There have been numerous movies about underdog athletes, but few of these movies are about women. One of these rare films is “The Mighty Macs.” Set in 1971 and 1972, “The Mighty Macs” tells the true story of the Immaculata College women’s basketball team that went from being a losing team on the verge of being shut down to winning a spot in the first national women’s basketball tournament. That remarkable turnaround was largely due to Cathy Rush, who coached the team to underdog glory. Under her leadership as head coach, Immaculata College went on to win the National Collegiate Athletic Association’s Women Basketball Championship in 1972, 1973 and 1974.
When Rush joined the athletic department at Immaculata (a Catholic college for women in suburban Pennsylvania), the college viewed its basketball team as a financial burden and an embarrassment because of its losing streak. Rush convinced the college administrators to give the team one last chance under her guidance. The rest is history. At the New York City press junket for “The Mighty Macs,” I sat down with Carla Gugino (who plays Cathy Rush) and David Boreanaz (who plays Ed Rush, Cathy’s basketball-referee husband) to talk about making this inspiring true story into a movie, as well as their own real-life favorite sports memories.
Since both of you play people heavily involved in basketball in “The Mighty Macs,” what were some of your real-life sports or athlete experiences that you brought to the role with you?
Boreanaz: I’ve always wanted to do a sports-oriented project, and when I read the script it was more than just a “one line kind of theme” of sports straight across the board. What was important was that there was a character here, there was development, and there was some depth to the story. And that to me is what the film is really all about: this inspirational story.
So the character, for me, was twofold, because when I was a freshman in high school I actually used to go to [Philadelphia ‘76ers] games. And I used to go with my friend, and he’d be like “Hey, do you want to go see the Sixers games? I can get great seats. They’re right on the floor.” I’m like, “I’m in!”
The Sixers at that time were an amazing team. In ’83, they had just won a championship. They had Dr. J. They had everybody. Bobby Jones. So I’m like, “Yeah, sure, I’ll definitely go.” Darryl Dawkins. Charles Barkley was a rookie I think that season when I was a freshman in high school. So we go with this guy and he ends up being Ed Rush.
At the time, I’m just like, “This guy is a referee with the NBA, I’m sitting courtside, I’m talking to players as they’re warming up. This is like the best experience.” So it goes on. so I went to like three or four games with Ed. I went to New Jersey, saw the Nets. I was talking to Darryl Dawkins. I was talking to Charles Barkley. I’m like on the court with the ball, talking to the players as they’re warming up, and I’m like drooling as a sports fan.
So cut to now, I’m doing a film about Cathy Rush and her inspirational journey and going to Immaculata College, and her husband’s Ed Rush. It’s funny how that kind of comes across. And so inspirationally for me, I’m like “Hey, I’m wearing your shoes now,” and literally wore his jersey that he ref’ed the NBA in. I wore his jersey in some of the shots that we did.
So to maintain that sense of credibility, I met this guy, it was kind of full circle for me. And then the story itself is just inspirational and I really believed in the story and overcoming adversity and conflict and rising above what people say you can’t do.
Gugino: I was going to say what’s interesting about it is the two sports that I actually enjoy watching are basketball and World Cup soccer, but I’m not particularly sports-oriented. I ended up learning so much about the game, mostly because as a coach, it’s less about obviously playing well — though that is an aspect of it — but actually really understanding the game and having a mind that can think ahead.
And our players, our girls who are in the team are really good actresses but they’re also predominantly really good players. So that was cool because they actually play and everything, and because we were at Immaculata and so it all felt very authentic. But the thing that drew me to the story — and I think this is the thing I guess is a testament to a good story, is that was less even that it was about sports and more that it was about — I always think a good sports movie is emblematic in the same way that a great Greek tragedy really has a certain kind of structure, or a Shakespearean play if you’re looking at a comedy or a tragedy, is that these are the heights and depths of human emotion. And it’s always like the stakes are so high. I get so anxiety-ridden. I get way too involved and I can’t take it lightly at all.
So, for me, I was just really intrigued about this woman who had this very simple kind of mission. She wasn’t trying to change the world … I don’t think she had any sort of lofty ideals, but she really wanted to work at something. She got this job as a coach at Immaculata College. Catholic girls, they just wanted to pretty much busy their time. They were trying to sort of get their energies focused towards sports, as opposed to other things.
