By ANGELA DAWSON
Front Row Features
HOLLYWOOD—Comedian Stephen Merchant met former wrestler-turned-actor Dwayne Johnson when they co-starred in the lighthearted 2010 family comedy “The Tooth Fairy.” The two became fast friends and stayed in touch with each other over the years.
When Johnson (“Fast and Furious” franchise, the rebooted “Jumanji” films) decided he wanted to produce a dramedy based on a family of working class British wrestlers, he rang up his old pal, who was expanding his repertoire into other areas of filmmaking, including writing and producing.
Though Merchant, best known for his work with Ricky Gervais on the UK version of “The Office” and “Extras,” had little experience or interest in the world of professional wrestling, he was impressed and moved by the heartwarming story of the close-knit, unconventional Knight family, who were the subjects of the 2012 documentary “The Wrestlers: Fighting with my Family.” The father, was an ex-con who turned his life around when he met his wife, a streetwise gal, and they both became wrestlers and encouraged their two children into that profession. Johnson had caught the documentary on TV, during a sleepless night at a London hotel while filming “Fast and Furious 6,” and instantly thought their real-life story, in which the teenage daughter gets a chance to try out for the WWE, had potential as a narrative film. Hailing from a family of wrestlers himself, he also could relate to the ups and downs and sacrifices, bumps and bruises and love and jealousy that come with the profession.
Merchant immersed himself in the wrestling world, met with the Knights, and even attended a WrestleMania event with Johnson in preparation of writing and then directing the film. (He also has a small role in it as the uptight father of a girl that the Knight’s son, Zak, is dating.) The film stars Nick Frost (“Shaun of the Dead”), Lena Headey (“Game of Thrones”), Vince Vaughn (“Wedding Crashers”), Jack Lowden (“Dunkirk”) and Florence Pugh, who plays the wrestler wannabe underdog Paige.
Merchant spoke by phone about the film, the second he’s directed following co-directing and co-writing 2010’s “Cemetery Junction” with Gervais. “Fighting with my Family” was shot mostly in London but also filmed a pivotal scene at L.A.’s massive Staples Center before a crowd of 20,000 WWE fans.
Q: Aside from the wrestling aspect, “Fighting with my Family” tells a compelling story about this unusual but close-knit family.
Merchant: That was my way into the story. Prior to this, I didn’t know anything about wrestling. I had no knowledge of it or interest in it. The thing that sucked me in and won me over was this family’s dynamic and love for one another, and their love for this eccentric thing called wrestling. This family dream and brother and sister relationship, the parents’ relationship with their kids. So, it was just a lot of interesting dynamics and emotions, a rich stew for what on the surface just seemed like a wrestling story.
Q: How was it getting this cast together?
Merchant: Nick was a fairly easy buy. He’s a longtime wrestling fan. He’s actually scripted some wrestling ideas of his own. I know him a little from the comedy world of the UK. He’s so naturally funny and warmth, and I also got the sense that there was a sense of toughness to him that we could tap into as well. Lena, very sweetly, had heard about the project. She’d seen the documentary on which it is based. She kind of sought us out, and very kindly came down and auditioned for me, which she does not need to do but anyone who knows her from “Game of Thrones” wouldn’t automatically think of her as working class, spit-and-sawdust, wrestling mother. So, she came around and convinced me she was the right choice.
The kids, as I call them, were slightly tougher (to cast), particularly the case of Paige. I needed an actress who has the charisma and that she could become a wrestling superstar, and also had to be convincing as a working-class kid, and have the acting chops to carry this whole movie on her shoulders. It was a tough ask. I saw maybe 60 actors either in person or on tape. Florence was the one that just kept working it, working on the accent, and with Jack, who plays her brother, until she convinced us that she was the one for the job. She does an amazing job. It’s not an easy performance to get right.
Q: You and Dwayne Johnson have known each other for some time. You worked on “The Tooth Fairy” together.
