Win Win is easily one of the best-reviewed films of 2011. The film’s success is especially impressive, given that it rests so heavily on the performance of a teenager whose only prior acting experience came in a high school class and a small role in his 6th grade production of The Pirates of Penzance. 17-year-old Alex Shaffer delivers a strikingly assured film debut opposite three Oscar nominees: (Paul Giamatti, Amy Ryan and Burt Young), an Emmy winner (Bobby Cannavale) and a 6-time Emmy nominee (Jeffrey Tambor). Luckily for the film, which continues its national rollout this weekend in a host of new cities and theaters, Alex wasn’t phased.
Shaffer filled Collider in on how much his life has changed since he went to the fateful audition that he had to be hassled into attending by a friend. Hit the jump for the audio and transcript of our lively exchange, including stories of why he had a hard time staying awake on set, whether he’d still pick wrestling over acting and which famous actor had him tongue-tied at Sundance.
Shaffer plays Kyle in Win Win; a promising high school wrestler who leaves his troubled mother to live with his grandfather Leo (played by Burt Young, best known as Paulie in the Rocky film series). However, in a moment of weakness, Leo’s attorney Mike Flaherty (Paul Giamatti) moved his elderly client into a rest home so he could collect the monthly stipend provided for a legal guardian. Owing to a mix of guilt and necessity, Flaherty takes Kyle in and unwittingly gains a superior wrestler for the struggling high school team he coaches. However, as in writer-director Tom McCarthy’s previous films (The Station Agent and The Visitor), the plot doesn’t follow a familiar road paved by expectations.
While Win Win marks Alex Shaffer’s film debut, his first acting experience came as Samuel, the Pirate King’s Lieutenant in the Reading-Fleming Middle School production of The Pirates Of Penzance. Alex proudly recalls, “I was pretty good. I had a little bit of a solo singing part in the first chorus of the play.” For the next four years, any drama Shaffer experienced in public came on a wrestling mat. As a student at New Jersey’s Hunterdon Central High School, Shaffer won a state title in the 119-pound division.
During Shaffer’s sophomore season at Hunterdon Central H.S., teammate Tyler Carnevale texted Shaffer about a casting call for a teen wrestler. Carnevale would have auditioned, but was too big to fit the description of a kid who was less than 5’7’ and 130 lbs. Shaffer wasn’t interested until Carnevale insisted that it was a once in a lifetime opportunity. However, the audition conflicted with a wrestling practice so Alex’s father sent the casting director newspaper clippings of his son’s wrestling exploits, instead. It worked. When he finally auditioned for Win Win, Shaffer’s naturally dark hair was bleached blonde, in a shade that evoked Eminem, from an act of team unity to intimidate rival Phillipsburg. The color made an impression on the film’s writer/director Tom McCarthy, who also happens to be a former New Jersey high school wrestler. More than a half-dozen auditions later, Shaffer got the job.
Interestingly, Shaffer was several sessions into an acting class at school (his 1st theatrical experience since that fateful 6th grade performance), but left mid-way through the term to do the film.
A lot has changed for Alex in the past year. He left high school and is taking online classes to get his degree. The 17-year-old also skipped out on wrestling offers from high-caliber universities to pursue acting.
Shaffer carries the swagger of a state-wrestling champion who has been justifiably showered with praise through a splashy Sundance film debut and ensuing whirlwind of interviews and press. He’s refreshingly straightforward and that confidence and candor should help him deal with the minefield of a path forward through the newfound career opportunities sure to come his way. It’s more than possible to succeed. Just witness how things turned out for past Hunterdon Central student turned Oscar- nominated actress, Vera Farmiga.
Click here for audio or read on for the transcript.
Collider: You audition on a lark. Your friend has to badger you into doing it.
Alex Shaffer: Yeah.
And then all of a sudden, it’s at Sundance. What was that experience like?
Shaffer: Different. (Laughs) At that time, I was kind of used to, like, the whole movie industry. I mean, or at least I thought it was. And then I go to Sundance and like, this whole, like, interview process was just, like, boom! Like, “whoa, what is all of this?” Like, what’s with all this press?” And what was really crazy of going to Sundance was all the press that I got afterwards. I wasn’t, like, ready to like, look up my name on Google and, like, see stuff. Like, come on! Or see stuff that wasn’t JUST about wrestling. (Laughs)
Shaffer: I’m “crushable.” That was the craziest thing. They called me “crushable” on some website. Crushable.com or something. ( http://crushable.com/entertainment/your-new-crush-alex-shaffer-from-win-win/ ) named me: Alex Shaffer: Crushable. So, I was like (gives a joking, nodding look of “I’m the man.”)
Wait, so now are all the girls at school responding (to you) differently?
Shaffer: I go, I take online classes now, but I mean, once the trailer came out, yes. I got, like, all the fake text messages of (mock excitement) “Oh my God. Alex, I miss you so much!”
Was there a little “Where were you when…?”
Shaffer: What? Nah. Either, I would respond back as in, like, I’d do two things. “I know what you’re doing,” like, “Oh, did you see the trailer (for Win Win) today?” Or I would respond back, as like, in a joke. Just like a dick back, I’d be like, (mocking in tone) “Oh my God. I miss you too. Like, we should totally hang out soon.” (Laughs)
Do you have an agent now, by the way?
Shaffer: Yes, I do.
When did you get an agent? During Sundance or right afterwards?
Shaffer: Uh, Right before Sundance, actually. It was really cool. I don’t even think he saw much of the movie. He kind of, just like, trusted what somebody said about me and took a gamble.
Have you gotten any offers, since?
Shaffer: Um, no. I’ve just been really auditioning around.
Shaffer: Yeah, meet- Yeah, exactly. I met a whole bunch of casting directors when I came out to LA. I love talking to people so all this, like, interviewing and going places, especially traveling. I love to travel, so it’s all a lot of fun.
During the press conference, you were so relaxed that at one point somebody said, “Did you fall asleep?” and Paul (Giamatti) said that on-set he would actually have to wake you up during wrestling scenes. How is it that you were so relaxed that you were falling asleep during those scenes?
Shaffer: I go to bed at, like, four o’clock in the morning. I don’t know what it is. I just don’t like to sleep so I stay up. I will play video games. I watch TV and then I go to sleep at, like, 4. And I really, I can function the next day. I just sleep whenever I can. (Laughs) If I was doing a scene and (Win Win director) Tom (McCarthy) called “cut” and he had to go do something for, like, five minutes, I’d fall asleep for five minutes. It’s just, (laughing) it is, it’s how it worked. Halfways into the film, I was sitting on the front porch of the Flaherty household and Tom literally, like, turned around, told Paul something, turned back around and I was just passed out. (Chuckles)
So, your mom wasn’t allowed-, It was a closed set, so she wasn’t allowed when you were filming, right? Or was she?
Shaffer: She was allowed on, because of, I’m a minor.
Was she there as you were (actually filming) it or was she, like, in the background?
Shaffer: You know what? She was always around. I mean, she was never a problem for anybody. So, they like, let her on the set and, like, they let her watch if she wanted to watch.
Yeah. What was that like for you, as a first-time film actor?
Shaffer: I really didn’t care. I mean, like what is SHE gonna tell me? Like, how to act? She’s never acted before. (Laughs) Like, what advice is my mom gonna give me, with me not responding back, sarcastically?
It’s that confidence that will do you well in this industry.
Shaffer: (Smiling) I, I guess so. I mean, everybody always says I have, like, this weird confidence about me that’s just kinda like, not exactly cocky, but like, just like somewhat confident, so.
Shaffer: I mean, yeah! I am confident. I’m a confident person.
Shaffer: I did say this. Didn’t I?
Yes. You did. It’s on record. So now, if you get a film, if you get an offer, will you turn it down to wrestle?
Shaffer: You know what? If I could, I, if, if someone-
(Jokingly) You sound like you’re hedging. You sound like a politician right now.
Shaffer: (Jokingly protesting) Nah. Ah! All right. If, if I could pay someone $500,000 to make my back better, ‘cause I broke my L5 [vertebra] in my back, so, wrestling’s out of the picture now. So, but, if I could, I would.
When did it happen?
Shaffer: It happened this summer, actually. If I DID get my back better, I’m not sure if I would wrestle that much, anymore ‘cause I really do love acting and I really want to make it into a career of mine and it’s one of those things. When I was 11 years old, I had to pick between Judo and wrestling and I picked wrestling and I’m 17 years old. Now I have to pick. It’s between wrestling and acting and I pick acting.
How has wrestling prepared you for acting, in terms of the discipline of studying lines, working on your character and things like that?
Shaffer: Wrestling and acting are similar in the ways that they’re a lifestyle. If you’re an actor, acting is a lifestyle for you. You’re always memorizing a script and you’re always going into auditions. Like, you’re going in for an au- interview. (Laughs) Acting. I mean, wrestling? I mean, what am I doing? I’m going to wrestling practice, then after that, I’m going for a run, then after that, I’m going to another wrestling practice, then after that I’m going to bed, waking up and doing the same thing. They’re, they’re both very similar, I mean, in the fact that they’re both just a lifestyle.
You were saying that you were meeting with casting directors and going out [to LA]. Have you done any plays since? Have you- I know you were studying with an acting teacher as well, right?
