching your development and you’ve been really looking good. I understand you’re gonna be fighting Saturday night, and I just want to say good luck – you look more like one of us every day.”
A few days after that conversation, the 46-year old McCallany, star of the new series “Lights Out”, which premieres tonight on FX, would take method acting to the next level, stepping between the ropes for his first amateur fight, an idea that began with the actor’s boxing trainer, former welterweight champion Mark Breland, and Duddy’s trainer Harry Keitt.
“Inevitably, if you’re going to the gym every day and spending hours there and you’re doing the kind of training that you’re supposed to be doing, you’re boxing with a lot of guys anyway,” said McCallany, who competed in USA Boxing’s Masters Division, which is designed for boxers 35 and over. “So you’re used to it, and you’re doing it every day. So I just figured it was something that I always wanted to do, my little brother had been a Golden Gloves champion when we were kids, and I was always kinda jealous of that, and I wanted to do it myself. But you make choices as a young man, and I knew I wanted to be an actor, so I pursued that. But it still stayed with me, that desire to compete. I jumped at the chance. You want to try to do everything that you can to understand what the experience of being a boxer is, of having that opportunity to really compete in front of a big crowd with your friends and family and people in the audience.”
That night at Gleason’s, McCallany already had Breland and Keitt on board, and he also recruited his “brother” on “Lights Out”, Pablo Schreiber, and friend and former UFC heavyweight champion Bas Rutten to man his corner.
“I definitely had the most impressive cornermen of any amateur fighter I can remember,” he laughed, but that’s not to say McCallany was completely calm under the lights. Like any budding amateur, the New Yorker had to deal with a bout of nerves, and with a 17 bout card ahead, he wanted to get things over with as soon as possible. So he asked Breland if he could have Gleason’s owner Bruce Silverglade put him on as the second or third fight.
“I didn’t want to wait hours and hours,” recalled McCallany. “You have those butterflies in your stomach, and all of a sudden it’s not sparring anymore. (But Mark told me) it’s all taken care of.”
“They made me dead last out of 17 fights.”
McCallany, like the ex-champion he plays, Patrick “Lights” Leary, delivered when it counted though, as he won his first amateur bout.
“I went out and won a three round decision, and for me, it was like fulfilling a long-held aspiration that had existed since the time I was a boy,” he said.
“Lights Out” has been a similar Vision Quest for the longtime actor, who has been seen in a number of films and television shows like “Fight Club”, “The Losers”, “Criminal Minds”, and the Mike Tyson biopic “Tyson”, in which he played trainer Teddy Atlas. But with “Lights Out”, he’s the main event as he gets his time to shine as a lead, and in a lot of ways, when he got the role of Leary it was his heavyweight championship fight, the one he’s been working towards his entire career.
“My first acting teacher in New York, whom I still study with, was Harold Guskin. I remember my very first day,” McCallany recalled. “He said ‘I’m gonna tell you two things today and if you remember these two things today, for the rest of your career, these things will help you very much. The first one is this: talent will win out in the end.’ You have to believe that. Orson Welles used to talk about that – an actor has to be optimist; an actor has to have hope because if you sit around contemplating the odds against you and how the union has 95% unemployment, if you start thinking about those things, you’re dead. You’re gonna undermine your self-confidence and I think it’s largely about confidence and believing in yourself and about believing that you will get an opportunity. And the last thing he said was, ‘don’t worry about being in with the in crowd. Just the fact that you do what you do, if you do it well, puts you in. So it’s not about making sure that you show up at the right parties or that you shake the right hands at premieres; it’s about doing everything you can do to be the best actor you can be, and if you do that, then you’ve got a chance.’”
So to get ready for his own personal heavyweight championship bout, he had to learn how to fight like a champion, and by the end of the first episode, you can tell that McCallany knows his way around a ring. It wasn’t an easy process, and despite knowing whose fistic film footsteps he had to follow, he embraced it.
“If you’re gonna walk out in front of the cameras in front of millions of people and play the heavyweight champion of the world, you gotta ask yourself, what did you ever do in your life that you should be permitted to have that honor?” he said. “Why should people believe you, why should you be considered credible? There are actors that have played world champion fighters and have done it very successfully. Robert DeNiro (Raging Bull) did it very successfully, Sylvester Stallone (Rocky) did it very successfully. And I think my friend Mark Wahlberg (The Fighter) did it successfully.”
“You’re trying to find your way into that Pantheon of guys,” he continues. “Every actor’s journey is going to be different, but inevitably, it’s going to involve a lot of boxing. And for me, my thing was, I’m gonna try and spend my time and get my training from the absolute best guys that are available. So, for example, for the pilot I trained with my friend Teddy Atlas, whom I played in a movie back in the 90’s called “Tyson.” Teddy’s one of the best trainers in America. And then later when it came time for the series to go in production, Teddy was going back and forth to Russia, training (heavyweight contender) Alexander Povetkin. So I went to Gleason’s Gym and I started training with former welterweight champion Mark Breland. He’s one of the greatest amateur fighters of all-time, and I really tried to train hard and as earnestly as I could, and with humility.”
This approach paid off in more ways than one. Playing a former heavyweight champion who was the victim of a controversial decision loss in his last fight before walking away from the game, McCallany has been tasked with not only showing the life of a boxer in the ring, but outside of it. Admirably, his performance is a nuanced one that shows a champion who is not just Superman in the ring, but an everyman outside of it, one forced to deal with a life after boxing that he never expected. His characterization of Leary is something that could not have been achieved without completely immersing himself in the culture of the sport.
“What you find out about the boxing community is that they’ll embrace you,” he said. “It’s not like trying to gain access to the NBA – it’s a different landscape. And you can kinda walk in, and they’ll look at you and take your measure and they decide how they feel about you, and if they like you and they feel like you have the right attitude and your heart’s in the right place and they see how hard you’re working, they open up to you. I learned an awful lot from those guys.”
And unlike many actors who practice the sweet science on the silver screen, you can’t look at McCallany and say ‘oh, he’s been watching film on so and so.’ He’s taken a bunch of influences to make Patrick Leary believable, and it works.
“You’re trying to create a character, and you’re trying to develop an identity as a fighter, inside the ring but also outside the ring,” he said. “Who is this character, and how does that inform how he does what he does? There’s no point in me trying to emulate Floyd Mayweather – I’m not Floyd Mayweather, I’m not gonna look like Floyd Mayweather, and so it would be preposterous for me to make any kind of an effort in that area. Who are the guys who have my physicality, who I can emulate, who I can look at and maybe take something from their fighting style? Maybe I’ll take something from Jerry Quarry, I’ll take something from Gerry Cooney, from Jeff Harding, from Doug DeWitt, from my friend John Duddy – a little bit of this, a little bit of that, and you’re watching tapes and becoming a student of the sport, a historian of the sport, and trying to combine certain elements and trying things in the gym. So what kind of guy is he? Is he pressure fighter who comes across the ring, who tries to cut the ring off, tries to trap you in the corner and throws a lot of body punches? Who is the guy and why does he fight the way he does? You have to really think about these things, and slowly, you start to realize here’s a style that works for me, that complements my physicality, that’s gonna be believable, but also be compelling for the audience and for the camera.”
It’s believable and compelling, and as Leary navigates the murky water known as life after boxing, you can’t turn your head away. That’s the greatest triumph of “Lights Out”, and it’s what should keep viewers - whether fight fans or not – watching every round this season.