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LOS ANGELES, USA – The tragic true story of the Von Erich wrestlers – a family where five brothers, except one, died – is grippingly told by filmmaker Sean Durkin in The Iron Claw.
Led by Zac Efron’s performance as Kevin, the sibling who survived all the tragedies, the drama is the latest addition to this awards season’s contenders.
Sean also wrote the story on the Von Erichs, whose patriarch, Fritz (Holt McCallany, also outstanding), was a popular wrestler in the 1950s and 1960s. Fritz’s signature match-ending move, named the “Iron Claw,” which involved spreading his hand on his opponent’s face and gripping it, inspired the movie’s title.
The Iron Claw is the third feature of the Canada-born Sean who made his feature directing debut with the acclaimed Martha Marcy May Marlene.
Fritz’s real name was Jack Adkisson but he adopted the last name, Von Erich, to play up his villainy image and which his sons, who also became famous wrestlers in the 1980s, adopted as well. The other brothers are played by Jeremy Allen White (Kerry), Harris Dickson of A Triangle of Sadness (David), and Stanley Simons (Mike).
In real life, there was another brother, Chris, but Sean reportedly decided to omit him “to keep the film’s length manageable,” according to EW. Another sibling, Jack, died at seven years old when he was accidentally electrocuted by a live wire.
That tragedy was the first to strike the family, leading to what some said was the Von Erich curse. Kevin survived the deaths of his brothers – David, from enteritis while he was in Tokyo for a wrestling match, and the rest from suicide – Mike (drug overdose), Chris (gunshot to the head), and Kerry (gunshot to the chest).
Lily James (as Kevin’s wife, Pam) and Maura Tierney (Doris, the Von Erich matriarch who had to deal with the deaths, one another, of her sons) make up the rest of the main cast who are all riveting in the heartbreaking film.
The Iron Claw premiered in Dallas, Texas, where the true story took place. The first screening after that was held recently in the Samuel Goldwyn Theater at the Academy headquarters in Beverly Hills.
A Q&A followed with Sean, Zac, Jeremy, and Stanley (Harris could not make it), and Jacqueline Coley as the moderator. The following excerpts from the Q&A were edited for brevity and clarity.
Talk about your journey with the Von Erichs, when you wanted to make this story, and more importantly, how you got them to sign on to really delve into a lot of their personal history?
Sean Durkin: I was actually living in England as a kid and there was WWF (World Wrestling Federation) on TV. I was so into wrestling that I would get every magazine I could. I’d find old VHS tapes and I discovered the Von Erich sons [and] Sportatorium – that’s probably like [when I was] 9 or 10, and just fell in love with the aesthetic and their energy.
Then I really followed their story and was aware of their tragedy. They just really stuck with me and were kind of always in my mind. I always wanted to make a sports film.
I don’t quite know exactly when it came together but my producer Tessa Ross and I were having a meeting, she was starting her company, and this was I guess in 2015. She said, “You know, if you could do anything, what would it be?” And I was like, “Oh yeah, the Von Erichs.”
On the family, I didn’t have any direct contact with them until we were actually going into production. I have loved them for a long time and I wanted to keep some personal space because I knew if I met Kevin, I’d love him even more. I do, and I have since met him.
But basically, until I knew exactly what the movie I was making was, and then once I did, I reached out. The first thing he [Kevin] ever said to me was, “Sean, the only thing I care about is that people know how much my brothers and I loved each other.” I was like, “Well, I guess I’m making the right movie then.”
Who was the first brother cast? And what about Zac’s previous work, or your conversations with him that let you know he was going to be able to play Kevin?
Sean: I’ve been a fan of Zac forever and I always wondered how he’d feel in one of my worlds. And so, I’d been thinking about him for a while and reached out, and we met.
The thing about Kevin is, that he has this goodness to him, and he’s got this sweetness. And the character, ultimately that energy has to come through. I felt, after meeting Zac the first time, I was like, oh yeah, he’s got it. And yeah, so it was quite easy.
This was very daunting, maybe signing on to it, just knowing that it was going to be a [real life] family, a person that you would eventually get to meet, which you did in Dallas. What was the most intriguing and maybe the most challenging part of this portrayal for you?
Zac Efron: I’ve loved Sean as a filmmaker for a very long time. And I had often thought of if I could fit into one of your (turning to Sean) worlds.
The first time we met, I remember we were in New York and we were at a hotel bar, I think. I wasn’t filming that day. But you were interested in making something, and you said, “All right, this first part’s gonna be a bit jarring.”
And I was like, oh gosh, this is gonna be some Magic Mike or something (laughter). He said, “It’s a pro wrestler.” And that was the next closest thing (laughter). I went, “Oh. Okay, what’s this all about?”
He goes, “Don’t worry, it’s a true story.” And he continued for, I don’t know, probably one or two hours, telling me the story of the Von Erichs and his plan to make this film. And I was captivated.
I remember I signed on right then and there. I knew it would be daunting but I think that kind of challenge is the thing that makes this industry exciting. It’s what’s exciting to be an actor. And Sean was clearly the kind of guy who was capable of guiding me through finding Kevin Von Erich.
