What’s it like to… change shape for a sport movie

Hollywood actor Tobey Maguire takes no prisoners when discussing body issues. Coming from the man who transformed himself from a muscle-bulked Spiderman to weightless jockey, it’s no wonder, says Jo Gunston. She spoke to him during 2003, the year Seabiscuit, the horseracing feel-good movie was released. 

While I was interviewing Tobey Maguire for his new movie Seabiscuit, his friend and US countryman David Blaine was a week into dangling above the Thames in a food-less perspex box.

The challenge was in the early stages of the 44-day deadline, so the mood was still one of bemusement, even to the illusionist’s closest friends.

So, I ask Tobey, if you were to play David in a film, which stunt would you pick, to undertake to some degree, to get inside Blaine’s head?

After running through the stunts – being buried alive for seven days, standing on a 100ft high pole for 35 hours, being encased in a block of ice for three days or the current starvation predicament – Maguire hesitates before smiling and picking, “The card tricks”.

Weighty issues
Maguire has taken on some pretty testing body transformations of his own. For his new movie Seabiscuit, for example, Maguire had to sculpt himself into the lightweight shape needed to play champion jockey, Red Pollard.

Director Gary Ross had estimated that a 150 pound (10st 7lbs) weight target from Maguire’s current 160 pounds (11st 4lbs), should make Maguire look “gaunt enough” for the part.

After following a supervised weight reduction programme, however, Maguire’s weight dropped to 137 pounds (9st 7lbs) and his fat percentage bordered on the unnatural. Add to that a shock of red wiry hair and Maguire looked totally different from his previous incarnation as Spiderman.


Tobey Maguire beefed up to play Spiderman

Shortly after finishing Seabiscuit Maguire had to bulk up again and get muscle-bound for the Spiderman sequel, requiring further intensive training to increase his bulk.

He found this exhausting work, keeping to such a strict diet and an exercise regime that would test a top athlete, while also working 14 hours a day.

Consequently, Maguire has little sympathy for people who say they want to lose weight but don’t want to diet or to exercise to do it.

“I heard somebody was like, ‘You know, I really want to trim up but I don’t want to go on a diet and I don’t want to work out.’ Okay, well then you’re not going to do it.”

Pain means gain
The actual physicality of riding a horse was a further challenge for Maguire. His trainer, top US rider Chris McCarron admits to a little satisfaction in watching the young actor go through the pain and discomfort of riding crouched down like a proper jockey, rather than what many people see as simply ‘riding a horse’.

The crouch position has to be maintained throughout the race and is a thigh-burning introduction to jockey life.

Maguire, by all accounts, was a pretty competent rider, which was important to director Ross, a passionate horseracing fan himself even before he came across the true story of the horse named Seabiscuit.

However, it wasn’t just the horse racing aspect that appealed to Ross. This was an uplifting story, which happened during one of the worst periods in US history.

Perfect timing
Sport has long been an escape from every day life but during the Great Depression of 1930s America, it was more important than ever.

The economy had tanked, leaving millions without savings, homes or jobs. Yet, from the ashes of the old, a new social lifeline grew.

Screwball comedies and cheery musicals suddenly became escape routes to despair. Unintentionally, people would back the underdog, in films and sports, wanting them to win through adversity.

The advent of radio also brought sports of all kinds to the homes of millions. Horseracing narration leant itself particularly well to this medium and it was into this hotbed of escapism that a horse named Seabiscuit became the new hope.

True to all tales of hope, and winning against the odds, it so nearly didn’t happen.

Out to seed
For a start, Seabiscuit had already been retired. Treated badly during amateur horse races he was temperamental and aggressive.

However, cowboy Tom Smith (Chris Cooper) saw something in this horse that made him think he could be a winner.

Smith’s world of awesome vistas and riding across vast ranges, captured beautifully in the film, was becoming smaller as railroad tracks and barbed-wire fences suddenly impeded landscape that had previously stretched, seemingly, forever.


Kentucky countryside – photo credit Suzanne Haggerty and a good blog about Kentucky Derby Weekend

Not only his job but his lifestyle were becoming obsolete as he struggled to find a place for himself in this new world.

But just as he spotted something in Seabiscuit, so did Charles Howard (Jeff Bridges) spot something in Smith.

Knocked down
Howard, a previously successful multi-millionaire, had lost everything, not only financially but personally, yet saw in Smith the ability to bring out the best in the horse.

