Germany and Argentina wrapped up a month of addictive sports action with sexy soccer stars on Sunday, but fans can ward off the withdrawals with El Rey Network's football-fueled drama Matador.
Premiering on July 15 at 9 p.m. ET, the 13-episode series has already scored a second season pickup to continue the story of Tony "Matador" Bravo (Gabriel Luna), an undercover CIA operative masquerading as a professional soccer player for the fictional L.A. Riot.
Actor and champion freediver Tanc Sade — who plays English striker and notorious womanizer Alec Holester — tells The Hollywood Reporter why perfecting his ball skills for the spy thriller was the biggest challenge, involving hours of training and plenty of shirt-stripping.
In the action-packed series from executive producer Roberto Orci, Luna's character comes to be known as much for his antics off the field as his moves on it. But what his fans and family don't realize is it's all a cover — he's a covert operative going on missions for the CIA.
"Luna as the 'Matador' is the real deal, he's a movie star in the making," says co-star Sade, adding: "It's been a dream to work with Robert Rodriguez [El Rey founder and chairman who directed the pilot episode]. He's a visionary and the consummate director."
Learning new skills
"I had never played soccer before," confesses the 33-year-old Sydney, Australia, native, but from his flawlessly convincing performance onscreen you would never guess he was a rookie — and not even English. "I was really surprised at how intense the game was. Those guys average six to eight miles of running in 90 minutes, and we were filming take after take.
"I knew we would do a lot of sprints, but I wasn’t expecting the whole body play, the shirt-grabbing and the positioning. It is almost like your body is operating in two halves, you are trying to tackle with your upper body then deftly move your lower. Using your feet to manipulate the ball is the most unnatural action you can think of because everything you do in normal life uses your hands," he marvels.
"I was covered in bruises after a week, you get a bunch of flying tackles coming across your shins and it's not fun," he says. "You have to nail the cognitive element, the simple ball skills and getting that right, but for me the hardest thing was retraining my body to use new muscles. There is a lot of core work, and I would be limping home each night to soak in Epson salts. Even the simple stuff like a side pass puts an immense amount of pressure on your muscles. I was doing a lot of Pilates and yoga, but I am 33, not 20, so the body doesn't recover as quickly," he adds.
The ego has landed
While all the principle actors were assigned stunt doubles for the action scenes filmed at the L.A. Galaxy's real-life stadium, the StubHub Center in Carson, Sade's ego has stopped him using his stand-in so far. Instead, he trained four times a week with professional coaches and players repeating drills. "They were hard sessions. They would be feeding me balls all day. Something as simple as a header, if you are not used to it, and do 40 in a row, gives you a splitting headache afterwards," he says.
After hammering home a goal into the net in the pilot, Sade basked in the glory like a real player. "I felt an immense amount of pressure to get that right — I wasn't acting when I took off and screamed like I scored a goal in the World Cup afterwards," he reveals. Similar to a genuine match,"the pressure is intense … the stunt double is waiting in the wings to sub you out if you don't get it right — but as a professional athlete, I have that personality of wanting everything to be perfect and do everything in my power to win."
From the sea to the land
Sade is no stranger to challenging his body — he took up freedriving at 15 and has two nationals records in Australia and a top-15 finish in the World Championships in 2013. "I am used to training 10 to 12 sessions a week, so I have the physical and mental endurance that comes with being an athlete," he tells THR. "There is a lot of visualization in freediving that helped me on the soccer field, and the willingness to push beyond your limitations.
"Freediving is by far and away the toughest sport mentally. You are underwater for up to seven minutes, and a lot of thoughts go through your brain and you need to be completely calm and relaxed. In any other sport, you use increased adrenalin, but in freediving you are have to drop the heart rate down to 20 beats per minute," he explains, while swimming the length of 2.5 football fields on one breath!
Pain is another natural side effect of freediving. "When you are fighting that urge to breathe the contractions on your chest are so painful — I get extreme tingling sensations, will start to lose consciousness and feel my digestive tract shut down. It is basically like driving a car and watching things fall off," he says. "So coming from that sport helps a lot when training for soccer, but it still doesn’t change the fact that I was going from a water-based sport to a land-based sport.
"Also, I had to get in great shape to look like a soccer player, so I was hitting the gym pretty hard, especially when you know you have to take your shirt off for a TV show. My personal vanity wanted me to get into the best shape that I could!"
Having had recurring parts in Gilmore Girls and 90210, his first starring role in Matador gives Sade the opportunity to show off his outstanding acting and comedic skills as he brings hedonistic Holester to life, often with a girl on each arm. The World Cup also offered plenty of inspiration for Sade, which he used to perfectly portray his hilarious take on the "obnoxious, womanizing football star" who is in the twilight of his career.
"Zlatan Ibrahimovic from Sweden was an inspiration. He is a phenomenal player and is so arrogant that he speaks in the third person," he says. "I also tried to capture the unadulterated confidence of Cristiano Ronaldo, because he believes he is the best and can win in any situation, combined with David Beckham, who has the skill and the English sensibility" of Holester.
Impetus of the World Cup
Coming off the excitement of Brazil is the perfect assist for Matador. "I don't think there has ever been a show about soccer in the U.S. before," says Sade, who has seen how the sport has exploded in popularity over the past few years.
"My friends, who had no idea about soccer before, can all now rattle off names of players like Neymar or Messi. Soccer is one of those sports that pulls in a universal audience in terms of demographics. It really is a beautiful game, and I am so excited that it's going to be represented on TV."
Matador premieres on the El Rey Network on July 15 at 9 p.m. E.T., and then continues to air every Tuesday at that time.