Opening this Friday is the new Rod Lurie movie “Resurrecting the Champ.” The film is about a struggling sports reporter (Josh Hartnett) who encounters a homeless man who calls himself “Champ” (Sam Jackson). After talking with him, Josh determines that he’s boxing legend Battling Bob Satterfield who was believed to have passed away long ago. Soon, telling Champ’s story becomes Erik’s title shot. What begins as the young journalist’s opportunity to revive Champ’s story and come out from under the shadow of both his father’s as well as his wife’s success becomes a very personal and life-altering journey. The film is based on reporter J.R. Moehringer’s real-life experience writing about Satterfield in his 1997 article “Resurrecting the Champ.”
To help promote the film, I recently got to sit down with most of the cast and director Rod Lurie to participate in roundtable interviews. Posted below is the roundtable with Alan Alda and in the film he plays the editor of the newspaper where Josh Hartnet works.
I have to say that getting a chance to interview Alan Alda was a real treat, as this is an actor who has been in the industry for a number of decades and has been in a ton of classic roles. From Hawkeye Pierce on “M*A*S*H” to his recent work on “The West Wing”, I’ve watched Alan Alda for my entire life and it was really cool to get to ask a few questions.
As always, you can either read the transcript below or download the audio of the interview as an MP3 here.
“Resurrecting the Champ” opens this Friday.
Question: So what attracted you to this project? What made you want to do this?
Alan Alda: You!
Are you interested in the newspaper business and the integrity behind it?
A: Yeah, it’s even more personal than that. I would like to know that when I read the paper in the morning, it’s telling me something that actually happened and I think the vast majority of journalists want the same thing. It’s amazing to me how there’s no – not that I know of anyway – some rule book for everybody but everybody has the same standards of integrity. That’s why I think lately so many of these unfortunate slips have come to light because editors – I guess editors – have been watching out for that. It’s important to journalism but it’s important to the rest of us even more so.
What was your character based on? It must be based on a real person.
A: I don’t know. I kind of doubt it. I doubt that the editor is based on anybody real. I think that was invented in the course of writing it for the purpose of telling the story. I think. I don’t know. Nobody told me that it was based on anybody real. But, as you know, the Moehringer story really happened and not exactly the way it is in the movie. I think it’s heightened a little in the movie. He’s a really good writer. He wrote this bestselling memoir. It came out the same year that my memoir came out.
You probably outsold him though.
A: I don’t know. We both did very well.
What struck me about Josh’s character…
A: Oh let’s talk about my book first. [Laughter]
Didn’t he do the end run around you…?
…because he knows that you would ask. You’re his editor. You would ask him some tough questions…
A: Ah, that’s interesting. Yeah.
…which he had not answered.
A lot of us who are journalists halfway through we were saying he’s got no corroboration, he’s relying entirely on what the Sam Jackson character tells him.
A: You could see it coming. Sure.
He’s been told that he has to talk to the son and that really hasn’t happened. And he’s more comfortable sending it what the magazine wrote than sending it past you because you would.
A: Well why wouldn’t the magazine have done that, I wonder?
Because I don’t think magazines are as…
…unless it’s something like The New Yorker or Time if it’s a fast fact check is going to be as scrupulous. That surgery wasn’t scrupulous either.
A: I know. That’s very interesting. I noticed that you mentioned two magazines: Time and The New Yorker. When they did pieces on me, they called me up about the tiniest facts.
Good for them.
A: Yeah. But so did TV Guide.
I have to tell you that you looked very much at home in the Calgary Herald newsroom. That set looked very familiar.
A: It’s familiar to you?
A: That’s good. Have you worked at that paper?
I worked for the Herald for some years.
A: Oh, that’s nice. What’s interesting about that is that many of the people, if not all of them, that you see in those cubicles were real reporters who, while we were shooting, continued to work on their stories. They were on the phone and they didn’t even look up at us. They were just doing their work. It’s very interesting how quiet it is in a newsroom. I noticed that when I went through the New York Times too. I think it was different in the old days.
The teletypes are now gone. That’s what it is. And typewriters are gone.
A: Typewriters are gone and there are no copy boys running around with the actual pieces of paper in their hands.
Did you think your character was ever threatened by Eric or he really didn’t think he was very good?
