“I don’t believe in God,” actor Javier Bardem once said, “I believe in… Al Pacino.”
For many of us, movies are almost a religion. Good ones plumb the mystery of what it means to be human and to have a soul. Image and sound come together in a feat reminiscent of transubstantiation, where a bit of bread and a wine literally become the flesh and blood of Christ. Sure, plenty of movies fall short of miraculous, but when done with heart and soul and intelligence, movies can be transformative in a way that is unlike any other art form in existence.
This is certainly the case with director Ben Younger’s Bleed For This, executive-produced by none other than Martin Scorsese, something of a cinematic deity himself. “Martin Scorsese is my rabbi,” Younger laughs. (We should all be so lucky.)
Bleed For This is the true story of Cranston, Rhode Island’s favorite son, Vinny Pazienza: a scrappy and charismatic boxer who made a name in the ’80s and ’90s by winning world titles in three weight classes, boxing such legends as Hector “Macho” Camacho and Roberto Durán (the hero of this summer’s Hands of Stone). Soon after winning his 1991 junior middleweight title, Pazienza suffered a broken neck in a car wreck. The film tells the story of his comeback—three months spent in a medical device known as a Halo, a metal brace screwed into his skull. Pazienza disobeyed doctors’ orders and trained in secret, returning to the ring 13 months after the accident to regain the championship in 1992 and pulling off what is arguably the greatest comeback in boxing’s long and storied history. With the blessing of Rabbi Scorsese, Bleed For This began shooting in November 2014 in several locations in Rhode Island, including Warwick, Providence and Cranston, on a budget that Younger describes as “nothing.”
With the exception of his crooked nose and sleepy eyes, Miles Teller is almost unrecognizable as the flashy, swaggering Pazienza. The actor first gained notice six years ago in John Cameron Mitchell’s Oscar-nominated Rabbit Hole. Since then, he’s won viewers over as a sensitive high-schooler in The Spectacular Now, as an unforgettable music conservatory drummer who suffers the sting of J.K. Simmons’ perfectionistic wrath in Whiplash, as a YA icon in the Divergent series, and as an arms dealer in this summer’s comedy, War Dogs. As Pazienza, he gleefully flashes his chiseled body to the adoring press in an early scene; even considering the grueling training Teller did for Whiplash, this is the most physical role than he has played to date.
Meanwhile, a completely unrecognizable Aaron Eckhart plays the trainer who helps the battered Pazienza back on his feet—Kevin Rooney, a wreck of a man. (The actor’s classically Californian good looks are a little bit more evident in this fall’s Clint Eastwood-directed Sully, about the “Miracle on the Hudson” pilot Chelsey “Sully” Sullenberger (Tom Hanks); Eckhart plays Sullenberger’s first officer, Jeff Skiles.)
“I showed this movie to Steven Soderbergh,” says Younger. “He told me that he didn’t know that was Aaron for 10 minutes into the performance. This is a guy who’s directed Aaron! Didn’t know it was him.”
The physical transformation both actors undergo is stunning. But unless a transformation is backed by a performance of equal gravity onscreen, the body modification becomes so much vanity.
So what is it that makes a performance great? Actors are not always willing (or able) to shed light on the process, fearing a diminishment of powers like tribesmen fearing the camera’s soul-stealing potential. Such fears only underscore the almost mystical communion of energy, emotion and imagination that makes up a performance. To the outsider, it’s nothing short of black magic, but we asked our guys to explain anyway.
“Usually my process is this,” says Eckhart. “I’m scared shitless for two or three months before I do the movie, then I do the movie and I’m still scared shitless, and afterwards, when the movie comes out, I’m even more scared shitless.”
Fear is a powerful motivator in the creative process. Acting—real acting—is dangerous. But the fact that Eckhart continues to put himself out there hints at the rewards, whether spiritual, material or adrenal, of risk-taking. “If you can create all the parts,” he says, “and you can construct circumstances that are fictional, but seem real… it’s nirvana, man. You’ve reached the clouds. Very few people can do it.”
For its makers, Bleed For This started with a gnawing hunger. A New Yorker born and raised, Younger hit with his first feature in 2000, the Ebert-approved brokerage firm drama Boiler Room, which starred Giovanni Ribisi and Ben Affleck. The then 29-year-old was seemingly on his way, but the next 12 years proved rocky, with second feature Prime (2005) not quite landing with critics.
“When Aaron and I sat down that first day in L.A.,” he remembers of Bleed For This’ inception, “I said, ‘I want to be great.’ And he said: ‘So do I.’ And in that, there was a tacit acknowledgment that maybe we’d been somewhat less than that. I felt like I had not lived up to my potential. I was hungry enough to do it, and I wanted a partner who was, too. And I said, ‘Great. Let’s go do that. Let’s go do exactly that.’ The idea that our contemporaries were doing work that we admired… was a very strong motivator.”
That desire to be great took guts, though Eckhart had no misconceptions about their prospects. With a résumé that spans indie excellence (Erin Brockovich, Thank You For Smoking) and cultural ubiquity (The Dark Knight) as well as a number of critical clunkers (Olympus Has Fallen), he possesses a sobriety that comes with experience and an intimacy with failure. “Everything’s a risk. Shakespeare said it: ‘Fortune favors the bold.’ Anybody that I admire has risked it all. You have to put it all out there, and believe that failure is your best friend in success.”
“I was shocked to be cast,” says Teller, for his part. “When I met Ben, I’d just finished playing the ‘funny friend’ in [romantic-comedy] That Awkward Moment. I was not in good shape or anything—so Ben definitely took a chance on me. It takes someone with a little imagination; I give Ben a lot of credit for that.”
It’s a testament to Younger’s instincts that he cast—alongside Ciarán Hinds and Katey Sagal, who play Pazienza’s proud, tormented parents—his two somewhat-unlikely stars. This is vision: seeing what no one else sees. “My favorite thing is to take an actor and show a side of that actor that the public has not seen before,” Younger says. “Vin Diesel as a stock broker in Boiler Room—we’d never seen him do that before, nor have we since.”
As the past-his-prime Rooney, Eckhart is at times taciturn and snarly, at others drunkenly, pathetically voluble. He gained 50 pounds to play the role, eating an entire pizza before going to bed every night and inhaling a banana split every morning when he woke up. The performance was “a huge risk,” he says. “I’m not known for accents or that kind of thing. Every single day was like stepping off the ledge. The first time I opened up my mouth in front of the crew—that accent was so scary.”
Teller had something to prove, too; critics to silence: “I had a chip on my shoulder because I was the last person that anyone would’ve thought about to play this role, so I was looking forward to proving everyone wrong.”
Grand sentiments, yes. So how did English/Irish/Russian-Jewish Teller from Lecanto, Florida transform into an Italian-American from Cranston? If movies and TV have taught us anything, it’s that the Italian-Americans of the Northeast are not exactly a forgiving people—so Teller’s transformation was a heavy responsibility. The fact too, that Vinny Paz is very much alive (he’s 53) only added to the obligation to do right.