SXSW Interview: Win Win’s Alex Shaffer: “It’s just crazy how this whole thing worked out”
Last year, Alex Shaffer was getting ready to wrestle for his New Jersey high school in the state championship. While, at the same time, he was auditioning for a lead role in Tom McCarthy’s new film, Win Win.
Several weeks later, he was the state wrestling champ and acting with Paul Giamatti, Amy Ryan and Melanie Lynskey.
Alex had never acted before, except for a 6th grade production of Pirates of Penzance, but with McCarthy guiding him, he turns in an incredibly wonderful performance.
I talked to Alex about how he almost didn’t audition for the part, working with Paul Giamatti and how he handled a particularily intense scene with Lynskey.
For the full interview, click the audio link above or download it from iTunes
How did you get the part?
Alex Shaffer: Well, it started out with an article in the newspaper for this movie and my friend texted me, “You should audition for this.” My initial response is like, “No! It’s wrestling season. I’m focusing on wrestling.” I didn’t want to do that. And he’s like, “No, it’s a once in a lifetime opportunity.” That kinda got to me. I was really thinking about it. Like, yeah, it really is a once in a lifetime opportunity to be in a movie and I may never get this opportunity again, so I ended up auditioning for it and I came in 7 or 8 more times and finally got the part.
So, are you as good of a wrestler as a Kyle in the movie?
Alex Shaffer: Yeah, I’m pretty good, I mean I was, yeah it’s pretty good, I end up winning states.
When you were doing the wrestling scenes, how many takes would you have to do for the take downs?
Alex Shaffer: You know what they’re fun, but yeah we have to take a lot of takes. I remember that night I came home I was like, “Aaahhh…just sore!”
What about the hair? Was that written into the script?
Alex Shaffer: No, that was not written into to the script. No, I came for the first audition with bleach blond hair and I remember there’s like kids sitting next to me, and they had like varsity jackets, shaved heads. They just looked like typical Kyle bad ass and I remember thinking, “I’m not gonna get this part.” Because I’m sitting there in a purple flannel, pajama pants and this bleach blonde hair, I just look like a complete goofball.
Have you acted before?
Alex Shaffer: Not necessarily, I did Pirates of Penzance in 6th grade but that was basically it. And then coming into the movie, I was taking an acting class. Not like an acting class outside of school, it was an in-school acting class, exploring theatre. But that was kinda sketchy, I kinda took it to get out of other classes.
It was something I enjoyed. I was like,”Hmm, I’ll take acting classes, that’ll be fun.” ‘Cause I’m loud and obnoxious. Acting was never really on my mind for something that I was gonna do in the future, but it was something I enjoyed doing. And it’s just crazy how this whole thing worked out.
So you said you went from the first audition and then like 7 to 8 auditions later?
Alex Shaffer: Yeah.
What was the process? Did it get more and more intense as it went on?
Alex Shaffer: Yeah, it definitely got more and more intense as it got on and I actually ended up having a reading with like Paul and Amy and Bobby before I actually got the part.
Your final audition, what was that like? Just you reading with the rest of the cast?
Alex Shaffer: I remember, probably around the 7th or 6th audition I was just like, “Dad, like, I can’t come in anymore, I got it like focus on wrestling. I gotta win states.” I remember thinking like, could we tell them like we can’t come in anymore? But I ended up… I kept coming in and I’m glad I did ‘cause I got the part.
You were working with like some really great actors, and Tom is great aw well, were you ever nervous?
Alex Schaffer: You know what, going into it, I really wasn’t that nervous. I mean, I just came off of the wrestling season, I was wrestling so much that when I came to this whole acting world, it wasn’t like big thing for me. And my mind was still set on wrestling, my whole life was still set on wrestling. This was just something I was gonna do and then I was gonna go back to wrestling. So going into it, I kinda looked at it as something that was just gonna be fun. It was a lot of fun, I really enjoyed it and now looking back I wish I took more advantage of the situation and like trying to learn more.
Did you have an acting coach on set?
Alex Schaffer: I never had an acting coach on set but I did have an acting coach that I would see weekends. Yeah, and she help me out so much, Jackie Brogan. I couldn’t have done any of these without her.
What do you think she helped you with?
Alex Schaffer: One thing that she always said to me that really got to me was that I needed to become the character. That’s like her style of acting, that’s how she teaches that you wanna become the character and that was great for me. I really used that, and I really tried to do that and I really tried to become Kyle.
And one thing that I always got in my mind was that you wanna think of what the character has gone through. Not just what he’s doing at that point but like what he was doing a week ago, two weeks ago, three weeks ago, a year ago. You just want to think about that and I did and I really thought about how bad Kyle’s life must have been. I mean, there’s no telling how much times he’s come home to seeing his mom with this needle stuck in her arm or seeing her passed out on the floor. Just bad stuff like that so I really just got that in my mind.
I read in an interview that the first week you guys were filming, Tom shot most of the scenes where you were just standing there, not really talking a lot. Did that help you?
Alex Schaffer: I never even realized that. I never realized that those were my first type of scenes. It’s funny that Tom did that. He never told me about that either.
I spoiled it for you.
Alex Schaffer: Yeah, but I guess it did help.
A lot of actors, they wake up the next morning and memorize their scenes. Did you have the whole script memorized prior to the filming?
Alex Schaffer: No, I did not. [laughs] I was very bad at memorizing, and I would come in and I’d get the little sides for that day and I’m like, “What are they?” But I tried. I tired to memorize a lot of the scenes but I failed.
It was not as hard as I thought, that’s one thing I always was worried about, “I’m not gonna know my lines, I’m gonna ruin it, and everybody’s gonna be like, what’s wrong with this kid?” But it always seem to end up working out
You have one scene in the movie where you attack Melanie Lynskey, your mom?
Alex Schaffer: Oh yes. That was a very, very challenging scene. I was very uncomfortable doing it but, I mean we ended up getting through it and that scene actually did a lot of takes.
Alex Schaffer: Yeah, because, I’ve never acted before and it was very uncomfortable situation for me and it wasn’t wrong, it wasn’t like a wrong situation to put me and I mean, it’s acting. It was something I’m glad that I did ‘cause I think now I’m used to getting into that angry state or being able to physically touch someone when you’re that angry.
How did either Melanie or Tom help you do that scene?
Alex Schaffer: Melanie was great. I mean she was like literally do whatever you want it’s cool. She was very cool with it, and she made me feel very comfortable. And Tom helped me as well, I mean every take he’d come in, talk to me, he’d say, “Why don’t you try it like this, why don’t you try like that?” He really helped me with that scene, I don’t know what I would have done that night.
Are you gonna stick with acting?
Alex Shaffer: Oh yeah, I’m gonna stick with acting. I love it.
As an added bonus, I found video of Alex wrestling and winning the state championship: