In the latest FX drama Lights Out, Patrick “Lights” Leary is an aging former heavyweight boxing champion who struggles to find his identity and support his wife and three daughters after retiring from the ring. When financial problems leave him with a very tough decision to make, he must battle the urge to return to boxing, or reluctantly accept a job as a brutal and intimidating debt collector.
During a recent interview to promote the new television series, show star Holt McCallany and executive producer/showrunner Warren Leight (In Treatment) talked about what it took to get this show off the ground, some of the noticeable changes they made from the original pilot that they shot, playing such a dream role and making this character very human. Check out what they had to say after the jump.
WARREN LEIGHT: It was a very, very slow take off. The executive producer, Ross Fineman, had this idea, maybe four years ago, and he took it to Fox Studios, and they liked it. A script was commissioned and the script read well, so it was turned into a pilot, but the pilot didn’t really work. At that point, a lot of studios, and certainly the networks, said they were done. The pilot was not clicking and they didn’t want to put money down. John Landgraf, to his credit, and to my and Holt’s luck, realized how good this character was and how good Holt was in this part, and he basically doubled down, when most people walk away. He gave me a chance to do some rewrites on the pilot and come up with a second episode. Then, he doubled down again and he said, “Okay, let’s go straight to series.”
HOLT McCALLANY: There’s a reason that FX has done so many special shows, and that they have the track record that they have, and it’s because of John and his team, and their instinct for material. To be very, very honest, I’m not sure that I could have ever been cast, if this had been at another network. They likely would have gone with somebody who had already had a hit show, or somebody who had just been in a big movie that made a lot of money. But, at FX, they were willing to take a chance on somebody that had some experience, but was still a relative unknown, because they felt like he was the guy that gave the best audition. That’s very rarely the case.
LEIGHT: We began shooting the pilot in March and, basically, we shot the entire series straight through, from March to mid-July of 2010. And then, there was another long wait because things had taken so long that the next open production slot was this one, but it’s been good for character building. It’s just been a slow and steady take off to get this thing off the ground.
McCALLANY: I had always wanted to play a boxer, all of my life. I grew up watching great boxing films, obviously like the ones you would think – Raging Bull, Rocky, Body and Soul and Fat City – and more obscure movies, like The Set-Up by Robert Wise, which I love, and even more recent things, like Cinderella Man, which frankly, before it ever got made, was a script that existed around Hollywood for a number of years. It got sent to me, at one point, and I was like, “Oh, my God, this is a really good movie,” but it’s hard, if you’re not a big movie star, to get the lead in a really great project. I take my hat off to my friend, Mark Wahlberg, because I know that it took him a long time to make The Fighter, and he overcame a lot of obstacles to do it, and now the film is an unqualified success. I’m really happy for him, but you wonder, “Will I ever have my opportunity to realize a dream like that?” That’s what Lights Out was like for me. From the first time I read it, I understood very clearly that this was not just a part on a TV show, but an opportunity to do something very special. This was one of those tour de force parts that very, very rarely comes along, and it was also in a milieu that I love, a world that I love, and a world that I had spent time in. I had done a couple of boxing films and had been interested in the sport, all my life, and I boxed recreationally from the time I was a boy, so for a lot of reasons, with my passion for it and my background, I felt like I was the right guy for this part. But, my feeling that way and the studio and the network feeling that way are not always going to be the same thing. I was really lucky on this occasion, that I happened to become the choice for the men who make those decisions. They took a chance with me and showed a lot of confidence in me and gave me the best opportunity that I’ve ever had. I literally thanked my lucky stars, the day that I was chosen for this part.
Did you contribute at the development of the character at all?
McCALLANY: Occasionally, I will go to Warren and express an idea or make a request when we’re working on one of the fight sequences, or something. We’ll work on stuff in the gym and then go and present it to Warren, the director and the other writers. The greatest gift that an actor can have is good scripts because then you’re relieved of the responsibility of trying to elevate the material. It’s already elevated, and you can focus on what you need to do. That’s the position that I was in. I was blessed with great writers, so I just showed up and did it and it always seemed to fit.
