Foxcatcher: Interview with Steve Carell

A highlight of the 2014 Cannes Film Fest, Foxcatcher is a serious Oscar contender for Best Picture and other awards.

Steve Carell is reluctant to pass any easy judgment on du Pont. “I don’t see him as a monster,” he says. “I see him as someone who did something terrible who was suffering from mental illness. He was a very sad, damaged human being.”

Du Pont had previously tried numerous ways to make his mark on the world: as a ornithologist, conchologist, philatelist and philanthropist, a trainee for the Olympic pentathlon, and a benefactor to sports of all kinds. But ultimately he focused on becoming the savior of USA wrestling, building the Foxcatcher facility and being the leading funder of the sport. “He was highly competitive,” says Carell. “He yearned for respect. I think he wanted people to look up to him in the way they naturally looked up to Dave Schultz. But ultimately, he was unable to earn that same kind of esteem and admiration. Dupont wanted to be one of the guys, but at the same time, he wanted to be held in a somewhat higher regard.”

Dark Role

There’s no doubt that Steve Carell’s fans will be surprised to see him in a role as dark as John du Pont. “I knew that Steve could play awkward and eccentric,” says Miller, “but when I met him I realized how many layers there are, that he is one of these actors that has a public self and a private self—and you never see the private self ever. And I thought those protected, guarded areas of himself might relate to this character in some way.” Miller continues: “Anyway, you can’t put an expected actor in this role because the nature of this character is that he’s unexpected. Nobody believed what du Pont was capable of.”

“There were certain affectations that were specific to him which I thought were important,” says Carell. “I listened to his cadence and how he spoke. Not only how he spoke physically, but the words he chose to express himself. Bennett would sometimes have us improvise, so I tried to have some context for that.” Says Ruffalo: “When Steve first walked out as du Pont, it gave me a shiver. In the thousands of hours I watched videos to prepare, two hundred of them were with du Pont, so I was very intimate with that man physically, who he was, how he sounded, how he moved. It was creepy and uncanny, Steve’s ability to capture the physical qualities of that guy.” Says Nancy Schultz, Dave’s widow: “It was very uncomfortable to be around Steve as John du Pont. He stayed in character most of the time, and it was very unsettling to catch him out of the corner of my eye.”

While waiting for financing for the film to come through, Miller was able to cast his three primary actors long before the film began production, and they were all given the voluminous amounts of research materials he had collected for them. This allowed the actors an unusually lengthy period of time to immerse themselves in the lives of the real people they would be playing before they arrived on the set, something they took very seriously.

“You do have a responsibility playing a real person that is different than if you’re just fictionalizing a part,” says Ruffalo. “I wanted to honor Dave to the best of my abilities. The only way I knew how to do that was to go out in the world and find out as much as I could about him. There’s a little bit of a reportage quality to the job at that point—you’re out in the world as a detective in a weird way. I became very close to Dave’s wife Nancy and other people who knew him well. For example, John Giura, Dave’s coach and one of his best friends. John not only coached me about the way Dave wrestled, but he also was my lodestone, somebody I could always ask if the way I did a scene felt like Dave.” Says Tatum: “Knowing that this stuff is real gives it another level of gravity. Even if the movie is good, if you’re not honest to it, you’re failing somehow. I think all of us would just roll over and die if we felt like we had failed.”

Tatum and Ruffalo not only had to portray their characters, they also had to learn to wrestle, one of the world’s most arduously demanding sports, and on top of this to learn the Schultz brothers’ signature stances, moves, and styles. The two began training separately with wrestling choreographer Jesse Jantzen in June of 2012, and then began regular workouts together when shooting began in the Pittsburgh area in October. To give them the maximum time to prepare, all tournament scenes were shot in mid-December, and the workout scenes from the beginning of the film were shot in January. Even though Ruffalo had done some wrestling in high school, it actually proved a liability, as Dave Schultz was left-handed, and Ruffalo had to unlearn everything he knew, do everything backwards, and then, as a 45-year-old man, be convincing as a 33-year-old man considered by many to be the greatest wrestler ever. The training was grueling. Says Tatum: “I challenge anyone who thinks their sport is harder to come and try it. This has been the most painful movie I have ever done. I never want to wrestle again.”

In order to cast the Foxcatcher team and other wrestlers in the film, it was essential for the production to secure the support of the U.S. wrestling community. It’s a very close-knit group and there was some trepidation among many about the tone the movie might have, considering the tabloid aspects of the story. And they had no compunctions about informing Mark Ruffalo that he was hardly their ideal casting for Dave Schultz.

Ruffalo attended the first big audition, which included both some of the leading wrestlers in the country, as well as some of Dave’s old friends. “I was just there to say hello,” says Ruffalo, “but Bennett said, ‘Mark, go suit up and I want you to wrestle with these guys a little bit. I thought. ‘Oh, come on, man, don’t do this to me—but I said okay. And I suddenly realized that this was actually kind of an audition for me to these guys, and I better not blow it.” With all the pressure on, Ruffalo’s first opponent was an Olympic wrestler. “Dave used to start strong, so I threw one of his signature moves, one of the more showy ones,” says Ruffalo. “And I looked up and, Tadaaki Happa, one of the great Olympic wrestling coaches, gave me a head nod, which for him kind of amounted to jumping up and down.” Ruffalo’s “audition” was a turning point for the wrestling community’s support of the movie. “After that, it was ‘whatever you guys want, whatever you need, we’re here, we believe in this project,” says Ruffalo. “and I feel like I got the blessing of the people I needed to please. It meant a lot to me.

Tatum was the only one of the three lead actors who had to act in front of the person he was playing. “It was hard for Mark to watch and to have a real perspective on the movie because he only has what happened in real life to go from,” says Tatum. “Having him there was unbelievably helpful at times, in terms of the information that was given, but then other times it was definitely confusing trying to separate Mark’s real life emotions with what my job was to play him in the film.” (The real Mark Schultz has a cameo in the film, in the scene where Mark weighs in for the World Championships after dropping weight.)