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There's nothing fake about this wrestler in 'Win Win'

Seeking authenticity, director Tom McCarthy cast Alex Shaffer, a novice in acting but a real-life champion in high school wrestling.

March 24, 2011|By Steven Zeitchik, Los Angeles Times
  • In "Win Win," a part-time wrestling coach (Paul Giamatti), takes in a troubled teen (Shaffer).
In "Win Win," a part-time wrestling coach (Paul Giamatti),… (Kimberly Wright / ox Searchlight…)

reporting from new york — When New Jersey teenager Alex Shaffer told his parents he wanted to audition for a part as a high school wrestler in Tom McCarthy's "Win Win," they said he couldn't go — but not because they were against him becoming an actor.

At first, Mike Shaffer recalled, "both my wife and I said the same thing. 'Sure, let's go.' And then, unfortunately, we realized Alex couldn't take the day off" because the teen had an actual high school wrestling meet the same day.

Instead, the sophomore sent in a packet of wrestling press clips to the casting agent whose name appeared on an ad in a local paper. A few weeks later, Shaffer was called to a meeting in New York City. McCarthy, known to have an exacting manner with actors, wound up summoning Shaffer back about eight times to read for the part and even paid a visit to one of Shaffer's wrestling matches.

Last March, Shaffer won a state championship. The next day, he began shooting a movie opposite some of the independent film world's biggest stars.

"Win Win," which was a hot ticket when it opened in three L.A. theaters over the weekend, widens to seven screens in the area this weekend. Shaffer's turn as Kyle, a disaffected teenager and competitive wrestler taken in by a part-time high school wrestling coach (Paul Giamatti) and his wife (Amy Ryan), has garnered strong reviews for its authenticity. In an era when many on-screen teenagers are portrayed as preternaturally smart and polished, Kyle comes off as polite but laconic and a bit removed. He has little desire to spend time around most adults and seemingly even less of a desire to speak to them.

"I was tired of seeing 16-year-olds who are so emotionally attuned and articulate," recalled McCarthy ("The Visitor"). "Most 16-year-olds are like Alex: They're hearing it all and taking it all in. They're just not letting you know that." McCarthy added: "He had qualities that were oddly very much like how Kyle was written on the page."

As he sat in a corner of an empty gym last year in a public school on New York's Long Island where the movie was being shot, as well as in a follow-up interview, Shaffer evinced the traits that drew McCarthy to him.

The teenager had never acted professionally and barely even performed in school plays (the one credit he calls to mind was "The Pirates of Penzance" in the sixth grade). Then he heard that a movie production was seeking a teenage wrestler. "My friend texted me: 'You should audition for this. It's in the newspaper.' And I was like, 'No, man.' At the time, I was focusing on wrestling. And my friend was like, 'No, dude, you should audition. It's a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.' And I thought about it, and he was right."

Shaffer said he didn't feel star-struck when he got to the set but did get excited when he saw Amy Ryan. "I was like, 'Dude, that's Holly from "The Office." ' I couldn't believe it." Overall, he says he didn't interact that much with other actors when they weren't working. "I'd mostly be sleeping. I'm a big day sleeper."

An injury has stopped Shaffer from wrestling in this, his junior year, and a few months ago he left high school to focus on acting. (He still takes online classes.) Now 17, he has a manager and agent, and like many teenagers who show little enthusiasm for school ("School's just not fun at all") but throw themselves into a particular endeavor, Shaffer says he has responded to acting the way he did his sport.

"Discipline's a big thing with both wrestling and acting. You have to be committed. Every weekend I was doing a little something, and the same with acting, whether it's reading a script or going to an acting lesson or an audition," he says.

Many Southland kids are versed in the ways of Hollywood long before they've mastered algebra. But Shaffer is pretty far removed from the game, and in fact his brush with Hollywood has come with a stigma from his friends "We'll be in Chili's, and they'll be like, 'Oh My God, there's Alex Shaffer,' just being jerks.""

Mike Shaffer, however, is opposed to his son moving to Los Angeles, which Alex has expressed an interest in doing. "He can move to the city [New York] and be there for a while, be close to us, and when he gets a little older, move there. It's easy to get wrapped up in things out there."

As for Alex, he says he hasn't given up on high school. "I'll definitely graduate and then concentrate on acting until I feel the need to go to college." He paused. "Hopefully, I won't feel that need."

steve.zeitchik@latimes.com

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