In June of 2010, I was able to visit the set of director Shawn Levy’s Real Steel when the production was filming at a hundred year old Ford factory in Detroit. As most of you know, “Real Steel is an action drama about a former boxer (Hugh Jackman) who, against all odds, gets one last shot at a comeback when he teams up with his estranged son (Dakota Goyo) to build and train the perfect contender for the new high-tech sport of robot boxing.” As I said in my set report, I think Real Steel is going to surprise audiences when it hits theaters on October 7. Here’s a few of the highlights from the on set interview with Jackman:
- Jackman was blown away by the locations they were shooting in Michigan. They shot in the Ford Motor Plant and he said it’s sad because when you see it on film people will think it’s an extension to make the set look larger, but it was real.
- Jackman was drawn to the project because of the arc and emotion of the story.
- He said the technology allows the actors to have much more trust in the film. They can actually see what they’re acting opposite and are able to adlib and change things on the spot.
- Jackman said that Levy would direct scenes to music in order to get the tone or mood of a scene.
- Jackman worked with Sugar Ray Leonard, who choreographed the film’s fight scenes.
- He describes the ratio of drama to fighting as similar to the first Rocky movie. It’s very character story driven, and when there are fights they’re emotionally engaging.
Hit the jump for the full interview.
Before going further, for those of you that don’t know that much about Real Steel, I suggest watching this featurette. It’s a great primer for the world of robot boxing.
As usual, I’m offering you two ways to get the interview: you can either read the full transcript below or listen to the audio by clicking here. Real Steel opens October 7.
Hugh Jackman: My first thought was like no one is going to believe this is not CGI. Everyone’s going to think this is extension looks so incredible. Did you see some of the big wide shots?
Jackman: I mean it’s so amazing. That was my first thought that this looks so unbelievably good that they aren’t going to believe it’s for real. And I think it’s going to be the same with the robots because we have real robots for some of it and then it’ll be CGI. It’s really exciting.
How do the robots look?
Jackman: They look so unbelievable and have you seen any of the working one?
Not really, no.
Jackman: They look so unbelievable. Have you seen any of the working ones? They’re unbelievable. People will think they’re CGI but it makes such a difference for us as the actors and just the overall look. And I think what Shawn [Levy] has done so brilliantly is create a world that’s very real, very gritty, very timeless and robots that are sort of very everyday. I know what’s going to happen and every kid is going to be really upset that it’s not real because it’s so fun and you totally could believe that this would be the biggest sport in the world.
What’s the affect on you as an actor? It gives you more to work with I’m sure. Can you kind of talk about that experience?
Jackman: It does. Well of course it makes it a lot easier and I think particularly for Dakota who’s younger and hasn’t had that…I’ve had a little more experience with that stuff but nothing can replace that feeling of real amazement. A real sort of shock…when we first saw those robots, my jaw was on the ground. They’re just amazing. I think, the extras, there’s no doubt these guys are just blown away. And I think particularly when we’re working in close in close-ups it makes a huge difference just in grounding in reality.
We heard your character, Shawn was telling us your character is a little bit of an asshole towards to the kid?
Could you talk a little bit about that?
Jackman: I think he’s a little bit of a broken man, you know? And he’s disappointed himself and many people right throughout his life and he’s kind of used to that. He kind of expects to disappoint people. So he’s one of those people who doesn’t put himself in a situation to have people rely on him, you know, deliberately because he lacks at self-confidence or self-belief I suppose. And this is a kid he pretty much abandoned at birth and having him around is just a constant reminder of probably his biggest failure in life, you know? So it’s much easier to keep someone at a distance than to try to keep them closer and be rejected, you know what I mean? I didn’t tell you too much information did I?
A lot of the personality traits kind of sound like similar to Wolverine. Is there something that you’re consciously doing like to kind of make that different aside from not having super powers?
