After winning awards and critical accolades for both “The Station Agent” and “The Visitor,” writer-director Tom McCarthy wanted to shake things up and have fun. His idea was to create a family drama in the world of high school wrestling, and when it came to casting his unlikely champion, McCarthy faced an unusual question: hire an actor and teach him to wrestle, or hire a wrestler and teach him to act?
In the beginning, the director of “Win Win” went the traditional route.
“I did it for, like, two days,” McCarthy said in a recent phone interview. “I saw New York actors — supertalented kids, supercool — and I just made a gut call. I wasn't seeing exactly what I wanted. I wanted to see something a little more raw in their performance, and the kids that I was seeing were a little too polished.
“I can't handle any sports movie when I just don't believe it,” he said. “With this, I was like, ‘You know what? I might get myself in trouble here, but I'm going to get a wrestler, and I'm going to teach him.”
This was not a simple proposition: Whoever played Kyle, the semi-orphaned wrestling wunderkind, would be working with powerhouse actors such as Paul Giamatti, Amy Ryan, Jeffrey Tambor and Bobby Cannavale, whom McCarthy previously cast in “The Station Agent.” McCarthy held casting calls in New Jersey, hoping to find a grappler who would not get pinned by actors outside his weight class.
He saw dozens of actors, but Alex Shaffer was the natural choice. Shaffer wrestled at 119 pounds for the Hunterdon Central Red Devils in Flemington, N.J. As a sophomore, Shaffer went 36-0 for the season, and two weeks after McCarthy chose him for “Win Win,” he won the New Jersey State Wrestling Championship.
So Shaffer had a skill set that cannot be faked without strategic editing and choreography, and in “Win Win,” McCarthy shot the matches straight-on — no finessing required. Plus, every time McCarthy brought the young wrestler in to read, he saw recognizable improvement in his acting chops.
“This kid just had this quality that I found really unique,” McCarthy said. “We just kept bringing him back, and he kept getting a little better each time. It wasn't immediate, like ‘Boom — nailed it.' It wasn't like that at all. He just showed an aptitude.”
Plus, McCarthy said that, as a non-actor, Shaffer did not come to ‘Win Win' with a set of bad acting habits. When the director put together a rough cut of the film, McCarthy knew his bet had paid off.