LEIGHT: First of all, it’s a good writing team. We had Bryan Goluboff, who had done Basketball Diaries, Carter Harris, who had been on Friday Night Lights, Robin Veith from Mad Men and Stu Zicherman, who had done Six Degrees, so it was a good, smart room. But, it was also people who had worked with actors often enough to know that you pay attention to them and figure out what’s working for them. Where we really relied on Holt was when we would choreograph these boxing matches. We tried to do those on weekends at Gleason’s Gym. We might have a storyline for the fight, an idea for the fight, but I don’t think we would have made it through without him. We also relied on Teddy Atlas, who is a boxing consultant on the show and a good friend of Holt’s, and fight coordinator Bobby Beckles. The story of those fights were co-written by Holt. It’s a funny thing to think about a fight being written, but they are.
LEIGHT: Anything you do in boxing, you’re swimming right alongside it because, with the world you’re in, there’s going to be corruption, there’s going to be a manager, there’s going to be a guy coming back. One significant change of the original pilot was that the manager was not his brother. He was an old friend of Lights’, but he was a thief who was clearly robbing Lights blind. When we switched that character to Johnny (Pablo Schreiber), the younger brother who had a boxing career and who’s the favorite son of Pops (Stacy Keach), what I wanted to do was to make it more of a family drama and, suddenly, this Bayonne family became mortal, and we had a nice triangle between a father and two sons. We had a triangle between that Bayonne family and the Far Hills family. It just suddenly became more of a multi-generational stew than it had been. Another change was moving it from Connecticut to New Jersey. And, in the original pilot, the wife had been a pediatric surgeon for 20 years, but I wanted to underscore the family’s financial problems. So, the change there was to make her a med school student who Lights had put through med school, the same way he had put his brother through business school. We understood that she isn’t an earner, we understood the financial pressures better. Those changes were about trying to make the characters more reality-based. The family’s in financial trouble. I understand that better, if the wife is not a pediatric surgeon. We made those changes to understand where Lights is more clearly.
How important was it for you to not make Lights into Superman, but to make him human?
McCALLANY: It’s a great question. You try to create a character and develop an identity as a fighter inside the ring, but also outside the ring. There’s no point in my trying to emulate Floyd Mayweather. I’m not Floyd Mayweather. I’m not going to look like Floyd Mayweather. It would be preposterous for me to make any kind of effort, in that area. I watched tapes and became a historian of the sport, and tried to combine certain elements and find things in the gym and saw what worked for me. You have to really think about what kind of guy the character is and decide on a style that works, that complements my physicality and that’s going to be believable, but also be compelling for the audience and for the camera.
Holt, after all of the training that you had to endure to believably play this part, has the physicality of the role been more demanding than you anticipated?
McCALLANY: A couple of weeks ago, I was down in Puerto Rico just doing some promotion for the show for the Latin market because the Puerto Ricans are big boxing fans. I went to the premiere of The Fighter, with the whole Puerto Rican boxing team, and we were talking about this very question because, a couple of nights earlier, Bernard Hopkins had fought at 46 years old for the Light Heavyweight Championship of the world. He clearly won the fight. They called it a draw, in one of those terrible hometown decisions, but the truth is that there are guys who are able to do it. Evander Holyfield has an upcoming pay-per-view fight and he’s in his 40s. It really depends on the guy. I feel good. I feel strong. I’m in great shape. I would say that one of the really special gifts about playing an athlete is that it’s the best motivation you’ll ever have to get in top shape and stay in top shape because you know that you’re going to be expected to deliver. Boxing is a place where, if you haven’t done the training, that’s going to be exposed very quickly. I’m really, really happy that, in a world where we get to go on and continue to make our show in a second season and, potentially, beyond, it’s really great that I’m getting to play a world champion athlete. It’s just going to keep me in that place where you think like a boxer and behave like a boxer, and you try to live your life that way, being in the gym all the time and being careful to push the plate away at the dinner table. You don’t need dessert. When you’re out having fun, you ask for agua instead of vodka. It’s very important.