And your character, his tenacity and steadfastness are very hard to portray in the face of everything else that’s going around. How did you portray this version of Kevin believably in his earnestness, despite everything that was going around, so that when he eventually does turn, we feel how this is such a big shift for him later on in the film?
Zac: I had a lot of help from Sean. I think that that was on the page and it’s also the way that he works on performance with you. There are details that lend themselves to being stoic or really feeling something at the moment.
And he guided me through this whole movie that way. But Kevin Von Erich said something similar to me.
He said he appreciated [in my performance] that kind of inability to express his emotions or what he’s going through to his father, really to anybody, for a very long period, about what’s going on in the ring, how demanding it was, how it was taking its toll.
And he appreciated that about the performance. That made me really, really happy. We sat for like an hour and a half and he talked to me about it. It was incredible. So, yeah, I guess it was a lot of Sean.
Stanley, folks got to hear your incredible song on the closing credits and they got to see you do that aspect of your character in the film. Talk about that day that you guys had to do that music scene because that was, one – recorded live, and two – you had the entire cast there. You may have done a brief serenade at one point.
Stanley Simons: I first want to say that Richard Reed Parry (Arcade Fire) wrote that song. I didn’t write that song. But he did an amazing job. And then I want to shout out the band as well. They’re called Lovers and they’re a really great group of kids.
We were debating with Sean whether or not we were going to do it live. And I was very scared about that scene. It was probably the most challenging scene I had.
Once we were there and we did it live, it turned out great. It felt great as soon as we started playing. And it’s a party. It’s not supposed to be 100% perfect but it was a fun time. I think we all had fun that day.
And yes, there was some downtime. I was singing some High School Musical songs (laughter).
You sang High School Musicals to Zac Efron. What was that like for you?
Stanley: He (Zac)said, “You’re not hitting it.” And I was like, oh (laughter).
Zac: God damn it, Stanley (laughter).
Sean: I do remember that being one of the most fun days of filming. Filming a house party can go one way or the other. It could be a lot of people who are stuck in one room for many days. It can be kind of daunting. But this one was just electric. It felt like a high school party. It was really special.
Stanley: I mean, we only had half a day to shoot it so we didn’t have much luxury (laughter).
Sean: And it was pretty cool. I think one of the first times I got to see you perform that song was as we did the one-er that pulls us into the party. Yeah, that was one of the first times I really ever heard it. And it kind of became the theme of the movie at times.
Stanley: Yeah, definitely. I felt really strongly about recording it live. I really wanted to. The space itself is tiny. It’s like a nightmare to record sound in there and we had to go to great lengths to even get it to work.
Sean: It sounds good in the movie but you should have heard it live. It was so much fun. We were like, it was a Britain-style movie but it was just fun.
What intrigued you about this role? You’re somebody who’s very particular about the type of roles that you want to take. Was it the character, was it Sean, was it maybe you wanted to get in all that spandex?
Jeremy Allen White: There was a lot. Sean was really number one. I’ve known Sean since I was like 15. He produced the first movie I really ever did, this movie Afterschool.
I was always trying to find my way back to him. So yeah, just Sean from the start made it really interesting to me and then we started speaking about it. I watched the episode of Dark Side of the Ring on the Von Erichs.
Even before I read the script, I had watched it and I was immediately fascinated. The story just seemed…it was unbelievable. I couldn’t believe the tragedy that had struck this single family and then the role of Kerry, I found his trajectory really fascinating.
Once feeling very on top of the world and then really having your whole world shatter around you. There was a piece of footage that Sean showed me while we were filming that I really attached myself to.
It became this key to Kerry. It’s a real video after the motorcycle accident where he’s in his hospital bed. He’s with his father and he’s speaking to the press and his fans about how he’s doing great and everything’s okay.
And we know obviously that’s all a lie and he’s smiling but you can really see the pain and the fear in his eyes. I found it really interesting playing a character who was really losing something where all of his self-worth was involved in this career.
They (the Von Erich family) also said they loved how much detail went into the recreation from the way you walked into the ring. Every bit of that, they said, felt exactly the same way that it did when they watched it the first time on TV.
Jeremy: The amazing thing about this project – we got to really study this world. The greatest thing about being an actor is you get to spend months learning from professionals from these different worlds.
And yeah, we had a great deal of footage of these athletes, on these performers. We would get together and we would watch these men do what they did.
Our wardrobe department was so specific. Hair and makeup. We just had a really excellent team put together by Sean to make sure that everything was as accurate and detailed as possible.
Sean: Yeah, I’m obsessed with the detail and getting it right. To the point where people have to tell me to calm down about wrestling details because I’ll just like go off.
And so, it was a big challenge for me, right? To tell the story of this family, where I can tell you the wrestling timeline of each of the boys for a decade.
And to try and separate myself from that, and be like, okay, well that’s not important to the story, and just get to that place, like, okay, these matches are important to the story.
This match is a mixture of these two matches so there’s some historical truth in them but then making them fit the narrative as well. So, it was a big challenge.