Jackman: There’s some. I know what you mean. Some of the vulnerabilities. They’re very, very different people. I feel they’re very different people. Certainly tonally, speak, the way they think. It’s not…Wolverine is a lot more stoic. A lot quieter. Keeps really, really keeps everything inside. And Charlie has a lot of frustrations. He’s someone who goes for the rafters every time he tries to hit the ball, he’s trying to hit it out of the park. And he fails a lot. He goes for it. He’s frustrated a lot. He’s one of those people who believes in lucks going to turn my way. Sort of the power outside himself. And when things don’t, he gets mad and lets it out. Wolverine is a lot more stoic. He’s had hundreds of years of pain and he’s a little better at dealing with it.
Jackman: I think the arc and the emotion of the story. I mean, it reminded me of Rocky. There’s some great moments in this, but really I think the world is really cold but the relationship particularly between Max and Charlie—the father and son—felt very real. Very….something I’d really grab onto…I think the audience will really grab onto. Anyone who thinks this is just going to be a robot boxing movie is going to be pleasantly surprised. Even though the action is really great and it’s going to look amazing, the relationship with Bailey played by Evangeline Lilly that’s a lot more complex then I think your average movie. And that’s sort of what, for me, that’s why I wanted to do it. That’s why it elevated it.
Did you make a conscious…I don’t know the name of the young actor that plays your son.
Jackman: Dakota Goya.
Dakota. How is it working with Dakota? In the film, you have a very distant relationship at least at the beginning.
So are you maintaining like a very friendly… could you describe your relationship off-set.
Jackman: Friendly. I mean, he’s a very hard-working kid. He’s very talented. Very natural. And we actually have a kind of natural rapport that feels very easy and he’s ahead of his years. He’s going to be a big, blg player one day. I don’t want you to tell him that. I’m not going to tell him that. I just want him to have fun and be there but he’s really got a very mature head on his shoulders and he understands the process. It’s not like I have to pretend to be an asshole to him during the day. It’s not like that and I think this is a big leap for him and I want him to feel comfortable and enjoy it and be happy and hopefully do this for the rest of his life. And I think so far that’s the way Shawn directs him, too. He’s really stepping up and giving this great stuff. He’s ad-libbing stuff.
Shawn Levy: Yeah, I know. He’s not like a kiddy actor.
Jackman: Right, at all.
Levy: I mean he’s extremely…when he’s not acting he’s not one of those look at me, look at me kids.
Jackman: At all.
Levy: So the performance is very, very natural.
Jackman: Very natural. Yeah.
You’re a really doting father. Is that hard for you to kind of turn on that asshole side?
Jackman: You don’t see me at home. At home I’m an asshole too. If I see the paparazzi, I turn it on. (laughter) Seriously if you talk to my son he’d be like, “no he’s tough at home.” No, it’s all just acting and trust me much easier when you genuinely like and have a rapport with a kid then when you don’t.
I’m curious with the technology involved with all this…how does it affect you as an actor in those sequences about improv or finding new things. Could you talk about working with the technology and your performance?
Jackman: Okay. This experience which is light years ahead of anything I’ve had before, you can ad-lib and do things but everyone’s acting…everybody from Shawn to….everyone has this sense of we don’t really know what it’s going to be at the end, so we’re sort of all playing but we don’t know if we’re way off the mark or not. But this technology, we know where we’re going and it’s not just in the hands of a bunch of 21-year old guys animating the whole thing. It’s really in Shawn’s hands, so it gives you the solidity, the freedom as an actor to know exactly what it is so we get the scene as it is. I know what moves they’re going to do. I know when it’s a left upper cut or right upper. I know exactly what they’re going to do so I can do that and then if we want to improvise around it we can. And Shawn who’s got an amazing sort of background with comedy, he allows us to improvise and just be free but that’s only possible if you know where your foundation is. It really is and that’s what we have here with Shawn.
Has it been frustrating for you before to be on like very high-tech movies and not to have that freedom as an actor to do improv?
