Holt McCallany and Warren Leight Talk LIGHTS OUT

Holt McCallany Lights Out

FX’s highly buzzed gritty boxing drama LIGHTS OUT, premiering tonight, follows Patrick “Lights” Leary (Holt McCallany), an aging former heavyweight champion of the world and devoted family man who is struggling to keep his finances afloat. Suffering from pugilistic dementia (a neurological disorder causing gradual memory loss), Patrick must decide whether to support his family by becoming a debt collection enforcer or go back into the ring despite the danger.

Daemon’s TV was there when executive producer/showrunner Warren Leight and star Holt McCallany answered questions about how Holt created a fighting style, why Lights Out is set in New Jersey, and why boxing’s tough times are actually good for the show.

On how Holt got involved

Holt has been acting steadily in supporting roles since the late 1980s and is clearly thrilled by the opportunity to play Patrick. “From the first time I read it, I understood that this was not just a part on a TV show. This was an opportunity to do something very special–one of those tour de force parts that comes around very, very rarely.”

The fact that the series is in the boxing world only intensified Holt’s interest. “I had always wanted to play a boxer, all of my life.” Also, because Holt had acted in boxing and fight movies before and had some regional fighting experience, he thought he was the right man for the part, but he noted that just because he felt that way didn’t mean the studio and network would agree. “I was really lucky on this occasion–really, really lucky–that I happened to become the choice for the men who make those decisions. They took a chance on me and gave me the best opportunity I’ve ever had.”

On Patrick’s fighting style

Holt thought very carefully about how to create Patrick’s fighting style. He studied boxers with a similar physicality to emulate in the ring–Jerry Quarry and Gerry Cooney were two names he mentioned–and tried their techniques in the gym. “You have to really think about these things,” he said. “Slowly you start to realize ‘Okay, here’s a style that works for me, that complements my physicality, and is going to be believable, but is also going to be compelling for the audience.'”

On the boxing matches

Along with boxing consultant Teddy Atlas and stunt coordinator Bobby Beckles, Warren said that Holt was a huge part of creating the boxing matches. “We really relied on Holt when we would choreograph these boxing matches. We were trying to do those on weekends at Gleason’s Gym. We might have a storyline for the fights and ides for the fights, but Holt really knew what we needed. The stories of the fights were co-written by Holt, and it may sound funny to say the fights were written, but they really were.”

While those matches are intricate, they had to be shot quickly. “We had to shoot these fight scenes in a day or two days tops, while we’re picking up all kinds of other scenes,” Warren explained. “We’re shooting an episode in seven days whether or not there’s a boxing match.”

The schedule made it tough on the actors. Warren said, “These guys would put in a sixteen hour day in the ring. We would go to actual venues, but we couldn’t really afford to rent them for a weekend, so these guys would have to get it all done in one day while doing other scenes and getting prosthetics attached to them.”

On how boxing’s woes help Lights Out

When asked if the fact boxing is in decline hurts the show, Warren replied, “Boxing has never been where it was. Whenever you read boxing works, they always talk about the ‘golden age,’ which was twenty years earlier, no matter when you’re reading.”

According to Warren, the Learys’ love for boxing sets the right tone. “In the fourth episode, we have Pops and Lights sitting in a bar hoping to watch a big welterweight match and all the screens is MMA and it makes them look like another generation, which was conscious on our part.”

Moreover, Warren thinks the sport’s problems help expand the show. “I like that boxing is on hard times. Lights Leary–there’s a metaphor going on here,” he said. “A lot of people have been clobbered in the last three years, not just boxers. People are trying to figure out how to take care of their families and taking bigger risks than they should.”

The metaphor gets even larger. Warren said, “When you go to a boxing gym, if it looks clean and flashy, it’s the wrong place. That just helps us give us the edge that we needed in the show. Boxing’s decline in a way helps us tell the story. It’s an uphill battle for boxing and maybe it’s an uphill battle for a show about boxing, but the show is about an uphill battle, so it’s okay.”

On setting Lights Out in New Jersey

Originally, the show was set in Connecticut, but when Warren came on, he opted to change that because, as he explained, “If you say Connecticut, it just sounds soft.” Because of tax breaks, they knew they needed to shoot in New York area and by choosing Queens, they could easily use Astoria, which looks a lot like Bayonne, New Jersey, a town associated with boxing.

Warren further noted that boxing has traditionally had an unsavory reputation. “Judges can be bought, boxers kill themselves or work themselves to death and they don’t get the money. There is a culture of corruption that surrounds a very noble sport and, boy the second you hear New Jersey, you don’t have to do much work to establish a culture of corruption.”

Finally, Warren liked the class conflict Jersey poses. The Learys’ mansion is in Far Hills, 45 minutes from where Patrick grew up in working class Bayonne, but Warren said, “They’re two separate universes and I like that Patrick is caught in between the two.”

On retooling the pilot

The original Lights Out pilot was shot in April 2009, and FX wanted changes, so Warren was brought in to retool it. They re-shot 75% of the pilot in March 2010, recasting almost every recurring actor except Holt and the three daughters. Warren said that all the changes made to characters and plots were “to understand where Lights is more clearly.”

In the original pilot, Theresa had been a pediatric surgeon for years, but to highlight the financial pressures, Warren made her a medical student Patrick was supporting instead. Also, the manager was not Patrick’s brother. “He was said to be a friend of Lights’, but he was clearly robbing Lights blind from the get go.” Warren explained. “I think when we switched that character to Johnny, the younger brother who had a boxing career, who’s the favored son of Pops (Stacy Keach), suddenly this Bayonne family came more to life. We had a nice triangle between a father and his two sons. We had a triangle between the Bayonne family and the Far Hills family. It just became more of a multi-generational stew than it had been.”

On recurring characters coming back for season two

When asked about bringing back some characters for a second season, Warren was quick to note, “We don’t know if there’s going to be a season two and beyond that what would season two look like…Of course, there were some characters that came in this season that you would be dumb not to try to bring back”

Specifically he noted that the character of Eddie Romeo “is back up in the woods, but if there were a season two, I expect he would resurface,” and that MMA Legend Bas Rutten, who appears as an ex-MMA champion Patrick fights in a non-sanctioned money match, “is the real deal. We’d have to figure out a way to do it, but he was terrific.”

Two other actors steal enough scenes to perhaps earn bigger roles in future seasons. Warren raved, “Bill Irwin (Hal Brennan)–the more we used him, the more we wanted to use him. Bill’s storyline grows and grows as the season goes on, as did Reg Cathey’s (Barry K. Word), and I think they’re poised to be principal antagonists if there were to be a season two.”

Lights Out premieres on FX Tuesday, January 11 at 10pm eastern/9pm central.

You can read all our Lights Out coverage here.

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