But the temperamental Seabiscuit needed a rider. Red, so named because of his shock of bright hair, was a young boy with talent.

His destitute parents, seeing that he at least had a way out of a life of poverty, left him under the tutelage of the local race instructor.

Red was an abrasive, aggressive boy who had to fight to look after himself.

One such fight saw Red take on five other boys, which drew him to the attention of Smith who had also watched a number of handlers try to calm a distressed Seabiscuit.

The comparison between the two feisty creatures was hard to miss and so it was that their rider was found.

Just as it was an unforeseen series of events that brought about the story of Seabiscuit, so it was that another series of events conspired to bring the story to the big screen.

How the story came to pass
Author Laura Hillenbrand had read the story in a little known publication and then spent four years writing the book, Seabiscuit – An American Legend.

Her modest expectations were that she may be able to sell 5,000 copies out of the boot of her car.

Yet, after only five days on sale, the book had already made it on to the best-seller list at number eight and a couple of weeks later went to number one.

Director Gary Ross also learnt of the Seabiscuit story by reading an article, in a publication called American Heritage, written by one Laura Hillenbrand.

Rather naively he now admits, he submitted his bid for the film rights but was soon caught up in a bidding war.

So he phoned Laura, and after two hours of talking horses, Hillenbrand knew that Ross had the same passion for the project as she did. This, after all, was a man who’d asked his parents to have his Bar Mitzvah at a race track.


Tobey Maguire as Red Pollard in Seabiscuit

Ross, in turn, wanted Tobey Maguire to play Red. He felt that the young actor would have an affinity to the tough, solitary character of Red due to Maguire’s own up-bringing, an against all odds tale in itself.

Maguire started life rootlessly, living with an assortment of relatives because his single-parent mother struggled to bring him up.

Mum’s financial incentive
His introduction to acting came after his mother offered a financial reward of $100 to take up acting rather than the home economics food preparation course he was planning.

A variety of advertisements and TV parts followed, one of which, a guest part on US TV’s Parenthood, introduced him to now close friend, Leonardo Di Caprio.

Today, Maguire is a well respected actor who’s shared the big screen with the likes of Sigourney Weaver and Elijah Wood in The Ice Storm (1997), Woody Allen in Deconstructing Harry (1997), Reese Witherspoon in Pleasantville (1998), Michael Douglas in The Wonder Boys (2000) and the lead in the big money-making comic book blockbuster Spiderman.

His way
An unconventional actor, Maguire is quiet, spiky at times but incredibly loyal to his friends. He’s not brash and confident, does not carry conventional film star looks but quietly observes the likes of Michael Douglas and Robert Downey Junior and learns from them.

“I just watch. Robert, for instance, is very relaxed. He has a sense of freedom. He’s not afraid to try things, he’s not afraid to fail. He really commits himself, and it’s just great to be around that kind of energy and courage and creative freedom.

“Michael just keeps coming. I think he must wake up 10 minutes earlier than anybody else and he does 10 per cent more work.”

Maguire also sits on the periphery of his friend Leonardo Di Caprio’s hectic, paparrazzi followed, star quality life. From him, he has learned to deal with the press in his own way.

“It’s been beneficial watching him go through it. I think he’s handled himself very gracefully. A lot of the press about him, he can’t really control. You can’t allow yourself to be affected by that stuff.

“I think it can be whatever you make of it. It certainly helps strengthen my character and maybe forces me into positions where I have to help make decisions and set certain boundaries. I try to view it as a positive in my life rather than a negative.”

Money discomfort
He enjoys his new-found lifestyle although problems with money stemming from his childhood meant that initially he didn’t enjoy his new-found wealth.

“For a while, I wouldn’t spend money at all but it’s weird to hoard it. It’s actually like, kind of, bad energy. I think that now I have a pretty good relationship with money, and I’m finally learning how not to be worried about it. Now, I’m like, ‘Okay, I can drive a decent car. I can buy some nice furniture.’”

A movie based on the underdog and the importance of teamwork would appeal to Maguire; Ross knew this when he bumped into him and suggested that he read the novel.

Maguire did, loved it, and contentedly played a character who’s had a difficult start to life but who, through his own talent, determination and a strong support system, turns his life around, knowing that for him, those days were far behind him.

Original interview by Jo Gunston featured in a 2003 issue of DV8 magazine.


Author: Jo Gunston

Roving blogging superfan shares behind the scenes stories of her sports life and the best of those from like-minded souls.

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