“Real Steel” is set in a futuristic world where robot boxing has become a popular sport, but the movie’s themes about family and self-confidence are very much timeless. In “Real Steel,” Hugh Jackman plays a deadbeat dad named Charlie Kenton, an ex-boxer who is struggling financially while he tries to make a living in underground robot boxing. When Charlie’s estranged 11-year-old son Max (played by Dakota Goyo) comes to live with Charlie after Max’s mother has died, Charlie and Max initially clash with each other but then learn to help each other in ways that they did not expect, especially when Max believes that they can rebuild a robot named Atom to become a championship boxer.
Also part of the “Real Steel” cast are Evangeline Lilly (who plays Bailey Tallett, Charlie’s love interest) and Anthony Mackie, who plays Finn, one of the wheeler dealers in underground robot boxing. “Real Steel” had the added benefit of having boxing legend Sugar Ray Leonard as a consultant who choreographed the boxing moves that are seen in the movie. Here is what Jackman, Leonard, Lilly and Mackie had to say about making “Real Steel.”
Interview with Hugh Jackman
What can you say abut working with Sugar Ray Leonard on “Real Steel”?
Jackman: Sugar Ray, I remember when he signed on to the movie, I was like, “I love Hollywood!” This is the greatest boxer of all time, and he’s going to not only be choreographing the robots but [also] consulting with me about how to box and even more than that: the mentality of the boxer.
I play the corner man, essentially. I am the guy in the corner, shouting, controlling, trying to strategize the fight. And he would talk to me a lot about how important the connection is between the corner man and the fighter, and how I needed to communicate that emotion from the corner and that strength from the corner. So it was something I hadn’t considered, to be honest, leading up to that, and I was forever grateful. I was a little star-struck meeting him, but he made a massive difference to our film.
Can you talk about the relationship that Charlie has with his son Max?
Jackman: My character abandons his son at birth, and he doesn’t see him again until he’s 11 years old. And [Charlie] doesn’t want to particularly see him then. Things are not going so well for him or he doesn’t have time for it, the energy or really the confidence in himself to be a father.
Ironically, what happens is that they’re thrust together, and the son becomes more like the father, and the father becomes more like the child. And at key moments, when Charlie has stopped believing in himself and in life, when he has given up, it’s his son that actually has given him that gift of belief in himself.
Many people who see “Real Steel” say that they’re surprised. What do you think surprises audiences the most when they see “Real Steel”?
Jackman: When they leave the theater — and I’ve seen this with audiences all around the world — they’re left uplifted. They’re left feeling anything is possible. They’re left with a great sense of love for those characters and even — dare I say it — love for that robot. It makes people laugh and cry and feel. It plays to old, young, men and women. It’s what movies used to be like.
What the most important thing that attracted to you to make “Real Steel”?
Jackman: Charlie was not a great dad, and he’s not necessarily a nice guy. In this film that is aimed at all audiences, I really loved the guts of the writers to actually tell the story of someone who could be almost unlikable, really, and to allow him to be redeemed in front of the audience. I really enjoyed playing that part. I really enjoyed playing the father. I’d never done that before. I’ve done it in [real] life for many years, but I’d never really done it before in a film. So there were many elements of it that I loved.
Can you talks some more about Charlie and Atom?
Jackman: Robots have gotten to the level of sophistication where they can now fight in the ring. And it is the biggest sport in the world. There’s money; there’s sponsorship.
Everybody all around the world is into this. They have playing cards. Kids are into it, adults, men, women, everybody. And all these robots have different personas, different nicknames, and you have your favorites. It’s huge.
In this world is my character Charlie Kenton, who is an owner of robots. He’s in the robot-fighting game, and he’s not very successful at it. He’s doing everything he can, pretty desperately, trying to eke out a living and not being very successful at it.
And most of the time, he spends most of his time, not in the big sanctioned robot league boxing tournaments but in the underworld, illegal gambling, small-time. He’s on the run from people he owes money to. He’s pretty much at the bottom of his life, at the bottom rung in every way.
They find a robot in a junkyard called Atom. The kid [Max] really believes in this robot. He thinks robot saved his life. He thinks this robot is somehow magical and contains some powers. Charlie, who has been in this world, is very much the realist and a cynic. But in fact, the robot does turn out to be something special.
How many robots are actually in “Real Steel”?
Jackman: We have 19 robots, each with a great personality. Each one has their own persona. There’s a whole mystique, a whole story behind them. Each one is going to appeal to someone different. I can tell you right now we have a hero robot, which everyone will love.
But there are different subgroups. Some will like Midas, the kind of down-and-dirty Mohawked [robot]. Some will like Noisy Boy. Some will like Ambush. They’ve all got their own personality, and people are doing to love different ones.
Can you compare and contrast acting against with real robots as opposed to acting to visual effects that will be added in after filming?
Jackman: Having the robot for the actor, it makes such a huge difference. When I first saw (me, not me character) saw those real robots being puppetteered by these genius puppeteers, I instantly turned into a 10-year-old. Standing next to a 10-year-old, we both had the same looks on our faces. You can’t help but being drawn into the magic. It’s very difficult, particularly for a 10-year-old to do that, if you’re looking at a tennis ball on the top of a stick. I don’t care how you are as an actor, having that [life-sized robot] there makes a huge difference.
How would you describe Dakota Goyo, who plays Max?
Jackman: Dakota came in, and Shawn [Levy, director/producer of “Real Steel”] were really taken aback because there’s something very soulful about [Dakota Goyo]. Without him doing anything, the camera just goes right into his soul. He allows the camera just right into his soul, which for a kid of that age is very, very rare.
How do you first find out that Sugar Ray Leonard was going to be a boxing consultant for “Real Steel”?
Jackman: Shawn said to me, “Look, you’re going to do some boxing. I want you to look like a boxer. We have those scenes where you have to do that. And it’s really important that people believe that you’re a boxer.” I said, “Absolutely.”
And he said, “And I was thinking of bringing Sugar Ray [Leonard] to work with you.” And I said, “Yeah, I think that might work.” I mean, Sugar Ray is one of the greats of all time. I’m a huge fan of his. And I was a little intimidated about meeting him at first, particularly getting into the ring and starting to box with him. I thought, “I’m just going to watch.”
How has Charlie changed the most from the beginning of the movie to after he bonds with his son Max?
Jackman: Charlie has made a lot of sacrifices. And I think at the beginning of this movie, he feels that not all of them are worth it. And he’s made some mistakes. And now he’s got a second chance. He’s going for it, but he’s not going to make the same mistake again of sacrificing the wrong things.
Interview with Sugar Ray Leonard
What boxing techniques did you teach Hugh Jackman?
Leonard: With Hugh, I tried to keep it simple. I didn’t try to throw all these punches or what have you. The key was to execute a certain punch or a certain … combination that sells, that really exhibits him as an ex-fighter. And it was kind of 1-2-3. And he exhibited that pretty convincingly.
I didn’t question his athleticism. I know how much of a health nut he is and an athlete he is. I knew that he was coming from a place where he could adapt, but I just wanted to see if he could make that transition to being a fighter.
What were some of the challenges or freedoms in doing boxing choreography for robots?
Leonard: Well, the freedom was not that great because I didn’t realize that these robots, based upon technology, could allow them to perform. I didn’t think those robots could emulate my combinations in punches. But these robots are like humans. It’s amazing.
They move and match whatever I do. They could do the moves. There was no surprise. The only surprise to me was what they did. It was amazing.
I gave each one their own signature style. If I saw a robot with a certain design, big like Zeus, I’d give him kind a George Foreman big-guy style. And Atom was primed for me to give him some of my moves: a little guy. Although he’s big, he’s smaller than the other guys.
What was your first impression of “Real Steel” director/producer Shawn Levy? And how did he convince you to do this movie?
Leonard: When I first met Shawn, we would have conversations. And when he talked, he was so enthusiastic about brining this thing to light that he talked, talked, talked. And he was so happy because he’d already seen the movie in his head. That’s the kind of visionary he is.
He’s watched the movie, so he knew what he wanted. He wanted the authenticity. He didn’t want them to be Rock ‘Em Sock ‘Em Robots. He wanted these robots to be fighters, and for people to feel. And they did.
What did you think the first time you saw “Real Steel”?
Leonard: I took my kids and my mother-in-law and m wife to a private screening. And I looked at my kids, and I saw them screaming and jumping up and down. I knew we had sold it, because kids love it. And then at some point, I looked at my mother-in-law and my wife, and they were crying. So I knew with demographics, we had covered the board.
Approximately what percentage of your choreographed boxing moves ended up in the final cut of “Real Steel”?
Leonard: All of them, because I knew the style I gave each one. I felt good about that.
Interview with Evangeline Lilly
How does your Bailey Tallett character in “Real Steel” figure into the story?
Lilly: She’s a pivotal character. She helps Charlie Kenton (Hugh’s character) find his way in the film, but she just comes in and out in these moments, and is the voice of reason, and then disappears again. She’s not a real highlighted character, but I think she’s an important character.
Can you describe the world of robot boxing in “Real Steel”?
Lilly: The world of boxing has evolved in a way that it has been driven by fans’ demand for more action, more violence, more blood, more sensationalized fighting.
How were the robots filmed in “Real Steel”?
Lilly: They’re being played by actors, who wear these jumpsuits with dots all over them. And they pretend that they’re very robotic, and it’s very dramatic. I thought it was going to be playing against an invisible robot that I would have to pretend is in front of me. And I was given this unbelievable luxury of having real-live robots that they have built and can move and express themselves as well as these actors.
How would you describe working with “Real Steel” director/producer Shawn Levy?
Lilly: Shawn Levy gives us the space and the ultimate freedom to do whatever we want, and is so not proud over or possessive over the work or the script or any of that. We’ll try something new or we’ll do something new or completely off-book, and he’s the first one to come running in saying, “That was so awesome! Do that again! Do that over and over again! I love it!” And that encouragement coming from a director is enough to spurn you on and keep you thinking and keep you on your toes and looking for how you could give the scene a little bit more life.
Who is the target audience for “Real Steel”?
Lilly: Pretty much anyone between the ages of (in my standards) 7 and 60? Male, female, it doesn’t really matter. There’s romance. There’s adventure. There’s this relationship between a father and his son. There’s this relationship between his son and this robot. And it covers the gamut.
Interview with Anthony Mackie
How would you describe the Finn character that you play in “Real Steel”?
Mackie: I play Finn, who is the promoter of the entire underground robot boxing world. I make sure all the fights are put on, who’s fighting who, and what’s the wagers that will be placed on everybody.
How did you get involved in “Real Steel”?
Mackie: I read the script, and I was blown a way by it. As a kid growing up, we had Rock ‘Em Sock ‘Em Robots and G.I. Joe and He Man with the twirly chest and stuff. But when I read the script, I’d never seen or read anything like that. So when I talked to Shawn [Levy], I told him: “A character like Finn, being so charismatic and outgoing, it would be really exciting to play.
What’s it like to work with Hugh Jackman?
Mackie: It’s a lot of fun. Hugh’s an actor’s actor. Coming from the stage, there’s so much you can do, and you know that Hugh will be with you. A lot of actors, if you try to improv or do something different with the character, they’ll be like, “No, you can’t do that. You’re throwing me off.”
But Hugh is so much fun because he’s such an open, charismatic guy. He’s such an easy, breezy guy. I’m a firm believer in: “If you’re not having fun, why do it?”
What was going through your mind when you first saw the robots that were built for “Real Steel”?
Mackie: It was my first day on the movie. So I walk in. I’m talking to Shawn. I’m talking to everybody. And out of the corner of my eye, I see this robot. And then the robot starts looking around, and I’m really freaked out!
You read it in the script and you’re like, “All right, CGI for a few robots,” but when a robot comes walking in, it was completely unexpected. When I saw that, I recognized the type of movie we were making. It was amazing. It’s hard to act with this imposing robot in front of you, because you’re waiting for it to click in and start beating you up.
Using the CGI and when you have the actual robot, and when you bring in the actual CGI, it’s kind of like not missing a beat. So it just looks like the robots are tearing each other apart. It put this movie on a completely different level. It’s not like, “Oh, this is a dream sequence.” No, this is the reality that these people live in. So it’s kind of cool to be one in that reality.
For more info: “Real Steel” website
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