Holt McCallany Anchors True Wrestling Family Drama ‘The Iron Claw’

Many folks discovered actor Holt McCallany in his brawny breakout role as FBI analyst Bill Tench in David Fincher’s serial killer series “Mindhunter” (Netflix). McCallany, who is 60, brought an old-fashioned robust masculinity over three decades to countless smaller roles, from Fincher’s “Alien 3” and “Fight Club” to Guillermo del Toro’s “Nightmare Alley.”

“Del Toro is one of the kindest, smartest and most gifted filmmakers,” said McCallany over Zoom. “The only thing is, he wouldn’t let me do my own stunts. ‘Guillermo. I can do it! Believe in me!’ I get run over by a car by Bradley Cooper. They let me do the part where I get smashed in the face by the bumper, but he wouldn’t let me roll over.”

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Now he pops out of the ensemble in Sean Durkin’s holiday hit “Iron Claw” (A24) as Fritz Von Erich, the controlling patriarch to the tragic Texas Von Erich wrestling dynasty. Alas, he wishes Durkin hadn’t trimmed so much of his role. That’s why McCallany is haunted by IndieWire critic David Ehrlich’s review of his performance. Here’s a sliver: “McCallany’s performance denies Fritz even the slightest chink in his armor, even when just a single moment of vulnerability might have saved lives in the end or given this movie some more room to breathe.”

“I gave Sean those moments,” said McCallany. “He did not include them in the final edit. There was a short scene that I begged Sean to replace in the cut, where he goes into the chapel to pray to say: ‘What did I do God to deserve having such tragedy visited upon my family?’ It’s an emotional scene. Those chinks in the armor revealing the internal conflict of the character was something that I was desperate to include in the performance. You can only give a director your best work, and then it all comes down to what they keep and what they throw away. Sean chose to eliminate those moments. It’s a decision that I disagreed with.”

Happily, Kevin Von Erich liked McCallany’s performance. “The most gratifying moment for me was when I saw a brief video clip of Kevin Von Erich after he had seen the film for the first time, and he said, ‘I can’t believe they found an actor who could play [Fritz]. I didn’t think they could find one. But they did.’ And that meant more to me and than any positive critical review could have made because he’s Fritz’s son, he knows better than anybody.”

Durkin had some tough choices to make while dramatizing this sprawling saga, which he was forced to simplify in a two-hour movie. “I know that it hurt Sean to not include Chris, who was the youngest son,” said McCallany. “Chris attempted to be a professional wrestler and wanted to be like his brothers. He wanted to share in that glory, wanted to be a part of the family business, but he just wasn’t built for it. And consequently, he wasn’t successful. Sean had to do the best that he could to try to tell the best version of the story that he could given the constraints that he faced.”

McCallany started out his career training as an apprentice actor at the Great Lakes Shakespeare Festival in Cleveland, Ohio, the same program that produced Tom Hanks. “My first paid job was replacing Woody Harrelson in 1985,” he said, “as an understudy in Neil Simon’s Tony Award-winning production of ‘Biloxi Blues.’ So by 1990, I have a resume with a few credits. I’m at the beginning of my career, and David [Fincher] plucks me out of complete obscurity to be in his directorial debut.”

McCallany gives Fincher due credit for his career. Fincher cast McCallany in “Alien 3,” which was shot in 1991 at London’s Pinewood Studios on the old James Bond stage. “Then he brings me back again to be in ‘Fight Club,'” said McCallany. “And then he brings me back again, this time to play a co-lead in ‘Mindhunter.’ He’s such a great filmmaker. And he’s so conscientious. And there’s such attention to detail, that every day, when you step onto that set, you better bring your A game. You better have done your homework. You better have done all the preparation that you could have possibly done. And you don’t want to be the reason that a particular take didn’t work. We’re going to do a lot of takes, and that’s great. But if a take isn’t good, it’s not because of Bill Tench.”

MINDHUNTER, Holt McCallany, Jonathan Groff, (Season 1, Episode 107, aired October 13, 2017), ph: Patrick Harbron / ©Netflix / courtesy Everett Collection
“Mindhunter”©Netflix/Courtesy Everett Collection / Everett Collection

When fashioning a character, McCallany looks to his favorite actor Orson Welles. “He used to say that in each of us, there’s a poet, a priest, an assassin, and a revolutionary,” he said. “You remove the things about yourself that don’t correspond to the character that you wish to create, and what you will be left with is the character. Consequently, it is never about searching somewhere else. It’s always something that’s already within you, that you’re going to access. Know thyself. If you know what really makes you tick, then you know what you have to offer a particular character that you would like to portray.”

Of course he does homework and prepares as well. “But you’re still recognizing something about the DNA of this particular character that exists within yourself,” he said. “Fritz Von Erich was a deeply religious man. I’m not particularly. Fritz was a devoted family man. He was in love with the same woman his whole life. And Fritz was a man who took tremendous pride in the success of his sons as though that was his success. I have not yet started my own family, I haven’t ruled that possibility out. I’d like to be a father one day. You’re always doing something that is related to the character. And that may be wrestling training, where you’re actually learning how to wrestle in the style of Fritz Von Erich. I regret that I never got to meet Fritz Von Erich, because he died in 1997. I know what it would have been to show up at the door with a good bottle of whiskey.”

How involved was the patriarch in the multiple tragedies that befell his sons? “People say disparaging things about Fritz Von Erich,” said McCallany. “That he was controlling, that he exploited family tragedy for commercial gain, that he was responsible for the suicides of his sons. And I don’t agree with that interpretation. It’s a gross oversimplification. Even Kevin Von Erich said the other night that he thinks that too much has been made about all of this business of Fritz being overbearing. He genuinely took tremendous pride in the success of his sons and wanted his sons to be successful at virtually any cost. He’s not only the father, but he’s the coach, and he is also the boss.”

It was not Fritz Von Erich’s responsibility that drugs were running rampant in professional wrestling in the 80s, said McCallany. “Fritz never did cocaine in his life. Okay, there was steroid abuse. Everything is not Fritz’s fault. And he captured the imagination of the wrestling fans: he invented the Iron Claw. He built a dynasty. Now, it was short lived. And that’s very sad.”

Next up: McCallany plays the Secretary of State to Angela Bassett’s President in “Mission: Impossible — Dead Reckoning Part Two.” He co-stars with Sawyer Spielberg, son of Steven Spielberg, in a low-budget independent film, “Martyr of Gowanus.” He stars in “The Amateur” opposite Rachel Brosnahan, Rami Malek, and Laurence Fishburne. And he works with action star Lewis Tan in “Copperhead.”

In development is McCallany’s directorial debut, the English language adaptation of Italian director Giuseppe Tornatore’s “The Star Maker,” the film that followed “Cinema Paradiso.” “It’s set in the 1930s, during the Great Depression,” said McCallany. “I was fortunate that David Fincher gave me notes on the script. We did zoom call after zoom call, revision after revision, and I’m happy with the way that the screenplay turned out.” Financing and casting is in the works.

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