Thursday, January 26, 2012

A Mother and Two Sons in "Legendary"

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A Mother and Two Sons in "Legendary"

(from brinkzine.com  9/7/10)

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My guess is that anyone who isn't a wrestling fan, particularly of WWE superstar John Cena, wouldn't think twice about missing Mel Damski's Legendary, if they didn't notice that Patricia Clarkson heads the cast. This classy actress has always made impeccable choices regarding the films in which she has starred, so I was curious enough to go to a critics' screening. (I also was intrigued by Cena's participation in a nonaction film.) There was no snickering by the hard-edged critics around me, there were sniffles. It turned out to be a sweet, modest, inspiring little indie featuring fine performances by Clarkson, who has a couple of powerhouse scenes, and appealing young actor Devon Graye. And though Cena isn't in their league, he definitely has enough presence to satisfy both his devotees and movie fans who have never heard of him. The story: A studious, nonathletic high school student, Cal (Graye), tires of being bullied and joins the wrestling team, over the objections of his protective mother (Clarkson). He hopes he has the wrestling genes of his late father and estranged older brother, Mike (Cena), who had been the high school champion of Oklahoma. To get help with his wrestling, Cal tracks down Mike. His older brother left home after his father's death in a car accident and has become a brawling alcoholic with no direction in life and guilt over his father's death. Mike is initially unfriendly to Cal, but then helps him train without revealing himself to his mother. Cal strives to be a champion wrestler but he's motivated more by his desire to bond with his brother and repair the rift between Mike and their mother. It's a "family film" about how the boy tries to make his fractured family whole again. In anticipation of this Friday's release, I took part in a roundtable with the movie's family Clarkson, Graye, and Cena, a personable and articulate trio that has great pride in this film.
Q: Why did you each of you want to make this movie?
Patricia Clarkson: Ive known this script for a while. I think its six- or seven-years-old. John Posey, the writer and the wrestling coach in the movie, is a wonderful man, and I think he wrote the part of Sharon with me in mind although I didnt know him at the time. It was very flattering. So when I got the script I saw that Sharon wasnt a peripheral-mother character but was integral to the story and a real force, and that the part was complicated and demanding. I also loved that it was a family drama because they aren't made much anymore. And that the WWE was making it was great. I thought it was a great marriage of a production company and a film.
Devon Graye: For me, a lot of it was the story and a lot was the character of Cal. I liked his inner strength and how determined and confident he is from the get-go. I found those qualities so likeable and I was envious and thought, "I want to be more like him!" His character rubbed off on me. I went into the audition thinking I wouldn't get the part in a million years because I was too old and didn't wrestle and other things. I wanted it so badly and so often you want something so badly that it doesn't happen. Then it did and suddenly I was doing wrestling training and dying my hair. I'm so happy it worked out.
John Cena: I loved the story. I sat down and read it from cover to cover, which is a very rare occurrence for me because I'm not much of a reader. I wanted to be part of it right away and didnt care what part because I could relate to any piece of the story.
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Q: The film has a lot to do with finding one's self and developing self-confidence. Was there anyone in your lives who helped you overcome doubts and influenced you in finding your profession?
JC: My old man was a really good guy. We've had our differences, but I love him to death. He was self-employed, self-made, and raised five hellacious, horrible sons. I didn't know what I was going to do in my life--and I'm still exploring options--but at that young age, instead of sitting us down and browbeating us, he taught us that there is no substitute for hard work, that you have to work hard to succeed in the things you want in life. He gave us that lesson by example. He made us believe that when push comes to shove, you can do whatever you want. He wasn't much out of high school but created his own business and brought five kids into the world and is very proud of all his sons. He instilled in me: Show up, work hard, and good things will happen.
PC: My father raised five hellacious daughters! I was fortunate when I was first starting out in New Orleans to have a remarkable high school teacher, Ethel East. She was a great influence in my life and gave me the courage and confidence to go forward into the real world. I was doing high school play and, yes, I was the star of the drama department, okay? [laughing] She instilled in me that my dreams were important and what I was passionate about was most important. I also was fortunate to have great parents who, when I said I wanted to be an actress and move to New York, didn't miss a beat and said okay. It was that fateful day that they didnt fight me and I moved to New York and really began my career. So I had great mentors and great parents and I'm thankful to them every day.
DG: For me, it was my acting teacher Craig Slate in San Francisco. We had just moved to a new city and I didnt have a lot of friends so I took his class just to meet people. And Craig took me under his wings. He saw something in me that he didn't see in other students and nurtured that and made me believe in myself and think I could do this as a career. So many people tell you, "Acting's for fun, you have to be a lawyer," but he encouraged me to pursue acting as a career. He cast me as the lead in Our Town, which was the first big play I ever did, and he was so encouraging that I had the confidence to go forward so that I'm here right now.
Q: I'm a big fan of Dexter. Devon, I didn't realize you were the teenage Dexter.
PC (laughing): It was perfect casting!
DG: I did the first and second seasons of Dexter. It was the first job I really did after coming to L.A. So it was like boot camp for me, seeing how things worked on the set and the television industry. I look back on this nervous kid showing up every day and trying to do a good job while being intimidated by everyone else around him. I feel so fortunate because it opened so many doors for me because it is such a well-received show and Michael C. Hall is so incredibly brilliant in it. Playing under him was intimidating because I wanted to do justice to a character that was so well written.
