A funny thing happened on the way to Warrior, a gritty martial arts film due out in September.
Director and co-writer Gavin O’Connor wanted to cast two performers who were largely unrecognizable but had star potential: “I didn’t want an audience to have any memories of these actors from other roles.”
Lo and behold, Tom Hardy ended up as a master of disguise in Inception, delivered a tour de force turn as Britain’s most famous prisoner in Bronson and has been cast in The Dark Knight Rises.
Co-star Joel Edgerton (Smokin’ Aces, Star Wars: Episode III, Kinky Boots) appeared in the crime drama Animal Kingdom and as an arsonist in the Aussie thriller The Square.
By Sept. 9, when Warrior arrives in theaters, audiences will be even more familiar with the men who portray estranged brothers. Nick Nolte plays their father, a retired steelworker and former raging, angry alcoholic.
The film originally was scheduled for 2010 release. But Lionsgate executives wanted to avoid a box-office showdown with The Fighter, starring the better-known Christian Bale and Mark Wahlberg.
“It actually worked in our favor to wait, and now these guys are actually starting to emerge, and that’s certainly, from the studio’s perspective, helpful,” O’Connor said. “For me, I wish nobody knew who they were, but it is what it is.”
Most of the movie was shot in Pittsburgh, which plays itself and doubles as Philadelphia. The city’s history as a steel town and Pennsylvania’s reputation as wrestling country drew O’Connor.
“Visually, it had what I would call working-class poetry that I really responded to when I scouted the city. There was a toughness that I needed that symbolized this family unit.”
O’Connor, who made the police drama Pride and Glory, rousing hockey story Miracle and indie hit Tumbleweeds, says reaction at test screenings hasn’t pivoted on knowledge of mixed martial arts, or MMA.
“Our highest scores were not only women but women who knew nothing about the sport . . . . After our first test screening, I went up to the studio, and they jokingly said, ‘You made a chick flick.’ We were all shocked.”
He intended a face-off between the brothers, who separately enter a winner-take-all MMA competition, to serve as “an intervention in a cage.” One brother saves the other by kicking the stuffing out of him.
“That’s because they grew up in a home where they communicated with violence. The intention was that these two brothers sort of expiate the last 14 years that they’ve been estranged and over five rounds, they deal with the past and slowly heal by beating each other up.”
The cast includes real Ultimate Fighting Championship champs on or behind the scenes.
O’Connor cast Hardy as Tommy because “I needed someone who had a very tough exterior and yet had a deep vulnerability . . . .The character does a lot of bad things, and the audience had to understand that what he was doing was coming from a place of pain.”
O’Connor said MMA hasn’t been dramatized in this way in a feature. He doesn’t count straight-to-DVD releases or Hong Kong karate movies.
“The studio always says if you can make the 21st-century ‘Rocky,’ that’s what would be great, aim for that.
“That’s cool, but Rocky’s boxing and this is mixed martial arts, which is the fastest-growing sport in the world. It’s the new boxing.”
Nolte is the director’s neighbor and friend. His Warrior character of Paddy Conlon is seen listening to Moby-Dick on audiotape.
“It just felt right for his character. We went a lot deeper with Paddy’s character in regard to a man who never left Pittsburgh but traveled across the globe through the books he listened to on tape. Now that he’s sober, he’s replaced his alcoholic addiction with books.”
But only so much can make the final cut of a movie, which ended up featuring O’Connor in a small role as the wealthy promoter of Sparta.
Charles “Mask” Lewis Jr., the founder of an apparel company catering to MMA fans, was to play the part, but he died in a car accident in March 2009.
“He was a very dear friend of mine. He opened up all the doors for me in the world of mixed martial arts.”
After the 45-year-old Lewis was killed, O’Connor stepped in to honor his friend.
The character’s name and other details were changed, and the movie is dedicated to him.