Shaffer: Yeah, I study with an acting coach. I’m kind of, like, getting the whole ropes of the whole industry and everything and just learning how to audition and just everything. I, I really need to learn, like how to act and I mean, I, I- from what people say, I did a good job in Win Win, but I feel that I really should get the ropes and learn how to do it before I actually go out and do more of it.
Shaffer: My high school drama teacher and me weren’t the best [of] friends.
Shaffer: I was in his acting class right before I got the movie deal. ‘Cause, um, there was, like, an acting class in school and I was like, “You know what? It doesn’t involve any, like, actual, like, work, I mean, in my mind. It’s acting and acting was fun for me. So, I mean, it was, like, some class I was just gonna do for fun, like, kind of laid back, not do much and that’s really what the class was and it was, it was a lot of fun and I really enjoyed it. But halfways, no! Probably like the first five days into the class, I went and I left for the movie. I got the movie deal and I, um, came back. And when I came back, the teacher didn’t like me very much. He was very jealous and everybody agreed that he was very jealous and he always did stuff and, like, kind of made, um, gestures to like say he was very jealous and it’s gonna be, I mean, meeting him again would be very awkward for me. So, I’m hoping I don’t see, have to see him ever again.
Yeah. Now, what is the best advice that you’ve gotten from either Amy [Ryan] or Tom [McCarthy] or Paul [Giamatti] about dealing with all of this and Sundance? What’s the best thing that they’ve said?
Shaffer: What they really told me was, like, I mean, you want to sound smart in your answers when you’re talking to an interviewer ‘cause that was my main question about this. And I completely forget who I asked! But! They told me, like, don’t really try to create, like, the smartest answers, ‘cause you’ll look like an idiot, like when you start a sentence with like super powerful words. Kind of like, be yourself in kind of the way you talk. I mean, the way I talk, I have a decent vocabulary and I also have, like, a very funny vocabulary when I, like, answer stuff, like, “Yeah, man!” and “Totally, dude!” and just stuff like that. I’m very much myself when I talk.
Yeah. Don’t be something you’re not.
Shaffer: Exactly. Yeah.
At the press conference, you were talking about the fact that you, you knew that [Paul Giamatti and Amy Ryan] were well-known actors, but you didn’t have the sense that you have now about just how big they are. Had you known just how big the experience was, would you have paid attention to it? Would it have affected you?
Shaffer: I don’t think I would’ve been nearly as good in the movie. I feel like I would’ve been, like, so uptight the whole entire time and so nervous. I would’ve been just like I do not want to ruin this for these two. Like, wired the whole time.
In going around Sundance, you’re going from party to party to party where there are people who are really big actors and you’re 17 now. Did you get star struck at any of them? What was your coolest celebrity sighting?
Shaffer: You know, it’s funny you say that. I got extremely star struck, but I didn’t really go to much parties. I’m not really about that, like, I mean, only when I’m forced to talk to people do I really enjoy it. I just like, stayed in my room most of the time, but when I did go out, I went to my performance of Win Win and Paul Rudd was there and I guess he’s friends with [Win Win co-star] Bobby [Cannavale] and Bobby and him were talking and Paul Rudd like called me over and I’m [whispering] “Oh my God, that’s Paul Rudd.” And I go over, shake his hand and he’s like, “Oh, you were really good in the movie!” He’s, like, telling me all this really nice stuff about me and all I could say back was like, [Gibberish] “Uh, ooh, uz, yeah, thanks! Uh, yeah! Uh, yeah!” It was just, like, egg salad was just coming out of my mouth.
Wish you could have that moment back.
Shaffer: Uh, not necessarily. I think, I don’t think he really noticed and it was, it was very funny and I’m kind of glad I experienced it. So, um, next time I see him, I won’t be so bad, ‘cause every time I see him, if it was my first time meeting him, I think I would do that ‘cause I really love his acting.
Ten years from now, where do you want to be? What do you want to be doing? I mean, doing what kind of films?
Shaffer: I really enjoy drama. I read [comedy] scripts and kind of didn’t feel good. I didn’t feel like I was acting well and, doing comedies, I try to put myself into the role too much and ‘cause I mean, I’m a funny kid and I’m an outgoing kid and, I mean, I may sound cocky, but I mean, I think I’m a funny kid or so I’m told but when it comes to drama, it’s like a completely different person and I can, if it’s a completely different person, I can make myself a completely different person. That’s when I feel more comfortable with it.
Well, you’ve got a great start. Good luck.
Shaffer: Yeah. Thank you.
All right. Thanks.
Shaffer: Have a good one.
Yes, you too.