Q: When you went up for the part of Cal how confident were you that you could become a wrestler?
DG (laughing): I had zero confidence. I loved the script, I loved the character, I loved everything about the movie except that the wrestling stuff scared me to death. I went to my first day of wrestling practice having no idea what I was going to do. I didn't know if they would fire me after five minutes because I'd never done anything like this in my life. Slowly and surely I got to know what I was doing and know my way around the mat. But I had no confidence prior to that. I didn't even know what wrestling looked like. I knew that wrestling existed but that was about it.
Q: John, did you wrestle in high school?
JC: Believe it or not, I took a wrestling elective in college. I was a physical education major and we had to take a bunch of electives in case we ending up teaching P.E. or coaching. I did a little bit of track in high school but was a football player by trade, but for .5 credits I learned the basics of wrestling.
Q: John, what advice would you give young kids who want to follow in your footsteps?
JC: The sports entertainment element has been around since the turn of the 20th century and it will always be there. So I stress, particularly for high school students, that education comes first. I'm a college graduate, I was a team captain and All-American, and sports entertainment wasn't my first choice. I really wanted to play football but I knew that because of my size and ability that was it for that sport. It wasn't until after I received my education that I seriously looked to sports entertainment as a way to make a career for myself. I've got to take it in stride. It's very much like acting or professional sports--one percent of one percent who try out for it actually can make a living doing it. If you're more prepared to tackle life after wrestling it will actually better your career.
Q: Devon, how much wrestling did you learn from John?
DG: He was a mentor offscreen. I remember, for one thing, John helping me with stance, keeping my back straight because I'm a hunchbacked bookworm.
PC: Those were some of the first scenes you shot and I remember you two were on such a high because you had such an astonishing connection and were having fun. And I hoped my scenes with you, Devon. would be just as good because I had to follow John Cena! 
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Danny Peary: In the movie, Mike has a line in the movie, "Dad made me feel invincible." Is that right theme for the movie? Because Mike and Cal's father never taught them about loss and because they they were unprepared. So is it a bad lesson?
JC: I disagree that it's a bad lesson. Here you see Mike, a mountain of a man, onscreen and you wonder why he has fallen on such hard times, especially because he had such a successful career as a high school athlete and was pretty much Oklahoma's favorite son. What the hell went wrong? I believe it's because he put all his chips in one basket.The story develops in a great way where a helping hand comes from the least expected source, his smaller, nonathletic younger brother
PC: ...who is in some ways invincible.
JC: Absolutely, invincible without that crutch. Mike relied so much on his dad that when he died, he couldn't handle it. I'm not saying it is a theme of the movie but we found a way to expose why someone this strong and this big and so dominant would go wrong.
PC: Why did he fall? Even great people fall, but I also so think it's a kiss and a slap. We want our parents to give us every ounce of encouragement possible, and we want them to think of us as invincible, but we also have to be responsible for our actions. That's what I think is the larger theme of this film.
DP: Patricia, your character acknowledges she made a big mistake in not telling Mike that he wasnt at fault for his father's death. I'm not sure Cal has faults, but does she?
PC: Oh, sure. There's no one alive who doesnt have faults. I'm sure shes failed at times as a mother and I'm sure she failed at times as a wife. The fact that she let so much time pass before letting her son know that she made a mistake says a lot about her. This is a woman filled with fear and hesitation and anger and sadness, underneath it all. She has raised her son, she's working and making a living supporting him, and she's dating [laughing]--she's probably a little complicated with the men she dates, but, I kept telling myself, they keep coming back.
DG: Of course, Cal has faults, too. What stands out the most in my mind is that he doesn't really trust his mother by telling her of his secret world of wrestling training with Mike. It was for good reason, because she wasn't going to accept that so easily. But keeping something so huge from his mother had the potential to fracture their relationship in some way. If I'm looking for a fault or mistake, I'd think maybe that's something Cal could do differently.
Q: Talk about being young and getting to work with Patricia Clarkson and Danny Glover.
DG: It was a huge privilege and daunting. I was intimidated to work with them, especially Patty because I've been a huge fan of hers forever.
PC: Are you still?
DG: Even more so! I was very nervous but once we started it was so natural and wonderful. The nervousness quickly went away and it was delight every day. I learned heaps that I'll take with me to future projects.
Q: Patricia, when you were doing publicity for Cairo Time you said how your emotional scenes with John in Legendary were among the best scenes of your whole career. Can you elaborate on your preparation?
PC: Those scenes are tough because you cant fake it, you cant lie. It's so deep inside that I had to do a lot of preparation, including a lot of soul-searching. The preparation was very personal and the hardest part of acting is when it is ultra personal. I had to deal with the most primal feelings and emotions a mother can have. I'll tell you what's funny. John is such a big man and I'm so aware of it because I'm not--I think the circumference of your arm, John, is bigger than my waist--but when we were shooting that scene he didn't seem that big to me. When I hugged you, John, you suddenly felt [laughing] normal. You felt smaller and you seemed smaller. It's interesting, the power of emotion.
