Breaking the Mold: Bodybuilder Mo Anouti Turns Actor and Producer in Hero of the Day

If you’re a would-be moviemaker nervous about the dive from a non-creative job into the risky waters of filmmaking, rest assured, at least, that you aren’t alone. Career change is a daunting prospect, and the thought of being stuck treading water, without the twin lifeboats of formal training or connections, has deterred many a brave soul.

Not Mo Anouti, though. The 39-year-old champion bodybuilder-turned-actor/producer/writer (not your everyday hyphenate, certain mega-famous examples excepting) moved to Los Angeles in 2004 to forge his path in the business. 10 years later, the Lebanese-Russian former athlete has a feature that he conceived, produced, and starred in—Hero of the Day, opening on VOD today.

Hero of the Day tells the story of a one-time star football player, Mark Chambers (Anouti), who agrees to let two filmmakers (Paul Dietz and Lisa Cullen) follow him for a day as they shoot a documentary on the former sports legend. As the filmmakers quickly find out, though, Chambers is broke, unemployed, and desperate to support his young son by whatever means necessary. In a perhaps subconscious drive to regain the admiration he knew on the field, Chambers also seems inclined toward a kind of vigilante justice, which leads him and his biographers to dangerous places.

The aging athlete struggling with the transition into normal life is often-explored thematic territory, to be sure (think Darren Aronofsky’s The Wrestler), but it’s not hard to see why the subject resonated with Anouti. “The film has parallels with my own personal life,” he says. “There came a point in my athletic career when I realized I couldn’t do it forever. It’s always hard on someone who’s making a living on their physical strength—they have a shelf life. I wanted a future for myself that was solid.”

Beyond that fear, his exploration of such a close-to-home subject was motivated by sympathy. “I’ve seen a lot of athletes at the top of their game… and then it stops. I have a lot of close friends who are really struggling. The film’s about dealing with that kind of finality. It’s a tribute to people who were great at one point in their lives, but not able to make that transition.”

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In the years he spent in Hollywood prior to Hero of the Day, Anouti had been slowly but surely accumulating credits, including appearances in television series like The Young and the Restless, Chuck, and The Cape. But despite a two-year acting education at the Lee Strasberg institute (where he worked hard to overcome a stage fright that surprised him after a lifetime bodybuilding), his towering, comic-book physique made him a difficult fit for everyman-type roles. (His IMDb page lists characters identified more by their larger-than-life proportions than by, say, names: He played “Burly Butler,” “Bodyguard #1,” and “Armed Guard” respectively in the three aforementioned series.) Anouti says this typecasting is a common situation for athletes trying to make it on the screen: “Most of the auditions you get are bouncer, bodyguard—not what I thought would challenge myself.”

His search outside of the strongman bubble led him to a conclusion faced by many frustrated artists: If you want something done, do it yourself. “I didn’t want to sit around and wait for something to happen. What ideas did I have that could make a quality—and financeable—film?” In 2011, he founded the independent film company Arwayne Productions, and started pitching his stories to the friends he had met over the years in Hollywood—including Christopher Allen Nelson, a top special effects make-up artist-turned-actor/screenwriter. Nelson, whom Anouti calls his “mentor” in the art of career change, asked for some time to pen the screenplay for Hero of the Day. Four weeks later, it was ready.

Anouti and his wife, Hadia Kawtharani (Hero of the Day’s executive producer), financed the film entirely on their own, supplying their “SAG ultra-low budget” with the funds they’d been saving to buy a house. “I am very blessed when it comes to family. I’ve always had my wife’s support,” says Anouti. “When I came to her with the idea, to my complete shock, she told me, ‘I know how much this means to you. We can always save more money for a house, but I think this is the right time for you to do this.’”

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Mark (Anouti) and Allen (Paul Dietz) in Hero of the Day

For director, Anouti tapped yet another industry friend with multiple hats: Eddie Conna, whose successful stuntman career had branched off into writing, directing and producing. Three weeks of pre-production ensued, after which the team shot the film in a mere 14 days—“all of it in Los Angeles,” says Anouti, a fact that he is proud of. The moviemaker is extremely passionate about his adopted home, and what he sees as the essential vitality of its indie scene. “I think it’s unfortunate that a lot of film business is moving to other states that offer more incentives. [Shooting in L.A.] is more expensive, but I have a lot of friends who work here, and they are hit hard when business moves away.”

While a little rough in places, Hero of the Day is carried by an ambitious narrative and the compelling onscreen presence of Anouti as the flailing ex-superstar haunted by the glories of his past. Via the film’s found footage device, takes are uniformly long, placing a lot of the weight on the actors’ shoulders—especially one (very) extended scene in a Fight Club-like setting, in which Chambers battles an astoundingly tenacious opponent amidst a raucous crowd. Stunt coordinator Tony Donno and Anouti worked for months choreographing the fight, playing on of the actor’s background in karate and kickboxing. The scene took 12 hours altogether to shoot, and is perhaps the most impressively realized segment of the film. “The satisfying thing for me and my fellow actor,” recalls Anouti, “was when [the extras] came up to ask us if we were really hitting each other.”

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Anouti in a still from the movie’s nearly 10-minute long fight scene

Anouti says that audience members at various screenings have come up to him to chat post-movie, only to address him by his character’s name. He observes, chuckling, that such is the lot—indeed, the goal—of the found-footage star: “My hopes were for someone to see the film and not know if it’s a documentary or acting.” To that end, it was a deliberate choice to cast unknowns, though he acknowledges the challenges the film now faces in reaching audiences on VOD without the safety net of a famous name.

Still, Anouti sees value in coming into moviemaking later than some. He’s thankful for his bodybuilding career, which he says stocked him with the requisite “dedication, discipline and hard work” one needs to survive the demands of the industry. With his gung-ho energy and focus, Anouti has made his career transition a lot more triumphantly than the ex-athlete he plays in Hero of the Day— and serves as a role model to all those contemplating a similar change. MM

Hero of the Day is available on Video on Demand (Amazon Instant and Cinema Libre On Demand) starting October 30, 2014, as well as on DVD. The film won Breakthrough Director Spotlight Award and the People’s Choice Award for Best Director at the 2012 Hollywood Reel Independent Film Festival, as well as Best Feature and Audience Choice at the 2012 Independent Film Quarterly Film Festival.

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