People are often reluctantly forced to contend with the mistakes they’ve made in both their professional and personal lives as they grow older. Not only are the two main characters in director Peter Segal’s new boxing comedy ‘Grudge Match’-retired Pittsburgh boxing rivals who have an unresolved feud in the ring-finally given the opportunity to mend their disputes, but the actors in the movie, Sylvester Stallone and Robert De Niro, are also settling their legendary boxing rivalry on screen. Their unresolved fight over who’s the champion of boxing films is humorously played out against the humanity of coming to terms with getting older and accepting their new identities.
‘Grudge Match’ follows Billy “The Kid” McDonnen (De Niro) and Henry “Razor” Sharp (Stallone), whose fierce rivalry in the boxing ring them thrust into the national spotlight. Each had scored a victory against the other during the early 1980s during the prime of their boxing careers. However, on the eve of their decisive third match in 1983, Razor unexpectedly announced his retirement from the sport, and refused to explain why he refused to challenge The Kid one last time. Thirty years later, as boxing promoter Dante Slate, Jr. (Kevin Hart) sees his chance opportunity to make money, and makes the two former competitors a chance of a lifetime offer: the opportunity to reenter the ring and finally settle the score. Much to the objection of Razor’s trainer, Louis “Lightning” Conlon (Alan Arkin) and former love, Sally (Kim Basinger), he decides to put an end his long-standing rivalry with The Kid once and for all.
Segal, along with several of the main stars from the comedy, including De Niro, Stallone, Basinger and Hart, generously took the time recently to participate in a press conference at New York City’s Ritz Carlton Hotel, Battery Park, to talk about filming ‘Grudge Match.’ Among other things, the director and actors discussed how Stallone initially had no interest in making another boxing movie, but De Niro convinced him to appear alongside him in the comedy, after speaking to Segal about the idea for the plot; while Stallone and De Niro enjoyed training for their fight sequences, they appreciated that the story allowed their characters to have the chance to correct the mistakes in their life that will make them feel fulfilled; and how they felt comfortable on the set, as Segal allowed the actors to bring whatever they felt was necessary to their characters to make the story feel genuine.
Question (Q): Sylvester and Robert, had you two been talking about doing a boxing comedy together?
Sylvester Stallone (SS): Actually, I had no intentions of doing this. It was something I thought was absurd. No one wants to see another boxing film, especially when you’re 160-years-old. (laughs) But then Robert called me, and we talked a lot about it with the studios heads, and they convinced me that I was completely wrong.
Robert De Niro (RDN): I liked the idea of us doing it. That was it. (laughs) But we had never talked about it. The idea came from Pete Segal, who I met at a party around a year earlier. Then it started, and then we started talking about it.
Peter Segal (PS): What attracted these guys to it was, obviously, we are winking at their iconography. I’m always attracted to stories that straddle comedy and drama, and I knew that this was, obviously, going to be a funny movie. But I also knew the fight had to be taken seriously for it to work. There were really only two people who could do that-these two guys.
There was good and bad aspects of getting this green-lit. The good part was we knew who had to be in this movie. The bad part was if we didn’t get those guys, there would be no movie. Bob has had a little more experience lately, winking at ‘The Godfather’ with ‘Analyze This.’ So I had to convince Sly this was a way to do a really interesting story, without holding a gun and killing someone.
Q: The storyline centers on aging as well as staying in shape. What are your thoughts about that?
SS: I’ve always enjoyed working out, but this thing was pretty extraordinary. We got to prove that you don’t have to be crawling around at a certain age, or that you’re obliged to start winding down. Plus I think a lot of people, as they reach 60 and above, think, I have some unfinished business.
Unfortunately, life does not afford you the opportunity to go back and right the wrong. So this is the beauty of fantasy and imagination-to be able to have these guys go and correct the moment in their life that will make their life feel somewhat fulfilled. That’s the fantasy, and I think that’s where the empathy comes in with the audience.
Q: Sylvester and Robert, back when you made ‘Rocky’ and ‘Raging Bull,’ if somebody asked you if you thought you’d still be doing this at this age, what would your answer have been?
SS: I would have punched him. I would’ve said, “Are you crazy?” (laughs) No, when we started out, there was ‘Rocky,’ and that was it. I didn’t know ‘Rocky’ would just keep going. So the answer is no.
RDN: No, I didn’t even know if I’d be around, but I’m glad I am.
Q: Sylvester, what did you think of ‘Raging Bull,’ and Robert, what did you think of ‘Rocky?’
SS: I never saw his movie.
RDN: I never saw his, either. (laughs)
SS: ‘Raging Bull’ is probably one of the most brilliant biographies of all time. It’s just incredible and timeless, and Bob gave a great perfect performance.
RDN: They’re two different styles of films. ‘Rocky’ was very well done, and in all honesty, with the ones I saw in the series, I was impressed with what Sylvester had done as a craftsman.
Q: What kind of training did you go through for ‘Grudge Match?’
SS: The training was hard.
