Holt McCallany and Warren Leight Interview LIGHTS OUT

     March 23, 2011


The FX drama Lights Out follows Patrick “Lights” Leary (Holt McCallany), an aging former heavyweight boxing champion who is struggling to figure out who his life after retirement. Trying to support his wife and three daughters, his financial problems led him to reluctantly accept a job as a brutal debt collector, before eventually following his urge to return to the ring, even though one wrong hit could be deadly.

During a recent interview, show star Holt McCallany and executive producer/showrunner Warren Leight talked about the preparation involved in a role like this, playing a hero that falls in a definite gray area, how the character relationships will continue to develop throughout the remainder of the season, and where Season 2 might head, if they get the opportunity. Check out what they had to say after the jump.

Holt, were you already a boxing fan, when this project came along?

HOLT McCALLANY: Yes, I love boxing, and boxing has always been my favorite sport. I was always into it and I boxed recreationally, all of my life. I always wanted to play a boxer because some of my favorite films, as a boy, were those great boxing movies, like Raging Bull, Rocky, The Set Up, Fat City and Hard Times. I just loved those films. So, when this opportunity came along, it was really like a dream come true. Roles like this don’t come very often.

Did you have to do a lot of work to prepare for this role?

McCALLANY: I had been in the gym training for many, many years, but I definitely stepped it up when it was time to get into shape to play Lights. I began trying to live the life of a boxer, and that means everything that you would expect. There was early morning road work. I was in the gym every day. There was lots of sparring and conditioning. I was watching my diet. I took an amateur fight and fought in the master’s division of USA Boxing, just because I wanted to have that experience. It’s something that I’ve been wanting to do, since my brother won the Golden Gloves back in the ‘80s. To be honest, that was one of the most gratifying and exciting parts of the whole process for me because I love the atmosphere of the gym. I love the camaraderie of the guys. I love the whole world of boxing and the sense of community that exists there. I love the fact that I was going to have an opportunity to focus attention on a sport that I love, in a positive way. I was just thrilled to do it.

Warren, do you see Lights as a good guy?

WARREN LEIGHT: I think that Lights is a hero, as opposed to an anti-hero. I like that it can be gray. There’s room for debate. I think he has a big heart that’s generally in the right place, but he’s in a terrible bind. I think one way that you know that a guy is a decent guy is that there’s regret for his actions, and we get a sense of his regret. If you stick with the series to the finale, there’s a beat where you understand that he is aware of the compromises and the tradeoffs that he made to get to the Death Row rematch. I think he’s a good guy in a terrible situation, who has a fighter’s way out when he needs to, and he can think strategically under stress. Sometimes he pulls a trigger he knows will get him to the next round, but he’s not proud of it. We definitely wanted, with the David Morse character, to give a sense that Lights is also aware that this is one possible future for him. It’s a ghost of Christmas future that we talked about in the writers room.

Holt, does Lights delineate a difference between his immediate family and where he grew up, and his wife and kids and that lifestyle?

McCALLANY: That’s a great question. I think that he is definitely a guy that is conflicted, on a certain level. This guy probably would have been happier living in the neighborhood that he grew up in, in Bayonne, New Jersey, in a house down the street from his dad’s place, but he’s got the mansion. He loves his wife and children, more than anything in the world, but you can’t take Bayonne out of the boy. His heart is in two places.

Do you think Lights has perpetual bad luck, or has he just made bad decisions?

McCALLANY: I suppose that if it’s the debate between determinism and free will, then Lights believes that he’s the master of his destiny. But, at the same time, you definitely can get into a place in your life where you no longer are in control of events, and events are in control of you. That’s where Lights is.

LEIGHT: We talked early on that Lights makes a decision in the pilot to take that job to break that dentist’s arm, and that sends him on a spiral. It was a bad choice. You’ll see it coming up again. That choice got him down a bad path. Part of this whole season was an effort of recover from that choice.

Where will the relationship between Lights and his wife, Theresa (Catherine McCormack) go?