And she came in there and was like “Actually, I’ve got really good players. We need to keep going here,” and she just wouldn’t be stopped. So that was the thing that really drew me to the story.
Were you both aware of the Mighty Macs story prior to doing this movie?
Boreanaz: I wasn’t. I was surprised. To me, it was the last thing I expected. I never heard of the story. And if I had, it may have been through passing because of being from Philadelphia and being in that area. When I heard it was a pleasant surprise to me.
Gugino: For me, probably being a woman, I knew that this woman had changed sort of the face of basketball. I had heard over time because some of her players also became coaches. So when the story came up I was like, “Oh right, I’ve heard of that woman.” But it was a very vague piece of information.
And the director came — I was doing a play here, actually — Tim Chambers, who wrote and directed [“The Mighty Macs”], came and saw the play, and we sat down afterwards and he sort of told me the story. And before I even read it I was like “Wow, that’s an amazing story. I’m so excited to read it.” And then I read it, and was more excited.
Do either of you have a Catholic-school experience to share?
Gugino: I don’t. He has some good ones.
Boreanaz: I was raised and born Catholic in my family. I went to Catholic schools. There was an experience with a nun. I remember vaguely first grade I think I may have been a little bit taller than my first-grade teacher who was a nun: Sister Stella Marie, and she really was intense.
Which high school?
Boreanaz: Buffalo, New York. Nativity. It was in Buffalo, and then I moved to Philly when I was 7. And then getting to high school, being taught by the Augustinian priests and that whole experience.
But I do remember as boys — especially at that age, I think, 13, 14 — and having a specific teacher that you would kind of torture in the Catholic sensibility of where their hormones are at that time. There was a teacher that taught history, and as freshman we’d always hear yells and screams from the other classrooms.
His name was Basil Sullivan and when he talked, he would clear his throat and the response from everybody in the classroom would be to attack. [He makes a roaring sound.] So we heard that from freshman year on to senior year, so by the time we got to his class we were very excited to do this roar, which we did, and he ended up leaving, because not only did we roar but we ended up throwing Silly Putty and bouncing balls all over the place when he wasn’t looking. It was bad. And it was in a Catholic high school.
Was this in Philadelphia?
Boreanaz: Yeah … Malvern Prep.
Carla, don’t people expect you to have a Catholic background?
Gugino: I know, right? With the Italian heritage. You know, it’s funny. My father was born in Buffalo, New York, his parents were born in Italy. And my grandparents — Italian, full Italian — started a Baptist church in Buffalo, New York, which is the craziest thing ever. And I’m not Baptist either. And then I grew up in the ’70s in Northern California, and it was much more of a kind of hippie [upbringing]. I lived in a teepee, a whole different kind of deal.
Did you have a chance to reconnect with Ed Rush? And did you spend some time with Cathy Rush?
Gugino: Yeah, they were both there, which was really cool. I spoke more to Cathy than I did to Ed but I did meet Ed when they were on set together one day. Cathy, as soon as I sat down with her it just was incredibly informative for me in terms of how to play her, because I was less interested in sort of imitating her and more interested in the way in which she went about accomplishing something so big.
And, of course, it is like most people do which is in very small steps, and you kind of don’t realize until you look later and go “Wow, I really did something kind of amazing.” And she just is very practical and very sensible and super smart and really lovely but tough.
And her players … there’s a scene in the church where there’s the row of nuns that they pan across, and those are all her players, who are now many of them coaches and have been coaches, which is just so cool. And just to see how much their lives were affected by this woman was profoundly impactful, for sure.
There aren’t many female-centered sports movies out there. Why do you think that is? And that why you were drawn to the Mighty Macs story?
