Venice: Why Liev Schreiber Took 800 Punches for 'The Bleeder'

Courtesy of TIFF

Naomi Watts discusses how being a real-life couple influenced casting decisions on the sports drama.

Chuck Wepner is the man who went 15 rounds against Muhammad Ali in 1975 for the world’s heavyweight title. And now the man who inspired Sylvester Stallone to create Rocky is finally getting his own story on the big screen in Philippe Falardeau’s The Bleeder.

Liev Schreiber, a big fan of boxing, plays Wepner in the larger-than-life true sports story behind the mythical man who could take a punch better than anyone. Behind the boozing, drugs and women lies a story of redemption and second chances. Elisabeth Moss also stars as Wepner’s first wife Phyliss and Naomi Watts as his love interest, Linda.

The stars on Friday touted the film at the Venice Film Festival during a press conference.

Watts, who had the choice between playing the housewife or the object of Wepner’s affection, chose the latter, which she explained as a strong, fun role that “felt like something different for me.” 

She continued: "I also felt that being a real-life couple and then playing a couple can be distracting sometimes. So I felt the role with less screen time was better for the story.”  

Schreiber added: “Linda couldn’t be further from her. And the first time I saw her walk out of the make-up trailer with the red wig and the fake boobs and the leopard-print tights, I knew it was going to be fing awesome.”

The actors said they felt a clear pull to play the roles. Schreiber said that what drew him most to the story was getting to know the character of Wepner.

“I think what moved me the most about his story was the openness, of which he went down the rabbit hole of narcissism and for me as an actor that’s a kind of cautionary tale aspect,” he said. “Our passion to be loved and adored by many often complicates our ability to appreciate one. And for me that part of the story, ironically, was mostly about love.” 

Watts said of playing the role of Linda: “I feel that every character has a greater meaning for you. There must be a takeaway for you, as something that will help grow you as an artist. I feel that all our films are there to help people connect with each other with themselves.” 

She continued: "Hopefully what you deliver to the storytelling is able to move people, and you get excited to play roles when you have an instant chemical reaction to it."

“And the scads of money we made shooting this film as well,” joked Schreiber. “That’s something we mustn’t forget.”

Perhaps most surprisingly, Schreiber didn’t pretend-fight onscreen, as both he and the director thought the end result of most boxing films looked too fake.  

"Fortunately for us, and unfortunately for the insurance company, he said I’m going to take real punches, and he did, probably 800 of them,” said Falardeau. “That made an enormous difference. I’m very proud of what we did with the boxing sequences. They’re spectacular because they’re raw and true.”