Last week, FX premiered their new drama Lights Out to major critical acclaim. The show is a perfect blend of the hard hitting story telling FX is so well known for, and the big bad world of sports.
I had the opportunity to partake in a conversation with show runner Warren Leight and “Lights” Leary himself, actor Holt McCallany. They had a lot to say about getting ready for the show, the uphill battle the production went through and how the show reflects the real word of boxing.
One of the first things that struck me was the struggle the production of the show went through.
Warren Leight: Well, it was a very, very slow take off. The executive producer, Ross Fineman, had this idea, I don’t know how long ago, maybe four years ago, and he took it to …Fox Studios, and they liked it. A script was commissioned and I think the script read well. It was turned into a pilot. The pilot didn’t really work.
At that point a lot of studios, certainly the networks, they’re done. The pilot’s not clicking and they want to put some money down and you don’t put good money after bad. John Landgraf, to his credit and to my luck and Holt’s luck, realized how good this character was and how good Holt was in this part and he basically doubled down at the point when most people walk away and he gave me a chance to do some rewrites on the pilot and come up with a second episode.
McCallany then talked about how he became involved with the show.
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…
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.
He then followed that with how he wanted to portray Lights as an athlete and not “Superman.”
McCallany: 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. Maybe I’ll take something from Jerry Quarry, I’ll take something from Gerry Cooney, I’ll take something from Jeff Harding, I’ll take something from Doug DeWitt, I’ll take something from my friend, John Duddy, a little bit of this and a little bit of that.
McCallany then talked about the reception the show has received from real life Boxers.
McCallany: I just can’t tell you how excited I was and how honored I was to have those guys that you mentioned, you know, Lennox Lewis, Wladimir Klitschko, Larry Holmes, Gerry Cooney, Joe Frazier, Micky Ward, we had Mark Breland, Ivan Barkley, John Duddy, I mean, a lot of really, really legendary champions. Some of them are guys that I have known. Some of them are guys that I met that night.
I had a long conversation afterwords with Micky Ward, who came to the event even though his mother was in the hospital and she was on a respirator, but Micky had given his word that he would be there, so he made the trip. I was really grateful to him, it shows you the kind of guy that he is, and I’m really happy for him about the success that they’ve had with their movie. Lennox Lewis said some very, very complimentary things to me after the screening and said that he really felt that it was authentic and that he really enjoyed it.
I think that it resonated with them. Things like going to the doctor’s office to get a brain scan, you know what I mean, it’s like many of them have had that experience. They understand what’s at stake and what it means and the emotions that you feel, which it’s a complicated set of emotions, I think. They really liked it. That was so important to me that they like it.
Hardcore training and the spirit of the sport…continue on for the rest of the interview
The two then went into how they went about portraying “the spirit” of the sport.
Leight: One of the things that I liked is that boxing isn’t where it was 15 years ago or 20 years ago, although by the way, boxing has never been where it was. Whenever you read boxing works they always talk about the golden age, which was 20 years earlier, no matter when you’re reading something. But I liked that boxing is on hard times because I feel this is a show, Lights really, there’s a metaphor going on here.
A lot of people have gotten clobbered in the last three years, not just boxers, a lot of people are trying to figure out how to take care of their family or provide for their own and taking bigger risks than they should. If we’d gone in and gone with the NBA, that’s a whole other world. Boxing is a sport that’s also going through hard times, that’s being usurped by other sports. In the fourth episode, I don’t know if you got that far or have seen it, but we have Pops and Lights, Stacy and Holt, sitting in a bar hoping to watch a big welterweight match and all that’s on on all the screens is MMA, and they look like two guys from another generation.
That was conscious on our part, that this is a world that is not getting the respect or attention that we think it deserves. Therefore, also it reinforces the sense of an athlete in possibly decline, America in decline, or a sport in decline, because boxing is up against it.
McCallany then talked about what he did to train for the show.
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.
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.
The two then began a discussion about what it was like to work with the legendary Stacy Keach.
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.
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.
McCallany: 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.
Finally, McCallany took some time to talk about what it’s like to be the lead in something, compared to his usual gigs which include very little screen time.
McCallany: 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.
From at least my very short time with the two of them, Holt and Warren seem like two very passionate and creative individuals. I can say with 100% certainty that that passion is what helped propel the series into something really special, based on the first five episodes at least.
Lights Out airs every Tuesday at 10pm on FX.
Check back every week for episode reviews right here on FSR.
To listen to the latest episode of Merrill’s TV Podcast, The Idiot Boxers with Kevin Carr, head over to Fat Guys at the Movies.