Of all the new television shows premiering in early 2011, FX's boxing drama Lights Out is, like a great fighter, both the scrappiest and strongest. Thematically, the Justin Zackham-created series (Zackham wrote the 2007 old man comedy The Bucket List) takes cues from underdog sports favorites such as The Wrestler and The Fighter. Unlike those hit flicks, though, Lights Out doesn't star a reborn former movie star or someone who used to be known as Marky Mark. To portray Patrick "Lights" Leary, a former heavyweight champ looking to bust out of retirement, FX put their money down on virtually unknown veteran actor Holt McCallany. McCallany, a 24-year vet who's appeared in several major projects (including Three Kings and Fight Club), carries the entire show on his bulky shoulders, and, fortunately, he's well equipped for the challenge. Two episodes deep, Lights Out is proving to be a legitimate showcase for the 46-year-old New York City native; large in stature and able to convey an array of emotions with little dialogue, McCallany is a fascinating lead. Complex caught up with McCallany to discuss how a non-marquee name landed such a prime role, why "Lights" Leary is closer to the real Holt than you'd think, and a few of his more memorable previous jobs. Get to know the potential 2011 breakthrough performer who could silence anyone with a simple right hook.
Complex: How has the response been to the show so far in general?
Holt McCallany: People really dig it. I’m getting the best reviews of my career. So, no matter what happens from this point forward, that has been a really transformational thing for me, in my life. I’ve never had critics embrace a performance of mine like they’ve embraced this performance. And the buzz surrounding the show is really positive; people genuinely like this television show. I’ve received phone calls and emails since the first episode aired from people I haven’t seen or spoken to in 20 years. But perhaps what’s most gratifying is that [Lights Out is] being embraced by the boxing community. The fighters like it, man! And that was important to me.
That’s similar to when Mickey Rourke said that the wrestling community loved The Wrestler, and that those were the most important reviews for him.
Holt McCallany: That’s the perfect analogy. What they recognize in Mickey’s performance, and hopefully in mine, too, is that there’s a certain authenticity about it. You gotta really try to get inside the mind of the athlete, right? And really understand what the complicated emotions are that they experience, to make them do what they do, and then to make them continue to come back again and again. Even when maybe it’s pretty obvious that there are health risks. A saner choice would be to go do something else, and yet guys keep coming back again and again. You see it over and over. For me, the question was, why is that?
As an actor, was that a difficult thing to grasp?
Holt McCallany: Well, I was lucky, in that I was always very passionate about boxing. I really love the sport, and I had been involved in it and been around it for many, many years. I’ve been in a couple of boxing movies prior to the show, like the Tyson movie for HBO [in 1995]; I played the great trainer Teddy Atlas. He brought me into his camp, and I was there when he was training Michael Moorer, who became heavyweight champion of the world and then lost the title to George Foreman in one of most famous heavyweight fights of all time. And then I was with them in Germany when he won the title from Axel Schulz. Just being invited into the upper echelons of the sport, and really having opportunities to be there in the locker room with the heavyweight champion of the world, right before his fights. I saw the preparation and the emotions.
It seems like this is the perfect project for you, then. Was this a tough role to land? How was the audition process?
Holt McCallany: Definitely, and I’ll tell you why it was so hard. It was hard primarily because it was so nerve-wracking. [Laughs.] I was not the most famous actor who was interested in this part. This is a very, very good part; it’s the kind of part that doesn’t come along every day, and it’s the kind of part that can make a career. It was obvious to me that that was true from the first time I read the script. So, yeah, I thought I was the right guy, but you’re still up against the same kinds of obstacles that any actor faces in network television. They’re risking a lot of money, so very often they want to go with an actor who’s already had a hit show on TV, or somebody who just had a movie that made $100 million. Someone that audiences already know.
Did that make it ten times harder for you?
Holt McCallany: I’ve been in the business for a really long time, but I’ve never had a part like that. So it really represented a big risk on the part of the network and the studio. I was very grateful to them for being willing to take that risk, and I was determined to do everything I possibly could so that they would never regret having chosen me. They had the courage to say, “Look, we could get a more famous guy, but we’re not going to find a guy who’s more right for this part.”
Some of the best shows on TV have similar stories, with previously overlooked actors like Jon Hamm on Mad Men and Andrew Lincoln on The Walking Dead.
Holt McCallany: Those are really good examples of what I’m talking about, and those guys are very fortunate. Hopefully that’s what will happen to me, but, if I was on a major network, I don’t think it would happen.
Holt McCallany: Well, because I think that the economic realities are such that this show really represented a big investment, not just in the physical production of the show, but also in the marketing and a lot of other ways. It was a big bet. Essentially, because this character is the lead, you’re asking the network to put a big bet on this guy who’s gonna play "Lights" Leary. First of all, we could have another conversation in which we could ask ourselves if NBC or CBS would even be making this show about an ex-boxer with pugilistic dementia. Would the show exist at all? And, if it did exist, would they have been willing to go with Holt? I think it’s a long shot. Being at FX, I’m literally at the one place where they would be very much intrigued by this kind of story, and be willing to take a chance with an actor like me.
How much input do you have with the character?
Holt McCallany: The people I work with are very collaborative. My showrunner, Warren Leight, is a really gifted guy; he’s a Pulitzer Prize-winning, Tony Award-winning playwright with a lot of experience in TV drama. He’s always receptive to different ideas. But if I had to pick the area in which my ideas are embraced the most, it’s the fight choreography.
What kinds of ideas did you bring to the table in that department?
Holt McCallany: For example, I mentioned my friend Teddy Atlas earlier; Teddy Atlas is one of the best boxing trainers in America. He’s trained like 15 world champions, and he also does tons of expert commentary. I asked if they would be willing to consider making Teddy our technical advisor, so they brought him on in that capacity. So, when you’re choreographing a fight, you start, first of all, with the two fighters’ psychology. Who are they? Where are they at in their careers? What does this fight mean to them? Are you going to try and tie the opponent up, or are you going to use your legs? What are examples of famous fighters who’ve been in that position before? Maybe when Larry Holmes fought Mike Tyson is an example of a "Lights" Leary fight.
You really are the perfect guy for this show; some actors might’ve gone in there and expected the stunt team to figure all of those details out for them.
Holt McCallany: I understand exactly why you’re saying that, and that won’t work. You, meaning the actor, have to do it; you’re playing the former heavyweight
champion of the world who’s trying to come back. It’s your responsibility. Yes, you can rely upon your stunt coordinator and technical advisor, but only to give you some ideas. But you have to get out there and make it exciting. So you have to develop a style that’s suited to your physicality and the things that you do well. There’s no point in me trying to emulate Floyd Mayweather. I’m not Floyd Mayweather, and I’m not going to look like him. But I will look at Gerry Cooney, or certain guys who you feel you have things in common with. But you, the actor, have to have discovered that for yourself.
Are you a fan of any specific boxing movies?
Holt McCallany: So many of them, yeah. I’d grown up all my life wanting to play a boxer, watching those great boxing movies: Rocky, Raging Bull, Body and Soul, and The Set-Up. I love a movie with Chuck Bronson called Hard Times, directed by Walter Hill. I loved those movies as a boy.
Have you had a chance to see The Fighter yet?
Holt McCallany: Yeah, I’ve seen it twice. Loved it. I saw the first SAG [Screen Actor’s Guild] screening, where they had a Q&A with Christian Bale and Mark Wahlberg. I actually know Mark and director David [O. Russell], because I did a movie called Three Kings with both of them. Then I saw [The Fighter] again down in San Juan, where I was doing some promotion for Lights Out in the Latin market. I got invited to the premiere. I was there with the Puerto Rican boxing team, and I liked it even more the second time.
How’d the fight choreography measure up in the film to you?
Holt McCallany: I thought it was good, particularly the last big fight sequence. Mark Wahlberg is a good athlete, and I know that he, like me, is someone who has a genuine passion for boxing. I hope that Christian Bale and Melissa Leo win the Oscars for the film.
Another movie that’s currently dominating the awards circuit is The Social Network, directed by David Fincher. You’ve actually worked with Fincher twice in the past, in Alien 3 (1992) and Fight Club (1999).
Holt McCallany: I’ll always have a very soft spot in my heart and tremendous respect and admiration for David. I think it’s pretty clear that he’s one of the best filmmakers of his generation, and I think he’ll probably be remembered as one of the greatest filmmakers of all time. He’s also a wonderful guy. He gave me my first big movie job, in Alien 3, which was also his first big movie job. And then he put me in Fight Club. Fight Club is not only one of my favorite films, but it’s also, more than any other movie I’ve ever did, the one that I’m most frequently remembered from. So I owe a tremendous debt to David Fincher.
One last project we have to mention is a little poorly received 1987 B-movie called Creepshow 2, in which you played a young Indian thug who gets scalped by a killer cigar store statue. Do you look back on that one with fond memories?
Holt McCallany: [Laughs.] That was my first movie, and it’s kind of a funny story. I had auditioned to play a college frat kid for one of the other vignettes. They said, “We’d like to offer you a different part, this Indian,” and I was like, “Well, you know, I’m an Irish guy who was born in New York.” They told me that they’d give me a wig and put some makeup on me, and I said, “Well, what about my eyes? I got blue eyes.” They were like, “You know what? We’re gonna make you a half-breed!”
And who said Hollywood executives weren’t creative!
Holt McCallany: [Laughs.] But when you want to be in movies, and you’re young, you do what you have to do. So I did it. I actually saw the movie again recently, for the first time in 20 years, and it’s not a great film. [Laughs.] But I see myself as a young actor, and how hard I was trying. Two things I will give myself credit for in Creepshow 2 are an A for effort and an A for enthusiasm!
Every actor has one of those films on their resumé that they wish people wouldn’t see, so don’t sweat it. Besides, you’ve come a long way from Creepshow 2 to Lights Out. That’s got to feel pretty good, right?
Holt McCallany: Absolutely. And you know what? I wouldn’t change a thing about it.