|By Fred Topel
In Theaters Jan 27
Military training is one thing. We all know that when Hollywood actors make an army movie, they do a couple weeks of boot camp for authenticity. For boxing movies, untrained actors have to totally sculpt their body. When the movie is both, imagine the workload. Poor James Franco endured for the Naval Academy boxing drama Annapolis.
“Well, I signed on before any of the other actors and I had about six months, before we started filming,” Franco said. “The standard for boxing films is so high, and you hear about other actors who’ve done boxing roles and about how hard they worked and how they could really be fighters. You know that kind of thing. But I knew I had a lot to live up to. I used every day of those six months to train. I went to the Wild Card Boxing Gym in Hollywood, owned by Freddy Roach, one of the top trainers in the world. I asked them to train me like a real fighter, just get me in shape. It’s hard, you use a lot of muscles you’re not used to using, but after a few weeks, it’s kind of comfortable. I started sparring with a few of the guys there. They go easy, but I could get a sense of what it was like and then a couple months before shooting, we started choreographing the fights and go over them every day.”
Franco put on 15 pounds through boxing alone. He did not lift weights. Already known as a method actor in his young career, Franco took boxing so seriously that he adopted the mentality of a fighter. “Boxing is one of the most strenuous sports, most tiring sports,” Franco continued. “Athletes from other sports will do it and say that they’ve never been that tired before. I think a lot of it has to do with not being used to taking a punch. You get in there and you’re extremely tense because you’re anticipating getting hit and you don’t want to be hit. But after you do it for a while, you realize that being hit is part of it and you need to learn to relax or you’re never going to make it through three rounds. So I think that does give me confidence, that being hit isn’t the worst thing in the world, usually. So if you’re ever in a dark alley, at least you’ve had some experience at throwing punches.”
The original script for Annapolis had so much boxing, that even Franco’s love interest was supposed to get in the ring. Jordana Brewster plays Ali, a senior who pushes plebe Jake Huard (Franco) to succeed. Once she saw Franco train, Brewster turned sparring duties over to costar Donnie Wahlberg.
“It was unrealistic,” she said. “There was no way because the second he got the job, he started training on his own and so by the time everybody else got the job, it was like six months into it and he was just kicking ass. I think a lot of people felt that way. You don’t want the audience to be like, ‘Oh, come on. Give me a break. That’s not really going to happen.’ Yeah, there have been Golden Gloves champions in the Academy but they don’t really spar with the guys and we didn’t want to then bring in like a female brigade, so we altered it so that Donnie was more of the physical coach and I was more of the mentor and the one pushing him. As a female in the Academy, I related to the fact that he’s downtrodden and the fact that everybody was pushing him down and he’s got so many obstacles up against him that I felt like I was in a good position to help him.”
Minor sparks fly between Franco and Brewster’s characters, but because of the Naval Academy’s strict rules about plebes dating seniors, there’s only so far the characters can act on their impulses, let alone the actors.
“I hate it when actors are like it’s always so awkward,” said Brewster. “Sometimes it’s fun, sometimes it’s really awkward and technical. But even with the flirting stuff, the first bar scene when we’re dancing together. It’s like I can tell when I’m being timid and looking down and that’s not really my character. That’s me because you’re speaking this close to someone and that’s never comfortable and you’re like, ‘Okay, I don't know what to do.’ So it was still awkward and it still had the tension that’s there with love scenes or kissing scenes. You know, when people kiss it’s not this thing where they come together and they kiss and it’s beautiful and there are fireworks. Sometimes it’s awkward and I love the playfulness of the ‘You- - I- - I didn’t- - you- -‘ I love that part and it was also great I think for James’ character because he was struggling for so much of the film with his being hard on himself and all that stuff. I liked seeing him flirty and he’s so charming, I think girls are going to definitely fall in love with him.”
Jake ultimately has to face off against Cole (Tyrese Gibson), a senior who’s been riding him extra hard. Their fight in the ring informs their real conflicts in the academy. “I would be considered a bad guy,” said Gibson. “”I can see how they can look at me as the bad guy, because either you're likable or you're not. Now, as far as to what I chose to be as far as a ‘bad guy’ is my choice as an actor along with the director. Everything I did was what he had in mind as well as myself with what Cole was and what his energy was going to be and how seriously he was going to be taken. If you look at James character smiling and having whatever good moments in the movie, as big as my teeth are, I didn't use my teeth one time in this whole film. I can be looked at as the bad guy especially if you're a fan of anything I've ever done movie-wise before you've seen this. 'Damn, you're so cold. Jesus, is he really that way for real?'”
Annapolis opens January 27.