LEIGHT: What we didn’t want was a stock relationship, and I don’t think we have one. I don’t think it’s a predictable relationship. It’s not Leave It to Beaver time. She’s just not a stock wife. At this point in the season, she’s going in for it, but I think we know her well enough to know that she can’t just play along. She can’t be the perfect sports wife, and Lights probably didn’t want to marry that. No one in Lights’ life is easy. Why would his wife be easy? She’s supportive. She’s there when he needs them. What’s kind of interesting to me is that, when the chips are down, when he’s in legal trouble, when you think she should just hammer him, that’s when she pulls the wagon in the circle and figures out strategy with him. I think they’re bonded and enmeshed, but it’s not a healthy relationship. They don’t deal. He hid so much from her.   know everyone loves Lights, but he was lying to her for an awfully long time. Once you have that level of dishonesty in a relationship, that poison just doesn’t go away. She’s got other things on her plate now. She’s graduating from medical school. They’re in two different worlds. It will be interesting to see how the marriage can sustain the stress of the build-up to the fight, and then the post-fight. That’s all stuff to watch. I think it’s an honest depiction of a complicated relationship. I don’t think it’s a perfect relationship, and that’s more interesting.

Can you talk about what Billy Brown brings to the series? How did you find him and what’s he been like to work with?

LEIGHT: Finding him was hard because I needed to find somebody who you could legitimately believe has been heavyweight champion of the world for five years, and no one’s laid a glove on him. You need somebody in immediate and overtly great shape, who has physicality and can act. We didn’t want to do a stock villain. Maybe people framed him that way, in the beginning of the show, but each week, you get another layer peeled off of this guy. There’s a lot going on with Death Row. He’s a sophisticated guy with some early issues that are still affecting his choices. I had the same problems in trying to find someone to play Lights, as I did in trying to find someone to play Death Row. Billy was a gift. I remember watching the audition tape on the computer scan and I thought, “Okay we’re done.” I just felt extreme relief when his audition came in because there were a lot of guys who looked good, but who couldn’t act, and a lot of good actors who you just didn’t believe for a second that they could last 15 or 12 rounds in a ring. But, I had to work on his muscles and get the training right for him. As the character evolved, I think he was afraid that it was just going to be this stock, Apollo Creed guy. His character has some dimension and, every time we gave Billy more, he just ran with it. It was great to watch.

McCALLANY: There aren’t enough superlatives in the English language for me to describe this actor. I think he literally has it all. He’s got a great intelligence, humor and depth. He has a tremendous work ethic and he’s a joy to be around. I called him up and said, “Hey, man, it looks like you and me are going to have to dance, so let’s get into the gym and start working.” This was a guy that didn’t have a boxing background. Obviously, he’s a very gifted athlete, who’s in super-phenomenal physical condition. He committed to the work and the training with such enthusiasm and dedication. I fancy myself a hard worker, and I was so impressed with this guy. I just continue to be more impressed with him, the longer that I work with him. I really think the sky is the limit for this actor. There’s nothing that this guy can’t accomplish in this business.

LEIGHT: The finale is Holt and Billy. I think it’s worth it to point out that most of our fight scenes were shot in one day. With that one, we had the luxury of actually two days. It’s amazing what these guys do, in that amount of time. It’s 14-hour days of them just going at it. It’s not the way film scenes are shot in movies. We just don’t have the time. They have to hit their mark.


Holt, what makes working with Warren different, in terms of how you guys prepare?

McCALLANY: The greatest thing that any actor can ever hope for is to have good writing and have very bright, very talented writers who are passionate about the stories that they want to tell, and who are interested enough in you, as an actor, to try to understand what makes you tick and create stories that you’ll really be able to do justice to. I’m a very, very lucky guy to be working with Warren. He’s definitely the most talented writer that I’ve worked with, and he’s also one of the nicest guys in the business. Let’s be candid, there are many times in the television business, when the actor is reading a script and thinking, “Oh, my god, what am I going to do with this?” Sometimes you have to try to make lemonade out of lemons. You try to find a way to elevate the material. It can be very difficult for writers in TV to continue to deliver great scripts, as the seasons go on and on and on. Everybody is under a lot of pressure and nobody has enough time. You have to keep working at such a fast pace and sometimes things don’t really come out very well, and you’ve got to make the best of it. I’m not in that situation here. And, it’s not just great writing for Lights Leary. It’s great writing for the entire cast, including Lights’ children. We’re very lucky. Warren and his team are very experienced and very, very good at what they do. It makes my job a lot easier. I just have to learn my lines and show up.


