The HBO Films presentation Muhammad Ali’s Greatest Fight tells the story of how boxer Cassius Clay became the world’s best-known and most controversial athlete. After joining the Nation of Islam and changing his name to Muhammad Ali, he was stripped of his title and banned from the sport after he refused to be drafted into the U.S. military, based on his religious opposition to the Vietnam War. In 1971, his case for being a conscientious objector reached the United States Supreme Court, with Nixon-appointed conservative Chief Justice Warren E. Burger (Frank Langella) at its helm, leaving his case in the hands of nine justices. Directed by Stephen Frears, the film also stars Christopher Plummer, Benjamin Walker, Danny Glover, Ed Begley Jr. and Pablo Schreiber.
During this recent exclusive phone interview with Collider, actor Benjamin Walker – who plays Justice Harlan’s (Plummer) idealistic new clerk, Kevin Connolly – talked about how he became a part of this project, why he wanted to help tell this largely unknown story, how he felt about the decision to let Muhammad Ali do all of his own talking in the film instead of having an actor play him, and what it was like to work with an actor as accomplished as Christopher Plummer. He also talked about working with Ron Howard on In the Heart of the Sea (based on the 1820 event when a whaling ship is preyed upon by a sperm whale, stranding its crew at sea for 90 days, thousands of miles from home), all of the training the cast got to do together, the extreme physicality of the role, and how the goal is to be done shooting around Christmas. Check out what he had to say after the jump.
BENJAMIN WALKER: Luckily, I have worked a few times with Stephen’s son, Will Frears, who is also a brilliant writer and director. Stephen had seen my work for Will and gave me a shot.
What was it about this story that appealed to you and made you want to be a part of telling it?
WALKER: The fact that I hadn’t known it. I knew a little bit about it, and I certainly knew about the Vietnam War, but nobody taught me this in school and that pissed me off ‘cause I think it’s really important. People need to be reminded of this story. So, it was nice to be a part of a recreation of it that’s something that could be permanent and that people can refer to.
What was it about this character, in particular, that spoke to you? Was he someone that you felt like you easily understood?
WALKER: I did because he is, in some ways, our window into that world. He is an illustration of the juxtaposition of this Ivy League, white, rich elite and the rest of the country. In some ways, he is the cultural center and he is very in touch with what is going on in the rest of America. So, that drew me to him and I think that’s something that people can relate to. That was my way in to understanding Kevin Connolly.
Were you relieved that this guy wasn’t a real person, but instead a composite of people, so that you didn’t feel like you had someone’s memory to live up to, like some of the other actors had?
WALKER: I did, but I also removed myself from that responsibility. We’re not making a documentary. It’s not a re-enactment. It’s a re-telling that, in some ways, illuminates something different. We’re not bound to the same rules as a documentary. If you’re working with HBO, you’re gonna get your damn facts right, but you have to give yourself that kind of freedom.
WALKER: The more that I could learn about the climate of the youth in America, at that time, the more I understood this guy. He’s a young man. He’s starting his own family. What was the social climate then? What was the political climate then? The more I learned about that turmoil, the more I understood how life or death it must have felt to him.
Were you surprised that this was such a well-formed and well-rounded character, showing both his family life and his dedication to his career, especially when this is not specifically just his story?
WALKER: Maybe if you’d had a different director and a different writer. But, the fact that it was Shawn [Slovo] and Stephen [Frears], I don’t think they would have been able to settle for much less because it’s that important. That’s what interesting about the system. People are still people, and they make their decisions based on their life experiences and their beliefs. You really can’t divorce the two. It’s important to fight against stereotypes and oversimplifications in very complex people. When you look back over Stephen’s work, you’ll see that he does that masterfully.
How did you feel about the decision to let Muhammad Ali do all of his own talking in the film and never show an actor playing him, as a character? Do you feel like it benefits the film that audiences will get to see that true conviction that he had, instead of trying to recreate it?
WALKER: Yes, and it grounds it in history in a very important way. It gives you that constant realization of, “Oh, right, this actually happened.” Also, it saved us from trying to cast somebody as one of the most charismatic people of all time. That would be a losing battle. Also, then you can focus on the issue of the story, as opposed to focusing on how bad some guy’s Muhammad Ali’s impression is on some blog. You can really get into what’s really going on. And then, people that respond to it and are interested in it can learn something from it, and by doing that, it can grow to something great. Then, it can spread like wildfire in a really healthy way.