JC: I was trying to make this larger-than-life character seem completely vulnerable until the very end. I make a lot of references to sports because, especially on a live broadcast, it truly shows pure emotion and raw competition. I compare working with Patty to being a player who joins the New York Yankees' lineup. A lot of players come to the team who aren't much until they get there. And then when they play for the Yankees they become All-Stars. Nick Swisher is an example. He's having a career year because he's surrounded by greatness, the best athletes in baseball. When you are surrounded by people who are that much better than you, you have two choices: you can shit the bed and the performance can go to hell or you can step up and rise to the occasion. Being in scenes with someone so professional and so emotional, you have no choice but to get involved. When we were shooting the scenes with Mike and his mother, there were so many times I didn't even care about the characters. It was just very real, very genuine. However you find it--and every actor will give you a different recipe for chicken soup--is the right way. I could make it show up because someone giving a wonderful performance brought it out of me. I'm very thankful for that. My goal was to make myself seem as vulnerable, small, and unassuming as I could and I am really happy watching the film because I think we achieved that. It did wonders for me and let everyone know I'm not just a pro wrestling superman but will hopefully have more movies to make in this business.
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Q: Do you have the acting bug?
JC: I always have. I grew up on episodic television. Our form of entertainment is very different from making movies but it is entertainment. We entertain millions of people every week. I've always been a bit of a class clown and I'm more apt to be making fun of myself on Monday night but it was amazing to be able to do something like this, taking myself in a completely different direction.
DP: In sports you develop muscle memory so you can do your sport without thinking. Does that apply to acting at all or is it completely different?
JC: Everyone has their own methods. Because I'm inexperienced I try not to overthink anything. If I overanalyzed stuff, I'd be in an unfamiliar place. I've learned when performing live that when you go with your instincts you're right nine out of ten times. I'm learning more and more with every experience but meanwhile my instincts haven't steered me wrong. I haven't put myself in an element where I'm truly exposed. I'll continue to do projects that Im comfortable with until I expand my portfolio as an actor. I'll just grip it and rip it!
DP: Are you learning tricks or shortcuts?
JC: No, because it's only my third time out, man. I'm still just learning the industry, about how movies are made and what I can do to make movies better and how I can play my part the best I can.
Q: In the movie, you have a new rap song. Are you going to make an album?
JC: I'm toying around with the idea. I really wanted to help the movie as much as I could. In the WWE, we have millions of people following us globally, and the movie will be released all over so when they asked me to rap for the movie, I knew from a marketing perspective that we could get it out to the WWE people and raise awareness of the movie. The track fit unbelievably well in the movie and gets me fired up every time I hear it. It was very easy to make, so who knows if I'll do more.
Q: In the film, wrestlers play pump-up songs to get them going before a match. What about actors before critical scenes?
PC: I know a lot of actors who live with wires coming out of their ears, playing a soundtrack to their lives even when going to the market. I like the opposite, I like quiet.
DG: I do like listening to music. I've discovered with the last six of seven things I've done that I get a song or soundtrack in my head as I'm read the script and prepare. It fuels me in some way. For this film, though I was so busy that I didn't think about music.
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Q: John, have you had surprises along the way during your WWE career?
JC: That I've gotten this far. And that I'm still here. I haven't been fired yet! Everyday is a surprise, whether it's producing the show before a live audience where you can't change any mistakes, or from a corporate perspective, watching our company grow. We are on television in over 180 countries and new global markets are opening up. We just got back from China from the first time and are heading to Russia in January. I've been able to travel the world and do wonderful projects. Literally, not a day goes by when I'm not astonished with what's going on. I just try to take it all in and do the best I can.
Q: Have you been surprised with making movies?
JC: I'm surprised how rewarding it is. I'm used to instant gratification. I'm used to going out through the tunnel and doing my thing and being told immediately by raving fans if it was great or it sucked. It's so gratifying to do a project and be unsure what the end result will be and then months later seeing the finished product and still be so emotionally moved. It's a different payoff but equally rewarding.
Q: When the film is released what do you hope audiences, including WWE fans, will get out of it?
DG: I hope audiences will get the family element. It is so much a sports movie but it is foremost about family. No matter what family circumstances people come from theyll see from a fractured family like ours in the film that it is important to have stability somewhere and in some thing. Some people are fortunate to come from really great families and it's such a huge blessing, but those who didn't need that stability from somewhere and it's never too late to go out and find that and make it part of your life. So I hope people are inspired by Cal's persistence in making this family work to some degree.
PC: I agree with Devon that at the core it is about family. It's also about loss and repair, and ultimately, it's really a film about forgiveness.
JC: I dont think there's any deviance between what I expect the WWE audience to feel and the average moviegoer to feel. They'll sit down and watch a great story unfold and I think they're going to end up feeling good. They will pay their money and will see a good movie and that is the important thing.
DP: One more thing: why doesnt Mike become a professional wrestler?
JC (laughing): Probably because it's too tough a career.

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