Warren, how important has it been to you, to have this realistic portrayal of the town in the series?

LEIGHT: I think sense of place is very important. Actually, when I took over In Treatment, one of the first things I did in Season 2 was move Gabriel Byrne’s practice and his character to Brooklyn because I really didn’t know where Season 1 took place and it bugged me a bit. I need to know where I am, before I can start writing. I need to have a sense of place. I think the original pilot was set in Connecticut, and I moved it to Bayonne when we reworked it. Bayonne has history and it’s a tough, working-class neighborhood that’s isolated from the rest of the world. It’s cut off from a lot of the culture blessings of the New York/New Jersey area. It’s surrounded by highway and dirty water, and people don’t move in and out of Bayonne that often or that easily. I like the tribal quality of that. I don’t believe people can shoot Toronto for New York, but you can shoot Astoria for Bayonne, and we did. We choose every location with extreme care. To me, you learn a lot about class and culture from a place. Just the exterior of Pops’ (Stacy Keach) house tells us a huge amount. There’s not much else around Lights’ house. It’s a big house and a lot of land. So, I like setting up the world of Bayonne, 40 miles away. That’s a whole other universe that Lights is not as comfortable in.


Holt, being a boxing enthusiast for a long time, have you gotten feedback from boxers about this show?

McCALLANY: One of the most gratifying things to me, about this whole experience, was that the real fighters have really embraced the show. A lot of the real guys really like the show a lot. Lennox Lewis wants to come on. Sugar Ray Leonard wants to come on. Gerry Cooney brings it up to me, every time I see him. So, if that’s any indication of what they think of the show, they not only love the show, but they’d love to come work with us and do anything.

LEIGHT: A couple of the guys have said, “Thanks for telling our story.” People think we all know boxers, from the moment they step into the ring until the end of the fight. But, these guys live full lives and they’re not brutes. They’re complicated guys with gentle sides and tough lives and no union protection, and they’re in with a den of thieves. We try to tell that story, as realistically as we can. A number of guys have said, “Thanks for showing more than what they usually show,” which we take some pride in.


With the recent success of The Fighter, have you noticed an increase in awareness about the show?

LEIGHT: I would hesitate to say it drove people to us. The movie and the TV show have existed in parallel universes. I remember being very anxious when I saw the promo for the movie in the early Fall. I thought, “Is this show going to somehow get confused with that, or are people going to feel like that satiates their appetite and not realize this show is about more than just boxing?” There was a sense that maybe something was going to pop because of it, and there were a couple of boxing documentaries, but I don’t think we benefitted from that movie coming out when it did. I don’t think it made people want to see our show more. Maybe it compartmentalized an audience or satiated some people, but it certainly didn’t give us a bump that we all might have hoped for.


McCALLANY: I’ve known David O. Russell and Mark Wahlberg for a long time. I did a movie called Three Kings with them, back in the ‘90s. I know Mickey Ward really well because we’re on the same charity together and we sit next to each other, every year, at the big annual dinner. I’ve followed his career. I was really rooting for them. I like those guys very much, and I’m happy for their success, but I will confess to you that there were several occasions, particularly in the early stages, when the show was first coming up, where people would come up to me in restaurants or airports and say, “Hey, you’re that guy from The Fighter,” and I’d say, “No, I’m from Lights Out, the boxing television show. It’s on FX, every Tuesday night at 10.” I think that there was some confusion. Obviously, there’s a sophisticated portion of the audience that does understand, but I think that there was a little bit of that going on. I’m very happy for Micky, and I’m very happy for the sport of boxing, but now that that film has subsided a bit in the public consciousness, hopefully we won’t. In a world where we get to come back for additional seasons, there will no longer be any confusion in anybody’s mind. I love what they did, but I also love the fact that, with our show, we’re going to have the opportunity to explore this world in much greater detail, over a much longer period of time.

lights_out_fx_tv_series_image_01Holt, has your vision of Lights changed throughout the development of your character and the series?

McCALLANY: As an actor, you very rarely have the experience of picking up a script and getting a few pages into it and realizing that what you’re holding in your hands is not just a role on a TV show, but it’s one of those special parts that comes along, once or twice in a career. If you’re lucky, you get an opportunity to do something really memorable and to be part of one of those rare shows that passes into that special category. I understood, right away, that this was something that I had been waiting for and hoping for, for many, many years, and it’s proven to be that and more. As time has gone on and I’ve had the opportunity to work with Warren [Leight] and the other writers, great actors and directors, the experience has just gotten better. My experience on the show continued to improve, and my desire to play this part and to work with these people just continued to grow, throughout that whole time, too.

What’s your inspiration for playing a guy that’s not a real scumbag, and who’s really trying to do what’s right?

McCALLANY: I looked at the lives of certain boxers that it seemed to me have been unable to reconcile themselves with certain losses that they had, that haunted them and made them bitter. I knew we were going to follow this guy around and really get to know this character well. I think it’s a more interesting choice for me, as an actor and for the audience, if he’s fun to be around and he’s able to put behind him the bitterness about the loss. I’m a big fan of Smokin’ Joe Frazier, and I have been for 30 years. I just think that he’s one of the nicest guys that you’ll ever meet, but there’s no question that Joe is still haunted by all of the controversy that surrounded his fights with Mohammad Ali. I didn’t want to play that. Don’t get me wrong, nobody wants to go out on a loss, especially when you feel like you won the fight. It’s not how Lights wanted to finish his career, but there was something else in his life that was more important to him than boxing, and that was his family. Once I decided that I was going to play a character for whom his family was the most important thing in the world, then it was possible for him to move on with his life and try to get over those feelings. He also had to get passed the need for the adulation and the spotlight, and all the things that fighters sometimes miss when they go into retirement.

The tag line for Season 1 was, “Everyone loves an underdog.”  If there is a second season, what would the tag line be? What would Season 2 look like?

LEIGHT: I don’t have a tag line, but wait a couple weeks. I think what we’re talking about for the second season, in broad strokes, is that once you get there, now what? I guess it would be, “Now what?”  What the hell comes next for this guy? I don’t want to say too much because I don’t want to spoil the finale, but what happens to a guy, even though he’s entered the boxing world, it’s not like he’s set. An average boxer takes home less than the average. The take home is probably less than 15%. Some of the guys we’ve talked to said they took home $7,000 of a $100,000 purse. So, Lights is not completely out of the hole that he was in. He’s also aware that he’s made a couple of deals with devils, in order to get to where he does, at the end of the season. He’s in deep with some bad guys, as the season ends. It’s always interesting to see what happens to the rest of your family, when your status changes. When I was brought in, there was a pilot that wasn’t fully successful, and no one knew where the season would go. Now everyone goes, “Well, this season was obvious.” With Season 2, if we do it right, about mid-way through, everybody will go, “Well, this was obvious.” But, right now, it’s about getting to a Season 2. We’ve also talked a little bit about the possibility of introducing MMA into Season 2, and that’s an interesting place for the show to go. Lights’ status amongst boxers changes, as the season goes on, and that’s another place we would think about going.

Warren, if there is a Season 2, will you bring Bas Rutten and Eamonn Walker back, in any capacity?

LEIGHT: Yes. By the time we got there, we’d already figured out his arc. But, I have plans for Season 2. I remain optimistic. If there’s a Season 2, we will invite Eamonn back. There’s a clear role for Eamonn in Season 2. And, I’d take any chance I could get with Bas. Just watching him beat the shit out of Pablo Schreiber was thrilling.

McCALLANY: Both of those guys really brought a lot to the parts that they played this season. The reaction to Eamonn Walker’s performance was so positive. People just loved that character and our relationship. We worked so beautifully together. And, Bas is an exciting guy. He’s an exciting athlete and actor and, whenever he’s on film, you’ve got to watch him. Personally, I would love to work with those guys again.