A few days ago the velvet rope dropped for actor Holt McCallany, recognized at last not as a supporting player in the land where stars rule, but as a man who at last has arrived. .
By stepping through ropes, entering the television ring as former heavyweight champion of the world, Patrick “Lights” Leary in the critically acclaimed and audience growing FX show “Lights Out” (Tuesday 10 PM ET), McCallany commands attention.
In the world of “Lights” nothing is as easily defined as it may appear. He’s struggling to make ends meet and make sense of it all for his family after the glory fades. Even in the summation, the layers need peeling. He is a character that could easily become a caricature void of an actor with the sheer physical presence and the chops to deftly weave between pugilistic and poignant.
McCallany is so believable it’s easy to assume this New Jersey native himself grew up on mean streets, lived in gyms and can throw a better than average punch. That is accurate, partially, for like his character there are layers to what has led to McCallany becoming a front of the line guy in Tinseltown.
Another factor in McCallany’s stirring portrayal comes from years of honing his craft, appearing in such films as “Three Kings,” “Fight Club,” and “Vantage Point.” But yes, he really can throw a punch from years of training in MMA and boxing. The economy of motion he brings to the role comes first from being an athlete.
“It’s the reason I got the part. It would’ve been hard to take a guy in his forties who had never boxed a day in his life and make him look like a former heavyweight champ,” McCallany assesses from his Los Angeles home.
An inner layer in the truth of the actor is his education far from the ring. He grew up in an artistic family, studied in Ireland and France and handles a keyboard as a writer as well as he works a speed bag. It is perhaps this element of his life that makes his fictional Leary feel real.
“Yes I went to boarding school, I’m an avid reader, love history. Now I play a boxer from Bayonne, New Jersey, Irish working class background,” adding quickly,”But I had to give him intellect. There’s a misperception about fighters I wanted to humanize.”
For that he drew upon two close friends, two legends in combative sports, MMA champ Bas Rutten and boxing trainer and analyst Teddy Atlas, whom he portrayed in the movie “Tyson.” Over the years when he was preparing for a fight scene “from boxing to a back alley brawl” he would glean their expertise. “Bas and Teddy are so smart, I don’t know what their IQ’s are but I know they are way up there.”
The extraordinary Atlas is the technical advisor on “Lights Out.” And Rutten, in addition to years of sparring and assisting McCallany in choreographing cinematic pugilism, “he has an encyclopedic mind for this,” helped frame the foundation in his approach to the role.
“My character and the real life Bas are very similar, that’s my thinking. Very tough guys with very kind hearts. They each have tender relationships with their daughters. When I read the script and saw “Lights” had a wife and daughters, I immediately thought of the great family man Bas is, in addition to being one of the greatest MMA champions.
“It’s that relationship my character has with his family that has given us a steady increase in women viewers. I am proud of breaking the stereotype boxer as a Palooka. He’s dedicated himself to something very difficult, challenging yet there is a nobility about it and about him. We choose in him the things most important. Part of our stories try to persuade him to go for broke. But he always comes back to the woman he loves, the family he has.”
For McCallany the only way to consistently appeal to a wide audience, to gain empathy as well as create some of television’s best ever fight scenes was to establish depth from within, further peeling away preconceived notions from a viewer.
“I didn’t want to play him having a lot of baggage where he’s not likable. Yeah, he misses fighting, feels he has a couple of good fights left, that’s part of him. And I’ve seen that with certain other guys. “Lights” loses his last fight in a controversial decision. Joe Frazier never seemed to get over Ali. Marvin Hagler never got over Sugar Ray Leonard. But you can’t sustain a weekly show with just boxing. Week in week out the audience has to like him.”
McCallany has succeeded in making this role his own. From reflecting on the years of “wondering why I didn’t get that role, of waiting for that next job,” he seized this moment with his own brand of heavyweight mental toughness.
“You have to feel a particular way about yourself. You have to realize you deserve to be there, have that belief and carry yourself accordingly. This is my chance to shine and with that comes some challenges and responsibilities.”
As he prepared for the audition, McCallany delved into his background; years of acting, a student of movies, an athlete in his own right. It enabled him in finding the soul of “Lights” a man with an identification but still searching for an identity. His life had totally prepared him to play a life in what is the classic screen sports scenario, the travails of the boxer.
“You can’t reinvent the wheel. Hollywood has had a long time love affair with boxing. “Rocky,” “Raging Bull,” John Garfield in “Body and Soul.” I really like Mark Wahlberg’s “The Fighter,” and I’m friends with Micky Ward. Two other favorites are my ‘dad’ Stacy Keach (“Lights” Leary’s Pops ) in “Fat City” and (director) Robert Wise’s “The Set- Up.”
“That pantheon of guys made audiences respond to not just boxing but to feel for the boxer, appreciate their dedication, take the journey with them. It’s an honor to walk in their footsteps playing a heavyweight champion of the world.”
With the praise from the critics, fan mail and positive response from the fight community, McCallany might have scored his biggest punch recently on a Saturday night in Hollywood when he, Rutten and six other buddies approached a famous night spot.
“Trying to get past the velvet rope, always a test out here,” he laughs. “I walk up, the guy at the door says ‘Lights Leary’ come on in. I say ‘It’s me and well seven other dudes.’ No problem, rope goes down, we go in. I never had had that experience. It’s a different landscape for me. Gratifying after a lot of lean years. But you gotta be prepared. I’m a lucky guy.”
A lucky guy with smarts, dedication and a pretty impressive left-right combination. As “Lights” keeping stepping through the ropes into the prime time shine, McCallany’s perseverance and talent has paid off. The gloves are on, the velvet rope is down.
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