Alex Shaffer was a nationally-ranked high school wrestler when he decided to try out for the role of Kyle, a troubled kid from a dysfunctional family, in Win Win. Shaffer had never acted professionally before, but he went to the casting call anyway knowing it was a once in a lifetime opportunity. And fortunately for Shaffer, writer/director Tom McCarthy took a chance and cast the newcomer to acting in one of the film's key roles.
"I did see some actors for a couple of days, and some really talented young actors. But there was a rawness to it that I thought I might capture with a non-actor, and I thought the script as written really lent itself to that. So, was it a gamble? Absolutely. Were we all willing to take it, including the studio? Kudos to Fox Searchlight, yeah," said McCarthy. "He came in and he was good. He got a lot better, so we had to allow for that."
Shaffer's family and friends have been really supportive about his venture into the world of acting, and now the New Jersey wrestling champ has caught the acting bug. Catching up with him during the promotional tour for Win Win, Shaffer talked landing the role and life on the set with Tom McCarthy.
Exclusive Alex Shaffer Win Win Interview
Is it a bit surreal being a high school student and then all of a sudden the star of a buzzed-about movie?
Alex Shaffer: "Yeah, I guess it is kind of weird. I never expected myself to be sitting here in this wonderful chair right now in San Diego with beautiful sunlight. You know what? This all just happened so fast, it's kind of a crazy ride."
When you signed on, were you expecting this reception to the film?
Alex Shaffer: "I did not expect this. Not at all. I did not expect the reviews and all that. I never expected any of that. I was thinking...my honest first opinion of the movie was that I thought it was going to go straight to DVD. I had no idea that it was going to be like this really good, really big movie. Tom set me up with a good friend of his, Jackie Brogan, she was my acting coach and I remember asking her, I was like, 'So, is this going to go straight to DVD?' And she was like, 'No, I think it's going to be in theaters, Alex.'"
Did you ever tell Tom you thought it was going to go straight to DVD?
Alex Shaffer: "Yeah. Tom's like, 'Thanks for having confidence in me.' We joked a lot about that."
So how did you land the role? What did you do that no one else did?
Alex Shaffer: "Well, I don't know. I guess I was just an interesting fella. My friend texted me and told me to come in for the audition. At first I was like, 'Nah.' Then he told me it was a once in a lifetime experience, and that really got to me - the fact that yes, this is a once in a lifetime experience and I will never get this chance again. I came in and auditioned for it, and I actually came in with the bleached blonde hair, so I guess that may have helped. I remember when I came to my first audition, I'm sitting there with bleached blonde hair, a purple shirt on, and pajama pants, and there's kids next to me with shaved heads and varsity jackets. I was like, 'I am not going to get this role.' But I guess they liked that."
Did Tom tell you the bleached blonde hair is what did it for him?
Alex Shaffer: "I don't necessarily know, but I know he did like it."
Are you completely finished with wrestling?
Alex Shaffer: "Yeah, I'm done. It's something I'll always love. I mean I love wrestling so much I actually went and watched regionals this year and I watched state finals. It was really nice to see it again, but it's something I could do without. I really enjoy acting."
Did the movie cut short your season, or were you already done?
Alex Shaffer: "Oh no, I was not going to let the movie cut short my season. There was no frigging way. No, it didn't. Like, actually, right after my last match I went to the city, got my hair re-bleached, and got ready for the movie. I think a couple days after that it was my first day on set."
Did you come up with a backstory for your character?
Alex Shaffer: "Tom did tell me some backstory, but I also created it in my own way. I just thought about how you don't know how many times this kid has come home to his mother passed out with a needle in her arm or something, or saw guys all around her and thought she was dead. You don't know what this kid has gone through. I really just thought about all that and put it in my mind when I was acting."
How difficult was it being the straight man to Bobby Cannavale, Jeffrey Tambor and Paul Giamatti?