Jackman: No, because when you come from the theatre you have nothing, right except for 1,000 people looking at you and you’re meant to believe you’re on Bondi Beach sunning yourself. So I come from a world where you can’t afford the scene so you’re miming on-stage, so everything is relative and I take it as a challenge but having this is so much….there’s so much…clearer to the actor. What we’re doing, where we’re going and where to look for example. Like I know because there’s technology Shawn goes “you know your eye line is not quite right.” I remember on “Van Helsing” I’d be going through and once I would do like a “whoa” because okay Steven Sommers like now we’ve got to animate something flying over his head. But if I did too much of that it locked him into stuff. So you were constantly kind of second guessing yourself. With this it’s not at all.
Shawn was talking about directing scenes to music and I’m curious, do you have any input on that? Do you say well, to get that emotion I’d love to hear this song.
Jackman: I’m sure I would but I haven’t had to. Shawn has sort of…I really love all the choices he’s made. I mean we’ve sort of been collaborating for a long time on the script and feel we both know the character and I have a lot of faith…and I said this if you weren’t here…Shawn’s just…
Levy: Should I leave?
Jackman: …but I’m sure I could. Actually Dakota. He’s had a few…he said why don’t we play….what was that? Slipknot.
Levy: He wanted some Slipknot.
Jackman: He said “Let’s play Slipknot.” And there were some real bikers out there and they were all like…
Levy:..for days I was playing Guns and Roses and one of the biker dudes was like “If you play Kid Rock this place will explode.” So we played some Kid Rock and it exploded and another was like “If you put down some Eminem this place will go nuts.” So I’ve been mixing it up for the hometown. The hometown musical choices.
How do you like working in Michigan? Is it your first time being here?
Jackman: I love it. I love it. And by the way, the extras have been as good as I’ve ever seen.
Levy: As good as I’ve ever seen. They’re so….
Jackman: They are hard working and just so exciting, committed. The crews here, we have a lot of local crew. The locations are unbelievable. So far we’ve had two locations and they’ve both been great. My family’s here. They’re all happy as a clam, so I’m very, very happy.
Being as you’re playing a boxer in the film, did you work with Sugar Ray Leonard as he helped choreograph the fights? Because you look like you could be a boxer.
Jackman: Yeah, yeah. Good man! (laughter) Yeah, well I mean of course working with Sugar Ray was unbelievable. He was great not only from a boxing point of view from a mentality point of view, because I play an ex-boxer who is now controlling the boxers. So it’s his job, in a way, to assess the fight not from a boxer point of view but from a manager—corner manager. Assess where he’s going and control his fighter. And he was really amazing talking about that. And he told me he used to hire a guy two-weeks after a fight who was just a genius at being in the corner. And this particular instruction he gave me that that we really took to heart for the end of the film, which I don’t want to give away, but the psychology of boxing and fighting and where you’re at mid-fight, end of fight, beginning of fight.
Levy: The way the corner man connects with the fighter in the ring.
Levy: He spoke a lot about that.
Jackman: And that was great. Plus it’s Sugar Ray, man. He’s a very…for someone who’s been hit a lot, he’s very happy isn’t he?
Levy: Yes. Happy and still pretty.
Jackman: Yeah, I mean so pretty you can’t kind of believe the guy was such a killer. He was just very happy-go lucky.
Did you guys do any sparring? I don’t know if anyone gets to do that.
Jackman: We did a little. We did a little because the EPK was there and when the cameras were on, he hit a little harder let me tell you.
Levy: We did…in that bible that I told you about, that 400 page…we did well at set dressing at Evangeline’s gym. We had a photo shoot of Hugh like four months ago Hugh was even bigger than he is now and had longer hair. So we did a photo shoot of Hugh boxing a few different opponents and because later in the movie when Evangeline is talking about what he was like as a fighter, she kind of points out some of these old boxing pictures. So Sugar Ray came for that photo shoot and we put Hugh in the ring and he sparred with him. I mean fully, you know, like he didn’t haul off on these people but we got some great shots of Hugh boxing which supposedly is his character 10 years ago.
Jackman: Yeah. Yeah. And he choreographed the fights and a guy called Michael Ollerjay in New York, he used to be a contender…you can look him up, he’s a big guy. He was sort of helping me learn day to day some of the fighting stuff and jumping rope. And he looked at…we showed him the fight with Sugar Ray and he goes oh a lot of lefts. That’s so Sugar Ray. It’s a lot of lefts. Which was his signature, you know? So boxing fans will see in there and go oh yeah, that’s signature Sugar Ray.
Are you doing something different like physically to take care of yourself for this role? Like have you changed up your regiment so you look a certain way?
Jackman: Well, I think was not to look Wolverine but to look like yeah, the guy could have fought but not in tip, tiptop shape which sounded really great for me. But I’m quite a skinny guy so I still train. Heavy weights, a little less cardio and I get a few more treats than I normally would, so it’s all good.
Levy: I’m also trying to avoid the shot where he comes out of the water in slow motion.
That’s not in your contract? You don’t always get one of those?
Jackman: We’re shooting it. I don’t know if it will be in the film. Trailer only.
I’m curious about your thoughts on 3D and the fact that this isn’t 3D. I’m just curious what you thought because we were talking last night that there’s always a chance it could be a post-converted 3D. There’s been a lot of talk about that. What are your thoughts on the 3D movement and post-conversion 3D, if any?
Jackman: Shawn knows more about it than me. I’ve been to see animated 3D and Avatar is the only sort of live-action thing I’ve seen. I haven’t seen Prince of Persia or any of them so I don’t have a lot of opinions on them. Of course we’re open to it. We discussed it a lot. I think for my money this film feels timeless. There’s something about it, the look, the story, emotion. Everything about it even though we’re set in the not too distant future, I mean it’s only like 6 years-8 years in the future, there’s something about it that feels timeless. So for my money, whatever supports that. Whatever supports that and we’ll probably know that in probably 12 months.
Levy: That’s right.
But you don’t really need it though.
Levy: No, as I told you last night that was exactly the rational for not to.
Jackman: We shot a sequence the first week and 2 days later…so 7 days into shoot Shawn just sneakily showed me a little mini version—6 minutes of the first and I was just amazed. I’ve never seen anything that quick, that good and that engaging. It’s the first scene that I’m in. So I didn’t have glasses on. I didn’t need to see it to me I was right there. So I don’t think you need it to engage an audience. I don’t think you need it to make them suspend their disbelief. It can be fun but what I love about this movie is it’s very much story driven. This is really about the characters in the story, so whatever supports that best I’m sure is what we’ll end up doing.
It seems like a lot of the action is going to be happening with the robots in the ring. You’re controlling Atom. How much action are you seeing as opposed to what you’ve done previously?
Jackman: Me? There’s one little scrap, right?
Levy: Yeah, I mean he does get in a fight with….
Jackman: I get in a fight like a street scrap which is really not much at all.
Levy: I’m saying there’s not even a second-unit on this movie, which I can’t remember the last movie that had no second-unit.
Jackman: I remember my stunt double from Wolverine came over and goes “Awesome…big film. When do you start?” And I said, “Dude I don’t know how to tell you this but not that you’re not great, but we don’t need you, unless you can look like a robot.” So it’s kind of great for me.
Jackman: Right. Yeah.
Can you talk a little bit about the fact that this is more….a lot of people might think that this is more action oriented.
Jackman: You know the way I’ve described it to people is Rocky 1 to 6 or whatever it is. Remember Rocky 1, that was like 70/30. If you saw it, there wasn’t that many fights in it. And we’re sort of in the same world here. It’s really character story driven. The fights are unbelievable and very not just “Wow, that’s cool” but very engaging and very emotional. There’s some fights at the end, I’m guessing there won’t be a dry eye in the house. So there’s really some amazing stuff, but I would say that’s absolutely accurate 70/30.
Did you look at any classic boxing movies to kind of get some inspiration?
Jackman: Yeah, right now I’ve got Raging Bull going, which I just nicked off Shawn, so yeah of course. And now we’re waiting to go to the Packio/Mayweather fight. So when we shut down filming come and see it for research.
Levy: Hopefully that will happen. Guys I have to bring Hugh in. Are we good?
Yeah. Thanks so much.