Although Carell’s performance met with instant, near-unanimous acclaim after Foxcatcher‘s Cannes premiere, he was hardly an obvious choice for the role, which he disappears into so completely that an unaware viewer might not even recognize him. It’s not only the prosthetic nose that camouflages Carell’s famous face, or the accent (patrician with just a hint of a nasal Pennsylvania drawl), but the way he holds himself: a shy, socially inept man who is nonetheless accustomed to always getting his way.
Although he’d met Miller socially on a few occasions, Carell says he didn’t even know his agent had submitted him for the part until Miller asked to speak with him about it. “I wasn’t trying to find a role like this,” he says. “It just happened to fall in my lap. But if he believed I could do it, that was good enough for me.”
It’s not the first time Miller has cast pointedly against type; who else would have seen lumbering, soulful Philip Seymour Hoffman as the droll, lacerating Truman Capote? “I’m looking for understanding,” he explains. “Somebody who really gets this character and what’s going on. I’m always drawn into the thing that people are concealing, always curious about what somebody’s not expressing. Steve Carell is a fascinating person to me, because he’s such a public figure, and successful, and you don’t really know, publicly, anything about him. If I had to use an adjective to define his persona, I would say ‘benign.’ Not somebody who would end up doing what this character ends up doing—which is also what people thought of the actual character.”
The role of John du Pont had its challenges for Carell, including navigating the moment when he ran into Dave Schultz’s widow, Nancy, on set while he was in costume—although not, as some reports had it, in character. (“I’m not that guy,” Carell says. “Give me a break. An actor-y actor; that’s gross.”) But the process was not dissimilar, especially when it came to the substantial improvisations Miller asked of his cast.
“It’s closer than you would think” to making a movie like Dinner for Schmucks, Carell says. “Improv doesn’t work when people are just trying to think of funny things to say. If you’re honest about it, it has a better chance of working. Sometimes we would improvise as a means of understanding what was going on in a scene and how the characters were relating to each other. Often we’d improvise as a rehearsal technique and then come back to the words, or do a hybrid of both.”
That Foxcatcher contains a substantial amount of improvisation might come as a surprise; the film’s movement toward its tragic end feels too ineluctable to have been devised on the fly. But by Ruffalo’s account, as much as 20 or 30 percent of the scenes were built out of improv, and “literally almost everything you see is a physical improvisation around the words.”
He says as much as 50 percent of the dialogue was dropped from the final cut, whose silences speak as eloquently as any monologue. “So much of wrestling is communicating physically, whether it’s balance or countering a move or watching. You’re much more attuned to a physical world than a world of dialogue, reading a body in relationship to yours.”
“Bennett kept talking about those Zen gardens that have the stone in the middle and the rocks and trees around them,” Ruffalo says. “The stone is meant to be a tiny portion of something that’s buried, this mass that you cannot see. That’s this movie: You see the stone on top, and you sense something much, much larger underneath it.”
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Ruffalo picks another spiritual analogy to describe the making of Foxcatcher: the meditative practice of Vipassana, of which Miller is a practitioner. “It’s like silence for 10, 12, 15 days of sitting, for hours upon hours at a time,” he explains. “Everyone I’ve talked to says they’re literally sobbing for three or four days, and it’s the most confrontational thing they’ve ever done in their lives. The nature of his direction is informed by that. It was the most self-confronting experience I’ve ever had. Physical limitation, age, ability as an actor, confidence, being pretty or handsome: All of the things that you learn to hold onto, and that people actually treasure in you, were inconsequential. But at the end of these Vipassana courses, everyone comes out and says it was one of the most important things they’ve ever done. They come out with a lot of joy, thinking that it was a worthy suffering to go through. That’s how I feel about this movie.”
Tatum picks an earthier metaphor: wrestling. “It’s the weirdest juxtaposition of taking care of somebody and also destroying them, physically,” he says. “The training is such a breaking-down process, but afterwards it would be such a bonding, loving thing. It was the taking care of and the destroying, and that’s what this movie is.”
“Bennett and I couldn’t be from more different places in terms of where we grew up and how we learned,” Tatum says, “but one thing we have in common is this acceptance of masochism and pain in creating. He asked me once, ‘Do you ever think it’ll be not painful making a movie?'” Tatum laughs. “I was like, ‘Not for you, buddy.'” MM
Portraits by Dominic Arizona Bonuccelli. Stills courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics.