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NPR Arts & Life

Liev Schreiber On The 'Unsafe' Obsession With Celebrity And The Story Of 'Chuck'

Liev Schreiber plays the boxer Chuck Wepner, who fought Muhammad Ali in 1975.
Liev Schreiber plays the boxer Chuck Wepner, who fought Muhammad Ali in 1975.

Most of us, even the ones who don't know boxing, have heard of the 1976 film Rocky, which won several Oscars, including best picture. It spawned six sequels and made Sylvester Stallone a superstar.

But not as many people know that Rocky Balboa was based, in part, on a real person: Chuck Wepner. The heavyweight boxer was locally famous in his home state of New Jersey, known as "the Bayonne Bleeder."

Now, Wepner gets the star treatment as the subject of the new movie Chuck, starring actor Liev Schreiber in the title role.

Chuck tells the story of Wepner's sudden rise to celebrity in 1975 after he improbably got a chance to fight the reigning heavyweight champion, Muhammad Ali. Wepner lasted all the way into the 15th round.

The movie also follows his fall from the mountaintop, consumed by cocaine, and you might say the even more addicting drug, fame.

"I'm not really a huge sports fan, but for some reason boxing stuck with me," Schreiber says. "I was very surprised that I hadn't heard of Chuck Wepner or that I didn't know his story."

NPR's Michel Martin talked with Schreiber, who also co-wrote the screenplay, about the role in Chuck, and also about his role on the Showtime series Ray Donovan.

Interview highlights have been edited for clarity and length.


Interview Highlights

On the problems that come with fame

I kind of became more and more drawn to the kind of cautionary tale about celebrity and fame that seemed to be at the heart of Chuck's story. And so when the financing miraculously materialized I thought: Well yeah, let's do this and let's try to nudge it in this direction.

I think we live in a sort of celebrity-obsessed culture. Somewhere in the past three or four years I remember hearing a young person say something like, "I just want to blow up."

And that obsession with fame for fame's sake is kind of alarming to me. An obsession with celebrity for celebrity's sake is also — it's just strange, it feels, it feels unsafe. And there was something about Chuck's story that articulated that in a kind of simple but also entertaining and compelling way.

On a scene where Chuck is being beaten to a pulp, but still loving the fight

That's kind of the price of fame, you know? That's the price he's willing to pay. And that's what was so moving to me about him as a character, is that that's a kind of tragic at some level, tragic mistake. Or you know, originally the film was called The Bleeder which was a title that I really liked because it was evocative in that way.

The extent to which this guy would go for attention and for respect and for approval. And I think we can all identify with that. Certainly I can as an actor. But I think that once you've earned that approval, what it does for you and what it contributes to your life is questionable.

On masculinity in modern culture and in his character on the TV show Ray Donovan

We have these sort of antiquated ideas of masculinity. And I think that Ann Biderman, who created the character of Ray Donovan, did a really great job of articulating that. That part of what we love about Ray as a character are these arcane notions of what it is to be a man — that have to do with being the breadwinner, the alpha, dominant, strong, protector, loyal. But the world has changed so much since that kind of Hemingway-ish model of what a man is.

Women are out in the workplace in a new way and sexuality is being redefined and talked about in a new way. And I think that leaves some of these guys who are reading off that old — and very dignified, by the way — handbook a little lost. And I think that's really interesting and great dramatic material. And I think both Ray and yeah arguably Chuck capitalize on that.

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