Gugino: We were talking about this a little bit earlier, but sports still are predominantly men in terms of the attention that’s given to them, so there probably aren’t statistically as many stories able to be told. It’s female-centric — and that aspect of it is great for young girls, because I think that’s really, really important right now to just sort of reiterate that anything is possible in that regard. But I also just see it as a great sort of dramatic tale, I guess, where if it were a woman or a man, it’s less significant except for that it was much harder for a woman at that time to do what she did …
But yeah I know, you can go back to like “Hoosiers” or different movies like “Miracle” or movies that are sort of similar in tone, in terms of just really authentic grassroots sports stories, and they are generally with men in the lead. And to have such a strong male presence in your character too, so you do see the perspective of that guy and how he’s responding to this and how he’s coming to terms with it. And he really is the eye into culturally and historically what was going on at that time, which is for a woman to kind of be like, “I want to get a job” when she didn’t have to was certainly notable.
Boreanaz: There were a lot of obstacles for women at that time, especially in the ’70s. There was so much going on, so much movement. I think it’s that type of story as well: overcoming so much. That character: Here’s a basketball coach who’s driven to change these kids, and everything’s against her.
And the one person she’s so close to is obviously also questioning “Why are you going to this school and coaching these kids? Why are you looking at my tapes from the NBA?” “Oh that’s so cool; why would you call that move there?” And it’s like wait a second. The character is like, “That’s my terrain. I’m not quite understanding.”
But he gets it and gets involved because he sees the change. And I think what’s great about that character, there is a full circle to that character. He sees the change, and he’s on board, which I think is great. I think there was a big evolution for him. And especially at that time from his perspective what’s going on in the world at that time.
Did you know about the history of the WNBA (Women’s National Basketball Association) before doing “The Mighty Macs”?
Boreanaz: Yeah. I didn’t know that.
Gugino: That’s what’s also cool about it is that you actually really get a pretty interesting history lesson in a really entertaining way, and in a way that, for the positive and the negative, is still very timely. That’s the thing.
Do you two have a favorite sports film?
Boreanaz: For me, the best sports film ever made was “Rocky.” I’m sorry, but that first “Rocky” was amazing. But then if I could say any film that could ever inch “Rocky” out would be the latest film with the boxer.
Gugino: “The Fighter.”
Boreanaz: “The Fighter.” I watched that film and was rooting for this gentleman to come off his drug addiction. I was rooting for this guy, and I would never in my mind go, “Wait a second, no one can knock Rocky’ to the side.”
And I was so moved by that film, “The Fighter.” It was a really moving film. It was acted amazingly. It was directed great. It had everything to it. I felt for these people. I felt for the problems that they had, the addictions that they had. And I came out of thinking, “This is really good.”
Gugino: “The Fighter” is one of my favorite movies, for sure. I will say I’m a huge [Gene] Hackman fan so I did love “Hoosiers.” And I loved “Bull Durham.” But again, I guess I would gravitate less to going to a movie because it’s a sports movie and more just is it a really good movie, so those I think are really good movies. And I was completely taken in by “Miracle.” I just thought that was such a good movie.
How did you bond with the student players in “The Mighty Macs”? Did you hang out on set or watch them practice?
Gugino: Yep, I watched them practice. We had coaches there. I was a part of all of those practices. I would then write out plays, they would write out plays and I would see how they’re written, and then I’d write them out and see if this is how you would do it. It was basically just a very organic process, because while we were shooting we were completely submerged in that world — which is also a wonderful challenge as an actor; you’re inventing things.
You’re working on a green screen or you’re kind of going what is their history. “OK, I’m going to make up the character’s history.” You can find great things that way, but it’s really amazing when you have the place, the people — all of those things, because there’s just a real feeling to it that comes really naturally.
David, for your “Mighty Macs” role, were you concerned about having a supporting role that wouldn’t be as fully developed as other characters in the movie?
Boreanaz: You know what? I’m just happy to be a part of the film, the story. For me, I don’t really compare it to anything but just being a part of the whole. In order to make things move and click, you need certain aspects of it. I was just excited to be a part of working with such great people, great actors. And whether it be one scene, I don’t really look at a project that way. I look at it as the embodiment of what the purpose of the story is — and to be a part of the story is so important.
It’s like the book “The Giving Tree” and his branches get cut off, so if I play the branch I’m still part of that story. So, for me, it’s really about being part of the whole and having a character down so when you have an opportunity to do specific scenes you know where you’re coming from on all cylinders. To me, that is really why I love the opportunity to do anything like this. It’s exciting.