Sean went deep, he knows more about wrestling. On set, for you guys, that was both incredible but also, a fan moment with Sean where he just pulled something where you’re like, what, how did you know this happened there? That really helped prescribe what you were doing with the character. Because again, if you’ve got that encyclopedic knowledge sitting right next to you, it was so comforting as an actor being able to lean on that.
Zac: Yeah, I feel like those moments happen all the time over the course of the movie. It was very clear that Sean knew all the details of even, I guess what I would think were obscure wrestlers [but] they’re not, they were big back in their day.
The detail in which he remembered things from the matches, from his television set at home was amazing. So, his being able to recall these very specific moments meant a lot. And where it really came into play was with the physicality in the ring.
We had an amazing coach named Chavo Guerrero Jr. He is an icon. He’s so electric in the ring. But with all the wrestling, the moves, and in preparation for those, we really didn’t have all that much time.
So, it was as fast as we could learn these moves. Chavo would help us perfect them and we would really film them instantaneously. And that goes for all the guys.
We would get enough takes and we would have one where Sean would feel stoked and I would know. He was like, we got that. And that’s really where so much of it came into play for me because I’m specific about moves as well and moving on camera.
Sean: And we would shoot the full matches too. So, like these guys couldn’t just learn one-off moves. They’d have to learn the whole thing and do it a bunch of times. That was pretty impressive. Like they’re real naturals.
How long was the shoot?
Sean: It was short. It was six, maybe seven weeks.
There is a very cultish aspect to wrestling. And for folks that don’t know, your first film was with Elizabeth Olsen (Martha Marcy May Marlene) which definitely dials into that, as well as dysfunctional families. How much of that did you want to make sure translated to this? Because for folks who grew up watching wrestling, you don’t understand just how insanely popular it was at that time, how deeply passionate people were with this type of stuff. And then how detrimental it became to the people involved in it because of it.
Sean: Yeah, absolutely. Wrestling is such a beautiful thing because first and foremost, it’s like an unsung art form. It is incredible, especially getting in there and learning what these guys do and seeing it first-hand.
It’s the physical element of what they put themselves through. But then, it’s such a beautiful thing. It’s what I connected to as a kid. It was this ability that gets people engaged in these simple stories of sort of good and bad.
It allows people to go on a Friday night and scream, cheer, and boo and feel all the feelings, especially back then. It’s one of the things that drew me to this place and time for this film where maybe they weren’t expressing themselves at home or work.
It wasn’t the expression or the vocabulary we have now and these things aren’t there. And so, wrestling still is but I think then in particular, it was a place to express. That really drew me and connected me to it.
The patriarch of the Von Erichs (Fritz) and everything that his (Holt McCallany’s) performance has done in this film. Again, remarkable. Talk about writing that character because all the characters you had to write and you wrote them with so many different layers. That one in particular was so delicate in that as horrible as things go, you don’t feel he is the villain by the end of the story.
Sean: No but that’s a credit to Holt as well. He brought so much love and it’s such a transformative performance on his part. I think he’s so good that you just assume he’s like that if you don’t know him.
It’s a tricky role to write because Fritz, in real life, was the way he was and it’s hard to depict with nuance. And so, it was a lot of work.
And it’s funny, getting back to the cult question. In a way, it is sort of like a cult leader and it’s like in any film I do. I never judge anybody, never judge a character. I treat them as a whole person. And so that’s always my approach.
Every family has a set of rules and behavior and you don’t always know how particular it is until you get out into the world and look back on your own family and say, oh, not everybody does that, okay.
So, for me, cult is a negative word but aspects of cult exist everywhere all the time. So, it’s something I continue to come back to in my work and that’s not making something about a cult.
Zac, you did get to talk to Kevin.
Zac: Yeah, Kevin’s whole family is from Dallas. I guess this was the night before the premiere. I don’t know what they call it but it was a meet-and-greet dinner scenario. There were quite a few people there and when I walked in, I spotted Kevin across the room.
I knew he was going to be there. I was very nervous about what he thought of the movie. And after a couple of minutes of saying hi to some of his family, I looked up and I saw him go like…he pointed towards the patio.
I was like, oh, wow, okay, cool. So, I was like, hey guys, I’ll be right back, I’ll be right back. I just went out to the patio and we both sat down, right across from each other and we sat forehead to forehead just talking about life for like an hour and a half.
He told me that he did in fact enjoy the movie and the things that he did appreciate about it. I can’t really put into words how that feels. That’s far and away the most important review to me on so many levels.
Oh man, I met the world. Everything just came full circle at that moment. So, it’s really fun. Yeah, shout out to Kevin Von Erich (applause).
Sean, obviously, you wanted the world to know more about the Von Erichs. You wanted them to know more about this family. But beyond that, the way Kevin said he wanted them to know how much the family loved each other. What is the thing that you hope audiences really take from the film?
Sean: What is it is a 40-year-old story, but the issues of masculinity and how we tell our boys to be, what’s acceptable and what isn’t, what makes a man, those sorts of notions, as much as they are getting better, it is still a major issue.
That is very close and important to me about making this film, along with the story of survival of Kevin and him finding himself surviving because of love, family, and being able to express himself, which is the difference between him surviving and not, ultimately. – Rappler.com