RDN: I worked with the same trainer Sylvester has worked with for about 10 years, and he was great, and a big help. In fact, we also used him in ‘Hands of Stone’ (in which De Niro has been cast as Robert Duran’s trainer, Ray Arcel).
Q: Was there any rivalry in the training sessions?
SS: Oh, I couldn’t wait to fight Bob. I thought, since ‘Raging Bull,’ he’s crossed the line!
But the way we trained here, it was like if you were casting the lead in the ‘Nutcracker Suite’ or ‘Swan Lake,’ and you don’t get to see your lead dancer until the curtain goes up. He had to train on the East Coast and I had to train on the West Coast. We couldn’t get together, so by the time we finally got in the ring together, I was thinking, “Oh, God, I hope he looks good, I hope he can punch.”
With the ‘Rocky’ films, we had about five or six months of preparation, and you’re working every day. But we didn’t have that opportunity on this film, so I have to give Bob a little credit for his professionalism.
RDN: I worked as hard as I could to get to the point where we would meet. Sylvester choreographed it and laid it out, and my trainer would come over and we would work on it. Then we got together and worked for a couple of days, and we worked it out. Sylvester made it all happen. I was just following him.
Kim Basinger (KB): Kevin, why don’t you talk about our trainer?
Kevin Hart (KH): He was a guy in North Dakota. (laughs) I was pissed off because I actually worked out and I never got to take my shirt off. That threw me for a loop. I was promised a semi-nude scene. It didn’t happen at all so I wasted my time, with my trainer in North Dakota.
Q: Kevin, you have a supporting role in the film. Can you talk about starring in the movie with the rest of the cast?
KH: I think I’m up here as a student of the game with a bunch of stars, from Sly to Bobby to Alan to Kim. I was in great company, and a kid in a candy store. I starred with people I’ve admired for a long time, and had successful careers. For me, it was about sitting back and watching how they work, and appreciating how they approach the craft. Spending o much time with these guys was a dream come true. It makes you feel good, when you’re in good company. That’s what ‘Grudge Match’ was to me.
SS: What really made this thing fly is the inspired casting of Kevin Hart. It really brought in a whole new demographic. It’s one thing to see grumpy old men fight. You bring in Kevin Hart and I’s like, wow.
Also, what’s great about Alan is that he can yawn, and it would be funny. He’s yawning now. (laughs)
Q: Kim, the film focuses on the rivalry between the guys. What was the experience of working with these legends, and being the only woman on the set?
KB: I’m the only girl there, so it was great. It was quite a ride because they work differently and they’re both hilarious. So I had a really great experience making the film. Our characters all hated each other in the beginning of the story, so it was fun working out not hating each other by the end of the movie. Stallone’s a jokester. De Niro’s quiet and sneaky. (laughs) He has different layers.
Q: It was great watching all these edgy characters interact with each other. For the cast, what did you enjoy most about your roles?
Alan Arkin (AA): For the past five years, I’ve been playing characters very much like this. These days I ask, on what page do I go into the adult home, and what page do I die? (laughs) I make it to page 84, okay. (laughs) This guy had a sense of humor, which I really liked. That aspect took away from the other characters who I’ve played, who don’t have a sense of humor.
I also got to listen to this guy (gestures to Stallone) complain non-stop in the make-up chair every morning. People want to go to the movies to see characters who have issues.
KH: I got a chance to play a jackass. I was a fast talking con artist, almost myself (laughs); very close to who I am. So it was a no-brainer for me. I got to cuss Sly, which is good. One take, I got to say ‘shit’ to his face. In my mind, I felt like I won a fight. I called my dad afterward and said, “I just said shit to Sylvester Stallone.” (laughs) It was good. Dante’s like any promoter in boxing; it’s all about the business and yourself.
Q: For the actors, what was the overall experience of working together on the set?
KH: You can’t have a great movie, if you don’t get along with people that you’re working with. Here, there was a cordial, nice, comfortable environment on the set. It wasn’t uptight. You didn’t feel like you couldn’t walk around certain people and say certain things and have conversations. That’s what I enjoy the most-the comfortable environment that we go to work in. I credit Pete, as well, as a director. He let us bring what we thought we needed to in order to make the material better.
Q: Peter, what was the experience of working with the Oscar-winning cast?
PS: When you first realize you’re working with these guys who you’ve always loved, and all of a sudden they’re flesh and blood in front of you. You’re going, ‘what have we done here?’ Then you look at Sly and Bob, and then Alan, Kim and Kevin join the group and, it turned it into a dream come true. We all worked really hard getting the script ready and, that we were able to get this cast was extraordinary, and then to watch them work and the workouts these guys put in. Bob lost 35 pounds and Sly was in incredible shape. The amount of belief in the movie is tremendous and they all had it and that’s why we were thrilled with how it came out.
KB: You’re forever a student in this life. I’m especially blessed to be in this profession. You do learn from your co-stars and every experience, and you take from that. No one knows everything. There’s always a new camera and a new day. The first day of shooting is always like the first day of school. You’re always a little nervous; if I wasn’t nervous, I’d quit. You always learn from everyone.