Interviews: Meg Ryan on Against the Ropes

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Meg Ryan stars as Jackie Kallen in Paramount’s Against the Ropes, opening on February 20. The drama is inspired by the true story of Kallen, the most successful female manager in boxing history. Kallen is a smart, gutsy woman who wanted to break out of a dead-end job as she knew she was meant for more. She gets her chance when she sees Luther Shaw (Omar Epps) in a brawl and knows he’s a champion in the raw. Determined to follow her heart, she becomes Luther’s boxing manager and convinces him that he can fight his way out of a thug life. Together with veteran trainer Felix Reynolds (Charles S. Dutton), Jackie and Luther discover they need each other to realize their dreams and take the boxing world by storm.

Ryan says she was able to consult Jackie about the role. “Jackie was really, really so generous, I mean she answered all of my questions, who does that?! When you find a kind of affinity across a perceived sort of gap that you’re just involved in such an entirely different world, but I think we seem to have traversed similar terrain. So it’s great just to get to know someone.” One of the big things for Meg was getting the voice right. “She’d let me tape her at lunch and things like that. Then she actually recorded the script a couple of times so that I could just listen to the ‘r’s and ‘a’s and all the different sounds. It was really fun. For me, I thought it was really important when you’re interpreting a person to find elements that are the most striking. To me, it’s a character who really, deeply wants to be seen and heard and the voice is the tool for that. It really was distinct in my ear. She had a very, very strong, unavoidable sound and look, and everything, so, you know, to me it was important.”

She adds that you never get over the fact that you’re doing a person in front of them. “This is so strange, you know, but it was great. I mean on the one hand it was amazing because Jackie is the ultimate resource about herself and she was incredibly generous with her time.” Meg also doesn’t think it’s easy for people to just agree to having a film made about themselves. “I don’t know any of us who could just say, ‘All right guys, you go off and make your movie about me.’ That’s a pretty gutsy thing to do, to kind of surrender to a process that is sometimes very complicated.”

The character shows vulnerability in the film, but was that something Meg saw in Jackie or did it come from the fact that she was a woman in a situation like this? “Both, I find Jackie to be like a cream puff,” she said laughing. “I also know, as a woman, navigating an oppressive environment like that – they’re very busy underestimating you and they’re very busy not wanting you there – it’s going to be painful. There’s a lot of kind of moves you can make that sort of distract people from that, from realizing that about how you feel, but it’s real.”

In the film, the character gets a little swept away by the media attention, but that was opposite of what Meg was like early in her career. “One of the cool things about playing this character was that, it’s crazy. It was one of the things that was cool for me, and sort of healing, in a way, for me, ’cause I had the absolute opposite reaction to the spotlight that Jackie did. People all have different reactions to getting the light shown on them. I mean if I could’ve faded into the woodwork, I would have. Jackie had just the opposite reaction to it and to sort of not just have an intellectual understanding that you can have all kinds of experiences with fame. But to be in it and kind of go, ‘yeah, bring it on, shine the light, look at me!’ To be in the shoes of that was a very healing experience for me.”

Meg didn’t know much about boxing before getting involved with the project, but that quickly changed. “I’d seen a documentary called ‘When We Were Kings.’ It’s a beautiful documentary. If I could understand the people and understand the sports drama is, to me, when you understand, personally what these triumphs and tragedies and victories represent to an individual’s journey. So that was part of my way in and Jackie was incredible ’cause she came over and we watched tapes and tapes and tapes of fights, and we went to boxing matches and I read a lot about boxing. I think what I really came to see is that in the end there’s something so pure about that sport, something so unadulterated about what happens in the ring, as opposed to what happens in the immediate vicinity of the ring, the world of boxing, right. I was really taken with that. There’s no helmets, there’s no masks, there’s no ball, there’s no goal way over there. There’s just these two guys honestly in there in the most fierce kind of competition. I couldn’t help but appreciate that kind of purity and then I also understood, like when I went to some of these matches, there’s a real release that happens for the audience as well. There’s this aggression that is a big difference between fighting and boxing, and that I think is a very, very fundamental differentiation I was in the end able to make.”

She says she got lots of coaching from both Jackie and Charles S. Dutton about what to do ringside. “It’s so cool to be an actor, really, for that. I mean if you’re a curious person, it’s a world I never would’ve investigated. But I’m really happy that I did. I found a lot of parallels between the boxing world and Hollywood, how they treat women. They’re very happy to underestimate, how they’re happy to kind of, you know, label you because you look a certain way. The boxing metaphors are so perfect. Like when you get knocked down! You get a low blow! You’re down for the count! Hit me with your best shot!”

The film was shot in Toronto, which was a first for Ryan. “Do you know I’d never worked in Canada before? I never had. And I had to say, the crew up there was absolutely amazing and the hours that they work, I mean it is nuts. That was a very, very scrappy and very, very impressive, very energetic bunch of guys like I hadn’t seen in a long time.” Unfortunately she didn’t get too much free time though. “We were shooting in Hamilton, which is like forty minutes away from Toronto. I mean every now and then I’d go for a walk, it was like that. And every now and then I went to this place, I’d drive over to this place called The Beaches in Toronto, a cool little area. But I didn’t get much free time, I gotta be honest.”

After this experience, does Meg have any favorite boxers? “Three things immediately come to my mind, one is Lucia Reiker. She’s amazing. She’s so amazing no one will fight her, which is sad, which is the boxing world for you. Then, overall I really like to watch the lightweights, because I really like how they move faster and it’s just usually a more exciting fight. You can’t help, but you just got to love that Muhammad Ali. I watched a lot of documentaries and read a lot about him. The more you know about him, the more you just fall in love with him.”