McCALLANY: Yes, I did. What happened was that I was training every day at Gleason’s Gym, and eventually Mark Breland and one of the old trainers there said to me, “You know, you’re looking pretty good, man. We want to drop you in an amateur fight.” I said, “Really?” They said, “Yes, we’ve got something called the Masters Division of USA Boxing, which is for guys that are 33 or over and still want to compete.” So, I said, “All right.” Inevitably, if you’re going to the gym every day and you’re spending hours there and doing the kind of training that you’re supposed to be doing, it means that you’re boxing with a lot of guys, anyway. You’re boxing with some professional guys, amateur guys and Golden Gloves guys. You’re fighting heavyweights, light heavyweights and middleweights. You’re fighting younger, faster guys. So, you’re used to it. You’re doing lots and lots of sparring. It was just something that I had always wanted to do. My little brother had been a Golden Gloves Champion, when we were kids, and I always was jealous of that and wanted to do it myself. But, you make choices, as a young man. I knew I wanted to be an actor, so I pursued that, but that desire to compete still stayed with me. So, when they came to me and made that suggestion, I jumped at the chance. It was a great experience. You want to try to do everything that you can to understand what the experience of being a boxer is, so having that opportunity to really compete in front of a big crowd, with your friends and your family and people in the audience, was great. I went out and won a three-round decision. For me, it was like fulfilling a long held aspiration that had existed from the time I was a boy.
McCALLANY: They could have searched for 12 centuries and never found a better choice to play my father than Stacy. I have such tremendous admiration for him. First of all, he’s a consummate actor who has really done everything that you can do as an actor, from memorable film roles to an extensive stage career on Broadway and in the West End of London, and he played King Lear, and he carried his own series. He’s just done everything.
LEIGHT: He’s even done some cheesy work when he had to, too. He’s had a real actor’s life.
McCALLANY: I mean it when I say that he’s the real McCoy. He’s had his ups and his downs, but it goes a lot further than us looking similarly, physically. I think we think similarly and we see the world similarly. There’s a tremendous bond between us and an unspoken communication that was there, right from the beginning. I really like this guy personally, tremendously and I respect him. I learn from him every time we work together.
LEIGHT: He was the show’s patriarch, in a lot of ways. Every actor looks forward to a scene with Stacy and a lot of people had a special scene with Stacy that’s one of their best moments of the year. He’s one of those guys. He’s still worried about getting a job, which is almost obscene, at this point. He’s a lifer. I think he really set a tone for all the other actors. Every actor said, “Wow, you can learn so much from him. This guy’s had the life.”
McCALLANY: Something that I really admire about Stacy is that he’s one of the most economical actors. He does exactly what you need to do, and it’s very clear and precise, and there isn’t a lot of unnecessary, extraneous stuff going on. He’s right there with you. He looks you right in the eyes and connects with you, and all of that wealth of experience that he has from his life and all of the intelligence that he has, the character is invested with all of that. So, you just look at him and you’re right there in the moment with him.
McCALLANY: It’s a great question. First of all, I just can’t tell you how excited and honored I was to have Lennox Lewis, Wladimir Klitschko, Larry Holmes, Gerry Cooney, Joe Frazier, Micky Ward, Mark Breland, Ivan Barkley, John Duddy and a lot of really, really legendary champions come to the premiere. Some of them are guys that I have known, and some of them are guys that I met that night. They really liked it. They just were great. They were really complimentary and really liked the show. I think that it resonated with them. Many of them have had that experience of going to the doctor’s office to get a brain scan. They understand what’s at stake and what it means and the emotions that you feel. It’s complicated. So, it was so important to me that they like it. I can’t tell you how much it meant to me and how grateful I am to have been embraced by the community, in the way that I have been, because you can’t sustain a television show based solely on hard core boxing fans or people in the sport or people who love the sport. That’s not a wide enough demographic. But, to have their support and approval is really, really gratifying.
How old are you now?
McCALLANY: I’m 46.
Even though boxing is extremely cinematic and something that a lot of us can connect with and be inspired by, the sport is obviously not in the same place it was 10 or 15 years ago. How has that affected your approach to representing the business of boxing? And, how do you feel the sport is going to persevere and rise up, in the face of some of these MMA type sports?
