Interview: Star Paul Giamatti and scene-stealer Alex Shaffer on Win Win

“What is it like to be as good as you are?” The question comes up in Win Win, director Tom McCarthy’s family dramedy about a high school wrestling coach whose life finds new meaning when he and his wife take in a teenager who, though troubled, happens to know his way around the mat.

The same question could be asked of the film’s leading men, Academy Award-nominee Paul Giamatti (Cinderella Man) and rookie actor and high school wrestling state champion Alex Shaffer. As acclaimed stars in their respected fields, Giamatti and Shaffer share major screen time as Mike and Kyle, a coach and athlete who together learn that winning doesn’t always mean finishing first.

During an interview with the Current at the SXSW Film Festival last month, Giamatti and Shaffer discussed the intense nature of wrestling and who kicked whose ass during the shoot.

Paul, I imagine you doing your research for this role by going to wrestling matches and just staring intently at the coaches the whole time. Is that how it worked out?

Paul Giamatti: Yeah, I was looking at the coaches. I paid more attention to them. I was really amazed. When I smack `Alex` in the movie, it’s really a thing these `coaches` do, but some of them smack `the wrestlers` in the face without the headgear. They get really physical with those kids. It’s intense to watch.

In the past you’ve talked about losing yourself in a character. Was it a challenge to play someone who seems to be more like who you are in real life?

PG: Yeah, I don’t think I’ve ever played a character before where I thought, “This guy feels like me.” It was different for me to do. I usually play guys who have much more complicated places they go. Not that this guy isn’t a complex man, but he doesn’t dwell in those places. It was tricky for me. Part of it is because as an actor I tend to flip over the rock and look at the crawly, ugly things underneath it. It’s not that he’s vapid, but he just doesn’t go to those places.

Alex, talk about the scene where you wrestle Paul to the ground. Were you worried you might hurt him?

Alex Shaffer: I remember there was a stunt double, but he didn’t do that scene. Before we shot that scene Paul was like, ‘You never let me do `my own stunts`. I want to do it!’ so we ended up doing it. I wasn’t that nervous. Paul’s a tough guy. He told us he woke up the next morning and he was like, “`moans in pain`.”

PG: It’s not like I was scared of the kid or anything. I could kick his ass.

Do you consider yourself a jock or an athlete and is there a difference between the two?

AS: An athlete, just because I’m an athletic kid. Jocks are like…I don’t know. What is the difference? A jock is like that one guy in that nerd movie.

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