There are few “real” movie stars out in Hollywood. Great actors lie around every corner, but can a chiseled man like Brad Pitt play a run-of-the-mill guy from New Jersey without the audience thinking, “hey, it’s Brad Pitt!” Not quite.
Win Win, the latest film from director Tom McCarthy to premiere at Sundance, strives for the inherent comedy and drama of the real world and pulls it off with the help of two down to Earth A-List actors: Paul Giamatti and Amy Ryan. In the film, Giamatti, star of Cinderella Man and Sideways, and Ryan, recently seen in Gone Baby Gone and The Office, play husband and wife making ends meet, helping a down-on-their-luck wrestling team get it together and reminding each other that, hey, they’re in love. Not an easy task – so we asked the duo how they pulled it off:
You seem perfectly suited for your role in this film – was it something Tom [McCarthy, director] wrote for you specifically?
I don’t know if he wrote with me in mind. I’ve known him about 20 years. We were in school together at Yale drama school. He was in a class behind me and I never worked with him in any way. So we were just buddies and a friend of mine for 20 years. I always talked with him about doing something. And he came to me with this that was almost done. Then he said I have this thing and when I’m done I want you to read it. I read it and not too long after it came together.
How does bringing your character Mike in Win Win to life compare to working on something like John Adams, that’s rooted in history. I imagine there isn’t as much source material to play a lawyer from Jersey.
There’s some extent drawn from life. Tom wrote this with a guy name Joe Tabone, who is an elder character. So I got to hang out with him and he was a resource. But mostly this isn’t a movie where I need to do a big backstory. I need to just be open to Tom helping me find this character.
My favorite dynamic in the movie is between you and Amy. How much work did the two of you do to become a realistic couple?
She’s amazing. We did rehearse and it was great. Amy is one of those people though. We almost never talked about anything. We paled around but never talked about the characters. But when we did it it just seemed to work. So it was just like both of us were we don’t need to talk about this. This is just a portrait of a good marriage. There will be certain marriages where they’re happy and she’ll forgive him. And some people will be like, ‘oh that’s really nice.’ Someone pointed out to me that we only kiss one and its a peck on the cheek.
How well-versed were you in the world of wrestling? [Win Win co-star] Bobby Cannavale mentioned that he visited a Rhode Island high school and wrestled the kids.
That’s creepy. Bobby is creepy [laughs]. I knew a bit about it, I did a little in high school but didn’t last. It was not wildly unfamiliar to me and part of the attraction was I thought this is such a weird culture. And I remember the guys I knew who wrestled and I thought to accurately to depict this on screen would be fun to get all that specificity on screen would be great.
In Win Win, your character is real as real can be – is it difficult embodying that type of character versus something outrageous or based on existing resources? How do you prepare to play “real?”
A lot of it is checking your ego at the door at your costume fitting, that’s a big step [laughs]. No, I come not far from this world, so I know these people well. I thought of a good girlfriend of mine, the way she approaches things. She has this bulldog quality about her. It was somewhat familiar to me and in preparation we had a lot of time and rehearsal, a lot of fleshing out the script. That was a big part of the process and even when we were in the middle of production, still he was like, ‘I’m thinking of this scene, let me email you a different version.’
This is your young co-star Alex, who is an actual Ohio state wrestling champ, it’s his first movie. Were you able to bestow some actorly wisdom upon him (since I’m assuming he didn’t need any help with his choke hold).
If he asked I did. He’s a wonderful and open minded sweetheart and he would ask. One of our producers is also an acting coach who worked with him a lot and Tom just got this beautiful performance out of him with patience. And having the time to do a few takes more till he got it.
You’ve had so many diverse roles in your career, both comedy to drama. How do you find a balance between the two? Especially in a film like Win Win where you’re constantly shifting tones.
A lot of this with this particular movie was trusting Tom, because…there was this nickname for the character on set. They kept calling me ‘The Pounder.’ He was like ‘Pound him harder, be harder.’ I was like, ‘I’m going to come up with this crazy shrew,’ and he’s like, ‘no, no, no, trust me, you can go harder.’ And I did have to trust Tom because those are the moments that work. They are comic reliefs in some ways, her reactions to things. But I have to say I wasn’t so sure in the beginning. My inclination was to soften her up a bit, but you can’t do it halfassed. I’m glad tom pushed me.
What kind of relationship did you have with Paul? Were you able to talk a lot about your roles or was it more about distancing yourself?
Oh no, we were around a lot. He’s so easy going. Honestly there was a lot of sophomore humor. He’s like me. You get really silly on those long days and there were probably a few fart jokes. It’s not sophisticated the whole way.
Now that you’ve conquered Sundance, what is next for you?
I don’t have anything coming up next. Just The Office. I’m finishing up the last few episodes as Michael Scott leaves Dunder Mifflin.