A: I think he thought he could be good. You know you always see the character from the character’s point of view. I mean that’s the best way to do it. I understand that he had to get a section out every day. He had to fill the space and fill it as well as he could. But if all this guy could do was fill the space, he needed that too. He put in a quick word letting him know he could be better but he wasn’t going to waste any time on it. [Laughs]
Did you base your character on anyone that you knew? An authority figure?
A: No. It’s really in the writing. It’s there in the writing. But I have a lot of friends who were journalists. Many of them happened to be at dinner one night and I realized that there was like 150 years of journalism in the room so I just asked them a few questions. They had some ideas. Little things. I talked it over with Rod and he said, “Yeah, that’s good.” Mainly our advisor on the set every day was Rod because he spent years in newsrooms himself.
How was it working with him as a director?
A: I like him very much and I like working with him very much. We were very free and open with each other. He’d just say, “Why don’t you try it this way?” and that was easy to do because he’s very attentive. He sees what’s going on and hears what’s happening. It seems odd to praise a director for that but there are many directors who actually don’t see what’s going on. They’re busy thinking about the shot and what happens in this shot is just a certain amount of content that you provide. It’s not the best way to get the best out of the actors.
Last year you were involved in my favorite TV show moment which was the ice cream eating sequence in the Presidential kitchen.
A: That really stands out in a lot of people’s minds. Maybe it was the ice cream that did. I mean the combination of that particular discussion and ice cream and the idea that there was a secret cache of ice cream in the basement of the White House. I think those three ideas really combined. What was it that made it stick in your mind?
Well, all that plus the way you and Martin Sheen played it – political adversaries from the office caught in the spectrum and you had some common interests starting with ice cream. I mean you don’t need to work these days so what makes you work?
A: I love getting better. I try to get better all the time and you can’t get better staying at home playing with the computer, although I get better at that when I do that. That’s a real pleasure for me and I’d like to see how long I can keep doing that and not lose my energy while I do it. And the better I get, the more interesting stuff I get to do. I like that. It’s really nice.
TV, film, stage and writing, you’ve done it all. Is there one you’d like to do more of than the other?
A: No. I really love it that the writing has hit and that I’m able to do that. It’s really a perfect thing for me. The second book is coming out on September 4th.
What’s it called?
A: It’s called “Things I Overheard While Talking to Myself.”
That’s very brave. Where did you get that?
A: I can’t resist these cockeyed titles.
What is the thrust of it?
A: It’s me trying to figure out the meaning of my life. It seems odd at this point in my life but I almost died about three years ago. I forget how many years ago now. But everything that has happened to me since then has been a bonus. And like a lot of people who get a second chance, I’m really interested to know how to get the most juice out of everything, out of all the time that’s ahead of me. Part of that is trying to figure out what would make it seem really meaningful to me. It’s a weird word. It’s a crazy quest. I can tell you right now there’s no end to it. It’s a dumb thing to look for. The book is kind of funny and kind of heartfelt at the same time.
Is it more a memoir than a hard philosophy?
A: Well a search more than philosophy — a real kind of quest. The talking to myself part is I go back over things that I’ve said. Over the years I’ve given advice to kids, to my own kids, my grandkids, graduating classes, and I go back and listen to that again and see how it applies to me and if I’ve done what I asked them to do.
That’s a good point.
A: So what I started to say was – and thanks for asking me about this – it’s really fun for me to have a book come out because then I go around the country talking about it. When I go into a book store, I don’t just say a few words. I get up and I do like 30, 40 minutes. And it’s fun. It’s like a little performance for me. So I get the pleasure of writing it and I get the pleasure of doing a little routine.
Do you read from it?
A: I don’t read it. Instead of reading, I convey it in talking so it’s more lively.
And you sign copies.
A: Yeah. I do that too.
Who’s the publisher?
A: Random House. And it’s funny, you know, signing things is really interesting because when I was signing for the first book, “Never Have Your Dog Stuffed”..[laughs]
A: Sorry about these titles – a woman came up to me with a photograph of my stuffed dog, only before he died, before he got stuffed. That’s the only copy of that picture I had.
You had a dog you had stuffed?
A: Yeah. I’m sorry to say.
When you saw it, that’s why you wrote the book?
A: Yeah. Yeah.
How did she have a photo of your dog?
A: I don’t know. She was maybe a relative of a relative or something.
What breed did you have stuffed? Not a
A: No, no, no. A black cocker spaniel. It was because I was 8 years old and when the dog died, my father thought it would be a good idea to take it out and bury it together so I was sobbing after a few shovelfuls and he didn’t know what to do. He was stuck. He said, “Well maybe we should have it stuffed and that way you’ll always keep it.” And I said, “Okay.” And the taxidermist said, “What kind of expression did he have on his face?” Do you think of dogs as having expressions? They don’t have an emotional life like that. They look like a dog. So the dog came back with this hideous look on his face and he looked… People were afraid that he was going to leap off this blue pad and bite them because he looked sort of real but fierce. He was in the living room for awhile and people actually backed out of the living room.
It would kind of creep me out, I think.
A: Yeah. It creeped them out so it really became an image for me of how I couldn’t ever hope to hang onto anything that came my way. Whatever it was, when it left, it was gone. So I don’t hang onto memories but it’s a lesson that I keep learning over and over again. That was like the central theme of that whole book which was really about me trying to learn how to become a person.
How long did you keep the dog?
A: [Laughs] Everybody is so concerned about this dog. He’s gone. Don’t worry about him.
We want to know what happened to him?
A: I don’t know what happened to him. He’s probably…
Probably what happened to Trigger because…
A: Trigger got stuffed. Yeah. I wonder what happened to Trigger. Didn’t he get buried with Roy or something?
He’s out there in the museum.
A: Oh, he’s in the museum? I thought that Roy got buried with him or something.
I think he was buried with Dale.
A: Well, I don’t know what happened to the dog, but my guess is after all this publicity he’s on eBay. [Laughter] I’ve actually looked for him there but I can’t find him.
Since filming “Resurrecting the Champ,” have you done any other film projects?
A: Yeah. I had this beard for a movie that I’m making with Matthew Broderick. It’s called “Diminished Capacity.” I play his uncle and I live in the woods in Missouri. He comes down from Chicago to try to put me in a home because I’m getting old and losing my memory and I’m fighting that. But meanwhile, he’s been in a bar fight and he got hit in the head and he can’t remember anything either. [Laughs] It’s very sweet.
You have two old coots out in the woods…
A: …looking at the trees. It’s not stupid, it’s fun. It’s a nice story. And then I’m going to make another movie with Rod this October. Another newspaper story only this time I’ll be a lawyer.
Based on the Valerie Plame story?
A: It’s not. It’s a similar story but it’s not based on…
Roman a clef.
A: Is that what he calls it?
A: Yeah. And then I’m going to make another movie. I can’t remember when. [Laughs] Sometime like September or October. And then I’m going to go to England about the book. I’m happily worn to a frazzle. [Laughs]
You enjoy writing but that dates back to when you were doing screenplays.
A: Even before. Yeah.
Do you miss screenwriting and directing?
A: I don’t miss directing at all and I don’t miss screenwriting either because somebody’s always telling you to do something different. [Laughs] Somebody who has the talent to put the money together thinks that includes every other conceivable talent. Good or bad, right? I remember with one movie, I did the best I could and it probably wasn’t as good as I could have done or not as good as somebody could have done. But when the guy who ran the studio came and wanted to tell me how to rewrite it while I was shooting it – here I was acting in it and directing it – and I was supposed to stay up all night and rewrite it. I said, “You know, those are probably good ideas that you have. That may make a good movie. But this is the one that we agreed I would do and I’m willing to go down in flames with it.” Well you should have seen him blanch at that term “down in flames.”
Was that “Betsy’s Wedding”?
A: It was one of the movies. I don’t want to tell people.
Well “Betsy’s Wedding” was your last one.
A: Yeah. I didn’t feel like directing after that any more. I just got asked to direct a picture about a month ago. I don’t even remember what it was, but I took it so lightly, you know. [Laughs] I don’t really want to do it. I didn’t enjoy the time I had on “Betsy.”
Do you have more fun being a good guy or a bad guy? A lot of people remember you fondly as a good guy. Do you like playing a bad guy?
A: I’ve always thought I was just playing people. The so-called good guys often were… Hawkeye himself was a flawed character. A smart aleck, a skirt chaser, he drank too much, he always thought he was right. But I guess I covered people with the slime of my amiability. They just couldn’t resist.
A: That was fast. Thank you. Nice to talk to you.
If we see your dog on eBay, we’ll let you know.
A: Oh, please do! Yes. Email us here. I love a gag and I’m willing to pay $54 for it.