I just shot a film over the summertime with some really great actors. I worked four or five days, and one actors responded to me like, “It’s these types of films that you wish you were shooting 20 days or two months.” And you do a big budgeted feature and you’re like “Oh, I just can’t wait to get home’ after the second day.” So to answer your question, I like to work, and whether it’s coming in and having one line, it doesn’t bother me.
Is it nice to have a contrast to doing TV?
Boreanaz: Again, it’s the same. It’s just a different animal. It’s a different way of approaching working. You stretch your characters as much as you can. I’m very fortunate to be on a show that has been very great for me for seven seasons. It’s all about character work, and if I don’t have that with Emily [Deschanel] and I don’t have character work with the person I’m working with … When I went into this film with Carla, it was important to sit down and talk about the character development and where we are with it and really rely on that. To me it’s character-driven stuff and that’s really what I base it on.
Gugino: For sure. But I do find different mediums. For a long time I’ve done film and television and theater, and each one informs the other in a really cool way. And also one is more of an actor’s medium and one is more of a director’s medium. You do different things, certainly. In film, you definitely kind of give your gift and then they do with it what they will, versus theater or even television with something like you’ve been living this, so the character begins to be informed by what you’re discovering, which is a cool process too.
Do you have a preference? You were great in the TV series “Karen Cisco.”
Gugino: Oh, thank you. Yeah that was a big transition time for them, for sure. But yeah, that was a special, special character to play. You know what? I would have maybe had an answer for that, I would have picked one possibly maybe five or 10 years ago, but I have to say I really kind of love them all for different reasons. I really do. I mean I’m coming back to do Broadway this winter and I’m so excited about that.
What are you doing on Broadway?
Gugino: I’m doing Athol Fugard’s “Road to Mecca” with Rosemary Harris and Jim Dale. I’m really excited about that. And then I’ll sort of be hungry to do something different after that. I think for any artist and in any artistic endeavor, any of us do as human beings, you just want to kind of get better and better and expand your horizons, so all of them have value for me in that way.
David, could you talk a little bit about Season 7 of “Bones”? What can people expect?
Boreanaz: It’s great to be able to get into a whole new different relationship and being with the two characters and having them [Bones and Booth] have a child together and how they deal with that. I think what’s really going to be great for people to see is that it’s a whole new dynamic, right off the first episode. We’ve done six, and we’re on a little bit of a baby break right now for Emily. And you’ll see the relationship is even stronger and better because of what they’re dealing with.
It’s some really unexpected turns and twists. I don’t want to get too much into, it but it’s going to be very surprising. Our characters don’t agree on certain things. She probably wants to have the baby in a hut in Africa, and I’m like, Wait a second. No.” It brings up a lot. We jumped the shark, I think, last year in the show, so we feel really good about that.
A lot of actors they say that one of the most difficult things and one of the best challenges that they have is playing real-life people. They want to get as much as they can right but they want to put their own spin on the role. How important was it for both of you to get that tone right?
Gugino: It was extremely important, and I think that when I kind of found out that Cathy was excited about the direction it was going in and how it was coming out, that was sort of the stamp of approval that I needed, in terms of knowing that I was going in the right direction. But yeah, very, very important. It’s just that what I mean by that is that if you come at it from an external standpoint, if you try to imitate a voice or a thing, that’s only interesting if it informs something of the person’s inner nature. Otherwise, you’re just watching someone do a cool impression.
So it was super-important to me and when I’ve had those experiences, like doing “After the Fall” too, based on Marilyn [Monroe], it’s sort of about how you get inside and see from inside of them. So when I was able to meet her, that helped me tremendously.
Boreanaz: You get a sense of understanding them by meeting them on the set: how they have a cup of coffee, where they’re coming from, their day,, you get some insight, how they drove over there, how they walk, what they’re wearing. You look at everything, you’re constantly looking at everything. And there are reasons behind certain things.
And, for me, it was when I met Ed and being able to understand where he was coming from, having that conversation, going back and telling him that story, how he reacted, seeing the light in his eyes, internally you feel that and you take that energy in and you tap into it. It’s a strange process. It’s fun though.
David, are you going to be directing any “Bones” episodes in Season 7? And if so, how many?
Boreanaz: Yes. I’m doing two this year.
For more info: “The Mighty Macs” website
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