Pittsburgh native Antoine Fuqua returns to direct 'Southpaw'



Jake Gyllenhaal is ripped and rough looking.

This is not the perfectly groomed, model-handsome actor from “Love & Other Drugs” but one molded and muscled from months in the gym, training long before production started in June on “Southpaw” in Western Pennsylvania.

Director Antoine Fuqua wanted him to convincingly play a light heavyweight boxer. A sneak peek at a smartphone photo shows Mr. Gyllenhaal has transformed himself.

The hair is short. The blood and ink are fake. But the abs are real and impressive. Very.

“He looks like a fighter. He’s got tattoos. He’s got everything. He’s got the eyes kind of messed up, the nose is different. Oh, yeah, he looks rough. He looks tough,” Mr. Fuqua, a Pittsburgh native, said recently over coffee in the lobby of the Fairmont Pittsburgh hotel, Downtown.

“I really wanted him to be a fighter. Right now, he’s been boxing so much, he’s in that mentality,” the director said of the actor who has portrayed cops, a military helicopter pilot with eight minutes to stop a bomb blast, a sixth-century prince of Persia, a newspaper cartoonist, a Marine and a heartsick cowboy.

“I had him sparring. We had Victor Ortiz, the real fighter. He’s in the movie. I had him here as well and they sparred, and Victor taught him some things, and Coach Terry [Claybon] from LA, who trains with me and Denzel, I brought him out. Other fighters were here, as well.”

Denzel, of course, is Denzel Washington, who won his second Oscar and first for a leading role in Mr. Fuqua’s “Training Day.” They reunite in “The Equalizer,” which will have its world premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival in September.

In the meantime, though, there is the deadline for “Southpaw,” which The Weinstein Co. could release as early as December, although no date has been announced.

Mr. Fuqua and film editor John Refoua (an Oscar nominee for “Avatar”) have been editing as they go along and apparently aren’t daunted by the timetable. “I like the energy of that. We shot all our huge boxing sequences up front. Normally I’ll do the hardest thing first. I just think people have more in them than they think.”

That strategy minimizes overthinking or second guessing although it can “freak the crew out” sometimes, he acknowledges.

In addition to Mr. Gyllenhaal as Billy Hope, a successful boxer who suffers a series of calamities, the cast includes Rachel McAdams as his wife; Oona Laurence from Broadway’s “Matilda” as the couple’s daughter, who is about 10 years old; Forest Whitaker as a trainer Billy finds at a low point in his life; 50 Cent as a manager and promoter; and Naomie Harris as a social worker.

Despite early Internet speculation, Oscar winner Lupita Nyong’o from “12 Years a Slave” is not among the cast.

The drama, written by Kurt Sutter (“Sons of Anarchy”), is about a champion boxer who loses everything after a death and goes into a downward spiral. The boxing, violence and language are expected to earn an R rating.

“Ultimately, the story’s about a father and daughter coming to terms with mourning and coming to terms with, ‘Who’s the parent?’ Learning how to be a parent, learning how to be a father, in particular,” Mr. Fuqua said.

As husband to actress Lela Rochon and father of a 12-year-old daughter, along with sons ages 21 (who worked on the movie) and 10, Mr. Fuqua said the story “really hit my heart. It’s a sports movie but it’s more about the father, learning how to be a dad without the mom when tragedy happens.”

Part-time dads, whose work takes them away from their families and such day-to-day details as school assignments and best friends, need to catch up on real life.

“This movie is forcing this man to learn how to be a dad and learn how to control his anger. In the boxing world, of course, it’s OK to be angry and be on the edge and be violent because you get paid for it. In the real world, you can’t go around punching people; it affects everyone.” Billy’s anger and rage as a fighter will destroy him or the most precious part of his life — his daughter — if he cannot tame his temper.

Mr. Fuqua, 48, has been boxing since his days in Pittsburgh and turned his suburban office here into a temporary communal gym, and Mr. Gyllenhaal, no stranger to workouts, as proven by “Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time” and “Jarhead,” embarked on rigorous training.

“Four months, twice a day, in the boxing gym. Every day, sometimes on Sundays, and he completely committed. In fact, that’s where I interviewed him,” the filmmaker recalled.

“Harvey Weinstein called me and said, ‘Well, you guys should meet.’ I said, ‘Well, let me see if he can throw a punch,’ ” the director recalled.

Mr. Gyllenhaal could, and the title “Southpaw” has a double meaning here, from the traditional use of the left hand to tapping into the other side of your brain. “In life, sometimes you have to switch your tactics, even as a parent. Kids age, you age, life moves forward,” Mr. Fuqua said.

The movie, set mainly in New York, shot in Pittsburgh and Indiana for roughly 40 days and planned a few days elsewhere.

Cast and crews went to IUP’s Kovalchick Convention and Athletic Complex; The Priory on the North Side; the McKeesport campus of human services agency Auberle; the Omni William Penn and other Downtown locations; and the communities of Sharpsburg, Wilkinsburg and Carrick.

Just as he had for the filmed-in-Pittsburgh “Warrior,” former police detective Jimmy Cvetic steered young athletes to the set, and Auberle opened its doors to “Southpaw” in a couple of ways, too.

“That was really special. I put some of the kids in the film when I could — I had to go through the process, of course,” said Mr. Fuqua, who also talked to some of the at-risk children about “their dreams and just going for it.” Auberle supporters acted as movie extras during a gala hotel scene and helped to raise almost $5,000 for the agency’s mission of “helping children and families heal themselves.”

So, whose idea was it to come to Pittsburgh?

The Allderdice High School grad initially wanted to make a movie here about the Pittsburgh Steelers, but that got “put on pause,” he says. “I had ‘Southpaw’ for about five or six years. I got it from Steven Spielberg when he was going to produce it.”

It was originally set in Detroit, but he asked about the best tax incentives, he heard Pittsburgh and realized the Steel City could double for New York. “Me and the producers looked at the numbers, and I said, for me, it’s great, I get to make a movie at home. But at the same time, it’s tough because I got to make a movie at home.”

Although the finish line was in sight, Mr. Fuqua was torn about having to leave his hometown again. After all, he is a former Hill District and Homewood resident whose parents reside in Penn Hills. He was a director of music videos who graduated to features with “The Replacement Killers” and “Bait” and made some awards noise and history with “Training Day.”

“This is when the depression kicks in, of course. For me, it’s a double-edged sword. You know, it’s great to be home — family’s here, friends, you see the city again. It’s an amazing feeling to come back, and it’s kind of a heartbreak. You mean it’s going to end now?

“There’s so much more I want to do and see here because it’s changed so much,” he said, and scouting might mean popping into a place and realizing, “Wow, this wasn’t here before.”

He said, “I’ve been looking around and thinking about buying some property here. My kids got to see it, so it’s a special place.”

Although some friends and relatives assumed Mr. Fuqua could find them parts in his hometown movie, they also got a lesson in how consuming his job can be. He sleeps only a couple of hours a night, always preparing for the next day or scouting on weekends or meeting with new actors joining the cast.

“Now I think they know that when I don’t call back right away when I’m out of town. They get a better sense of it. I’ve hired some of my cousins and family members to work on the movie, so they can also see up close this sort of controlled chaos that happens with filmmaking.”


Movie editor Barbara Vancheri: bvancheri@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1632. Read her blog: www.post-gazette.com/madaboutmovies.

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