Holt McCallany is a familiar face who's been in the background of dozens of movie and TV projects (Heroes, Fight Club), but now he's entered the spotlight as the star of Lights Out, playing "Lights" Leary, a former boxing champ who's gotten himself in a money crunch. We sat in on a conference call with McCallany and showrunner Warren Leight (In Treatment, Law & Order: Criminal Intent) to hear behind-the-scenes tales from the ring.
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 The Set-Up by Robert Wise. Even more recent things -- Cinderella Man, which was a script that existed around Hollywood for a number of years. It got sent to me at one point, 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.
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 one of those tour de force parts that very, very rarely comes along and that it was also in a milieu 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, 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.
Stacy Keach is one of those iconic, veteran actors who's been in so many things, and I'm glad that you utilized him as your father, as the patriarch of the Leary family. I was wondering if you had any anecdotes about Stacy.
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. 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 similar 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: 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. 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, and he could barely move. I just said, "Look, Stacy, we'll do something else." He said, "Well, let me give it a try." 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. So in that moment he was no longer in pain, he was no longer our patriarch, he was like he was in Fat City. 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.
How did you make the decision to have the series take place in New Jersey?
Leight: I don't know if you remember, Holt, the original pilot was set in Connecticut. I'm sure, and in fact we know that there are tough neighborhoods in Connecticut, but you say "Connecticut" and it just sounds soft. It doesn't sound hardscrabble at all. We knew we had to shoot in the New York area -- we shot the whole show in Astoria, Queens, and because of the budget we were onstage four days a week, so we needed an area where we could slip out of our stage and go into Astoria. Astoria looks a lot like Bayonne, and Bayonne is a place -- the famous "Bayonne Bleeder" -- it's a place people associate with boxing and boxing gyms and that sort of thing. I also felt that boxing is a sport that has historically, and continues to be-- there's always a possibility of corruption. Judges can be bought or favors can be exchanged, boxers kill themselves, work themselves to death, they don't get to keep the money, there are no unions... There's a culture of corruption that surrounds a very noble sport, and boy, the second you hear New Jersey, you don't have to do much work to establish a culture of corruption. I say that with complete respect. There's something about Jersey that you'll believe a councilman might help you bribe a district attorney, and obviously that can happen anywhere, but in Jersey, it's less of a leap of faith.
I also like the class conflict in Jersey. You can have Far Hills, New Jersey and Bayonne, and they're not that far a drive from each other, but they're two separate universes. I like that Holt's character is caught in between the two. It's not that far away but it's another world. Jersey just helps us a lot. There's some risk to it, because there had been a few other successful series shot there, but we decided to just try to do it anyway.
What other changes were made from the pilot?
Leight: One significant change was that the manager was not his brother, and he was said to be an old friend of Lights', but he was a thief who was clearly robbing Lights blind from the get. I think when we switched that character to Johnny the younger brother who had a boxing career, who's the favorite son of Pops, what I wanted to do was to make it more of a family drama, and suddenly this Bayonne family became mortal and we had a nice triangle between a father and two sons. We had a triangle between that Bayonne family and the Far Hills family. It just suddenly became more of a multi-generational stew than it had been. Another change, in the original pilot the wife had been a pediatric surgeon for 20 years, and I wanted to underscore the family's financial problems. So the change there was to make her a med school student who Lights had put through med school, the same way he had put his brother through business school. So we understood she wasn't an earner, we understood the financial pressures better.
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?
McCallany: We were talking about this very question, because a couple of nights earlier Bernard Hopkins had fought at 46 years old for the Light Heavyweight Championship of the world. Evander Holyfield has an upcoming pay-per-view fight, he's in his 40s. It really depends on the guy. I feel good. I feel strong. I'm in great shape. 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 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.
Lights Out airs tonight and every Tuesday at 10 pm on FX.
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