LEIGHT: One of the things that I liked is that boxing isn’t where it was 15 years ago or 20 years ago. I liked that boxing is on hard times because I feel there’s a metaphor going on here. A lot of people have gotten clobbered in the last three years, and not just boxers. Alot of people are trying to figure out how to take care of their family or provide for their own, and they’re taking bigger risks than they should. Boxing is a sport that’s also being usurped by other sports. This is a world that is not getting the respect or attention that we think it deserves. Therefore, it also reinforces the sense of an athlete in possible decline, America in decline, and a sport in decline. We have a sports journalist who says to Lights, early in the season, “You think boxing’s in bad shape? Try writing about boxing for a newspaper.” We’re not going into a world where the money is flowing, even if you’re doing well. We met a lot of these boxers and we know how hard they’re working to take home what little they’re taking home. I think it reinforced the theme for the story that we were in this world of boxing and that boxing is where it is now. I’ve also written about jazz and I’ve been a theater writer, and those are two other worlds that aren’t where they were, 15 years ago. What happens in those worlds is that the community draws closer together and tries to take care of its own, as best as it can, and people respond to the pressure or have to get out. I don’t think it was an original, conscious choice, but I thought it reinforced a lot of the themes of the season that we were in this world. Boxers are a different breed. When you go to a boxing gym, if it looks clean and flashy, it’s the wrong place. That just helped give us the edge that we were looking for, in the show. Boxing’s decline helps us tell the story, in a way. It’s an uphill battle for boxers, and maybe it’s an uphill battle for a show about boxing, but the show is about an uphill battle, so it’s okay.
McCALLANY: I don’t want to be overly optimistic, but it would be wonderful, if the show were to become a success that, in a small way, we could help to refocus people’s attention to the sport, and help to remind them what a great sport it is and what they always loved about it.
Holt, how is it to be front and center, in almost every scene?
McCALLANY: As awesome as it may be for everyone else, it’s more awesome for me, I can promise you that. Having had the experience of limited screen time, and having lots of additional screen time, I can tell you that I prefer the latter. Don’t get me wrong, I’m grateful for all of those opportunities that I had, as I was coming up in the business. Learning my craft and working with great directors – like David Fincher, David O. Russell, Lawrence Kasdan, Brian De Palma and a lot of guys that I’ve worked with that are really talented – who recognized something in me. But, people need to get a marquee name to sell their movies, so often you find yourself in supporting roles, behind Brad Pitt, George Clooney, Robert De Niro or whoever it may be. I’m really, really glad that I had those experiences, because I learned so much, and I feel like it made me ready when I finally had the opportunity to have more responsibility. Maybe if this opportunity had come earlier in my career, it might have worked out differently, but I was really ready for this. I hope that I’m going to get to play this part for a long time. I hope that it will ultimately, down the road, lead to other great parts. I’m never going to turn my nose up at working with those directors that I just mentioned, or other people that I’ve worked with like that, but maybe in the future, after this, they’ll be more comfortable offering me bigger parts and saying, “Hey, look, Holt has graduated.”
How difficult is it to keep in shape, when you’re working for 12 or 15 hours a day?
McCALLANY: It’s a real challenge. What you have to do is try to live a Spartan existence. You’re going primarily from the set to your house, and the only place that you go, other than that, is to the gym. You literally eliminate all of your social activities of any kind, and you only do the things that are directly related to the job at hand. There’s no time for anything else. People that are your friends or family just have to understand that you will see them in August after you’ve wrapped because, if I do have additional time, I’m going to use that to try to stay in shape. If you’re going to play a champion athlete, people expect you to look a certain way, and you also have to have the stamina to be able to continue to perform. We did a lot of boxing on our show. It’s not just big fights. We have a lot of scenes where there are either sparring sequences, or different kinds of training sequences, or running. In virtually every episode, there’s different physical stuff that you’re doing, so you have to always be thinking about what you can do to stay in top shape and what the things are that you need to sacrifice because they won’t help you stay in top shape.
Do you have any regrets that you chose acting over boxing, as a career?
McCALLANY: I love boxing. I really respect the guys and admire the guys who do it. But, I’m very, very happy with my career as an actor. I made the right choice and things are really working out for me right now, but I won’t pretend that there isn’t a part of me that always secretly wanted to be a boxer. Now, I’m getting to access that part of me and I’m having a great time.