WALKER: What’s great about those actors is that part of what makes them great is that they put you at ease and, in a lot of ways, elevate your own work. Also, I was lucky that I had worked with Chris before. So, the first day when I rolled up on set, he just said, “Oh, great, you again!’ He’s very disarming and charming. The whole process was filled with fun and a lot of laughter. We had a good time.
Do you find yourself trying to absorb everything you possible can, when you work with people like that?
WALKER: Oh, yeah! I’m just looking for things to steal. It’s like going back to acting school. When you’re around people that do it well and you get your head out of your ass, you can really learn something.
You have a line in the film, “I say fiddlesticks to that!,” that made me realize that’s probably the first and only time I’ve heard the world “fiddlesticks” used in a movie. Was it fun to be able to use that kind of language, or is it challenging to make a line like that work?
WALKER: It was fun! It’s just pleasant. That’s part of why I like to do this for a living. You get to do and say things that you wouldn’t normally do, and that’s this little microcosm of it. The question becomes, “Why does he say fiddlesticks instead of fuck?,” and that’s a fun question to answer. He also knows who he’s talking to. He’s willing to go so far as to disagree with him, but he’s not going to disrespect him.
What did you enjoy most about making this film?
WALKER: I’ll always remember how much fun everyone had. It wasn’t always an easy shoot, but everyone that was there wanted to be there, loved being there, and loved the character that they were portraying, and because of that, it was just a great time, the whole time. That’s very rare.
WALKER: Well, like with this project, in particular, if Stephen Frears called me up and wanted me to be in the movie, and the script was toilet paper, I’d still do it. I guess I always start with who would be working on it and who I’d be surrounded by. Once you have those things assembled, you can do no wrong, in my book. Luckily, with Shawn [Slovo’s] script, that was the case. It was a dream job, from beginning to end. I don’t know. I try not to pass on too many things. I want to work, and there are a lot of great people out there doing good work.
And you’re working with Ron Howard on In the Heart of the Sea now?
WALKER: Yeah. Not so bad, huh?
Is he as nice to work for as he seems to be, as a human being?
WALKER: He is nice, but if you confuse him with being too nice, you’ll have made a mistake. Ultimately, he is a brilliant craftsman. He likes to work quickly and he knows what he wants. I think he’s the perfect balance of being nice and having limitations on that niceness. He’s the perfect captain for this voyage that we’re going on because he makes you feel at ease, but at the same time, you don’t want to piss him off.
What’s it like to work with that ensemble of actors, with Chris Hemsworth, Cillian Murphy and Ben Whishaw? Does it feel like you’re forming a crew similar to the one you’re portraying?
WALKER: Well, we did a lot of training, which helped a lot. And some of the shots are very dangerous. You’re freezing and you’re getting pelted with water canons and bucked by waves. We’re certainly bonding together for no other reason than we want to survive. But, we have a great time. Because everybody is good and shares a mutual respect, we can really enjoy it and enjoy each other. We laugh a lot, and make fun of each other. Ask me again in a month, when they’re starving us to death. But right now, we’re having a good time.
WALKER: Oh, yeah. We’re on deserted islands and in row boats and killing the largest mammals on the planet. It really is a dream job.
How much longer do you have on that shoot?
WALKER: I guess the idea is to be done by around Christmas. So, we’re just getting warmed up.
Do you enjoy going from a project like the Muhammad Ali film, where it’s so focused on the characters and the dialogue, to a much bigger piece that has all of this physical work? Is the goal to find a balance between the two types of roles?
WALKER: Yeah. I just don’t want to get bored. I want to be able to try something different, every time, and I’ve been lucky enough to do that.
Have you given any thought about what you want to do next?
WALKER: I don’t know. I really just want to work, and work with people that I’ll learn something from. I’ve stuck to that, over the years, and it seems to continue to serve me, so I’m just going to hold onto that for as long as I can.
What originally inspired you to get into acting? Was it something you’d always wanted to do?
WALKER: Well, I thought I was going to be a ballet dancer for awhile there. I had a good teacher at Interlochen, this arts’ academy in Michigan, who taught me the importance of storytelling, and I really responded to that. It seemed like a long shot, but I always play the long odds.
And then, you decided to focus on training and go to Juilliard?
WALKER: Yeah, but at that point, I felt like maybe it was a fad or a phase that I was just interested in, for the time being. I thought, “If I can make it through Juilliard, I must really like this.” So, there you have it. I made it and here I am.
Muhammad Ali’s Greatest Fight premieres on HBO on Saturday, October 5th.