Alex Shaffer: "I don't really know. It's not something I worked on or anything. It was just something I kind of just did. Tom wrote the character so well, and the fact that he did that made it so easy for me."
"There are so many times Jeffrey would make me hysterically laugh, or Bobby made me hysterically laugh. It was really fun working with them. They were so funny."
Your wrestling style is totally different than Kyle's style, right?
Alex Shaffer: "We have similar moves in our repertoire, but our styles are different. It's not complex. To change a style isn't so complex in wrestling. The only difference between me and Kyle really is the fact that Kyle's so much more aggressive than I normally am. When I normally wrestle, I like to put on a show. Kyle likes to win. He just likes to win and kind of wrestles for himself. When, for me, I wrestle for myself but I also wrestle for other people because I like for people to watch me. I like for people to say, 'Wow, I can't believe he just did that.'"
"My style was always very interesting. My coaches always said that I never had a boring match. So, that's nice to hear. I guess I really just like to entertain. It's funny, it's so similar to acting. I like to impress people. I like to put on a show, and I want people to watch me act now and say, 'Wow, he's a good actor,' like they could when I wrestled."
Why is it that we don't get into wrestling as much as other high school sports?
Alex Shaffer: "You know what? If you don't really know the sport, I guess it's kind of hard to watch and say, 'Wait, how did he get points right there?' It's also like the sport that isn't big like baseball and basketball, and all the other sports. But what's funny is that people actually enjoy...from what my friends have said that they enjoyed watching wrestling more than they do watching basketball or baseball, but they just don't get it."
Kyle gets hit in the head to get pumped up. Tell them that there's not somebody who really likes that?
Alex Shaffer: "My coaches never did that to me, but there are coaches who do do that. Maybe some kids have problems with their nerves and it wakes them up and gets them into the match. I really don't know. Or, you know, it's kind of to get you psyched maybe. I don't know, but a lot of coaches do do it."
It looked like Paul Giamatti was actually landing those blows.
Alex Shaffer: "Oh, he was. 'Boom,' he would smack me. But what could I do? It's Paul hitting me in the head and it's also a scene, so I couldn't turn around and be like, 'Dude...'"
Did you ever get hurt during filming?
Alex Shaffer: "I never actually got hurt. But I did get a very, very, very sore many times. Many times I'd wake up the next morning and groan, and I'd have to go wrestle again. I was not necessarily hurt but very sore."
Tom McCarthy wrestled in high school so he knows the character, but he's not a teenage boy. How good was his writing in capturing a teenager?
Alex Shaffer: "It was fantastic. I don't necessarily have friends that are exactly like Kyle and I'm glad that I don't because that'd be sad. What that kid has been through, I wouldn't want anybody to go through. I'm glad I never had a life like that. But, I know kids that have a similar life like Kyle's and, yeah, Tom captured it really well and he wrote it really well. Their expressions are similar to what Kyle does. The way he talks is similar to how kids who have that kind of life would talk. He did a really good job with it."
It's rated R but it seems like it's a movie that teenagers should see. Do you think so?
Alex Shaffer: "Yeah, I really do think so especially because wrestling is in it. 'Let's go watch wresting! Let's learn about the sport a little bit.' Wrestlers don't have movies. Football players have all those football movies, baseball players have all those baseball movies. Wrestlers have nothing except for Vision Quest, so now wrestlers actually may have something to watch, I feel."
Working with this cast, who would you turn to if you had a question?
Alex Shaffer: "Tom. If I ever had a question or any problems, I felt very comfortable with him. I had interesting relationships with Bobby and Amy [Ryan] and Paul - they weren't the type of mentor relationships where I'd ask them how to do things. Any time I normally had a question I'd ask Tom, because he's an actor and a director so he knew so much about everything. He just helped so much, and I was very thankful for him."
What do you think ultimately happens to Kyle?
Alex Shaffer: "I think he stays with them, becomes a state champ and goes to college. I think he ends up having a really nice life. I think he wound up happy."
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Win Win opened in theaters on March 18, 2011.