Q & A: Holt McCallany of ‘Lights Out’

Holt McCallany, the star of FX's boxing drama, Light's Out, talks about his long career, acting and how he stays in shape (and its not fun!)

FX has another great show on their hands in the new boxing drama, Lights Out.

The show stars veteran character actor Holt McCallany as Patrick “Lights” Leary, an aging former heavyweight champion of the world. Holt’s been acting for 20 years working with some of the best directors around; David Fincher, David O. Russell, Lawrence Kasdan, Brian De Palma. His films have included Three Kings, Fight Club and many others.

This is his first opportunity at headlining a show and I have to say, he is absolutely wonderful.

I had a chance to speak to Holt and executive producer Warren Leight on a conference call where they talked about the show, his training regimen and his advice to actors.

For the full interview, click the audio link above or download from iTunes.

Holt, how did you get involved?  What was it about the role that said, “I must do this?”

Holt 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 and Rocky and Body and Soul and Fat City, and more obscure movies, like I love a movie called The Set-Up by Robert Wise.  Even more recent things 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 Mark.

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, that this was an opportunity to do something very special.  This was one of those tour de force parts that very, very rarely comes along and that it was also in a milieu that I love, in a world that I love, and in a world that I had spent time in.

I had done a couple of boxing films and I 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, 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, really, really lucky, 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 thank my lucky stars the day that I was chosen for this part.

I greatly enjoyed Stacy Keach in the show.  To me he’s just one of those iconic veteran actors that has been in so many things but he’s so good.  I’m so glad that you used him as your father, as the patriarch of the Leary family.  I was wondering if you could talk of any anecdotes about, I know he’s funny, if you had any great anecdotes about Stacy.

Holt 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 and he’s just done everything.

Warren Leight: And he’s done some cheesy work when he had to too.  He’s had a real actor’s life.

Holt McCallany: Right.  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.  So 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, and I learn from him every time we work together.

Warren 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, in some ways each of them had a special scene with Stacy that’s one of their best moments of the year.  He’s one of those guys.  I remember the last day we were shooting, we were shooting at Hellgate Studios, which is an aptly named studio at the base of the Triboro Bridge in Queens, and Stacy’s call time was 3:00 a.m. Saturday because we had lost control of the week, it was the finale and the schedule had slipped.  That’s never a good sign when you’re calling someone to work at 3:00 a.m., and it was 95 degrees, we had no air conditioning in that gym and there’s flies all over the place.  It’s basically saying come to Purgatory for the night.

And his back was out because the preceding three days we had been doing fight scenes and there was a lot of motion and movement, and he was supposed to do a scene where he was shadow boxing in the ring with Holt, father and son doing a little shadow boxing moment, and he could barely move.  I just said, “Look, Stacy, we’ll do something else.”  He said, “Well, let me give it a try.”  Now it’s hard, he had to be assisted and it was just a bad, tough night.

He gets into the ring, and Norberto Barba, the director, yells, “Action,” and he stands himself up with great effort and then starts shadow boxing like he’s 29 and Norberto yells, “Cut.”  So in that moment he was no longer in pain, he was no longer our patriarch, he was like he was in Fat City.  Norberto yelled, “Cut,” and it clearly had taken everything out of him and Norberto of course being a classic director wants six more takes and I was like, “One more, Norberto,” but when you yell, “Action,” everything else goes away and he’s the most present actor you’ve ever worked with.  He’s just a delight.

Also when he came in to audition Holt later told me, he whispered to Holt, “Which is the guy I have to play to?”  He’s still worried about getting a job, which is almost obscene at this point, but 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, or this guy’s had the life.  Also, just about every actor or actress who came to our set he had done a play with, a movie with, a TV show with, or had slept with.  He was just a very social guy.  Is that about right, Holt?

Holt McCallany: It is.  Just to add something to what Warren just said, he talked about him being one of the most present actors that you’ll ever meet.  He’s also—and this is something that I really admire about Stacy—he’s also one of the most economical.  He does exactly what you need to do and it’s very clear and it’s very 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 he 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.

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?  How many more fights do you think Patrick “Lights” Leary has left in him?

Holt McCallany: I would say that the wonderful thing, 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.  So 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, I think it’s really, really great that I’m getting to play a world champion athlete.  Because it’s just going to keep me in that place where you think like a boxer and you behave like a boxer and you try to live your life that way, being in the gym all the time, 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.  And so how many more fights can I have?  I think I’ve got a lot of fights left in me.  But that will be for Warren and the writers to decide.

Holt, obviously to get ready for a role like this, the boxing end of things, you’ve got to get in the gym and do it, but I think you captured the behind the scenes stuff, the stuff that goes on in the gyms that we may not see showing up in the newspaper the next day.  What’s the research involved for you to get to that point where you’ve got the trust of these guys in the gym and they’re telling you their stories and then you put it out to the world in Lights Out?

Holt McCallany: Well, I think that, as I’ve said before in a couple of interviews, if you’re going to walk out in front of the cameras, in front of millions of people, and you’re going to play the heavyweight champion of the world, you’ve got to ask yourself, “What did you ever do in your life that you should be permitted to have that honor?  Why should people believe you?  Why should you be considered credible?”  There are actors that have played world champion fighters and have done it very successfully.  We talked about a couple of those films.  Obviously, Robert De Niro played a world champion fighter very successfully, I think Sylvester Stallone played it very successfully, and I think my friend, Mark Wahlberg, recently did it successfully.  So you’re trying to find your way into that pantheon of guys.

So every actor’s journey is going to be a little bit different.  Inevitably, it’s going to involve a lot of boxing.  For me, my thing was like, look, I’m going to try and spend my time and get my training from the absolute best guys that are available.  So for example for the pilot I trained with my friend, Teddy Atlas, whom I had played in a movie for HBO back in the ’90s called Tyson about Mike Tyson.  Teddy’s one of the best trainers in America.

And so I went to Gleason’s Gym and I started training with former Welterweight Champion, Mark Breland.  When you do that, what you find about the boxing community is that they’ll embrace you.  It’s not like trying to gain access to the NBA.  It’s a different landscape.  You can walk in and they look at you and they take your measure and they decide how they feel about you, and if they like you and they feel like you have the right attitude and your heart’s in the right place and they see how hard you’re working, they open up to you.  I learned an awful lot from those guys that I just mentioned, and from, I could give you a list of other guys too that I learned a lot from.

How important was it for you to not make “Lights” to be Superman, that, yes, he was a great athlete, great champion, but he was also human?  Because a lot of people think that these guys shoot out of the sky and they are who they are and they’re supermen and not fallible and all those things, how important was it for you to get across that these guys are human as well?

Holt McCallany: It’s a great question.  You try to create a character; you try to develop an identity as a fighter inside the ring, but also outside the ring.  Who is this character and how does that inform how he does what he does?  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.  So it would be preposterous for me to make any kind of effort in that area.  Who are the guys who have my physicality, who I can emulate, who I can look at and maybe take something from their fighting style.

You’re watching tapes and you’re kind of becoming a student of the sport, a historian of the sport, and trying to combine certain elements and find things in the gym and what works for me, what kind of a guy is he.  Is he a pressure fighter who comes across the ring, who tries to cut the ring off, tries to trap you in the corner, throws a lot of …, who is the guy and why does he fight the way that he fights?  You have to really think about these things and you have to look at a lot of … and then slowly you start to realize, okay, here’s a style that works for me, that complements my physicality, that’s going to be believable but also be compelling for the audience and for the camera.

Can you share any stories from the set and perhaps elaborate a bit on your fight scenes?

Warren Leight: We tend to shoot these fight scenes in a day or two days tops while we’re picking up all kinds of other scenes.  One of the many reasons nobody’s ever tried to do a boxing, or I guess there have been a few attempts at boxing TV shows, but one of the things that makes it harder is we’re shooting the episode in seven days whether or not there’s a big boxing match.  And fight movies, I imagine Raging Bull had a little more time to plan out their fights and to do their choreography and their editing, these guys would have put in a 16 hour day in the ring because we went to … we went to actual venues but you can’t really afford to rent them for a week.  Our budget doesn’t allow spending a week shooting a few scenes for an episode.  So these guys would have to get it all done in one day while doing other scenes and while getting prosthetics attached and stuff.

I remember at the end of one 14 hour day we went and then turned around the camera to get the audience reaction shots for the fight.  Holt stayed in the ring and continued to mime the fight blow-for-blow so that the audience members, his wife, Bill Irwin and the different characters knew what they were watching and where to look.  I thought that was actually almost insane.  The courtesy is when they turn the camera around you stay and give the other actor your lines, and in this case Holt stayed and gave the other characters the entire fight over and over and over again.  So he does have the heart of a warrior.  It helps.

In the spirit of the underdog I’ve always looked to your work in films, Holt, is this guy one of those great character actors or is he going to get his chance to be leading man, at least something that gets a high profile?  I wasn’t sure, because you are very good with limited screen time.  You do a very good job of sticking out, but it was awesome to see you get this opportunity and just jump with it.  What was it like knowing that you’re in almost every scene, you’re front and center?  This is a different world for you.

Holt McCallany: You know what, it sure is.  As awesome as it may be for everyone else; it’s more awesome for me, I can promise you that.  Having had both experiences, having had the 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 and David O. Russell and Lawrence Kasdan and 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 or George Clooney or Robert De Niro, whoever it may be, and 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, I don’t know, it might have worked out differently.  I was really ready for this.  What can I tell you, man?  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.

Holt, when you’re working on the set for like 12, 15 hours a day and you’re tired, how difficult it is to keep in shape?

Holt McCallany: It’s a real challenge.  What you have to do is you have to try to live kind of a Spartan existence and you’re going primarily from the set to your house and the only place that you go other than that is to the gym.  So 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 your family, they 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 and stay in shape.  Because if you’re going to play a champion athlete, people expect you to look a certain way and also you have to have the kind of stamina to be able to continue to perform.  We did a lot of boxing on our show.  It’s not just big fights, but we have a lot of scenes where there are either sparring sequences or different kinds of training sequences, running, so in virtually every episode there’s different physical stuff that you’re doing.  So you have to always be thinking what can I do to stay in top shape and what are the things that I need to sacrifice because they won’t help me to stay in top shape.

What’s your advice to actors?

Holt McCallany: I can answer this question very succinctly, I think.  My first acting teacher in New York, whom I still study with sometimes, is a very talented guy named Harold Guskin, who’s also James Gandolfini’s acting teacher and Glenn Close and Kevin Kline, and the list goes on and on, really, really gifted people that he works with.  I remember my very first day studying with Harold he said, “I’m going to tell you two things today, and if you remember these two things for the rest of your career these things will help you very much.”  I said, “Okay.”

He said, “The first one is this:  talent will win out in the end.  You have to believe that.”  Orson Welles used to talk about that.  An actor has to be an optimist.  An actor has to have hope.  Because if you sit around contemplating the odds against you and how the union has 95% unemployment, if you start thinking about those things you’re dead because you’re going to undermine your self-confidence and I think it’s largely about confidence and about believing in yourself and about believing that you will get an opportunity.

The last thing that he said to me was he said, “Don’t worry about being in with the in crowd.  Just the fact that you do what you do if you do it well puts you in.”  So it’s not about making sure that you show up at the right parties or that you shake the right hands at premieres, it’s about doing everything that you can do to be the best actor that you can be.  And if you do that, then you’ve got a chance.

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