Merchant: (deadpan) I knew Dwayne from when he was still in shape. We got along really well on that movie and had a good rapport. This project originated with Dwayne. (The documentary) had passed me by, even though I’m British. He responded to it, I think, because he’s from a wrestling family. It had some parallels with his own story. He could see that there was a “Rocky” underdog-style story at the core of it, and was keen to turn it into a film. He wanted a British authenticity to the voice behind it and sent me the documentary. I reluctantly sat down to watch the documentary even though I’m not particularly interested in wrestling but I was won over by the family. Once I went to actually meet (the Knights), I was convinced.
Q: Was your meeting anything like the awkward dinner scene in the film with Paige’s family and the parents of the Knights’ son’s girlfriend?
Merchant: That scene itself is based on a story they told me when I went to meet them. In fact, the only thing I kept out of that scene was Julia, the mother, told me that in order to break the ice with the other mother when she arrived, she grabbed her boobs and said, “Hiya!” I thought people would think I’d made it up.
My meeting wasn’t like that but I got the sense that perhaps they were a little wary of me, initially. Maybe they thought I was Mr. Hollywood, who’s come to laugh at them or mock them. But, very quickly, I assured them that that was not my intention. I just wanted to know more about them. Like that dinner scene, they were very honest with me. They talked about the tough times they had had in the past. Ricky, the father, talked about his prison time. A lot of the stories that they regale the guests at the dinner party about the sawed-off shotgun and money and how wrestling saved their lives, were things they told me when I first met them. I also got to see Zak, the brother, with the kids that he trains. He’s charismatic, like his sister. I’m not quite sure why he didn’t get signed himself.
Q: On the fourth day of filming, you shot a huge wrestling scene at Staples Center. What was that like for you and for Florence Pugh, who plays Paige?
Merchant: WWE told us we could have one hour after a Monday night RAW telecast. They said we could keep the fans back in the auditorium. We invited them to stay; we didn’t just lock the doors. Dwayne came out and emceed the event. I kept impressing on him that we only had an hour. So, he went out in the ring for about 15 minutes and did stand up, which was amazing. I was so screaming at him, finally, to get out of the ring because the clock was ticking. But it was great because he really played that crowd like an orchestra.
He got them to cheer when we needed, boo, and the whole thing. I had been nervous all day because we only had that one hour and we obviously knew it was the big finale of our movie, and Florence, who had only done a handful of weeks of training, told me I was making her nervous so she told me not to be in her presence. She got herself in this amazing zone, walked out into the area with the Paige theme music playing, and she was completely composed. She was calm and had the presence of mind in front of these 20,000 fans, many of whom had seen the real match, and just did it. She threw herself around, monologued on the mic, and just was exceptional.
Florence was only about 19 when we shot that but she seemed more seasoned and accomplished than her years. She was masterful. We got four takes and then they threw us out.
For me, it was a bit overwhelming. It was kind of hard to digest even if we were getting all the shots we needed because we were moving at such a pace but, thankfully, we did.
Q: Are you now a wrestling fan?
Merchant: It was important to me to make a film that wasn’t just for wrestling fans. I was thinking about films like “Billy Elliot” which, on the surface, is about a boy who wants to be a ballet dancer but you don’t need to care about ballet in order to root for him. I felt much the same with Paige’s story. You don’t need to like her sport to love her journey. Nevertheless, I did a deep dive into the wrestling world in order to research the film and make it authentic—both the Norwich family wrestling and the WWE. I have to say, I have been evangelized. I’ve been won over. Seeing it live, feeling the buzz of the crowd, seeing this extraordinary combination of choreography, stunt work, showmanship, movement and theater, it’s very entertaining. It’s very knowing. There’s a lot of humor. I would now consider myself a wrestling fan.
Q: What’s next for you?
Merchant: I’m going back to the UK to perform in a BBC miniseries (“The Barking Murders”) about a string of real-life murders that took place a few years ago. I’m playing this killer named Stephen Port, which is a serious and dramatic role. And, at the same time, I’m looking around for another film project. Given that this one started with the biggest film star in the world sending me a documentary, I’m just waiting by my mailbox hoping another film star will do the same thing.